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From cold war to new cold war—the situation in eastern Europe

The threat of war, cold or otherwise, is rising in eastern Europe. Socialist Worker explores where the tensions have come from, and why gas is a such a key commodity for the imperialist powers
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Nuclear missiles and inured soldiers

Eastern Europe could again be the site of a cold war

When first the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union collapsed, supporters of capitalism were triumphant. The 1990s were to mark a turning point so great that we had reached “The End of History,” they proclaimed.

With the rival ideology of “Communism” now banished, there would be no more wars. Or at least nothing of the scale and permanence of the Cold War between East and West that had existed since 1945. 

Europe, which had been divided between the two poles, was reunited under the West’s decisive control and would no longer live under the threat of annihilation.

From the very start this was a myth. 

No sooner than Communism had collapsed, a series of aftershock wars spread among the constituent states of the former Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies.

For ten years from 1991 war raged between would-be countries emerging from the disintegrating corpse of Yugoslavia. US, European and Russian forces all fought for their own competitive advantage by backing one “ethnic group” against another.

There were wars in Chechnya in 1994 and then 1999, which attempted to break away from the Russian Federation and seek protection from the West.

The same was true in 2008 when fighting erupted between Russia and Georgia over the status of South Ossetia. This is a province that lies between the two in the Caucasus Mountains.

Then in 2014 the same political fault line led to civil war in Ukraine, with Russia invading to annex Crimea. 

Now as thousands of troops once again mass in Russia—and in Ukraine and other eastern states—Europe could be on the brink of yet another war. 

In each case, the US’s relentless drive to expand the Nato military alliance ­eastwards has combined with the hopes of the European Union (EU) to enlarge its own empire. This is a clear breach of a promise made by Washington to ­president Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet regime fell in 1991.

The US administration used the end of the Cold War to actively reshape the continent and to extend its version of neoliberal capitalism eastwards. While the US led militarily through its dominance of Nato, the EU was to grow economically into central and eastern Europe.

The US views Russia as a power that cannot be wholly captured for neoliberalism and therefore must be surrounded, weakened and isolated.

In central Europe, Germany—the EU’s leading economic power—took full advantage of the situation. It has secured cheap skilled labour, manufacturing hubs, raw materials and markets for itself.

But Europe’s insatiable demands have pushed it further to states that border Russia directly.

Countries depending on Russia for cheap energy, raw materials—and military support against threats internal and external—are continually being lured by the EU. It offers investment, modernisation and international recognition, while Nato membership comes with a ­guarantee of military protection. 

But the apparent unity between the US and Europe, Nato and the EU, in their desire to conquer the east is nowhere near as solid as it may seem.

Neither partner wants to be involved in a full-scale shooting war in Europe, but how far the West should push Russia is disputed. This reflects differing strategic needs.

For the US, Europe is a small but strategically vital empire in its sphere of dominance—a junior partner in its rivalry with Russia. But states within the EU have their own objectives that can collide with the US’s.

Some, such as Denmark, are sending fighter jets to Lithuania and a frigate to the Baltic Sea, and Britain is rushing arms to Ukraine. But the German ruling class is, for now, more cautious.

Its government has ruled out any arms exports to Ukraine. And according to the New York Times newspaper it is also holding up a shipment of howitzer artillery travelling from Estonia.

This is not because of any commitment of the new government to peace.

Rather, the German ruling class are keen to keep Russian gas exports to Europe flowing. In particular to shield the Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline from any economic sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine. (See below)

The new leader of Germany’s right wing CDU party last week warned against moves to shut Russia out of the Swift bank transfer network in retaliation for hostilities with Ukraine. They say this would “harm” Germany’s economic interest. 

To cap it all, the chief of the German Navy insisted earlier this month that Russian president Vladimir Putin deserved “respect” and Russian-annexed Crimea would “never” be returned to Ukraine.

Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach was forced to resign for speaking out of turn, but his thoughts clearly resonate with others in the elite.

If Germany represents something of an economic challenger to the US, Russia is a very different type of contender. Though it emerged much diminished after the end of the Cold War, Russia remained a great power armed with nuclear weapons and a large army. 

