By Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2789

How capitalist competition threatens new Ukraine war

As the West and Russia vie for dominance in eastern Europe, our job is to fight the system that drives them
Issue 2789
A line of soldiers in Ukraine stand with rifles in the snow. The soldier in the foreground wears a Ukrainian flag on his shoulder

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

Rivalry between the US and Russia threatens a devastating war in Ukraine for the second time in less than a decade.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has amassed 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border. While the US remains the world’s strongest imperialist power, it is weakened and Putin hopes a military build-up will force it to the negotiating table.

He wants president Joe Biden to make assurances that the US’s military alliance Nato won’t expand any further eastwards. Biden has ruled out military action in Ukraine, but is determined to maintain US dominance against Russia.

While neither side wants a prolonged war, it could easily happen. That’s because the Ukraine crisis is a product of imperialism—a global system driven forward by competition between the big capitalist states. When tensions run high, a small spark can set off a wider war.

Ukraine is at the centre of a much bigger site of imperialist rivalry between the US and Russia and many other regional powers. This fault line starts in northern Europe on the border between Russia and the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.

From here, it cuts down into Ukraine, goes through the oil-rich Caucasus region on Russia’s southern tip, and then extends into central Asia.

Tensions are rising right along it. The US is determined to defend its position in the world while other states see its relative decline as an opportunity to jockey for position. US imperialism’s defeat in Iraq signalled it was possible for weaker powers to assert their interests against US wishes. Russia is one such power.

In 1991 the Soviet Union split apart into Russia and 14 other republics along its borders, including Ukraine.

For much of the 1990s, it was a shadow of its former power. But a combination of high oil prices and Vladimir Putin’s iron hand strengthened the Russian state. It began asserting its imperialist interests in what it calls its “near abroad”, the republics that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine—industrially developed, and a buffer between the West—was one of the most important.

After the Cold War, the US broke its pledge not to expand Nato into eastern Europe. In 2008 Nato agreed that Ukraine and Georgia should join. Russia invaded Georgia to prevent this happening.

There’s also an economic side to the rivalry. The European Union (EU)—a wannabe imperial power aligned with the US—tried to get Ukraine to join it in 2014. Russia had set up the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) to compete with the EU and strengthen its hand against China in central Asia.

In 2014, Ukraine looked to align more closely with the West. In response, Russia took over the Crimea region from Ukraine and supported separatist militia in the south east. This conflict rumbled on since and has now flared up again.

How should socialists respond? Firstly, we should have no truck with US or British hypocritical claims to protect Ukraine from Russian aggression.

The revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that “in every country preference should be given to the struggle against the chauvinism of the particular country, to awakening hatred of one’s own government”.

So, in the West, socialists’ main job is to unite around opposition to our ruling class’s drive to war.

Second, this doesn’t mean that “my enemies’ enemy is my friend”—that the West’s rivals are in any way anti-imperialist. As Lenin went on to say, socialists also had to “appeal to the solidarity of the workers of the warring countries, to their joint civil war” against the warmongers’ system.

We build opposition to our own rulers—but as part of a struggle against the system of imperialist rivalries that causes war.

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