Chris Nineham analyses the causes and consequences of the war in Ukraine and tectonic shifts in global power politics
The war in Ukraine has shocked the system as profoundly as the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11, 2001. Putin’s brutal invasion began a devastating war of attrition in Ukraine, which has caused untold misery for the people of that country. It has also sparked a wider, game-changing military and economic confrontation. Within one day of the invasion, Nato allies had embarked on the biggest, fastest and most significant military mobilisation in Europe in recent times.
As Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU, said a week after the war started, ‘European security and defence has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades.’ Eastern Europe is now more militarised than at any time since the darkest days of the Cold War, and nuclear armed powers are facing each other off across a war zone. There are 40,000 troops in the region under direct Nato control, ten times the number the day before the invasion, 130 Nato controlled aircraft are on high alert and 150 warships are patrolling the seas of the region.
US military and other aid to Ukraine totals 47 billion so far in less than a year, more money than all but a handful of countries have ever received from the United States. On script as ever, Britain handed over £100 million worth of weapons and other equipment to help Ukrainian forces within a month of the invasion. According to the UK treasury, this was backed up with as much as ‘£3.5 billion of export finance to support Ukraine, including on defence capability.’
Far from standing back from the conflict as they claimed early on that they would, the US and other Western powers have ensured their hardware and expertise has played a central role. To give just two examples, mainstream US media have reported that US intelligence-sharing helped Ukraine sink Russia’s Moskva warship on 14 April and that US surveillance provided the intelligence that allowed Ukrainian forces to target and kill multiple Russian generals in the same month. Meanwhile the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia.
Western countries have targeted individuals, banks, businesses, exports and major state-owned enterprises. Germany has frozen plans for the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. The US is banning all Russian oil and gas imports, and the UK will phase out Russian oil imports by the end of 2022. The EU will halt Russian coal imports by August and there are plans to phase out EU imports of all Russian crude oil and refined products.
When the US defence secretary says: ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,’ he is hardly bothering to hide the fact that this is a proxy war with Russia. If doubts linger, note that this immense mobilisation has gone hand in hand with a policy of discouraging moves towards peace. On the same day that President Zelensky announced that Ukrainian membership of Nato was off the table, he signalled he was ready to talk with Russia about the status of Crimea and the Donbass. The Western powers ignored the offer. As Russia expert Richard Sakwa put it:
‘In the Cold War, the US would have taken the lead on diplomacy in a situation of the sort we have today. Instead, now the US is clearly not interested in peace negotiations – it is waiting for a Russian defeat, however many Ukrainian lives are lost in the process.’
The US and its allies continue to talk down peace negotiations. Boris Johnson’s headline message to Zelensky on his recent visit to Kyiv was ‘no negotiations are possible’. Though they are not officially fighting it, and no Western troops are in harm’s way, the war in Ukraine is now a central part of Western strategy.
Huge global repercussions are inevitable. The war has been accompanied by a rush to expand and rearm Nato. Finland and Sweden look set to join up, and countries across the alliance are committing to massive increases in military spending. Tensions are likely to ratchet up around the world as countries, particularly in the Global South, are forced to reassess their relationships with the West, with Russia and with China. The sense of tectonic plates shifting is reinforced by the refusal of many countries in the Global South, including India and Brazil, to back Nato’s aggressive stance.
The combination of war and sanctions is disrupting supply chains and markets, which are already crashing amid labour shortages, just-in-time vulnerabilities and the impact of the pandemic. World food prices rose 12.6% between February and March, and are already 33.6% higher than this time last year. There are flour and bread shortages in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon, which are set to spread to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Basic foods are fast becoming unaffordable for millions of people in the Global South.
The West’s physically confrontational response has been accompanied by a relentless ideological offensive. It is routine for ‘enemy’ leaders of the West to be compared to Hitler, judged to be deranged and generally demonised. However, the current vilification of all things Russian has few precedents. In the place of serious discussion about the causes and contexts of the war, we have been subjected to a childlike narrative of good versus evil or its ‘grown up’ version; Western democracy versus Russian autocracy.
