As I sit down to write this, on April 9, three pieces of news have made the headlines across the world, two of which have been largely ignored in the Anglo-American news media and the third has been covered prominently with all the predictable anti-Russian spin.
(1) The Supreme Court of Ukraine was to start a session to elect a new council that might have included four judges who are expected to resist the kind of constitutional changes the new coup-installed Kiev regime wants to impose, and who may have even declared the removal of President Viktor Yanukovich unconstitutional. Dozens of members of the Right Sector, one of the two neo-Nazi parties holding high office in the new dispensation, attacked the Supreme Court building, closed if off, prevented the judges from entering and went searching for the judges they disliked. At the time of this writing, the problem had not been resolved. Whatever the immediate outcome, the message has gone forth: Supreme Court judges are to function now under the threat of abduction and/or assassination, just as parliament was made to vote out President Yanukovich while gun-totting neo-Nazis roamed through the parliament building. Anglo-American media have either not reported the event or treated it as a minor irritant.
(2) Odessa, the southern city of Ukraine, was vandalised by neo-Nazi activists who left symbols of swastikas and wolf hooks on monuments that memorialise the victims of Nazi pogroms of 1941, including the Holocaust Memorial in the city centre that was opened only last year. These neo-Nazi activists are also demanding the arrest of those who wear St George’s ribbons, a symbol of the anti-Nazi resistance in Ukraine during the Second World War. Roman Schwartzman, head of the association of former Nazi prisoners, issued a statement saying: “Out of the 25 thousand people killed, about 22 thousand were Jews, mainly children, women and old people. The rest were Soviet soldiers and marines who protected the city from the Nazis.” Such events have happened in the recent past as well and the Anglo-American media have either ignored or greatly downplayed them, as mere local aberrations.
(3) Coupled with the neo-Nazi violence that preceded the coup, the routine anti-Russian venom that emanates from people who now occupy high office has led to a predictable explosion of unrest throughout Eastern Ukraine, with tens of thousands marching in protests and demonstrations across the region. People from Kharkov, Lugansk, Nikolaev and Dnepropetrovsk tried to storm the government buildings. In Donetsk, thousands demanded that their right to self-determination be respected and called for a referendum on independence from Ukraine, in the wake of Crimea.
All that was to be expected, and numerous analysts and commentators have predicted that it would happen. It is these protests, however, that dominate Western news media and governmental pronouncements, not as expressions of fear among people who have good reason to be afraid but as the result of a sinister plot hatched in Moscow.
Fresh from his failure in the latest round of the absurd Israel/Palestine “peace process”, United States Secretary of State John Kerry is again threatening more and severe sanctions against Russia, and Hillary Clinton, the presidential hopeful, has offered the routine stigmatisation of Vladimir Putin as yet another Hitler. In fact, recent revelations suggest that the Russian Duma acted so swiftly to honour the Crimean referendum and reintegrate the region into the Russia because Putin was acting on reliable intelligence that after the coup in Kiev another one was being prepared for Crimea as well. As Foreign Minister Sergey Levrov had made clear time and again before the Kiev coup, Russia preferred a genuine federalisation of Ukraine in which peoples of all regions, including Crimeans, would enjoy maximum autonomy. Integration of Crimea into Russia was thus thrust upon the Russians by the coup-makers in Washington, Berlin and Kiev. Eastern Ukraine was once a very prosperous, industrial zone within the Soviet Union. Post-Soviet devastations, with flourishing industries sold to freshly minted oligarchs for peanuts, have turned the region into a depressed wasteland. Russia would have no interest in taking it over only to sink hundreds of billions in an attempt to revive the ruined economy there. Limited Russian intervention may come though, as a last resort, if the physical safety of the Russian people there were to be seriously jeopardised.Consistent Russian positions
For a long time now, Russia has consistently taken three positions. One, the demographic complexity and regional diversity of Ukraine is such that it needs far-reaching constitutional reforms that make it a genuine federation of regions with each region commanding very considerable autonomy for self-governance and guarantees of fairness for minorities inside those regions. For instance, as soon as Crimea became a part of Russia in March, three languages—Russian, Ukrainian and Tartar—were accorded equal official status there. Ukraine needs these kinds of flexible arrangements at the federal as well as regional levels.
