Confronted with all the reports of a Russian invasion of south-eastern Ukraine, we need to remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Almost exactly 50 years ago, in August 1964, US president Lyndon Johnson claimed North Vietnamese torpedo boats had twice made unprovoked attacks against the US destroyer Maddox.
Congress responded by voting Johnson full powers to wage war in south east Asia. It later transpired that the Maddox had been returning from secret operations against North Vietnam and that the second attack never took place. But Johnson was looking for a pretext to escalate the war in Vietnam.
So any claims about what the Russians are doing emanating from the US government or from Nato headquarters should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Western media has also largely ignored the bloodshed caused by the offensive waged by the Kiev government against the areas in south-eastern Ukraine that refuse to recognise its authority.
Nevertheless, there is a war going on in Ukraine. At least 1,200 people were killed and 3,250 injured between 16 July and 17 August according to the United Nations (UN) Higher Commissioner for Human Rights.
The New York Times wrote, “Ukraine’s military had to bear responsibility for ‘at least some’ of the heavy loss of civilian life and for extensive damage to property resulting from the use of heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, in densely populated areas, the report said.” The UN also accused both sides of practising abduction and torture.
But who are the two sides? The Kiev government is dominated by politicians, mainly from western Ukraine, who seek integration in the European Union (EU) and Nato. They call themselves democrats, but have deployed far right “volunteer” units. These include the Azov Battalion, set up by the Social National Assembly, part of the Right Sector that came to dominate the Kiev protests last winter.
The presence of armed fascists on the government side has led some on the Western left to argue that the so-called “separatists” in the south east are waging a progressive, anti-fascist struggle. Probably many of the Ukrainian fighters resisting the government offensive do see themselves in these terms.
Nevertheless, there is just too much evidence of Russian involvement in and direction of the fighting in the south east to ignore.
This is much more subtle that a straightforward “invasion”. Rather Moscow seems to providing command and control, weapons systems, and special forces to stiffen the pro-Russian resistance. The Financial Times carried a slightly feverish piece on Friday of last week about the new doctrine of “hybrid war” allegedly devised by Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff. He advocates “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures”.
What Western observers fail to acknowledge is that Moscow’s tactics are those of a relatively weak imperial power. President Vladimir Putin isn’t sending the tanks in, but rather is seeking to preserve what had been the status quo in Ukraine—a country divided between east and west, and outside Nato.
This doesn’t make Russia’s actions any less imperialist. But those who want to change the status quo have had the initiative. These combine a section of the Ukrainian oligarchy, the bunglers who run the EU and some of the EU’s eastern member states, who would like to see Nato reach Russia’s borders.
The US has also been taking a relatively hard line, but it seems to have little stomach for a real confrontation with Russia. Barack Obama’s embarrassing admission last week that “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Iraq and Syria could equally apply to Ukraine. Obama spelled out his own doctrine at West Point in May when he said, “US military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance.”
So we have a paradoxical situation—a conflict between two imperial powers, both of which see themselves as acting defensively. This doesn’t make the Ukraine crisis any less dangerous. The centenary of the First World War should remind us that it’s possible to stumble into catastrophe.