The Russian army has been demonstrating its strength through large-scale "manoeuvres" along the Ukrainian border since January, the United States has been making almost daily announcements of an imminent Russian invasion, NATO troops have been sent to the Baltic States and Romania, the intense diplomatic ballet 'to preserve peace', the Russian media campaign denouncing Western hysteria and announcing the return of troops to their bases, which was immediately refuted by the United States and NATO, clashes between the Ukrainian army and separatists in the Donbass region. In this macabre war sabbat between imperialist bourgeoisies, the motivations are diverse and complex, linked to the ambitions of the various protagonists and to the irrationality that characterises the period of decomposition. This makes the situation all the more dangerous and unpredictable: but, whatever the concrete outcome of the 'Ukrainian crisis', it already implies an appreciable intensification of militarisation, war tensions and imperialist contradictions in Europe.
1. US on the offensive with a president under pressure
The hysterical US hype over the imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine follows a similar US-orchestrated hype in the autumn of 2021 over China's 'impending invasion' of Taiwan. Faced with a thorough-going decline in US leadership, the Biden administration is pursuing an imperialist policy that's entirely in line with the policy initiated by Trump. Firstly, this means concentrating its economic, political and military means against the main enemy, China; from this point of view, the intransigent stance towards Russian ambitions accentuates the signal given to Beijing in autumn 2021. Secondly, by focussing on hotspots around the world, Biden is developing a policy of tension aimed at convincing the various imperialist powers that might want to play their own cards that it is in their interest to place themselves under the protection of a major godfather. This policy, however, ran up against the limits imposed by decomposition and had a mixed success in the Pacific with the creation of the AUKUS, which includes only the 'white' English-speaking countries (USA, Britain, Australia), while Japan, South Korea and India kept their distance. The same type of policy is being pursued today towards Russia to bring European countries back under US authority within NATO: US propaganda continually denounces the Russian invasion while cynically stating that the US will not intervene militarily in Ukraine since it has no defence commitment to that country, unlike those within NATO. This is a treacherous message to European countries. However, alongside Boris Johnson, who positions himself, as in Asia, as the faithful lieutenant of the Americans, the recent diplomatic moves towards Moscow, orchestrated by Macron and Scholz, underlines the extent to which the German and French bourgeoisies are trying by all means to preserve their particular imperialist interests.
At the same time, Joe Biden hopes to restore his reputation through this confrontational policy, which has been badly tarnished by the exodus of US forces from Afghanistan and by repeated setbacks for his socio-economic plans: "President Joe Biden has the worst approval rating after one year in office of nearly every elected president, except for former President Donald Trump" (CNN politics, 6/2/22) and, as a result, "his party is heading for defeat in the mid-term elections in November" (La Presse, Montréal, 23/1/22). In short, if the United States is on the offensive, the margin of manoeuvre for its president is nevertheless reduced because of his domestic unpopularity, but also because there can be no question, after the Iraqi and Afghan experiences, of massively engaging 'boots on the ground' today. The presence of American troops on the borders of Ukraine is therefore mainly symbolic.
2. Russia trapped and on the defensive
Over the past decade, we have highlighted Russia's role as a "troublemaker" in the world - despite being an economic dwarf - thanks to the strength of its armed forces and military hardware, a legacy of the period when it was at the head of an entire imperialist bloc. This does not mean, however, that globally it is now on the offensive. On the contrary, it finds itself in a general situation where it is under increasing pressure along all its borders:
- In Central Asia, with the Taliban in power in Kabul, the Muslim threat weighs on its Asian allies in the 'stans' (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan); then, between the Black Sea and the Caspian, war is simmering with Georgia after the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and Russia is trying to maintain the status quo between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, the latter country being largely courted by Turkey. Finally, the recent destabilisation of Kazakhstan is a nightmare for Russia as it is central to the defence of its eastern buffer zone.
- On the European side, Ukraine and Belarus, which are key territories on its western borders (the Ukrainian frontier is only 450 km from Moscow), have come under heavy pressure in recent years. Russia had hoped to retain regimes favourable to it there, but the Orange Revolution in Kiev in 2014 saw the country tilted towards Europe, and the same almost happened in Belarus in 2020.
Through the occupation of Crimea in 2014 and support for Russian-speaking secessionists in eastern Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk), Putin hoped to retain control over the whole of Ukraine: "Indeed, he was counting on the Minsk agreements, signed in September 2014, to gain a say in Ukrainian politics through the Donbass republics [the country's federal structure involves a large degree of regional autonomy]. The opposite has happened: not only has their application stalled, but President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose election in April 2019 had given the Kremlin hope of renewing ties with Kiev, has amplified the policy of breaking with the 'Russian world' initiated by his predecessor. Worse still, military-technical cooperation between Ukraine and NATO continues to intensify, while Turkey, itself a member of the Alliance, has delivered combat drones that make the Kremlin fear that Kiev will be tempted by a military reconquest of the Donbass. It would therefore be a matter of Moscow taking the initiative again, while there is still time" (Le Monde diplomatique, February 2022, p.8).
