Ukraine: battlefield for imperialist powers

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The ousting of Ukrainian President Yanukovych to Russia was greeted by some as an expression of another ‘Ukrainian Revolution’. From the point of view of the Russian state it was denounced as an illegal ‘coup’ by ‘fascists’ in Kiev. In reality bankrupt Ukraine is a zone of combat between major capitalist powers.

What’s been happening is no more a revolution than the ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004/5 in Ukraine which led to the installation of Yanukovych’s predecessor Viktor Yushchenko. As for being a ‘coup’, such language is the common currency of any regime when describing political arrangements that it doesn’t approve of.

Strategic importance of Ukraine

Obama and Kerry have warned of the dangers of a Russian advance in the area, and insisted that the consequences of a ‘back-door annexation’ of Crimea will be very serious. The EU is prepared to impose sanctions on Russia and its allies in Ukraine. This is not a re-run of the tensions of the Cold War, although it is clear that Russia can’t accept a pro-west Ukraine. This is not because of any wealth of resources in Ukraine.The importance of Ukraine for Russian capitalism is essentially strategic. The importance of Russia for Ukraine is limited, although, for example, in 2010, it was able to get a discount on Russian gas imports in exchange for extending Russia’s naval base in Crimea.

Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia’s rulers have striven for ports that can function throughout the year. You only need look at a map of Russia to see major ports like St Petersburg on the Baltic sea, and Vladivostok in the far East (ice-locked for four months a year), to appreciate the importance to Russia of access to the Black Sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol in Crimea; indeed Russia has had a base here since 1783. Any influence that Russia might have in the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Middle East is backed up by the Black Sea Fleet. Although it’s the smallest Russian fleet, in comparison to the Northern fleet based in Murmansk, the Baltic Fleet, and the Pacific fleet based in Vladivostok, it is an essential part of Russian capitalism’s intervention in key areas of conflict. “For Russia, the fleet and its Sevastopol base are a guarantor of its southern borders and a platform for projecting power into the Black Sea and from there into the Mediterranean. Its base is also a docking point for Russian oil tankers bound for the Bosporus and the fleet will be tasked with protecting Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline once it is finished. … Russia’s only alternative, its port at Novorossiysk, is buffeted by winds, is sometimes forced to shut because of bad weather, and would need billions of dollars of investment to house the Black Sea Fleet.” (Reuters 7/3/14)

The response to the Russian military build up has varied between different powers. The US and France have been able to make generous denunciations because they don’t have particular interests in the area that might be put at risk. German capitalism is in a different position because it has closer links with Russia on a number of levels and is likely to be more cautious about applying (rather than just calling) for sanctions. It wants to avoid an escalation of conflict to protect its economic interests. British capitalism also is very keen to protect Russian investment in the City and keep its concern over Ukraine at a rhetorical level.

It is not possible to be definitive about the build up of tanks, troops and military vehicles on Russia’s borders with the Ukraine. It’s not clear how far Russia will go. This is not because of the personality of Putin, or the bellicose Russian personality. It’s because war and the threats of war can’t be neatly analysed into particular causes and probable outcomes. What we do know is that in the phase of capitalist decomposition, the tensions and antagonisms between capitalist states increasingly take on irrational and unpredictable forms. The result of the Crimean referendum is predictable, but not what it will lead to. And, for example, in the Baltic, the Caucasus, and other countries neighbouring Russia, there is the concern that the Moscow regime could again claim to be ‘protecting Russian minorities’ in other areas far from Ukraine.

The position of the working class

In the protests in Ukraine that led to Yanukovych’s flight to Russia there were many elements. Some had illusions in the potential of deals with the EU, some were just anti-Russian, a rather large number were indeed very close to traditional fascism; at the same time many were on the streets because of a discontent with their worsening material conditions. In practice, whatever the initial motivations, all these energies became channelled behind the nationalism of the bourgeoisie.

In parts of Eastern Ukraine, in the steel and mining areas, as well as a strong pro-Russian sentiment, there is also a discernable anger about the billionaire ‘oligarchs’, the ultra-rich bourgeoisie that has accumulated great wealth with the downfall of the Stalinist state. There have been demonstrations in Donetsk directed against the pro-Russian authorities. There might be the germs of protest about the social situation, even though, at this stage it is likely that any such movement could easily be diverted into nationalist dead-ends. The working class in Ukraine and Russia faces a very difficult and dangerous situation and it is not likely that it will be able to break out of the nationalist trap on its own – which only emphasises the crucial role of the international class struggle in opposing the austerity of the bourgeoisie and its flight into irrationality and war.

Car, 15.3.14