Everyone says there won’t be a war between the big powers over Ukraine, but the odds at the bookmakers must be shortening.
And even if that prospect is not the most likely development it certainly does look as if we are already moving closer towards civil war in the Ukraine. And in any such conflict there is little doubt that the role of the US and Nato will be to exacerbate an already dangerous situation, just as they have been doing in the run up to the current crisis.
In July, as the Stop the War Coalition revealed this week, UK and US troops will have their boots on the ground in the Ukraine as part of an expanded Rapid Trident joint military exercise with Ukrainian armed forces. It is hard to think of a more dangerous and inflammatory act in the present circumstances. The exercises have been running since 1997 in a bid to integrate the Ukraine into NATO without formal membership.
Certainly the war of words is getting hotter. Ukraine Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk accused Russia on Friday of wanting to start World War Three by occupying Ukraine ‘militarily and politically.’ He added, ‘Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe.’ In fact it is his government that has been engaged in ‘military conflict’ with pro-Russian demonstrators in the eastern city of Slavyansk, killing five people. But why let facts get in the way?
John Kerry’s speech yesterday telling Russia that it was failing to support its commitments over the Ukraine situation made in Geneva nearly two weeks ago and threatening that it will be an ‘expensive mistake’ if Russia does not de-escalate now also upped the rhetoric. Described as ‘unusually blunt’ in the Guardian, it presaged new EU sanctions which have further ratcheted up the tension with Russia.
The ideological campaign against Russia by Western politicians and the media has now reached Cold War levels of absurdity. Vladimir Putin may bear a physical resemblance to the baddie in the black hat riding into town so beloved of Hollywood westerns, but the narrative doesn’t have much resemblance in fact.
It is portrayed almost as if the first act in this sequence of events was the annexation of Crimea. But this actually came after the overthrow of the government in Kiev, which led many in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine to fear the consequences especially for Russian speakers. It came after months of conflict in Kiev and elsewhere, about whether the country should be tied economically to the EU or to Russia. The action of its president Yanukovich in plumping for an agreement with Russia led to street protests, which were increasingly backed by right wing figures in western Europe and the US.
An agreement for an orderly transition to a new government was brokered between the US, EU and Russia, but was abandoned within hours and Yanukovich forced to flee. The new government has agreed to hold elections next month, but has already signed an association agreement with the EU and a devastating economic package with the IMF. It was these events that led to those in the Crimea, since Russia clearly believed that US and EU politicians had reneged on their deal and established their own government in place. While there can be little justification for holding the Crimea referendum within such a short space of time, it is also true that its outcome, to join with Russia, would likely have been the same in most circumstances.
Now, events in the east have begun to mirror some of those that took place two months ago in Kiev (the seizure of government buildings, armed groups controlling town or parts of towns, demands that the government concede to the demonstrators demands). But while such actions were regarded by people such as Kerry as expressions of freedom and democracy when they were against Yanukovich, the US now stands by approvingly as the Ukrainian government orders ‘counter terrorist’ attacks on demonstrators. Indeed, the whole assumption is that the protestors are Russians, and that there are no Ukrainians who genuinely oppose the Kiev government or might support Russia.
But Ukraine is a deeply divided country and there are many historic and current reasons for division, and for opposition to the new government, which contains far right and fascist ministers and which has shown itself discriminatory against Russian speakers. The links between the far right and the protest militias which were prominent on the Kiev demonstrations are sufficient to chill the hearts of many who remember the Second World war and right wing nationalist collaboration with the Nazi invaders only too well.
The situation is extremely tense and serious, both within the Ukraine and in neighbouring countries. In this respect it resembles the Balkans during the break up of Yugoslavia where ethnic and national tensions were exacerbated in the drive to war. Russian troops are manoeuvring near the Ukrainian border, widely reported in the western media, yet we hear little or nothing about troop manoeuvres near Ukraine’s other borders. These include the 600 US troops who are in Poland and Latvia, the air exercises over the Baltic States and Poland and the various special operations.
Nato expansion, which now extends the pro western Cold War military alliance right up to Russia’s borders, has been a conscious and aggressive act aimed at weakening still further its old Cold War rival. EU expansion, with its neoliberal, privatising agenda, and its military wing in Nato, has brought little good for the people of eastern Europe and now threatens a far from peaceful future.
This is not, it needs to be said, an endorsement of Putin or his policies. His role in Chechnya alone would make that certain. But there was none of the outcry over the razing of Grozny that we now hear about the Ukraine, maybe because the deal was that Putin could deal with ‘his’ own ‘terrorists’ while backing the west’s ‘war on terror’, which remains by far the greatest war crime of modern times.
Kerry’s threat of the ‘expensive mistake’ doesn’t of course acknowledge his own government’s far more costly ones: drone wars, 1 million dead and 4 million refugees in Iraq, carnage and civil war in Libya, a country still impoverished and wracked with divisions in Afghanistan, the growth of terrorism and Islamophobia as its toxic by products.
And while he gasps in horror at Russian interference in the Ukraine, he is silent on his own government’s interference in its own ‘backyard’ in countries such as Chile, Nicaragua and Venezuela; in its constant interventions in supposed democratic processes in Europe and elsewhere; and in its growing intervention in the Pacific (Obama’s conference call will come from South Korea). In the Ukraine, the grubby paws of the neocons are all over the new government, and whose recent visitors include vice president Joe Biden and the head of the CIA.
As Patrick Cockburn presciently argued this week, meddling in already divided countries for short-term gain is a highly dangerous strategy. It’s already blown up in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (not to mention Syria where Kerry and his mates nearly launched airstrikes last August, and was only stopped by the vote in the British parliament).
All out war between Russia and the US and EU is still not on the cards. But a proxy war is, and this week it came a few steps closer. The losers if it happens will be the people of Ukraine, and the people of Russia and the rest of Europe. We can’t let it happen.