Second, Russia has seen the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) expand most threateningly all around its own frontiers and warns the West that further expansion of NATO into Ukraine will do possibly irreparable damage to the cordial relations Russia otherwise wants to maintain with the U.S.-E.U. combine.
Third, Russia has also insisted that when the territorial unity of the Soviet Union disintegrated so suddenly, significant Russian populations were stranded in some of the emerging states—such as Ukraine or Latvia—and the Russian Federation would always feel obliged to protect these Russian populations in neighbouring states if they came under serious threat, as they currently are in Ukraine.
In this situation, Russia has evidently moved significant forces close to its border with Eastern Ukraine. Having falsely claimed that Russia “invaded” Crimea, the West now pretends that these troop movements are a prelude to a Russian “invasion” in Eastern Ukraine. The opposite is probably true. Having tasted power in Kiev, Ukranian neo-Nazis are quite capable of going on a rampage in other parts of the country. Meanwhile, the current Ukranian state, with its security apparatuses largely in the hands of those same neo-Nazis, is rapidly raising a new paramilitary force of some 60,000, in addition to its existing armed forces and police. One can be reasonably sure that the new paramilitary force will have a very sizeable neo-Nazi component in it. As fear and social unrest escalate in Eastern Ukraine, the Kiev rulers may well use armed force, including neo-Nazi militias of the Right Sector and the like, against the Russian minority there. What would Russia do in that case?U.S. unilateralism blocks diplomatic solutions
Having unleashed a successful coup in Kiev, the U.S. has unilaterally portrayed Russia as the aggressor and is now refusing to discuss the Ukraine crisis with it directly. As usual, American unilateralism undermines the possibility of a diplomatic solution. And that is so because a fair diplomatic solution is not what the U.S. seeks in this case, any more than it does with respect to Iran or Syria or any other country where it wishes to impose its will. It seeks to utilise all this propaganda of Russian “aggression” to achieve its aim of integrating Ukraine more tightly into NATO and letting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) impose a gruesome austerity on its population, even if that is facilitated by alliances with neo-Nazis and a crop of oligarchs.
Russia, however, is not a relatively powerless, beleaguered country like Iran, let alone Syria. Rather, it is a major power with security interests that involve not only itself but also its compatriots in neighbouring countries. And it is a significant player in the world economy. As China has said, any serious sanctions against Russia will ruin the world economy and kill the chances of recovery in the Euro-American zone itself.
It is not very reassuring for the Russian population to hear Yulia Timoshenko, a former head of state and one of Germany’s two favourites in Ukraine, saying on the phone that Russians who live in Ukraine should be “nuked”. Nor is it reassuring to know that Kiev is now ruled by people who hate them: descendents of Ukrainian fascists who look at Ukrainian Russians as descendents of Bolsheviks who should be ethnically cleansed. If there is real violence against those Russians and Russia intervenes to protect them, as it did briefly in Georgia in 2008, what is Washington going to do? Order NATO to bomb Moscow? In engineering the coup in Kiev, U.S.-led NATO is clearly playing with fire.Manufactured crisis
By now, it is clear beyond any doubt that the crisis in Ukraine was manufactured in pursuit of further expansion of NATO and, whatever the outcome in Ukraine, for qualitative advance in placement of the most sophisticated military hardware all along the borders of Russia and in its vicinity, be it in Poland or the Czech Republic, the Baltic states or (sooner rather than later) Ukraine itself. Does that amount to the onset of a new Cold War, as it is being suggested in a great many quarters?