In short the Ukraine war looks like creating a long-term, militarised confrontation between Russia and the Western powers. It has already contributed decisively to the breakdown of the world order, formally known as globalisation, and it is spreading instability around the world. It is of course impossible to be definitive about the world that will emerge, but for us to re-orientate, unlike our rulers, we need to understand what got us here.
iWest goes east
One argument circulating on the left is that the war has mainly had local triggers. There have, of course, been a series of transformative events in Ukraine over the last decade and more. The Maidan protests of 2013-2014 were a key turning point. They forced the removal of the government of Victor Yanukovych which had tilted towards closer relations with Russia. This US-backed regime change led to attacks on the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine, and a low-level but vicious civil war between pro-government forces and separatists in the Donbass region in the east. New president Petro Poroshenko steered Ukraine further towards integration with the West and clamped down on the eastern ‘rebels’, further stoking war.
Another critical moment came in 2019, after Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president on a programme that included re-engagement with Russia and an effort to end the war by implementing the Minsk accords formally agreed in 2015. Right-wing nationalist forces strengthened by the Maidan events pushed back. In order to pursue the Minsk accords, Zelensky felt he needed support from the West. He did not get it. Although the US officially supported the Minsk process, in the words of pro-western Russia analyst Anatol Lieven, ‘they did nothing to push Ukraine into actually implementing it.’ EU countries, including France and Germany, refused to intervene against the wishes of the US. The result was that Zelensky backed away from negotiations, blanked the Donbass leaders and took a much more hostile turn towards Russia. A chance for peace was lost.
Simply to describe these domestic developments is to show that they can only be fully understood in the context of great-power conflict over Ukraine. The first of the three broad drivers of the current crisis has undoubtedly been Western expansion in the region. Nato has been heading east ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, despite on-the record promises to the contrary, which are now being ignored and even denied by commentators. Twelve eastern European countries have joined Nato in the last three decades. At the Bucharest Summit in 2008, a promise was made that both Ukraine and Georgia would have the chance to join Nato.
Politicians and commentators regularly attack people in the anti-war movement for arguing that Nato expansion in general and Ukrainian Nato membership in particular was bound to be provocative to Russia. The wilful ignorance of these attacks is clearly shown by the fact that exactly the same warnings have been repeatedly made by a roster of senior US foreign-policy figures over the last three decades. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who presided over the first steps toward Nato expansion, admitted that ‘Yeltsin and his countrymen were strongly opposed to enlargement, seeing it as a strategy for exploiting their vulnerability and moving Europe’s dividing line to the east, leaving them isolated.’ Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State at the time, concurred:
‘Many Russians see Nato as a vestige of the Cold War, inherently directed against their country. They point out that they have disbanded the Warsaw Pact, their military alliance, and ask why the West should not do the same.’
George Kennan, the author of America’s Cold War containment policy, called the expansion of Nato a ‘tragic mistake’, adding, it ‘is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.’ I could go on.
Such concerns have been ignored or overridden. This is definitely tragic, but it is not a mistake. It reflects the fact that, contrary to those fantasists who call it a defensive alliance, Nato is by its very nature a confrontational, competitive entity, designed from the start to project US power through military means. Since the end of the Cold War, it has become a vehicle for projecting US power globally, heading up the attack on Serbia in 1999, the occupation of Afghanistan which followed, and the bombing of Libya in 2011. Ukrainian forces have been involved in all these adventures. Nato’s role in Europe has also always been about maintaining and extending US power, and it remains very much, as described by one of its founders Lord Ismay, designed ‘to keep Russia out, the US in and Germany down.’ At some stage, the relentless drive eastwards was bound to generate a response.
If one crucial driver of the current crisis is the fact that Putin and his clique ran out of patience with the West’s provocations, Russia’s extraordinary gamble of an all-out invasion of Ukraine cannot be understood simply as a defensive move. The fact is the Russian ruling class regards Ukraine as rightfully part of its ‘sphere of influence’. Until independence in 1991, Ukraine was a core part of the Soviet Union, an essential producer of wheat and armaments, and much else. At the end of the Second World War, Stalin’s Soviet Union had participated along with Churchill and Roosevelt in the great power carve-up of Europe. Stalin gained control of much of Eastern Europe and plundered the region from Poland to Bulgaria to develop the Soviet Union as a modern military industrial power. Competition with the West was driven more than anything by the arms race, but it was inevitably economic too. It was a competition that the Soviet Union was losing by the 1980s.
