A Marxist explanation. PART 1
By Stephen Morgan in Brussels
Today, is one of those defining moments in world history which will shape international developments for a long time to come. Until now, relations between the superpowers in the post-Soviet world have taken on the character of a dance of veils which has hidden the implacably opposed interests of the Imperialist nations in bogus conviviality, diplomacy and reserve.
Now Russia has pulled the chain-mailed fist out from within the velvet glove and the disguise of détente has slipped, revealing Imperialism's readiness to turn to naked aggression for the pursuit of economic, political and military gain. The outcome of the current crisis in the Ukraine will draw clear demarcations in new superpower relations. Things will never be the same again.
At the time of writing, it isn't clear if the Ukraine and Russia are yet in a state of war, nor whether Russia will push ahead immediately to invade the Crimea and other parts of the Ukraine, or instead use threats and manoeuvres to lay the basis for some vote of secession on the part of the eastern provinces, which give a fig leaf of legality to the annexation of its territories.
In what was effectively a declaration of war, the Russian media outlet, RT announced that at 13:52 GMT:
“Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday requested an approval of the Upper House of parliament (Federation Council) to “use Russian Armed Forces on the territory of Ukraine to normalize the socio-political situation in that country." The statements continues;
"In connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots, and the personnel of the armed forces of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory (in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea) ... I submit a proposal on using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the normalisation of the socio-political situation in the that country."
After a short discussion, the Duma unanimously agreed the decision.
In fact the vote was almost a confirmation of a fact accompli. Over the last two days, Russian military movements in the region had already begun an invasion by stealth. Two days ago the Russian flag was hoisted over the Parliament in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. What is significant is that pro-Russian rallies have now spread to other Russian-speaking areas of the Ukraine. Below is a map published by RT apparently showing where the Russian flag is now also flying in other cities in the region.
The drift towards war began with Russian military manoeuvres, which started Friday involving a 150,000 troops, 880 tanks, 90 aircraft, 120 helicopters, and 80 navy ships. Fighter aircraft were also scrambled along the Ukraine border. At the same time, the Crimea's two main airports were taken over by armed men in military uniforms and checkpoints were established on key roads, while armoured personal carriers patrolled surrounding areas.
Eight Russian transport planes landed at the Gvardeiskoye airbase north of the regional capital reportedly carrying some 2,000 troops.10 Russian military helicopters were seen entering Ukrainian airspace yesterday and Russia’s large landing ship “Nikolai Filchenkov” has arrived near the Russia Black Sea Fleet's base in Sevastopol and has been joined by four additional ship carrying an unknown amount of Special Forces troops. Russian news site flot.com also reported that members of the 45th Airborne Special Forces unit and additional divisions had been airlifted into Anapa, another town along the coast. Russian marines have also taken up position outside the Ukrainian Coast Guard base. There are already believed to be 26,000 Russian troops in its Sevastopol base.
At the same time yesterday, Ukrtelecom, Ukraine’s largest internet and cell phone provider, said that most cell and internet services was down for the Crimea region. This appears to be the result of a cyber attack by the Kremlin, similar to that which preceded Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia which closed down the country's communications networks.
The pro-Russian Prime Minister of Crimea declared control of all military, police and other security services in the region. Sergei Aksenov stated that the armed forces, the police, the national security service and border guards would now only answer to him and that any commanders who didn't accept that should leave their posts.
At the same time, rather like the man who came back to life in a body bag in Mississippi yesterday, ousted President Yanukovych appeared at a press conference calling for Putin to act and saying he would continue to fight for the Ukraine. Possibly, in the absence of any other pro-Russian politician with regional or national stature, the Russians may be forced to fall back on him as a figure head for some new Russian-speaking, Ukrainian entity.
Spokespersons for the government in Kiev have naturally denounced the moves and accused Russia of declaring war. Though given their lack of governmental experience, they appear slightly out of their depth in the gravity if the situation. They have been appealing to the West for help and a special UN Security Session is now under way.
However, the US and its partners have been completely wrong-footed by events. Only days ago, none of the serious capitalist commentators believed this was likely and top of the list were the American Intelligence agencies, who have yet again followed their time honoured tradition of being blind-sided by international events from Pearl Harbour to the Arab Spring. This is quite astounding for a situation which could potentially be the most serious superpower conflict since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
How far this process will go, how quickly things will develop and what forms it will ultimately take are yet to be determined. But the US strategists of capitalism have yet again displayed their limited capacity to understand other cultures and the thinking of its perceived enemies and to realize that processes in society don't always follow the formal logic of its erudite analysts.