We could begin with a longish quotation from Paul Craig Roberts, who has previously served as Associate Editor of TheWall StreetJournal and Assistant Secretary of Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, hardly a “lefty” but well versed in matters of U.S. finance and Cold War policies:
“This is what Putin thinks: The Americans promised [Mikhail] Gorbachev that they would not take NATO into Eastern Europe, but the Americans did. The Americans withdrew from the ABM Treaty, which prohibited escalating the arms race with anti-ballistic missile systems. The Americans arranged with Poland to deploy anti-ballistic missile bases on Poland’s border with Russia. The Americans tell us the fantastic lie that the purpose of American missile bases in Poland is to protect Europe from non-existent Iranian ICBMs. The Americans change their war doctrine to elevate nuclear weapons from a retaliatory deterrent to a pre-emptive first strike force. The Americans pretend that this change in war doctrine is directed at terrorists, but we know it is directed at Russia. The Americans have financed ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine and hope to do so in the Russian Federation itself. The Americans support the terrorists in Chechnya. The Americans trained and equipped the Georgian military and gave it the green light to attack our peacekeepers in South Ossetia. The Americans have financed the overthrow of the elected government in Ukraine and blame me for the anxiety this caused among Crimeans who on their own volition fled Ukraine and returned to Russia from whence they came. Even Gorbachev said that [Nikita] Khrushchev should never have put Crimea into Ukraine. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that Lenin should not have put Russian provinces into eastern and southern Ukraine. Now I have these Russian provinces agitating to return to Russia, and the Americans are blaming me for the consequences of their own reckless and irresponsible actions. The Americans say I want to rebuild the Soviet Empire. Yet, the Americans witnessed me depart from Georgia when I had this former Russian province in my hands, thanks to the short-lived war instigated by the Americans.”How the cold war began
Knowing a little history helps. But how did the first Cold War begin, and how did it end?
NATO was established as a “mutual defence alliance” in 1949, among the liberal and social democratic states of North America and western Europe, obviously under the hegemony of the U.S., which then accounted for half of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), and equally obviously in opposition to the Soviet Union and other socialist states. Joseph Stalin died in 1953 and Khrushchev rose to be First Secretary of the Soviet Party, representing the wing of the party—by then obviously the dominant wing—which believed that the international, systemic competition between socialism and capitalism had to be waged now without threat of yet another world war—and a world war in the age of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, moreover! Khrushchev and his comrades also believed that if an arms race with the West could be avoided, the vast economic resources of the Soviet Union could be utilised to build a truly productive, prosperous and advanced socialist society in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its allied countries, not wasted so extensively on weapons production in order to always be catching up with NATO’s military machine with its far superior resources of capital and technology. Hence his (their) doctrine of “peaceful coexistence between social systems”. Invoking this new doctrine, and recalling the anti-Nazi alliance between the U.S. and the USSR during the Second World War, Khrushchev actually asked for NATO membership in 1954, a year after coming to power.
That was an extraordinary moment in history. Had the U.S., at the height of its hegemonic world power, accepted the principle that people of other countries had the right to choose their own social systems and to pursue those choices peacefully, none of the greatest horrors of the past 70 years would have happened and tens of millions would not have died in what we continue to quaintly call “the Cold War”. But socialism was at that time ascendant on the world scale and the “spectre of communism” was haunting large parts of western Europe itself; the abundant powers of capital had to be mobilised and concentrated to defeat all such challenges. Khrushchev was rudely spurned. They wanted from him the dissolution of communism as such, something that Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin eventually did concede. Khrushchev, a visionary communist trapped in circumstances not of his own making, was much too honourable. The Warsaw Pact came into being the next year, 1955, as a defiant response; what we now know as “the Cold War” had seriously and murderously begun. The rest is, as they say, history.
Khrushchev, by the way, was Ukrainian; Stalin, a Georgian; Gorbachev, half-Ukrainian. The Soviet Union was a multinational entity and heads of state could come from any of its many nationalities, including the Russian, of course.
Now fast forward to 1989-90, the so-called “end” of the so-called “Cold War”.