As its Eastern European empire crumbled, Ukraine’s independence in 1991 marked the moment the demise of the USSR became inevitable. The Russian ruling class had no choice but to accept a hugely reduced status after this time. The transition was smoothed somewhat by the promises made – though soon broken - by the West that Nato would not move into the areas previously controlled by Russia. Nevertheless, the Russian ruling class remains committed to regaining as much lost ground as possible. Capitalism is a system of competitive state powers, and the struggle for ‘spheres of influence’, often involving military power, are forms of this competition. In the words of liberal Russia expert Anatole Lieven, ‘the Russian official elite in general are utterly, irrevocably committed to the idea of Russia as a great power and one pole of a multipolar world.’ They are, in short, running an imperial power. Ukraine’s place in this doctrine was accurately summed up by former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: ‘Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.’
Russia’s miscalculation has been put down to desperation, domestic challenge and a toxic culture in government. These have undoubtedly played their part. Yet, the second key trigger of the current crisis was, paradoxically, a sense of an opening on the part of the Putin clique, a perception of the West’s weakness. It is no coincidence that the preparations for the invasion of Ukraine began months after the West’s humiliating pull-out from Afghanistan. Coming on top of a string of disastrous interventions in the Middle East, the flight from Afghanistan was read in Moscow as a sign of failure and fading power.
As US troops bailed out, Biden himself announced what seemed to be a turn away from foreign military intervention, saying that the way he would pursue US interests ‘not through endless military deployments, but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support’. For a Russian ruling class fed up with being rebuffed and humiliated, one that had spent years modernising and rebuilding its military, this looked like an opportunity.
Military ‘successes’ in Georgia, Syria and Crimea will no doubt have boosted the confidence of the Russian ruling class. More important still was the developing alliance with China. At the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, three weeks before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, and with 100,000 Russian troops already massed on Ukraine’s border, Putin and Xi Jinping met in Beijing and issued a joint statement in which they proclaimed a ‘friendship without limits’. The statement announced a series of agreements to deepen cooperation in the areas of sports, energy, commerce and trade, including a thirty-year deal to supply ten-billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas per year to China via a new pipeline from Russia’s far east. It also criticised Nato’s ‘ideologized cold war approaches’ and recognised each other’s territorial claims.
The statement was the culmination of years of growing collaboration. The two countries had conducted dozens of joint exercises and war games that have involved as many as ten-thousand troops over the last few years, including mock seizures of islands, and patrols by long-range bombers over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. The burgeoning relationship with the world’s second biggest military power undoubtedly emboldened Putin.
iiiThe world tilts
The third main driver of this crisis is the growing global economic and military challenges to US power. From the early the 1990s onwards, the guiding strategy for the West was to push for the opening-up of economies to multi-nationals and Western banks. ‘Globalisation’, as it was called, was never really about open and equal access to a notional world market, it was a US-led system of production and trade. ‘Developing countries’ would grow and trade, but in doing so also provide the global profits expansion that US imperialism needed as domestic profitability began to slip. Globalisation would take advantage of cheap labour and new markets in China and the Global South which had expanded sharply from the early 1980s. All this was backed up, when necessary, by massive fire power against recalcitrant nations.
There were risks associated with the approach. One of the central concerns driving the neoconservatives who seized control of US foreign policy after 9/11 was that the US’s unipolar moment might be short lived as other powers came to challenge the US. The National Security Strategy document of 2002 spelt out the anxieties:
‘We are attentive to the possible renewal of old patterns of great power competition. Several potential great powers are now in the midst of internal transition – most importantly Russia, India and China.’
Concern about emerging competition helped fuel foreign military interventions, particularly in the Middle East, even at the height of the unipolar world. In the last few years, anxiety, particularly about China, has become acute. China’s gross domestic product began to grow faster than that of the US at the start of the century. In absolute terms the GNP gap is now narrowing fast. China has overtaken the US as the major supplier of goods to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.
At the same time, what could be presented as a mutually beneficial interdependence has morphed into open competition. Earlier in the century, China produced large amounts of cheap goods that were bought mainly by the West. High-tech US companies provided industrial support and sold to China’s expanding domestic market. Now the Chinese produce high-tech goods in artificial intelligence, telecoms, drones, and entertainment to a higher and higher standard. This is a direct challenge to the US in some of its key markets.
