The beating of war drums is getting ever louder. For weeks, Western media and politicians have raised the prospect of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, and are threatening dire consequences for the Putin regime, including new sanctions.
In reply, Moscow strongly denies it has plans to carry out an attack on its neighbour but demands that the western powers pledge that Ukraine will never be allowed to join Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation).
Over 100,000 Russian troops are estimated to be positioned on the borders with Ukraine.
The US, Britain, and other European powers are hurriedly arming Ukraine. US military chiefs announced plans to send a force of 8,500 troops to Nato countries in eastern Europe to “protect” the alliance’s flank.
Downing Street has said extra military support from the UK to “Nato allies” could be forthcoming, including jets, warships, and military specialists. The British government is also “considering offering Nato another 900 troops to Estonia”, according to press reports.
Russia regards Ukraine’s membership in Nato as a direct threat to its security.
On 17 December 2021, Putin’s government gave the west a list of demands, including a commitment to halt any further eastward expansion of Nato, the removal of multinational Nato troops from Poland and the Baltic states, the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, and, most crucial, that Ukraine never be allowed to join Nato.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spurned Moscow’s written request for guarantees that Ukraine would not be allowed to join Nato.
The rulers in Moscow have long accused the West of reneging on a promise, after the demise of the Soviet Union, that Nato would not expand eastwards. But nuclear-armed Nato has spread to countries like Poland and the Baltic states, bristling with hugely destructive conventional arms.
The western imperialist powers were able to do this when the Russian economy collapsed in the wake of catastrophic capitalist restoration in the 1990s, and when its army was poorly equipped and demoralised.
Under Putin, however, with economic growth in some sectors, especially the energy sector, the Russian forces have been overhauled into a more modern army. And Russia still holds the world’s second-largest store of nuclear weapons.
In the last decade and a half, Putin’s foreign policy has been more assertive: intervening in Georgia, annexing Crimea, intervening in Syria, acting as a so-called ‘peacekeeper’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and earlier this year, helping to prop up the regime in Kazakhstan after it faced a mass revolt.
The ruling elite in Moscow has made it clear that it will not stand by and tolerate Nato incorporating Ukraine, with Nato arms and forces on Russia’s immediate border.
Nato’s 30 members include several former Soviet republics, some of which border Russia. Under Article 5 of the Nato Treaty, all agree to come to one another’s aid in the event of an attack.
As the western powers and media go into hysteria, accusing Putin of “aggression” (while US officials revealed plans to deploy up to 50,000 troops to the borders of Russia and Ukraine), Washington threatens “severe economic sanctions” against Moscow.
This includes cutting Russia’s access to Swift, the global banking payments system. In reply, the Putin regime claims that it has planned for such eventualities.
However, given the integration of finance and trade in the world economy, punitive sanctions on Putin’s regime could come back to bite other economies; especially if Putin retaliates by cutting gas supplies to Europe, in spite of the fact that would, in turn, would lead to a reduction in Russia’s income.
The allegations of Russian aggression and military adventurism made by western leaders are just so much hypocrisy. The United States and its allies, Britain, in particular, have waged a series of catastrophic wars since 1991, in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Millions have died and whole countries are reduced to ruin.
Despite the West’s stance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is only too aware that Ukraine would face overwhelming military superiority from Russia in the event of an invasion and has seen war fears cut Ukraine off from international debt markets, dismissed the argument that a Russian invasion was imminent. Concerned at the West’s goading of Russia, Zelensky warned that precisely this escalating brinkmanship could tip Europe into an all-out conflict.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the US cautioned against “panic”. Zelensky also accepted an invitation from Putin for talks.
Western governments are no doubt taking advantage of the stand-off with Russia to try to divert attention from their disastrous Covid policies. British PM Boris Johnson has further cause to ratchet up his demagogy against Russia – mired in scandals and under police investigation, he is just about holding on to office.
But the Biden administration and European powers also have vital geopolitical and economic interests in Ukraine and Eurasia and they aim to increase their influence and power in the region. This inevitably means coming up against Russia, the region’s biggest power, and its allies.
Unlike in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US is no longer able to act as the ‘world’s policeman’.
The US’s main adversary on the world stage, China, has given public support to Russia in its dispute with the West over Ukraine. The Chinese regime has its own disputes with the US and western powers, not least concerning Taiwan, which could eventually lead to armed conflict.
There are also some differences among the US and EU powers over Ukraine. French President Macron urges “strategic autonomy” and calls for “de-escalation” and a “European solution”.
The German government says it cannot send lethal weapons into conflict zones for historic reasons. Instead, it sent 5,000 military helmets to Ukraine, which Kiev’s mayor dismissed as “a joke”.
Much to the US’s consternation, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has only gone as far as saying that “all sanctions are on the table” when it comes to the recently completed gas pipeline (Nord Stream 2) between Russia and Germany, which awaits EU approval.
In a telephone call to French President Macron last week, Putin reiterated that he has “no offensive plans” regarding Ukraine. The Russian president knows there is little appetite for war in Russia.
Russia’s military is vastly more powerful than Ukraine’s, but attempting to invade and occupy an armed country, with most Ukrainians very hostile, would likely entail huge military casualties and risk widening the war.
Putin would presumably prefer concessions rather than a military confrontation with Ukraine.
However, if tensions continue to rise and Nato expansion and sanctions go ahead – with threats from the Democrat chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that sanctions could take place “immediately in response to Russia’s efforts to undermine the Ukraine government” – Putin may consider limited military action.
This can take the course of occupying separatist-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine, and/or seizing coastal areas to create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea.
The separation of the ethnic-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea took place in 2014 after a pro-Western takeover of government in Kiev, involving ultra-Ukrainian nationalist and fascist elements that removed a pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
Putin could use any reported discrimination or oppression of Russian-speaking Ukrainians as a pretext for a further incursion into Ukraine.
For the working class of Ukraine and Russia, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by the war talk, Nato expansion, sanctions, and any armed conflict.
Over 14,000 have died in fighting between Russian-backed enclaves in eastern Ukraine and Ukrainian armed forces. A wider conflict in an ethnically-divided Ukraine would bring with it unimaginable horrors.
The working class of the region and internationally needs to navigate an independent course. Nato is not a benign force but an armed alliance of imperialist interests, representing the geostrategic aims of capitalist powers.
These governments show disregard for the lives and well-being of the working class in their own countries during the pandemic, putting profits first – why would their foreign policy be any different?
And there is nothing progressive about Putin’s autocratic reactionary regime which oppresses workers’ protests at home.
Socialists must oppose warmongering. The international workers’ movement should give all the practical support possible to those struggling to build genuinely independent working-class organisations, including trade unions, in Ukraine, Russia, and across the region.
Only a socialist perspective that unites workers across all national and ethnic divisions against reactionary governments and outside imperialist meddling can show a way forward.