It looks like there will be no war between Russia and Ukraine. It is clear that this fact will upset many in Moscow and Kyiv, but, unfortunately, there is a need to face realities. The efforts made by militarism heralds, admirers of Ukrainian hetman Ivan Mazepa and defenders of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet proved to be futile. They let the chance slip.
That chance offered when, by September, the relations between those two countries have become worse than ever. The Caucasian conflict might break out into the Russo-Ukrainian one and casus beli had been prepared when Kyiv demanded that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet report back to the Ukrainian government on its trips in violations of their agreements.
But everything was, as always, spoiled by the USA. The U.S. stock markets crashed at the wrong time. If it took place a couple of months later, the first Russo-Ukrainian war or even the Third World War might burst out.
Historically, the state leaders have suddenly become aggressive and highly sensitive to the national prestige issues on the threshold of economic crises. This can be shown by the Caucasian conflict. For 15 years Georgia and South Ossetia had had strained relations and Moscow was not too concerned about it. But the moment the Georgian and South Ossetian politicians felt that they would face the crisis, those two sides decided to unleash the war.
The wars usually break out when things are reaching crisis points or, on the contrary, when the crises are over or coming to an end. The Crimean war started when, as Karl Marx put it, there appeared a "cloud" of a trade and financial crisis. The Boer War was waged when after the Trans-Siberian railway building had been completed, the French and Belgian firms stopped securing orders and there was a meltdown on European stock markets. The First World War saved the world from the global economic crisis that was about to happen. The crisis was postponed until 1929 at the cost of several millions of lives. It is known as the Great Depression.
As far back as a year and a half ago there was talk about the fight for natural resources, about clashes caused by control over oilfields, precious metals and fresh water. However the natural resources, which are supplied to the world market, are falling in price showing that those who made such forecasts were mistaken. Such wars can be engendered by the post-crisis expansion. For example, the Russian-Japanese War broke out immediately after the world economic recession in 1900-1903. The same thing holds true for the Second World War.
There is no doubt that the Russian raw materials and fuel will be sold even during the crisis, but how expensive will they be? Only solvent demand is of importance under capitalism. The fact that millions of people are killed by cold or starve because they cannot buy food or pay for heating would not increase the demand for fuel and food.
A war can be caused either by the economic expansion or by the elites’ seeking to distract the people from the coming misfortunes and, at the same time, to morally and materially strengthen their standing before the troubles. The August 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict is an egregious example of that on the part of both Moscow and Tbilisi. But Kyiv and Moscow will not play the same game because the crisis began. The economic slack in autumn 2008 can save the peace. Addressing the economic issues makes the governments drop the international conflicts.
The mutual accusations are changing into the talks that everybody is in the same boat (that sprang a leak long ago but the passengers are not aware of that).
There is no point in drawing the authorities’ attention away from the financial collapse and the decline in output by appealing for their national pride. The defense spending will not be able to bolster the economy. From now on the society will regard the defense spending as an extra burden when times are getting harder.
The confrontation between Russia and the West is drawing to a close before moving into the ‘cold war’. The Russian government tries to save Iceland instead of struggling for the Black Sea Fleet. This small country managed to attract so many financial investments that they exceed its several year national income. Judging by the keen interest Moscow displays in this distant and cold island, the Russian wise men also invested their money there.
President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko does not think about Ukraine’s joining NATO any more. He seeks to overcome the crisis. He was warned that the early parliamentary elections would cost Ukraine the NATO membership. But charity begins at home, so Viktor Yushchenko called the snap elections. The large-scale military parade with tanks in Kreschatik street in Kyiv was taken not as preparation for the Ukrainian-Russian war, but as the evidence that, in case of need, the President was ready to repeat former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s experience shooting at the Verknovna Rada, which is not going to be dissolved.
All in all, the rules of play as well as the play itself are changing. Russia and Ukraine has to face another economic crisis or even a series of crises striking various economic sectors, levels of the population and regions.
The Ukrainian "orange democracy" had started going to pieces long before serious economic problems. But Moscow does not gloat over that any more since it does not succeed in creating its "sovereign democracy" either. There was stability in Russia because the government could please all the competing elite factions, at the same time, improving the living of the population majority. But this required expensive oil, which continued to rise in price as well as demand for aluminum, nickel, gas and other export goods.
At a time when the country is facing the financial collapse the question who should be saved is turned into the subject of the political struggle. The Stabilization Fund, Russia’s pride, is in reality a heap of devaluing papers and indistinct figures on computer monitors. The Black Sea Fleet and the Crimea status recede into the background given the current situation. The officials have to save their own capitals and those of their friends.
The former enemies are ready to express solidarity with each other. Unfortunately, it is too late.
The situation will resemble an old Soviet joke. There will be no war, but there will be such a struggle for peace that everything will be razed to the ground.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008)
Eurasian Home, 3 November 2008