As its economic position declines, US global dominance depends more than ever on its overwhelming military superiority. For this reason, its elites regard the improvements in China’s high-tech industries not just as an economic challenge, but as a military and security problem. Although the US spends three times as much as China on its military, China’s military budget is now the second highest in the world, four times bigger than third-placed India. It has been a nuclear power since the 1960s, and has the largest standing army in the world, which it has employed several times since 1949. Recently, it is pursuing a more and more aggressive policy in its own region and is also carving out geographical spheres of influence abroad. China’s crushing of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, for example, was designed to deter any would-be reformers on the Chinese mainland, but it was also partly to insist on China’s authority across the region and beyond.
The result has been a shift on the part of the US from what had been politely called ‘engagement’ to one cutely christened ‘containment’. In the words of economist Michael Roberts:
‘It became clear to the US strategists that, while globalisation brought extra profit, it also led to much faster economic expansion of countries like Russia, China and east Asia. The problem here was it was becoming clear that the likes of China and Russia (but particularly China) were not prepared to play ball with American imperialism and its multi-nationals. Russia sought to link up with Europe and separate it off from the UK and the US; while China sought to rival the US in technology and spread its influence throughout the global south.’
Trump’s 2017 switch from friendship to hostility to China was a crucial staging post on the way to the new policy. Serious sanctions on China followed suit. By late that year, the new approach was being flagged up openly in National Security Strategy documents:
‘These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.’
Rising China is the US’s main global concern, but as CIA Director William J Burns complained recently, Putin ‘demonstrates in a very disturbing way that declining powers can be equally as disruptive as rising ones.’ Russia is the fourth highest military spender in the world, and ranks higher in terms of firepower. It was the biggest supplier of oil and gas to Europe, and was building a threatening axis with the Chinese. Putin’s invasion gave the US an opportunity to break Europe’s ‘addiction’ to Russian oil and gas, to force Germany firmly back into the fold, to try and smash the emerging alliance with China, and simultaneously send China a message about what happens if you stray militarily into the West’s sphere of interest. All this without risking the life of a single US soldier. What was not to like?
The swift US response to Putin’s invasion was a result of careful preparation. By December last year, US intelligence agencies had become convinced that Putin was mobilising for war in earnest. Interestingly, the US had been gaming similar scenarios for years. The day of the invasion, five well prepared options were on the table. Those present chose one of the more aggressive options. The Ukraine crisis was the moment when deep shifts in US foreign-policy thinking were finally rolled out in the real world.
iThe meaning of ‘multipolar’
Obviously, outcomes will depend on what happens in the war and crucially how China reacts. The above analysis however provides some pointers. One thing unfortunately looks certain: however turbulent the last few decades have been, we have now entered much more troubled waters. The unrestrained US power concealed behind the term ‘globalisation’ was often wielded with violence and brutality, particularly in the Global South. From Afghanistan to Libya, and from Iraq to Venezuela, states that dared to show defiance in different ways were regularly treated to internal subversion and external force. No-one with any sense will mourn the passing of the US’s ‘unipolar moment’. But those on the left welcoming the emergence of a multipolar world as providing a benign balance to US power are sadly mistaken.
The fact that elites in Russia and the West are prepared to risk nuclear confrontation shows how dangerous a multipolar world can be. For some time now, people have been talking of a new cold war, but in this new world the phrase almost sounds reassuring. The current dynamic is different from that of the Cold War years in two main respects. First, the world system is more fragmented than it was in the decades after World War II. The US and China are far and away the biggest economies, but there are many more contenders for regional power today, including India, Japan, Brazil, Russia and Germany. Many of them are involved in regional blocs which can amplify their influence and increase global tensions.
Just as important, the relationship between the two biggest powers is very different from the Cold War years. At that time, the US was always the bigger economy, even if Russia was growing faster for some of the period. Nevertheless, much of the period was marked by rough military parity between the two powers. While the Cold War often went hot in the Global South, this parity tended to discourage direct, conventional military confrontation. Today, barring something unforeseen – an economic crash in China, for example, can’t be ruled out – we are witnessing a clear and steady shift of economic power from the US to China.
The history of the twentieth century tells us that such periods of shifting global balance are moments of danger. What makes matters worse is that the US remains overwhelmingly the stronger military power. This combination of relative economic decline and massive military superiority on the part of the US gives the military option a strong attractive pull. This effect can only be amplified by the steady growth in China’s military capacity.
iiThe West and the world
It looks likely that the immediate outcome of the war will be to strengthen the Nato alliance and the position of the US. After initial wavering, the key Nato powers have fallen in behind the US’s approach. Military spending is set to soar. Germany, the largest economy in Europe, has committed to change a thirty-year pattern of marginal defence spending. Their plans would make theirs the largest defence budget in Europe and would energise European defence spending, something successive American presidents have argued for, going back as far as Eisenhower.