Gorbachev had become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, but it was with his rise to the position of the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1988 and then the President of the Soviet union in 1990 that he and his close colleagues were able to offer a historic compromise, as they saw fit, so as to end the Cold War. His initial compromise formula was that NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the two military alliances, should be dissolved simultaneously and mechanisms should be set in motion for joint institutions for maintenance of peace. In this grand bargain, the USSR would be willing to forego the right to intervene in the affairs of other socialist countries and would let them choose their own social systems (abrogation of Leonid Brezhnev’s doctrine of “limited sovereignty” for allied countries). It was also quite clear that he wanted a transition inside the Soviet Union, from communism to something else, perhaps some version of social democracy (a matter on which neither he nor his advisers seem to have been very clear, unlike Deng Xiao Ping, who systematically laid the foundations for restoration of capitalism under the leadership of the Communist Party itself).
When the West refused that bargain, he held a fresh series of meetings, starting in February 1990, with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others. He had by then accepted that NATO would not be dissolved, but he wanted to limit its areas of operation. The issue of German reunification was central to those negotiations. By the treaty ending the Second World War, the Soviet Union had the right to keep any number of troops in East Germany. Reunification required the withdrawal of 380,000 Soviet troops stationed there. According to James Goldgeier, author of the definitive history of the subsequent expansion of NATO Not Whether but When , Gorbachev is said to have told U.S. Secretary Baker on February 9 that “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable” and Baker is said to have responded with “NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward”—not even into the eastern zones of reunified Germany. The same assurances were sought and given in meetings between Gorbachev and Kohl, and then between Soviet and German Foreign Ministers.
Russia has always invoked those understandings, portraying the subsequent expansion of NATO as a betrayal of bilateral undertakings. Neither the U.S. nor the German government has ever denied that such clear-cut assurances were indeed given in exchange for the massive withdrawals of Soviet power that did ensue in consequence of those undertakings by the West. However, none of it was written down as a formal agreement and therefore has no standing in the eyes of international law. As a Hollywood director famously said, a verbal promise is not worth the price of the paper it is written on.
In the event, NATO forces moved into East Germany as soon as the Soviet Union began to crumble, contrary to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) predictions and Western expectations. Bill Clinton was the American President who took NATO to war in Yugoslavia in 1995, transforming it from a “defensive” alliance to an all-purpose war-making machine; by the time of the so-called “Arab Spring”, it was making war on Libya. By 1997, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had joined NATO, followed in 2004 by seven more former members of the Warsaw Pact, including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which had previously been part of the Soviet Union itself. In 2009, Croatia and Albania joined the club. NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” (humorously named, one assumes) was expanded to include the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and—surprise!—Ukraine. Other former Soviet republics such as Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan provide NATO countries with some basing, transit, refuelling, or overflight rights for use in the Afghanistan war.
In short, then, Russia has witnessed the forward march of NATO into every single country that was once a part of the Warsaw Pact and even the Soviet Union itself—with the exception of the Russian Federation and, so far, Ukraine. The latter would be the last to go. An outstanding feature of this situation is that successive U.S. administrations have been steadfast in these policies even though perhaps a majority of the famous Cold Warriors have opposed such policies. For instance, George Kennan, the legendary U.S. diplomat and Russia specialist who invented the strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union and was one of the founders of Cold War doctrines, vehemently opposed the 1998 move to extend NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. “I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake.” John Lewis Gaddis, highly respected historian of the Cold War, wrote: “Historians—normally so contentious—are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.” Bush Senior’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, was sceptical of the policy, as was William Perry, Clinton’s Defence Secretary.A new cold war?
So, according to Kennan, the most eminent of all Cold Warriors, something like a new Cold War was already under way by 1998. In that sense, the latest U.S. offensive in Ukraine is not the beginning of a new Cold War but something of a point of culmination, a decisive moment, in a logic that started unfolding soon after the Soviet collapse. The objective in the pursuit of that logic seems to have been to not allow Russia to recover from the debacle and become a major power yet again. That is so because Russia and China are the only two countries in the world that are perceived as potential rivals in the foreseeable future. But does that amount to a new Cold War? I believe not. Why?
