The threat of war in Europe between Russia and a United States-sponsored client-state in Ukraine is real. The security of Europe and the world is under direct threat and we receive, as always, a skewed and distorted view of what is going on.
The potential conflict is presented as being between Russia and Ukraine. A simplistic picture is painted. There is on one side, an aggressive and expansionist Russia with President Vladimir Putin seeking ways to reclaim the territories lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. And then there is a much put-upon Ukraine. It is said to be encircled and threatened, by Russia and now Belarus. The real protagonists are, of course, the US and Russia. Ukraine serves the interests of the US and this makes the potential for war very real.
Just months after the 2014 events in Ukraine that brought a right-wing, nationalist pro-US government to power and heralded such ongoing confrontations, the US announced a trillion-dollar overhaul of its nuclear weapons systems. Other powers naturally regarded such decisions with trepidation, but the threat of war, whether in Asia or Europe, moved a step closer in 2018 when the US quietly announced a new military strategy, or rather, a return to an old strategy. The emphasis on its “War on Terror” was to be replaced with the more conventional “great power competition”.
The US announced this new doctrine in its National Defense Strategy. It speaks of increased global disorder and of interstate strategic competition. It bluntly describes the need to “advance an international order that is most conducive to our security and prosperity … and preserve access to markets”. Its primary target is China, but Russia is regarded as a significant rival when considered from the perspective of US preoccupation with maintaining economic hegemony.
US strategic thinking in Europe and especially in relation to Russia and Ukraine is transparent. It is linked to maintaining power; economic, political, and military. A weak Russia makes for a stronger US. There has been a clear policy of shrinking the territory that had once been the USSR and drawing former allies into the orbit of NATO. There is now a strong push to weaken Russian economic capacity.
The Russian economy is largely dependent on oil and gas. Well over 20% of its GDP and 60% of its exports come directly from oil and gas sales. US President Joe Biden repeatedly makes the claim that Russia would face crippling economic repercussions should war in Ukraine become a reality. Russia is the world’s second-biggest producer of gas and third-largest oil producer. It certainly serves US interests to cripple the Russian economy. Biden’s rhetoric and his consistent talk of Russian invasion is, ultimately, tied to the US’ desire to diminish Russian power.
The history of Russia, both Soviet and post-Soviet, has been of overt expressions of nationalism. It has a view of itself as a great power and deserving of great power status. In this it is hardly different from its US counterpart. The recent history of Russian-Ukrainian relations certainly reflects Russia’s nationalist agenda and a need to remain a prominent global force. It also has the aim of maintaining a sense of legitimacy at home, which largely rests on appeals to past glories and a sense that those glories can come again.
Russia sees itself threatened by Western encroachments and rightly so. It is ringed by NATO bases. US, Canadian, British and German forces share the load of battle groups stationed in the Black Sea, while bases are now to be found close to the Russian border in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There are currently 60,000 US troops in Europe, and now the US is active in “training” Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian issue has become, in the eyes of the West, a simple matter of Russian aggression. Evidence is routinely given that references the annexation by Russia of the Crimea. Whether Russia was justified in such an action is, however, not the question. The manner in which Ukraine came to be a virtual fiefdom of the US is of the utmost importance. The interference of the US in what came to be known as the Maidan Revolution of 2013, and the active participation of openly fascist organisations in that movement, made it clear as to what the future of relations between Ukraine and Russia and, importantly, the US would be. Since that moment, Ukraine has played a key role in US maneuvering in the region.
Moves by the US and NATO to push further eastwards have been met with equally bellicose responses from Moscow. This, however, does not indicate any real desire on Russia’s part to engage in a war that would have such devastating consequences; politically, and importantly economically. Putin does lament the loss of territory that went with the end of the Soviet Union. An invasion of Ukraine, even if successful, would be a pyrrhic victory. He wants a Ukraine that is, if not allied with Russia, a relatively neutral state. The US is manipulating events. Their best-case scenario would see Ukraine as a NATO member with bases on a weakened Russian border. The stakes are high.
The political and economic dangers are enormous for both sides, or at least for Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union. The US might see things in a different light. It has guaranteed to arm its client-state, but no US soldiers will engage. The new German coalition government appears seriously split on the issue and, not altogether surprisingly, the rift is tied to economic issues. The German Social Democrats want to maintain the vital gas link with Russia, while the Greens are calling for the taps to be turned off in the event of war. Social Democrat defence minister Christine Lambrecht has argued that the pipeline “shouldn’t be dragged into this conflict”. Greens foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, by contrast, has made it clear that Berlin should impose energy sanctions on Moscow if it came to a conflict.
How the US responds to such indecision remains to be seen. Biden, in the early months of his presidency, repeated almost as a mantra: “America is back and will lead the world”. That world has reached a tipping point. The US is engaged in a desperate struggle to maintain supremacy and will do whatever it takes to keep on top. It is a strategy that includes military as well as economic threat and coercion. In the case of Europe and Russia, their intention is clear. They must weaken Russia, whatever the cost. Russia, in similar style, will seek to maintain a position of economic and geopolitical strength.
The lives and wellbeing of millions of ordinary working people hang in the balance.