Seeing the tendency of the United States to focus more and more on China, Putin considered the moment favourable to increase the pressure on Ukraine and thus also negotiate its place on the imperialist stage. He engaged in a policy of 'hybrid war' involving multiple pressures, based on military tensions, cyberattacks, economic threats (Russian gas) and political threats (recognition of the seceding republics). However, the American political and media offensive has caught him in a trap: by loudly forecasting a military operation by Russia to occupy Ukraine, the United States is making it seem that any smaller action on the part of Russia will be seen as a step backwards and is therefore trying to push it into a risky and probably lengthy military operation, while the Russian population is not ready to go to war and to see body bags coming back in numbers either. The Russian bourgeoisie knows this perfectly well; for example, the Russian political scientist and expert on Russian international politics, Fyodor Lukyanov, points out that "crossing the line between the demonstration of force and the use (of force) is a transition to another level of risks and consequences. Modern societies are not ready for it and their leaders know it" (quoted in De Morgen, 11/2/22).
3. Rising tensions and militarisation in Europe.
The events in Ukraine are already having a major impact on the situation in Europe on two levels.
First of all, the intensification of imperialist confrontations, pressure from America and the accentuation of the tendency toward 'every man for himself' exert an extremely strong pressure on the positioning of the various European states. Biden's intransigent declarations force them to take a stand and the cracks are widening between them, which will have profound consequences for both NATO and the European Union. On the one hand, the UK, freed from the constraints of consensus within the EU, is putting itself forward as the faithful lieutenant among those loyal to the US: its defence secretary even described Franco-German attempts to find a compromise as having "the whiff of Munich". Various Eastern European countries, such as Romania, Poland and the Baltic States, are calling for a firm stance on the part of NATO and are placing themselves firmly under the protection of the United States. France and Germany, on the other hand, are much more hesitant and are trying to develop their own approach to the conflict, as underlined by Macron and Scholz's intense negotiations with Putin. The conflict highlights that particular economic but also imperialist interests are driving these countries to have their own policy towards Russia, and this is precisely what is the target of US pressure.
On a more general level, with the confrontation in Ukraine, the rumours of war and the tendency to militarise the economy will once again mark the European continent, and this at a much deeper level than what we saw during the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s or even during Russia's occupation of Crimea in 2014, given the deepening of the contradictions in a context of chaos and every man for himself. The manoeuvres of the various countries (especially Germany and France) in defence of their imperialist interests can only accentuate the tensions within Europe, further aggravate the chaos linked to the development of every man for himself and increase the unpredictability of the situation in the short and medium term.
4. What perspective?
Without doubt, none of the protagonists is trying to start a general war. On the one hand, because of the intensification of the every man for himself attitude, alliances are unreliable and, on the other hand, and above all, in none of the countries concerned does the bourgeoisie have a free hand: the United States remains focused on its main enemy, China, and President Biden, like Trump before him, wants to avoid 'boots on the ground' at all costs (note the disengagement of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasingly frequent delegation of tasks to private contractors); Russia fears a long and massive war that would undermine its economy and military strength (the Afghanistan syndrome) and also avoids committing its regular units too heavily, having private firms do the 'dirty work' (the Wagner group). Moreover, as shown by the persistent difficulty in increasing the vaccination rate, the Russian population deeply distrusts the state. Finally, for Europe, it would be economic suicide and the population is fundamentally hostile to it.
However, the fact that a full-scale, massive war will not be launched does not mean that warlike actions will not take place; they are already taking place in Ukraine through the "low-intensity" (sic) war with the secessionist militias of Kharkov and Luhansk. The imperialist ambitions of the various imperialisms, combined with the increase in every man for himself and the irrationality linked to decomposition, inevitably imply the prospect of a multiplication of conflicts in Europe itself, which are likely to take an increasingly chaotic and bloody form: multiplication of "hybrid" conflicts (combining military, economic and political pressures), new waves of refugees pouring into Western Europe, as well as tensions within the bourgeoisie in the United States (contrast Trump's 'benevolence' towards Putin) as well as in Europe (e.g. Germany), and a growing loss of control of the bourgeoisie over their political apparatus (waves of populism).
Against the hate-filled hype of nationalism, the Communist Left denounces the imperialist lies of every side, they can only serve the interests of the different bourgeoisies, Russian, American, German, French, ... or Ukrainian and drag the workers into barbaric conflicts. The working class has no homeland, the workers' struggle against capitalist exploitation is international and rejects any division on the basis of gender, race or nationality. Workers must realise that if they do not counter the intensification of confrontations between imperialist sharks with their struggles, these confrontations will multiply at all levels in a context of the accentuation of every man for himself, militarisation and irrationality. From this point of view, the development of workers' struggles, particularly in the heart of the countries at the centre of capitalism, is also an essential weapon for opposing the extension of militarist barbarity.
18/2/22 / R. Havanais