The so-called “Cold War” was in essence a worldwide competition between two social systems and visions: imperialism/capitalism which was globally dominant, materially far more powerful, but under challenge in various parts of the globe, thus on the defensive but with immense offensive powers of finance and military power; and socialism/national liberation, which had seemed ascendant after a number of socialist revolutions, dissolution of colonial empires, and the rise of revolutionary movements across the globe. The war was called “Cold” because, alongside the existence of nuclear weapons, there was also a rough military parity between the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact countries—all of which made a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union unthinkable .
However, there were numerous “hot” wars across the Tricontinent: wars of national liberation as well as countless revolutionary movements across the three continents, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, imperialist wars in such far-flung areas as Vietnam, Algeria and Angola, as well as numerous bloodbaths (Indonesia), coups (Chile and many other countries), blockades (Cuba), and so on—not to speak of alliances on the level of individual states, e.g., the Nasserist alliance with the Soviet Union, the Saudi alliance with the U.S. There was not a single liberation movement that did not receive some sort of assistance from the Soviet Union, not a single reactionary force that did not turn to the U.S. for protection, at one time or another. The collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to that phase in world history. The “Cold War” did not just fizzle out. There were defeats, and there were victories.
No such systemic dynamics obtain now, at the level of state systems. Russia and China, which are being encircled today, are subordinate capitalist powers that are trying to rise against the monopolistic imperial power of what Samir Amin calls “the Triad”: the U.S., the E.U. and Japan. These are conflicts taking place within the world of internationally integrated finance capital and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).The spectre haunting the West
Russia commands the world’s largest concentration of energy resources in oil and gas. China commands immense financial resources and is fast emerging as the world’s most productive economy. If they were to pool their resources and to survive various forms of subversions, present and predictable for the future, they can potentially emerge as an alternative pole of attraction for countries of the Tricontinent (call it the “global south” or whatever) and the centre of gravity for global capital can begin to shift. This actual and potential power is what makes the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries more sympathetic to Russia in the present crisis.
That is the spectre haunting Washington and Brussels, requiring encirclement of Russia and the so-called “Asian pivot” of Barack Obama’s dreams. What is at stake in any event is not a competition between irreconcilable social systems, as was the case in the Cold War of yesteryear, but a reconfiguration of capitalist power on a global scale, on a planet riven with wars for possession of its vanishing natural resources and losing its capacities for mere physical survival in the face of accumulating ecological disasters. This historical phase must be understood on its own terms, not through a weak analogy with a Cold War that ended when the Soviet Union collapsed. We are still trying to deal with the debris of that collapse.
Both Russia and China have had a revolutionary past. If they were to embark on learning from that past and begin to build social systems that are more egalitarian, with power and prosperity redistributed downward among the masses of people, with institutions that are socially emancipatory (even if not socialist in any meaningful sense) a new kind of transition within the world capitalist system—and a new kind of challenge to U.S. dominance—can emerge.Encirclement of Russia?
In addition to evicting Russia from the G8, the closed club of advanced capitalist countries, NATO has also suspended all its dealings with Russia. The U.S., meanwhile, sent a guided missile destroyer into the Black Sea which is in fact equipped to carry nuclear warheads. Pentagon started moving F-16 fighter-bombers and F-15 fighters to Poland and the Baltic states, along with C-130 transport planes and RC-135 aerial tankers. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the outgoing NATO chief, recently told a German newspaper that NATO’s relationship was getting “ever stronger” and that NATO’s expansion in the region has been “one of greatest success stories of our time” but also that “the task is not yet complete”. He added: “We are now considering revised operational plans, military manoeuvres and adequate troop reinforcements. We will, for example, relocate more aircraft to the Baltic States” (that were part of the Soviet Union until the break-up). A notable part of this escalation is a military exercise called Rapid Trident that is scheduled to involve a multinational NATO force of 13,000. Part of the intention behind the exercise is “improving interoperability between the land forces of Ukraine and NATO and partner nations”, according to the U.S. website for the exercise.