It also sits on huge reserves of oil and gas, the sale of which has been used under Putin to rearm and retrain the military.

This has allowed Russia to exert influence well beyond its borders, intervening in the Syrian civil war on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad, for example.

Putin is playing an eager part in the system of imperialism.

He is seeking to sure-up repressive regimes where they act in defence of Russia’s interests and undermine them where necessary. 

Russia has supported, armed and financed rebels in neighbouring ­countries that appear to be turning westward, or have disrespected Putin by attempting to play both sides.

It also tries to shore up dictators in Russia-supporting countries. This is what has been happening in Belarus since last year’s rebellions against president Alexander Lukashenko.

By 2009 some 12 former Communist states had joined Nato, 11 of them also joining the EU. In 2014, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine all signed a free trade ­agreement with the EU.

For Russia to maintain its power and empire status, Putin demands all such moves must be resisted—militarily if necessary. That’s why some 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and weapons are in towns on the border with Ukraine. And why Ukraine is training a large force of civilian fighters in guerrilla tactics. 

It’s why the US and its allies stand ready to flood the region with guns.

The Russian and Ukrainian ­governments are appealing using the most nationalistic rhetoric in the hope this will drive civilians into their arms.

That deliberately divisive process has been fanned by Britain, the US and the EU. If it eventually leads to war, or civil war, the ­primary ­victims will doubtless be working class and poor people on all sides.


Grabbing gas for imperialism

Entangled in the confrontation between the US and Russia is a dispute over gas and pipelines—and who controls them.

The US threatened last week that it would scupper a gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany if Russia invaded Ukraine.

The now completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline—owned by Russian state-controlled energy company Gazprom—would deliver gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. All it needs to start working is to pass some German legal formalities.

But last Wednesday the US government said, vaguely, that if there was an invasion, “We will work with Germany to ensure it does not move forward.”  

Possible US sanctions could also try to stop European countries buying gas from Russia. For its part, Russia could threaten to cut the gas supply to punish European countries for siding with the US.

 

Nord Stream 2—and gas in general—is hugely important for Russia. Europe already buys between 35-40 percent of its gas from Russia, and five major European energy companies are invested in the new pipeline.

The power and influence this gives Russia in Europe worries the US. Gas has become what the political economist Simon Bromley called a “strategic commodity”. 

Imperialism—the system of competition between capitalist states—has always involved scrambles and struggles for vital natural resources. 

This is only partly about securing profits for the big industries and corporations tied up with national states. Controlling those resources gives states power and influence over others.

So, for example, getting hold of Iraq’s oil was part of the reason the US invaded in 2003. The US didn’t need Iraq’s oil for the money, but it did want to reassert its dominance in the Middle East. 

Controlling the oil—keeping it out of the hands of its rivals—was part of that.

Now, European countries have become increasingly dependent on imported gas. And that means competition between rival states have become increasingly focussed on it.

For example, Greece and Turkey have spent the past few years threatening each other over access to gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus.

Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Italy all struck a deal to carve up the gas fields between themselves—deliberately excluding Turkey. 

The actual money to be made from the gas was secondary. The point was to stop Turkey becoming a dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. 

 

The US pulled support for the deal earlier in January in an attempt to stifle this competition between its two allies.

Turkey’s scramble for gas had already brought it into conflict with Russia, in a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020. Each backed different sides in a region where a key pipeline ran supplying oil and gas to Europe.

Control of such pipelines is a big part of Russia’s drive to build its power and influence in Europe—and the US doesn’t like it.

As a briefing paper to the European parliament put it last July, “For opponents, Nord Stream 2 illustrates the extent to which Moscow influences European and national decisions on energy and environmental matters.

“For such reasons, the US State Department describes the project as a vehicle for Moscow ‘to further spread its malign influence in Europe.’”

While the pipeline isn’t the sole reason for war, it’s a factor in the competition between the US and Russia.

It shows the West’s aims have nothing to do with protecting ordinary people in Ukraine but are about the destructive competition at the heart of capitalism. 

Nick Clark

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