The causes of the war in Ukraine – a reply to Simon Pirani.

Simon Pirani’s article, “the causes of the war in Ukraine” is posed as a reply to John Bellamy Foster’s brilliant and terrifying Notes on Exterminism” but simply doesn’t address what Bellamy Foster is saying about the connections between US nuclear war posture, its policy towards Russia and the connection with climate breakdown but talks primarily about Gazprom instead. It’s also odd that Simon states that it’s important to understand the background “in order to understand what happens next, and how this relates to the western powers’ historic failure to deal with climate change,” and then completely fails to explore either. There is no vision for what the end of the war might look like if his section of the Left’s backing for Ukraine and NATO leads to a Russian defeat – either for Ukraine or for the world. Nor is there any examination of how the US war drive connects with their failure on climate breakdown. For any insight into this, readers would be better off reading Bellamy Foster, or the companion article from John Ross, which does explain how the war fits into the totality of current geopolitical struggles in a way that makes sense of it.

This is particularly significant because the USA is spending 14 times as much on its armed forces as it plans to invest in climate transition. As Meehan Crist put it in the London Review of Books in March “One of the worst outcomes of the war in Ukraine would be an increasingly militarised response to climate breakdown, in which Western armies, their budgets ballooning in the name of “national security” seek to control not only the outcome of conflicts but the flow of energy, water, food, key minerals and other natural resources. One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine how barbarous that future would be”. Not hard to imagine because that’s pretty much the world we already have under the Pax Americana, but a bit more so.

Simon seems to assume that the “popular resistance” represented by mass conscription in Ukraine hints at a progressive outcome if the Oligarchy in power and its NATO overlords achieve their war aims. To be fair, this is not explicitly stated, just presumed. Leaving aside reports of WhatsApp groups in Ukraine set up to warn people of when the press gangs are in the neighbourhood, and that 7% of the conscripts sent to the West for training have deserted; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Since the start of the war the Ukrainian government has moved sharp and hard against the rights of the workers they are calling up to fight, and they have drawn up a post war reconstruction plan with western capital that would make Ukraine even more of a dystopian neo liberal laboratory than it already is. Not a land fit for heroes. Before the war, the combination of low wages and corruption with the pending threat of conscription to fight in the Donbass led to one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and 600,000 people a year leaving the country for a better life; some to Russia, more since 2014 to the EU.

Simon asserts that “until 2014, western policy was focused on integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms: even after the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, the western response remained reactive.” The USA is always reactive, in the sense that it will intervene in any situation anywhere, anytime that it can take advantage of; but it is also invariably pushing things along, actively seeking contradictions and fissures that it can insert itself in to shift things its way. Staying global hegemon takes work, and there are US Embassies full of active agents and 800 US military bases all over the world either doing it or waiting to join in, an inner space full of satellites keeping tabs on things and a cyberspace dominated by US tech companies intimately linked to the security state.

Think about what “integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms” means. “Integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms” means subordinating Russia to the West. Not partnership. Not multipolarity and a deal among equals, but subordination. The US applied the same presumption to China, that participation in the WTO would make it more western, allow the private sector to dominate over the state, ease into a political system that could be bought up by the ruling class; just like ours is. The 2008 crash put paid to any prospect of that. Pro US voices have been marginal since then.

The US is no longer trying to incorporate China, or, now, Russia, on its terms, because it knows it can’t. Its policy now is to break the world economy apart and try to retain domination of as much of it as it still can. In most of the Global South, it is losing ground, quite quickly. That makes continuing to dominate Europe very important. If the European economies suffer as a result, that’s a price to be paid and ridden out politically.

Simon’s core argument is that “the West” was interested in getting cheap Russian energy and therefore had an essentially pacific intent towards it until the invasion on 24th February came out of a clear blue sky and forced them to reassess. This requires almost complete amnesia for anything that actually happened in the run up to 24th Feb – Russia’s continual appeal for negotiations on a “Mutual Security Pact” that NATO could have agreed to and spun out forever to avoid getting to the crunch point had they wanted to instead of spurning with imperial contempt – and a presumption that all of “the West” had the same interests, rather than there being a rift between the US and Germany that was resolved in the former’s favour at the NATO Summit the week before the invasion, with Germany coming to heel and refusing to open up Nordstream 2, putting NATO on an economic war footing. This was almost certainly a tipping factor in Russia’s decision to intervene.

Because, the term “the West” in this context, covers some real contradictions, particularly between the economic interests of the USA and those of the EU, and Germany in particular, which partly explain why Russia was never simply taken into NATO or ever considered a possible EU member even at the point it was considered a “strategic partner”.