All week, journalists, commentators and White House advisers have been trotting out reasons why it would be against Russian interests to intervene in the Ukraine or even just in the Crimea. They have cited the problems it would cause for Russia in international relations, including trade with the West, which might be damaged by sanctions; suggesting that Russia is only posturing to remind the West of its commercial interests in the Ukraine and that ultimately it will only use economic pressure to find a solution and that they would not risk becoming embroiled in a civil war which would be far more complex and costly than its invasion of Georgia.
Certainly these are factors which the Kremlin will have taken into account, but that doesn't mean that these will govern its final decision-making. The Americans don't seem to appreciate that the Russians wouldn't contemplate any compromise of its Black Sea Fleet base in the Crimea any more than the US would do for its 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf.
What is probably true at this moment is that it doesn't wish to be involved in a full-scale invasion of the entire eastern half of the Ukraine, but, if the rebellion spreads further across the east, as it seems to be doing, Russia may already be making plans to annex the whole lot. After all, the Eastern Ukraine is one of the most industrialized regions in the world and despite the run down character of its industry, it is important economically. One can be sure that Russia's oligarchs are sitting on the border fences like vultures surveying the potential rich pickings.
So, we have to ask ourselves, what is at risk here for Russia and what does it stand to lose or gain? What cards is it holding and what and why may it be prepared to gamble on the outcome?
Firstly, it would be wrong to imagine that Moscow is acting from a position of weakness, especially with regards to the EU. The European powers are heavily dependent on energy from Russia. In 2010 some 34.5 % of the EU's imports of crude oil and 31% of natural gas came from Russia. On top of that, hard coal imports from Russia accounted for 27.1 % of EU needs and it is Europe's biggest supplier of uranium. In particular, Russia provides nearly 40% of Germany's natural gas, 31% of Italy's and 24% of France's. In other words, the central economic powerhouses of the European economy depend on Russia to keep their economies running and Russia is playing on the fact that it has its hands on the faucet.
Only today, the Kremlin announced that it will no longer supply subsidized oil and gas to the Ukraine. This threat serves two purposes. One, it is a form of economic blackmail directed at the Ukraine itself, since, if it follows through on this, it would bring about the implosion of the Ukrainian economy. Therefore it is a message to Kiev to stand down or face the consequences and accept the dominant role of Moscow in its affairs.
Secondly, it is flexing its muscles towards the West. It is warning the West not to dabble in what it considers its own business, in its own backyard, or face the consequences. On the one hand it is reminding the West of how dependent it is on Russia, while at the same time raising the spectre of a nightmare scenario, in which the West would be forced to foot the bill for the clean up an economic meltdown in the Ukraine, costing tens of billions of dollars.
Its relationship with the West is, of course, also one of interdependence, but its brinkmanship is designed to split the Western powers, between the core continental European states, like Germany, France and Italy and the US and the UK which are not as economically dependent on Russia as the others.
However, at the same time, the Kremlin also realizes that this interdependence is unhealthy and that its hydrocarbon exports alone cannot maintain long term growth in its economy. Therefore, there are larger economic factors at play in this crisis.
The first thing to understand is that the problems in the Russian economy are steadily worsening. Its petro-dollar economy, which financed its spectacular growth since 2000 and the increasing living standards, which have kept Putin in power, cannot continue to deliver the goods. Since the 2007 economic recession growth rates in Russia have been more than halved and last year the economy tipped into recession. It has now realized that it has to to turn away from the old heavy industrial and hydrocarbon-based economy it has relied on and diversify its manufacturing base, particularly in terms of the production of consumer goods.
Unlike China, Russia's growth hasn't come so much through the expansion of its internal market and the export of manufactured goods. Neither does it enjoy the same type of free trade zone which has stimulated growth in the EU over the long term. Casting an eye on both of its economic neighbours, the Kremlin hopes to imitate successful aspects of both, in order to reinvent and grow its economy. To get out of its worsening crisis, it hopes to develop similar scales of markets and trade as China and the EU has within its immediate geopolitical sphere of influence. Thus Putin has come up with the idea of a Russian dominated “Eurasian Union” including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Moldova and with aspirations on other countries as well.
Russia's target was to get such a union in place by 2015. If this had gone to plan, it would have almost doubled the Russian market and created an economic zone encompassing some 275 million people. If we take into account that the current limited free trade customs union which it has put in place with Belarus and Kazakhstan since 2010 has already trebled trade between these countries, then one can see the potential benefits to Russia from expanding it right across Russia's old empire. Therefore, given the unresolved structural problems of the Russian economy and the weakness of the world economy, this Eurasian Union project represents Russia's only viable hope for sustained, long term economic growth.
Thus the Ukraine, with its 46 million strong market and political importance, has been crucial to Russia in getting this project off the ground. But now events there have thrown all of this into question. Ukraine's shift towards integration with the EU would loosen Russia's economic and political stranglehold over its neighbour and, moreover, undermine its prestige and power throughout the entire region. Consequently, it could encourage other states, which have doubts about joining Putin's Eurasian Union, to rebel against Russia's domination.
