Video image released by the Russian defense ministry on 2 February, of Russian and Belarusian armored vehicles during a joint military drills at Brestsky firing range, Belarus. Photograph: AP
Imperialist tension has continued to rise in Eastern Europe as Russia and NATO appear determined to compete for hegemony in Ukraine. Despite assurances from the Ukrainian government that conflict is unlikely, western media has continuously beat the drums of war in order to ensure their citizens are primed for another proxy war should Russia decide to invade.
On paper Russia claims that its current posturing is due to security concerns, most pertinent being NATO’s continued drive to expand towards its borders. Of particular concern is the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, with Putin appearing to desire a guarantee that such an event will not occur. Concurrently the US and other NATO countries are positioning themselves as the defenders of human rights and the capacity for countries to choose their own international diplomatic relations. On paper both positions could be taken as reasonable demands. To fully understand the situation however we have to look a little closer at the reality of imperialist relations.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has sought to expand its reach throughout Eastern Europe serving to threaten and isolate Russia in an endeavor to stop it from being capable of again asserting itself as a global superpower capable of threatening Washington's strength.
To quote from our British comrades in the Anarchist Communist Group (ACG):
“With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of republics emerged that had separated from the Russian Federation. Among these was Ukraine, the largest in terms of landmass and the most important in terms of industrial development, an industrial development that had reached its climax under Stalin and his successors.
The fall of the Soviet Union seriously weakened Russia but thanks to rising oil prices coupled with the rise to power of Putin, it began to re-assert itself. It was determined to control and influence the surrounding countries on its borders, both for defence reasons and to re-affirm its control over those regions which it had established after World War Two.
The political-military alliance it had established with its satellites, the Warsaw Pact, was dissolved. However, the corresponding political-military alliance developed by the United States and the Western European powers, NATO, was not wound up and remains an instrument of both the USA and various component Western countries. In fact, NATO sought to increase its influence and has intervened in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. Despite promising the Russian regime that it would not expand its influence east of what was East Germany, it has invested its forces in the countries surrounding Russia, including the Baltic States.
NATO is an aggressive military machine, not a body there to passively defend the West. It has intervened in Libya, in Afghanistan and Iraq. It actively seeks to recruit not just former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia into its alliance, but also so called neutral countries like Finland and Sweden, both very close to Russia. It demands that each component country of NATO spends at least 2% of its Gross Domestic Product on military expenditure.”
Here we can see that the interest of NATO in Ukraine is far from humanitarian and has everything to do with defending western hegemony against rising rival imperialist powers. But how do we understand Russia’s actions?
Here we can again benefit from the work of our comrades in the ACG:
“The Putin regime is massing large numbers of troops on Ukraine’s borders for a number of reasons. The domestic situation is far from healthy and the Covid pandemic has aggravated this. Putin is wary of growing discontent and hopes that his belligerent attitude will unite the Russian masses behind him and make them forget their economic woes. This is a gamble, as the Russian masses are in general not keen to engage in warfare with their fellow Slavs in Ukraine, and remember the disastrous consequences of the war in Afghanistan, when Russian troops sent in to save the pro-Russian regime there were bogged down for years with massive casualties.”
It remains likely that neither NATO nor Russia truly want to escalate the current tensions into a full-blown war. To an extent both sides have already gained what they wanted from the conflict. Biden has taken full advantage of the opportunity to increase NATO troop presence in Eastern Europe, and will surely use this to pressure US aligned nations for further militarisation. For Russia this is a significant step in their road to regaining the global reach of the Soviet Union. Now Russia can claim to have not only outplayed the US in the Syrian proxy war, but to have stood toe-to-toe with the US empire without blinking, drawing a clear line in the sand. Russia has further made clear to the west it’s confidence in it’s developing military might, and it’s willingness to use it. However while neither side desires the conflict to escalate, the reality is that during heightened imperialist posturing war can often be sparked through a single mistake or miscalculation on either side, regardless of intentions.
For their part Ukrainian anarchists from the magazine Assembly remain skeptical of the West's predictions of war stating that
“It may surprise you, but we know almost no one here who is interested in such news, and even fewer who take it seriously. For the most part, people are worried about exorbitant energy bills that are leading to more and more houses having their heating switched off, and enterprises to working or going into the shadow sector precarising their workers. Ukrainian gas is mostly exported to Europe, while energy carriers for power plants are bought from Russia and the occupied part of Donbass. So you can imagine why we would be skeptical about these horror forecasts from the Western press”
Assembly goes on to point out that the greatest deterrent to state powers falling into a new large-scale war is the threat that such a war holds to the entire capitalist order.
“...before 1917 [that is the Russian Revolution] there was 1914, when all of Europe thought that a small victorious war would last a couple of weeks, only to result in a world-revolutionary wave ending in 1923. With this in mind, we can see why the imperialist politicians and corporations are wary all the more that a military clash in the very centre of Europe will again lead to a comparable social explosion in their countries (at least in the USA — taking into account the rise of revolutionary struggle there during the last years). So the world leaders intend to divide spheres of influence peacefully and rattle their weapons just to facilitate their negotiations.”
While we agree with our Ukrainian comrades in their belief that the memory of the First World War and the workers’ revolutions it created remains a powerful deterrent, many governments also remember the capacity for war to build their short-term popularity and support, particularly when the capitalist order sees little threat of a revolutionary working class on the horizon. The First World War at the end of the day was the inevitable result of dividing “spheres of influence peacefully” having reached its limit.
If war does break out the outcome would be devastating for the Ukrainian and Russian people, and potentially the entire planet should NATO decide to intervene in a manner larger than the proxy wars of the past 30 years. Even should war be avoided in this conflict, the weakening of US hegemony and the rise of competing (proto) imperialist blocs in China and Russia means that the prospect of a large-scale imperialist war is now increasingly on the horizon. In such a situation it would be essential to avoid the trap of campism in which one side is chosen as being deserving of support. Our solidarity can never be with states engaging in war to serve their interests and the interests of their capitalist classes. Our solidarity can only ever go to the workers of every country across the globe. Both NATO and Russia must be opposed, and should war eventuate, our job is not to pick a side but to work to end the war as quickly as possible. Should war break out then the spectre of 1917 needs to be made a reality again. The best defence against imperialist wars will always be a powerful, militant working-class and the fear of revolution that brings.