Lenin always argued that politics trumps economics. And so we have seen in the case of Germany. It is not in Germany’s economic interests for this war to continue, nor for cheap Russian gas to be cut off from its industries and domestic consumption. This is also true across Europe. The Prime Minister of Belgium has spoken of fears of “deindustrialisation” as a result of this sudden rupture in energy supplies. Political turmoil is rising across Europe, not least in the UK.

The struggle over whether Nordstream 2 would be opened up last winter illuminates the fault lines here. The US was against it, for the same reasons it wouldn’t consider letting Russia into NATO. A close relationship between Germany and Russia undermines US dominance across the whole EU. Russia in NATO would have a similar centrifugal effect on the alliance. Blowing the pipelines up just as demonstrations were starting up in Germany and elsewhere to get them put back on stream to cut energy bills is a completely logical thing for the US to do. Burning the boats. Cutting off the options. Trying to stop a connection being more widely made between the cost of living crisis and ongoing support for the war. The idea that the Russians would blow up their own pipelines, when resupply of gas though them is such a huge diplomatic carrot, is as absurd as the idea that they would shell a nuclear power station occupied by their own troops or convoys of cars full of civilians trying to get out of Ukraine into Russian controlled territory (which they are supposed to have done twice in recent weeks if you believe our objective, reliable media).

The US attempt to subordinate Russia has never been a passive policy, not least in Ukraine and to describe it, either in or after 2014, as “reactive”, as a synonym for defensive, implying that it is a dozy, passive force, only taking action when severely provoked, dulls our understanding of just how proactive they are. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenburg has no such delusions and his comment “we have been preparing for this since 2014” should be taken at face value.

And it’s quite clear from this article that preparations for sanctions against Russia were being actively negotiated between the USA and EU from November last year which knocks a big hole in Simon’s main contention that the economic war was a defensive reaction to the Russian intervention. All part of the game plan.

Simon describes the Maidan movement of 2014 as though it was a simply popular uprising against corrupt oligarchs. This is as simplistic as describing Brexit as a popular revolt against “elites”. There is no recognition of the role of the far right, the division in the country leading to civil war is elided, nor is there any acknowledgement of the active intervention of the US and EU to try to mould the outcome in their favour, nor of the tussle for influence between them. The active role of the US in the Maidan movement alongside the far right isn’t mentioned. John McCain addressing a rally in the square is neither a figment of anyone’s imagination nor a “reactive” intervention. The role of Victoria Nuland, one of the architects of neo conservative interventionism and an active participant in many such interventions is almost too well documented, but Simon passes them by without a nod, or a word, or any acknowledgement at all.

The replacement of one corrupt oligarch, Yanukovitch, with another, Poroshenko, who collaborated with the far right throughout his Presidency and oversaw neo liberal reforms, opening up Ukrainian farmland to Western Agribusiness, rather undermines Simon’s assessment. Popular participation in the Maidan in the West of Ukraine did not determine a popular outcome.

Since at least the Orange Revolution (the clue is in the colours, the US can’t help itself when it comes to branding its products) in 2004 there was an open struggle for where Ukraine would align. None of this is unknown. None of it “reactive”.

This is paradoxical because Simon recognises that “in 2013, the Kremlin offered a substantial discount on gas sales as part of a generous trade package, conditional on Ukraine abandoning its talks on an association agreement with the EU; Yanukovych’s support for that package was among the sparks that set off the Maidan revolt.” This package was rather positive for Ukraine, but not at all in the interests of the EU or US. As we know with sparks, the flame has to be fanned.

We are now in a situation in which criticism of NATO is an expulsion offence for Labour MPs. The GMB is campaigning for increases in military spending, when the UK already spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India, and, through NATO and AUKUS, is allied to countries responsible for two thirds of global military spending, with the USA at their core. The US is fast losing ground economically and so is trying to reassert itself militarily, even if this leads to war with other nuclear armed powers. Increased arms spending by the UK signs us up for that. Not recognising this drive, or flinching away from the consequences of it, disarms the Labour movement in the face of the greatest short-term threat to human survival.

To invert one of Simon’s sentences; those in the western ‘left’ who don’t recognise that ‘NATO expansion’ is the chief cause of the military conflict and that Ukraine is fighting a ‘proxy war’ for the US with $53 billion worth of US weapons and $12 billion more to come… act in effect as apologists for the USA’s dangerous brinkmanship that could lead to nuclear war and the end of human civilisation. 

The war in Ukraine is indeed a historical turning point. Its result will determine whether we move into a New American Century – with a NATO victory, a US backed colour revolution in Russia, possible partition of the country into at least three parts, as some of the more hawkish neo cons planned in 1991, and the decoupling of Russia from China to facilitate the war US hawks want in the South China Sea before the Chinese economy gets too big for it to deal with – or not.

This prospect makes it a matter of principle that the Left and civil society should resist this war drive.