Russia has stationed 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. Will it invade or is this just a show of strength to force concessions from NATO?
Most of the media coverage has focused on Putin, his intentions, and, if he is bluffing, what is the minimum offer that would allow him to back down without losing face. The discussion is being shaped by the announcements of western politicians, security briefings and guesswork from political correspondents. Hence yesterday we had US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, accusing Russia of
a false flag operation where they seek to engineer a provocation and then use it to justify their own response.
An all out war of conquest to annex Ukraine, as the Crimea was annexed in 2014, is unlikely. Russia could easily become bogged down in a drawn out bloody conflict with Ukrainian nationalist forces who would look to NATO for military aid. But the south East corner of Ukraine does have a significant Russian population and there has been a civil war there with covert Russian support for the rebels. An invasion to take this land to the east of the River Dneiper is a possibility.
The UK government suggests that an invasion could involve a lightening strike to take Kyiv and install a pro-Russian puppet government headed by former MP Yevhen Murayev. Of course, western governments would never dream of installing a puppet government or interfering in the democratic processes of sovereign countries. Although the citizens of South Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran and Afghanistan might not concur.
So far the West has spoken of severe consequences for Russia without spelling them out. Military intervention inside Ukraine is unlikely. US and UK decisions to withdraw diplomats does not suggest a commitment to defend Kyiv if the Russians do invade. Increased military activity on Russia’s borders is largely symbolic and meant to reassure NATO members in the former Warsaw Pact countries.
The EU is divided over sanctions. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a target for USA sanctions. But that supplies Germany who, unlike Britain and the USA, have so far refused to send military aid to Ukraine. Chancellor Schulz prefers the softly, softly approach to Russia that began under his predecessor, Angela Merkel. France is looking for a European Security initiative in which the EU opens a diplomatic channel to Moscow independent of NATO, Britain and the USA.
So from Putin’s point of view, his strategy is working. He is opening up divisions amongst his enemies. He could maintain the fiction that the troop build-ups are merely part of a scheduled military exercise with Russia’s ally, Belarus and wait for attention to wane before quietly withdrawing.
Except that Russia does have ambitions in Ukraine. Last year Putin rewrote history in an essay in which he questioned Lenin’s decision to establish Ukraine as a separate member of the USSR and argued
I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.
Putin would like a pro Russian regime in Ukraine to join Belarus in recreating a buffer zone of states between Russia and the NATO forces that have been expanding eastward ever since they effectively won the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Currently he is demanding a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO. NATO is refusing to concede. The alternative, a neutral Ukraine, guaranteed by both sides is rarely mentioned. Though Patrick Cockburn in the iPaper has pointed out that such a settlement worked in 1953 with regard to Austria.
As far as I can make out Putin is motivated by one of three considerations.
- To defend Russia against the military threat that NATO’s eastward expansion presents along Russia’s long and indefensible western border by recreating a system of buffer states loyal to Russia.
- To reassert Russia’s power in the world and rewrite the de facto Cold War settlement by reincorporating Ukraine into Greater Russia.
- To stave off democratic reform in countries on Russia’s border that might inspire a domestic reform movement to challenge his autocratic grip on power within Russia.
Or possibly a combination of all three.
The West chooses to characterise Russia as a bellicose gangster state, whose actions place it beyond the pale, in language reminiscent of that used towards Saddam Hussein in the build up to the invasion of Iraq. The difference is that Russia really does possess weapons of mass destruction and war with Russia carries the potential for nuclear holocaust. And, it should not be forgotten that Russia’s alleged paranoia has a basis in fact.
Since 1600 Russia has been invaded by Poland – twice, Sweden, Finland, France- twice, Great Britain, Austria Hungary ,Germany -twice, the Kingdom of Sardinia and since 1800 the USA, Great Britain, Japan and France have sent troops into Russia to intervene in their internal affairs. Since 1900 soldiers acting on the orders of the governments of Italy, Hungary and Romania have fought as allies of invading powers and there have been border disputes ending in open warfare between Russia and both Japan and Turkey.
And while Russia may indeed be a mafia state, western governments have no scruples about aligning themselves with equally odious regimes like Saudi Arabia and ignoring human rights abuses in allies like Israel and Turkey. Nor are they averse to welcoming Russian gangsters, like the oligarchs who plundered Russia before absconding to Britain to launder their ill-gotten gains and make generous donations to the Tory Party.
Stop The War
This is not to defend Putin’s regime in Russia. We oppose a war over Ukraine because, whoever wins, it will only entrench divisions and increase suffering for the civilian population.
When Jeremy Corbyn said we should understand Russia’s viewpoint he was vilified as an apologist. Now, faced with a mobilisation of Russian military power and a threat to the energy supplies that run into Western Europe through Russian pipelines, pundits and politicians alike are scrambling to understand, if only to know their enemy as they up the stakes in the path to war.
NATO has said there can be no return to sectors of influence in Europe. What it means is that there can only be one sector of influence in Europe, one that involves subservience to Washington. For socialists in Britain to have any credibility in opposing our enemies abroad, and both Putin and Biden are enemies of socialism, we have to start by opposing our enemies at home and join with Stop the War in calling for an end to NATO expansion and to war mongering by the UK government.
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Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Uncommitted member of the Labour Party. Will they expel me before my direct debit expires?