All of this comes on top of the build-up that has been under way for almost two decades, including the stationing of the most advanced offensive weaponry, under the heading of Missile Defence system in countries forming something of an arc around Russia’s European frontiers. The latest escalations, announced and yet to be announced, confirm our prediction that the Ukraine crisis is nothing but a phase in the stepped-up military encirclement of Russia.Economic assault
However, the U.S. has also been talking of economic sanctions. The rhetoric had abated after announcement of the freezing of assets and travel restrictions imposed on a handful of Russian officials. But the rhetoric has been revived over the last few days. The U.S. is obviously stepping up pressure on E.U. countries to curtail their extensive economic relations with Russia. Will that work, and can Russia retaliate?
Half of Russia’s external trade is with the E.U., just as 75 per cent of all foreign investment in Russia’s rapidly growing economy comes from the E.U. Six hundred German companies have hundreds of billions of dollars of investment and business turnover in Russia, while 48 Russian companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange, and Russia meets about 30 per cent of Germany’s energy requirements. According to Defence News , various European arms manufacturers, including the Swedish ones, value their current and potential sales to Russia too much to join any sort of U.S.-instigated sanctions regime, while France wants to continue to sell arms to Russia, including a $1.7-billion deal for Mistral-class helicopter carriers. Is the E.U., with its stagnant economy, going to gamble away all this—and much more—for the sake of American imperial overreach?
On the surface, European countries, including Germany, seem to be going along with the U.S., but there might in fact be dissention that gets expressed in other ways. Helmut Schmidt, German Chancellor from 1979 to 1982, said that he found Russian policy in Crimea “completely understandable, that the policy broke no international law, and that all talk of sanctions was ‘stupid nonsense’”.
Gunter Verheugen, once a SPD leader and European Commissioner, said: “The problem really is not with Moscow or here with us. The problem is in Kiev, where we now have the first government in the 21st century in which fascists are seared.” Gerhard Schroder, German Chancellor from 1998 to 2005, recently confessed that he had broken international law by leading Germany into NATO’s war in Kosovo, a precedent that could be usefully compared to Crimea’s peaceful referendum. Is the German government speaking through its venerable former leaders? Future developments will clarify this. Our own view is that the E.U. cannot impose any meaningful sanctions on Russia without significant damage to its own ailing economy. Russia has the capacity to survive such sanctions and retaliate not only in Europe but also elsewhere in the world
China overtook Germany as Russia’s biggest buyer of crude oil this year, thanks to the Russian oil giant Rosneft securing a deal for eastward oil supplies via the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline and another crossing Kazakhstan. State-owned Gazprom, the most powerful gas company in the world, hopes to pump 38 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas a year to China from 2018 via the first pipeline between the world’s largest producer of natural gas to the world’s largest consumer of it. More such deals are in the offing when President Putin visits China next month. As Russian oil and gas begin moving east so massively, Japan and South Korea would want a share of it.
If the U.S. continues to tighten the military noose around Russia through NATO—“America’s European division,” as Pepe Escobar wittily calls it—Russia could retaliate by delivering Sukhoi SU-35 fighter jets to China, a matter that has been under discussion since 2010. And, the earth under Wall Street would begin to shake if Russia and China were to drop the dollar as the primary means of exchange and shift instead to trading in their own currencies, the rouble and the yuan. None of this is going to happen tomorrow; China is itself much too closely tied to the U.S. economy, not only with its trade in goods but also its trillion-dollar investments in U.S. Treasury Bonds. However, this retaliatory mechanism is plausible because, quite aside from Russia’s need to break its own encirclement, China too needs to respond to America’s much-brandished “Asian pivot”.
The U.S. needs Russia elsewhere as well, notably in Syria where the Bashar al-Assad government seems to be slowly winning the savage, stalemated war, and in negotiations with Iran. In both cases, Russia has refrained from providing serious high-tech weapons to its allies. Will continued U.S. provocations force Russia’s hands on those fronts as well?And the worst is yet to come in Ukraine itself.