AS THE 12 month anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was ‘commemorated’ on 24th February, the public in the NATO member states have been treated to a near unanimous and unrelenting chorus by their respective political establishments, as well as print and broadcast media, which claims that the ensuing military conflict began, and continues, as ‘Putin’s war’.
This is a variant of the ‘great man’ (or ‘great woman’) theory of history which, like all other such accounts, illuminates very little about the course of events. It is as if the most significant geopolitical conflict since the end of the Cold War, and one arguably even more dangerous for humankind than that earlier East – West standoff, has sprung fully formed, fully defined, and adequately explained by peculiarities in the personality or psyche of one man, the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin.
It is, however, an account which serves a crucially important ideological purpose. Namely, securing the passive consent, or acquiescence, of the populations of the NATO states in the expenditure of vast sums in military and economic aid to the Ukrainian government at the very moment when those same populations suffer the sharpest decline in their living standards since records began, along with reduced life expectancies and the continuous degradation of those public provisions – in health, social security, and education – which used to be known as ‘the welfare state’.
It is also an account which, by crudely portraying the war in Ukraine as the confrontation between a bully and an innocent victim, has enabled dissenting voices in the West to be more or less successfully ridiculed and dismissed as ‘Putin apologists’.
This article will locate the origins of the war within post-WW2 global history, rather than historical mystification, and its purpose is to lend weight to the voice of those who oppose the war, whether on the basis of workers’ and socialist internationalism as in my own case, or simply through the justifiable fear of many that a conflict directly involving nuclear armed belligerents has the potential to destroy all human life on the planet.
The ’Cold War’ between the rival imperialist blocs of the US and USSR, together with their respective allies and satellite states, continued from 1948 until 1989-90 with the collapse of the old Soviet Union. I was a schoolboy when in 1962 those imperialist rivalries had come closest to exploding into nuclear holocaust and still recall the paralysing fear which gripped us all.
The ending of the cold war was managed on the Russian side by the last USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, whilst from the west, and NATO, the key players were US President George W. Bush, his Secretary of State James Baker, and German Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The trickiest questions, naturally, concerned the border dividing Germany into two states across which the two armed camps had faced each other for 40 years.
It is amply documented, from several sources, that Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany and hence the incorporation of the then territory of the old DDR ( the Deutsche Demokratische Republik of Erich Honecker and STASI notoriety ) into the West German or Bunderrepublik state, then and still a member of NATO. In exchange, Gorbachev received assurances that NATO would move ‘not one inch’ beyond the eastern border of the new Germany.
German Chancellor at this time, Kohl, believed that NATO would be wound up, just as the Soviet–led military alliance the Warsaw Pact was wound up along with the dissolution of the USSR. NATO had, after all, been founded in Washington in 1949 as a ‘defensive’ military alliance whose clear purpose, notwithstanding some flowery words about the promotion of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, was to prevent the assumed danger of Soviet tanks surging westwards to overrun the whole of western Europe.
The NATO assurances were referenced not only by Kohl, but also by Gorbachev, much later, in his memoirs when there would have been nothing to gain from inventing them. Separately, they were repeated by the NATO Secretary General in a speech on 17th May 1990, and referenced again by UK prime Minister John Major in March 1991. Major had been asked about the admission of East European states to NATO by the Soviet Defence Minister Marshal Dmitry Yazov. According to the diaries of the British ambassador to Moscow, Major replied that ‘nothing of that kind will ever happen’.
Of course, NATO was not wound up, despite all the contemporary talk of a ‘peace dividend’, and Gorbachev’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize. The purpose of any miliary formation is to have capacity to engage an enemy in armed conflict. Therefore in 1990–91, and still, the question arises ‘so who is the enemy now?’
Not only did NATO with its command structures remain in existence, but history records its remorseless expansion eastwards towards Russia, taking in an additional 14 European member states.
In 1999, under US President Bill Clinton, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia; in 2004, under President George W Bush, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along with Romania and Bulgaria; in 2009, under President Barack Obama, Albania and Croatia; in 2017 Montenegro, and in 2020, under President Trump, North Macedonia. And then, in the latest step towards war, NATO leaders at the Brussels Summit in June 2021, confirmed the plan for the admission of Ukraine. In a speech of breathtaking hypocrisy, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that Russian objections to the ending of Ukraine’s neutrality were of no consequence, ‘as we will not return to the era of spheres of interest, when large countries decide what smaller ones should do.’
It is important for opponents of war to know that NATO’s expansion towards Russia’s borders has never gone unchallenged. Indeed, prominent figures within the political and military establishment of the US itself have warned at each stage that they made eventual war with Russia inevitable. Perhaps the best known of those was Henry Kissinger, hardly a US foreign policy ‘dove’, who as US Secretary of State from 1973 -1977 defended the brutal US war in Vietnam, and oversaw its bombing of Cambodia.
From the Russian side it has been stated repeatedly that NATO’s expansion was seen as endangering Russian security and that the neutrality of the Ukraine marked a red line for the Russian Federation. As early as 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin wrote to US President Clinton to complain that any further expansion eastwards by NATO would breach the September 1990 treaty between Russia and NATO. Assurances of Ukrainian neutrality have been repeatedly sought since 2000 in a succession of diplomatic conferences and security summits by Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin. They have been dismissed by Stoltenberg, and the White House, often in language which substituted arrogant contempt for the niceties of diplomatic protocol.
There is only one conclusion to be reasonably drawn: that the war in Ukraine is indeed a proxy war being waged against Russia by the NATO powers with the US at their head. It is not a war which has broken out through mischance or misunderstanding, but on the contrary one which has been actively, and knowingly, pursued by US imperialist strategists and one which the latter do not wish to see concluded until Russia’s military and economic power has been decisively weakened.
I will show in a subsequent article, firstly, how a vigorous propaganda war has been in place to confuse and mislead the western publics about what is in reality NATO’s war, and secondly how its most important strategic target is not Russia itself, but the rival economic and military power still further east: the Peoples Republic of China.