'World on Fire' by Cristian Ibarra from Pixabay. Caricatures of Putin, Biden & Johnson by DonkeyHotey licensed under CC BY 2.0

WE began the week with warmongering voices coming mainly from the West, in particular the US, but I don’t think many of us expected the situation to escalate so quickly, and a lot of us would have hoped it wouldn’t escalate at all.

Just last week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was calling for the West to calm its rhetoric but yesterday, as Russia attacked Ukraine, targeting infrastructure near major cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Dnipro, Zelenskyy declared martial law and appealed to world leaders to impose all possible sanctions on Russia.

Sanctions

US President Joe Biden said he has briefed Zelenskyy on Washington and its allies’ planned next steps against Russia, including ‘severe sanctions’. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, also said Russia faces ‘unprecedented isolation’ over its attack on Ukraine and will be hit with the ‘harshest sanctions’ the EU has ever imposed. But what sanctions and how will they affect Russia?

Germany has already stated it would suspend its certification of the newly built but never operated Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline which is a multibillion-dollar project of Russia’s Gazprom energy company and European companies. 

The US earlier this week froze the assets of two Russian banks considered especially close to the Kremlin and Russia’s military, with more than $80 billion in combined assets, and they are saying they may impose more of these sanctions. They could cut Russia out of the SWIFT financial system, which shuffles money from bank to bank around the globe, and would be one of the toughest financial steps they could take, damaging Russia’s economy immediately and in the long term. This could cut Russia off from most international financial transactions, including international profits from oil and gas production, which in all accounts for more than 40% of the country’s revenue.

The US could also restrict exports to Russia which could cut off Russia from the technology needed for  warplanes and passenger jets, along with other software and advanced electronic gear necessary in today’s world.

Here in the UK five Russian banks have had their assets frozen, along with three Russian billionaires – who will also be hit with UK travel bans. And Johnson said yesterday that we will agree, in concert with our allies, “a massive package of economic sanctions designed in time to hobble the Russian economy”. Yet it is Ukraine’s economy which is already crumbling as embassies and international offices in Kyiv have closed and flights cancelled.

How did we get here?

While Russia is certainly not the innocent here, the country has, for decades, been calling on NATO not to expand, yet it has done so, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Bill Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration, asked at the time, in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when NATO expanded into countries in Eastern and Central Europe like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia: why push NATO into Russia’s face when Putin was not at his strongest or most popular? 

Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.

Bill Perry, former US defense secretary

Perry recalled that moment in 2016 when he told The Guardian: “In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.

“At that time, we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that NATO could be a friend rather than an enemy … but they were very uncomfortable about having NATO right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”

Former US ambassador agrees

George Kennan, who served as the US ambassador to Moscow in 1952, and was arguably America’s greatest expert on Russia, said, as far back as 1998, when speaking to Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times: “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

George Kennan, former US ambassador to Moscow, speaking in 1998

“Don’t people understand?” he continued. “Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”

Both Perry and Kennan, amongst others, have been proven right in their analyses – Putin reacted to what he saw as NATO aggression and Ukraine is suffering for it. You poke the bear and it will usually roar back.

The bear poked back

Which is what it is doing now with missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities and troops reported as pouring across Ukraine’s borders into the eastern Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions, and landing by sea at the cities of Odesa and Mariupol in the south.

The Ukrainian military claimed late yesterday to have shot down at least six Russian aircraft, with reports at least 40 of its troops and several civilians have died. Russian paratroops are now in control of an airbase near Kiev and are reportedly trying to seize the Chernobyl nuclear plant. 

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter that Putin had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now,” he said.

A warning to the West

Meanwhile, Putin issued his own warning, saying, “We have taken the decision to conduct a special military operation,” and claimed it was for the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine, echoing a theme of Kremlin propaganda, the claim that the Kyiv government is controlled by the far right.

“We do not intend to occupy Ukraine,” he said, and, in what can only be taken as a warning to the West, he added: “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

Keir Starmer brought it to our own doorsteps when he told us in his speech yesterday: “We will see economic pain as we free Europe from dependence on Russian gas… But the British public have always been willing to make sacrifices to defend democracy on our continent and we will again.” Mmmm, Sir Keir, I think, as with the Ukrainian and Russian public, it will be us seeing economic pain rather than the likes of you, Putin, Zelenskyy or Biden.

There will be no winners in this war. Except weapons manufacturers, military contractors and the like. What Putin has done is wrong. Of course it is. Any form of imperialism is wrong. But we should be looking for a way to end this peacefully, without the people of either country having to suffer.


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