If we want to understand why there is war, we need to look in more than one direction at once, argues Chris Nineham
Over the last few weeks of war, the Establishment has tried to stamp out all discussion of causes and contexts.
We are expected to believe this is a war without a history, a battle between good and evil, between a civilised West and Russian authoritarianism and depravity.
The war has indeed been precipitated by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s ruling class. Russia’s full-scale invasion is causing devastation and misery. Sending solidarity to the Ukrainian people and demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops have to be the first things we do.
But to respond seriously to these terrible events we have to understand why they are happening, their context, their history.
The West has been part of the problem. Sending thousands more troops into the region, flooding Ukraine with more weapons, imposing punitive sanctions — all this has escalated tensions at a time when what is needed is to defuse them, to find a diplomatic solution.
And this is not an accident. You simply cannot understand the current situation without looking at the massive expansion of Nato in eastern Europe since the cold war.
Fourteen east European states have joined Nato in several waves since then, Nato troops have advanced nearly 1,000 miles to Russia’s very borders.
This is something that has been recognised by a long list of US foreign policy leaders from Henry Kissinger to Madeline Albright, up to and including the current head of the CIA, William J Burns.
He said in 2008: “I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in Nato as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Ukrainian Prime Minister Zelensky’s recent statement that Ukraine will not join Nato — echoed by Boris Johnson — proves they both recognise that Ukraine’s flirtation with Nato was a major issue for Russia, an opinion the anti-war movement has been vilified for expressing.
Nato is an aggressive military alliance, not some democratic club.
Its eastwards expansion is the most recent expression of a struggle for control over Europe.
Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, have long been involved in military competition with the Western powers.
The Soviet Union controlled much of eastern Europe after the second world war and was keen to extend its influence elsewhere.
The so-called cold war actually involved a series of hot wars in the global South.
It was also fought out through the arms race. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was explicit that the Star Wars project was a mechanism for breaking the Russian economy.
The plan worked. When the Soviet Union collapsed the US was in the ascendant.
The US’s increasingly hawkish line in the years that followed was a product of its new position.
On the one hand it was militarily superior to any other power, on the other hand it was more and more challenged economically by regional powers and most seriously by China.
In these circumstances the military option had obvious attractions. A series of wars followed, including the 1999 bombing of Serbia followed by the invasion of Afghanistan then Iraq, then the bombing of Syria and Libya.
The idea being touted by the Labour leadership and others that Nato is a defensive alliance relies on enforced amnesia about these disasters.
Meanwhile, weakened economically and militarily, Russia’s rulers wanted the freedom to fight their own brutal wars in Chechnya and later Georgia, but also to find a place within the “Western security architecture.” This they were not allowed to do.
The war in Syria was something of a turning point. Here the West was attacking Russia’s key ally in the Middle East and US and Russian planes were flying over the same airspace on opposite sides of a war.
Russia’s current aggression is a result of three things. First it is a reaction to the West’s increasingly aggressive and hostile foreign policy both in eastern Europe and the wider world.
Secondly there is no doubt that Putin perceived a certain weakness on the US’s part. The wars in the Middle East have not gone well. In particular last year’s pullout from Afghanistan was a humiliation.
Finally there is the rise of China, and Russia’s tightening links with it. China will be the world’s biggest economy within 15 years. Like any emerging world power, it prefers to compete economically but it is rapidly building up its armed forces.
Russia and China have conducted dozens of joint exercises and war games in the last few years.
In February the two governments signed a 30-year gas deal involving a brand new pipeline.
Their joint communique announced a “new era” in the global order, endorsed their respective territorial ambitions in Ukraine and Taiwan and openly challenged Nato as the leading security umbrella.
The multipolar order that many thought would be safer stands revealed as a dangerous world of confrontation between nuclear armed powers. One outcome is rampant remilitarisation in Europe. Countries across the continent are hiking arms spending.
Whatever the outcome of this war, tensions between Nato and both Russia and China will rise.
China may well try and enhance its position by mediating but there is no doubt the cold war with China is warming up.
Nato may not come out of as strong as some believe. One notable feature of the situation is that 40 countries in the global South abstained on the UN votes condemning Russia.
This reflects growing economic links with Russia and China and dismay with the arrogance and aggression of the Western powers.
In the short term, further economic chaos looms. Europe receives 40 per cent of its gas supplies from Russia, and something like 20 per cent of its oil.
War, sanctions and increased arms spending spell massive dislocation at a time when prices are soaring anyway.
Just one more reason for opposing a war that is making the world a much threatening and frightening place.
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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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