Furthermore, it would threaten to allow the expansion of NATO and the Western military alliance deep into its home power base. It has to calculate that, should such an important nation as the Ukraine fall under EU and NATO influence, where would the rot stop? Therefore, its economic interests are tied to the political and military expansion of its power, which Putin has committed himself to not only in Eurasia, but globally. So, Russia feels it has to reassert its authority over the crisis in the Ukraine and show it is still the strongman in its own backyard, who is always prepared to defend its interests, even by military means if necessary.
But, as the Prussian General von Clausewitz once said “war is (also) the continuation of politics by other means.” In other words, war is also an extension of domestic policy and, in this case, Putin's internal interests, overlap with military intervention in the Ukraine. Here too, there are a number of factors involved.
Firstly, the slow down in the Russian economy is gradually undermining Putin's popularity at home. His efforts to build an Eurasian Union are part of his attempts to consolidate his rule and head off the development of mass unrest, particularly among the Russian working class, which until now has supported him because of the major improvements in living standards they have enjoyed over the last 10 years.
He knows that in restructuring the Russian economy he will have to cut public spending and this will hurt the poorer layers of society and also bring closures and jobs loses in subsidized heavy industries. He hopes that an expansion of trade and the creation of jobs through new light manufacturing industry and services will help to alleviate this problem.
Secondly, he has also faced his own internal Ukraine on a smaller scale in terms of the opposition protests in Moscow in the last few years. Therefore, in the immediate sense, he needs to react with an iron-fist in the Ukraine in order to deter similar movements inside Russia.
However, the mass protests in Russia, are also both economically and politically inspired. Like in the Ukraine, there is hatred towards his authoritarian rule and unrest among the petit-bourgeoisie, who lead this movement, because they are strangled by the monopoly power of the oligarchs and their bureaucratic allies and are consequently unable to expand their economic activities.
Many are involved in this movement in Russia because they hope that increased democracy will give them more influence in the political process and this will give them more opportunities to shape economic policies which will provide them with better chances of making money. That is not to ignore the fact that many heroic individuals have stood up to Putin purely over principles of democratic rights, but the economic problems of the petit-bourgeoisie are ever present in the unrest. Putin, therefore, also hopes that the expansion of light industry, trade and services will provide a more favourable economic climate for some of the middle classes to start to grow their own businesses and thereby also reduce internal dissent.
Much of this wont come to fruition before Putin eventually leaves office, but he has to be seen to represent the long term interests of the ruling class in order to survive. Howevcer, one should not imagine that Putin is omnipotent. There are groups within the oligarchy and the bureaucracy with the capability to remove him under certain circumstances and therefore Putin has to balance between different sections of the ruling elite, in order to stay in office. His power base is the “siloviki” the power men, around the FSB secret service (the successors to the KGB) but this is insufficient to permanently safeguard his rule. Therefore, Putin has been trying to expand his base and/or neutralize any competitive groups during the recent difficult economic and political situation.
One of the most important and powerful of these factions is the military. Consequently, Putin has “gone a courting” in the last few years with a very big purse to secure their loyalty. He has promised the generals to re-build Russia into a might military power and has increased the military budget by some $700 billion. However, as they say, you can do anything with bayonets but sit on them and the Generals at some point eventually want to turn war games into the real thing. Putin, therefore, also calculates that his military intervention in the Ukraine will bolster his support among the armed forces and make his political power base even more solid.
Linked to this is nationalism. Putin always plays on Great Russian Chauvinism, in order to deflect opposition to his rule and nurture support among the broader, less politically conscious sections of the population. The Ukraine crisis provides a perfect opportunity for him to play this card. He can whip up nationalist sentiments, portraying himself as the defender of Russians and the protector of its culture, history and language and, at the same time, playing on legitimate fears and abhorrence of fascism and the memories of the great sacrifices made in the defence of “Mother Russia” during the 2nd World War. For the knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who make up the deputies of the Russian Duma, this is also a gift from heaven, which gives them the opportunity to go down on all-fours and howl choruses of unrelenting jingoism to the full moon.
Putin is also re-galvanizing the nostalgic, nationalist sentiments connected to the historical defence of Sevastopol against the Great Powers of Britain and France during the Crimean War of 1853-1856. However, he would do well to remember that defeat in that war was the first step towards the collapse of the Tzarist Empire.
Clausewitz also stated that “in the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.” Putin is gambling a great deal here and there is no certainty that he will win in the long run. War, especially in the history of Russia, is often the midwife of revolution.
Tomorrow PART 2 ; The National Question in the Ukraine and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination