By Alex Callinicos
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West’s expansion is behind threat of Ukraine war

Tensions go back as far as the end of the Cold War, writes Alex Callinicos
Issue 2785
A line of soldiers stand with rifles in the snow. The soldier in the foreground wears a Ukrainian flag on his shoulder

Ukrainian soldiers duringa training exercise with US soldiers in 2019 to improve cooperation with Nato

Rumours of war over Ukraine abound. They started with the pro-Western Ukrainian government, which pointed to the build-up of 175,000 Russian troops on its border.

But then the US said Russia could be planning to invade Ukraine “as soon as early 2022”. The foreign ministers of the G7 leading Western economies warned, “Russia should be in no doubt that further military aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and severe cost in response.”

Almost certainly Russian president Vladimir Putin doesn’t want a full-scale war. Although he has been backing low‑intensity warfare by pro-Russian elements in southeastern Ukraine since 2014.

He is using the military build-up to extract diplomatic concessions from the US. Above all he wants a promise that Ukraine will not be allowed to join the Nato military alliance.

This issue goes back to the end of the Cold War in 1990-1.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, agreed that reunified Germany could belong to Nato. US secretary of state James Baker promised in return, “There would be no extension of Nato’s jurisdiction eastwards.”

This pledge was broken rapidly by US president Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The European Union (EU) and Nato were expanded in tandem to incorporate the former Soviet client states and provinces of Central and Eastern Europe.

This policy marked the US’s hubris in the aftermath of the Cold War. Under article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, Nato member states are committed to defending each other from attack.

Would the US and the leading capitalist states of western Europe really go to war with Russia over, say, Latvia? Clinton was prepared to take this risk because Russia under Boris Yeltsin looked like a pushover. But when Putin took over from Yeltsin in 1999 he used booming energy revenues to rebuild Russia’s military capabilities.

In April 2008 US president George W Bush encouraged a Nato summit to declare that Ukraine and Georgia would join. This would bring the US-dominated alliance to Russia’s borders. Putin responded with a brutal four-day war with Georgia in August 2008.

France and Germany had already vetoed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership and they blocked any retaliatory action against Russia. But Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 marked a deeper polarisation between Russian and Western imperialism.

The US and EU have imposed a series of sanctions packages on Russia. The Ukrainian government is lobbying hard for military aid and Nato membership.

After a summit with Putin last week, Joe Biden made what may be an important concession. He had already ruled out military action against Russia. Now he promised to convene a summit of the US, Russia, and the European powers to discuss Putin’s demand for a new security order.  This went down badly with Ukraine and the central and eastern European states, who all see Nato as their shield against Russia.

The problem is partly that both the US and its European allies find it hard to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russia’s concerns. They remain wedded to the liberal internationalist ideology that expressed the West’s triumph in the Cold War.

According to this ideology, liberal capitalism binds states together economically and creates such strong common interests that war becomes unthinkable. From this point of view, Putin can be dismissed as an “authoritarian” hangover.

A small problem with this perspective is what the US denounces as “authoritarianism” rules in the most successful manufacturing and exporting economy in the world, China. It also has a growing grip on eastern EU member states.

And Putin’s admirer Donald Trump occupied the White House till January, and still enjoys massive popularity.

The truth is that liberal capitalism has failed economically, as we have seen in the years since the global financial crisis exploded in 2007.

Moreover, there are plenty of serious conflicts of interest among Western states. Look at the rows between Britain and France and the close links Germany still cultivates with Russia.

Western capitals arrogantly refuse to recognise this reality, but they can’t escape it.

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