Given that the war is itself partly the product of the West’s weaknesses, this is unlikely to be the whole picture. The war may well cement the Western alliance in Europe for now, and further isolate Russia. It has, however, already alienated governments around the world. India’s response to the war in Ukraine is a particular concern for the West. The Indians are crucial partners in America’s plans to counter China. With Australia, Japan and the US, the Indians form part of the Quad, a security grouping which China has denounced as part of an embryonic ‘Asian Nato’.
But while Australia and Japan have joined the West in pushing back against Russia, India has stood to one side. In April, Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov paid a friendly visit to Delhi and had a private meeting with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. India is not an isolated case. Brazil and South Africa also abstained in key UN votes on Ukraine. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who was once a close ally of Trump, now detests the Biden administration. He was one of the last foreign leaders to visit Putin in Moscow before the invasion and has stayed neutral on the war.
Even the West’s favourite autocrats in the Gulf states have stood to one side in this conflict. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have also abstained in UN votes on Russia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, with his own grievances against the Biden administration, has so far resisted Western entreaties to increase oil production, to offset the loss of energy supplies from Russia.
As the war drags on and the economic cost of backing the US line becomes clear, tensions could re-emerge in Europe too. There have already been a number of spats between European leaders over differing approaches to Putin. As Gideon Rachman put it last month in the Financial Times:
‘Initial euphoria about the strength of western sanctions could give way to a sense of impotence and despair as Russia commits war crimes across Ukraine, while the west watches from the sidelines. Rising inflation in the west — in particular a surge in the cost of energy — could mean that voters’ attention switches away from Ukraine and towards economic difficulties at home.’
And so to the prospects for opposition. The globalisation regime has been showing signs of stress for some time as a result of sanctions, supply-chain dysfunction, labour shortages and the pandemic. Some on the left have argued recently that this decline might push elites in the direction of a revival of Keynesian policies, something that might open up possibilities for progressives. However, tax and spend is rarely the ruling classes’ first port of call, even in a storm, and it is particularly unattractive at time when capital remains heavily internationalised and profit rates historically low. Globalisation’s downfall has in fact come instead through market breakdown, inter-imperialist rivalry and now war.
What is true, nevertheless, is that the ruling classes are dragging us into sharpened imperial confrontation at a time when the legitimacy of their system is at an all-time low. For one thing, two decades of disastrous foreign interventions have created deep scepticism about war as any kind of solution to international problems. In Britain for example, the Ministry of Defence privately complains about war weariness in the country. Meanwhile a decade and a half of post-crisis austerity has coincided with soaring inequality to create deep bitterness and alienation in populations around the world.
Now government after government is calling for massive increases in military spending at exactly the same time as they are forcing working people to bear the brunt of a new economic crisis. When everyone knows the war is making that crisis much more serious, this may well prove a difficult trick to pull off. There have been massive protests against economic depredation in Peru and Sri Lanka in the last few weeks. The possibility of food riots, fuel protests and other upheavals is built in to the situation. In the short term, wars tend to benefit incumbent governments and suppress social tensions. In the medium term they tend to radicalise.
The basis for effective resistance is there. Whether it takes off will depend partly on what the left does. Two things are essential here. The first is we have to call out this war for what it is: a conflict between imperial powers. If we are blind to Nato’s role, the war becomes incomprehensible, or just the product of one man’s madness. Worse, we will end up effectively backing our own government. If we fail to condemn Russian aggression, we are ignoring the very act that started this phase of war and so we will cut ourselves off from anyone who is paying attention.
The second thing is to insist that the movement will not be able to confront the cost-of-living crisis effectively without opposing the war. This is because the two things are connected. Continuing war and sharpened international conflict are already having drastic consequences, helping to push whole countries to the brink of collapse. It is also because governments in the West are using the war to distract and confuse, posing as champions of liberty, and even trying to blame Russia for the economic crisis.
The first steps towards national and international movements against war are being taken. But there is much to do and the job could hardly be more important. As we know from the movement against the Iraq War, this will take a sustained effort of activism and organisation. It will also take clarity.
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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