By Yuri Prasad
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Imperialist rivalry pushes Ukraine to brink of war

Thousands of Western and Russian troops have assembled along Ukraine's border
Issue 2792
Ukrainian tank crews conduct military training

Ukrainian tank crews conduct military training in preparation. (7th Army Training Command/Flickr)

Ukraine and the surrounding states in eastern Europe stood at the start of this week on the brink of a catastrophic war.

On one side, up to 130,000 Russian troops were massed across the border with Ukraine and on “exercise” in neighbouring Belarus. On the other side, the West’s Nato military alliance positioned rapid response troops and battle groups in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland.

Heavy artillery, aircraft carriers, submarines and aircraft encircled the region. A simple miscalculation by either side could lead to conflict, ­threatening the lives of millions of working class people. That’s why socialists oppose the war drive.

Boris Johnson signed up on Monday to be a loyal friend of the US war drive. In a phone call to Joe Biden, Johnson said Britain was prepared to do everything it could to help. Biden responded, “We’re not going anywhere without you pal.”

Lying behind the tensions is the Nato and European Union (EU) mission to expand their control to include all the European states bordering Russia.

If Ukraine were to join Nato, as its president hopes, it would be a major prize for the West. Not only does the country occupy a strategically vital position, it also holds vast sources of mineral wealth including oil, gas and coal. For his part, Putin and his ­gangster-led regime want to extend Russia’s “buffer zone” and prevent any further Western expansion.

Russia has repeatedly invaded neighbouring countries that have turned against it and has tried to discipline others by boosting breakaway movements. It has recently ­supported repressive regimes in Belarus and Kazakhstan, which faced revolts and strikes by ordinary people. 

But US’s aims in eastern Europe are more complex than just encircling Russia. Biden wants to use Nato to force all EU states into line with US policy. For some time, these states have cultivated stronger economic links with Russia, mainly through gas imports.

That is the logic behind the £8 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline due to bring Russian gas to Germany.Deals such as these have infuriated Washington. The US hopes leading a military response to Russia can force the EU to reassess. “If Russia invades there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2,” Biden said during a joint press conference with the new German chancellor Olaf Scholz.

That means various EU nations’ bids to avert war with Russia are based almost exclusively on ­economic calculations, rather than a genuine desire for peace. The danger of war over Ukraine illustrates the extent to which our leaders, east and west, are prepared to put ­economic and military power ahead of people’s lives. 

Our criticism and our agitation must start with our own rulers and the US. But it extends to the capitalist system that generates war and militarism.

Government’s thirst for war 

Keen to get in on the action, some Tories talked up the prospect of a bloody war over Ukraine. Defence secretary Ben Wallace’s “whiff of Munich” comment last weekend revealed a contempt for the current talks with Russia and a longing for shooting to break out.

Wallace and other cheerleaders for the US offensive see the crisis over Ukraine as a good way of diverting attention from the Tories’ crisis at home. But others in the party are worried that a war could lead to British troops being involved in an unpopular and expensive war.

MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said Ukraine has a “significantly larger army” than Britain, and it is “increasingly capable” of “defending themselves”.

But rather than exploit Tory divisions, Labour leader Keir Starmer stood in front of a Union Jack and a Nato flag to say the Labour Party and the government “stand together against Russian aggression”.

Danger brews in eastern Ukraine

The danger of an accidental trigger for war is particularly pronounced in the Crimea and Donbas regions that until recently formed part of Ukraine.

The Russian Federation seized the Crimea peninsula and its strategically vital Black Sea port of Sevastopol in 2014.

President Putin ordered an invasion after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was forced out by a rebellion. Forces that wanted to align the country with the European Union gained from it. Russian forces combined with local militias to seize important towns and have controlled them ever since. Since 2018, most of Crimea has been separated from Ukraine by a high-tech security fence.

But any territorial struggle on the Ukrainian border with Russia could easily ignite fighting over this vital area. Last year a major stand-off between Russia and Ukraine was sparked by an unmarked apparently unarmed ship, intercepted in the Sea of Azov, near Crimea.

Three years earlier Russian forces had opened fire on several Ukrainian naval vessels claimed to have invaded its territorial waters. The Donbas region, which comprises a section of the eastern part of Ukraine’s long border with Russia, is also extremely unstable. 

Ukrainian troops are arrayed along a 250-mile barricade of trenches and fortifications that regularly erupts in machine gun and artillery fire. They face off against the region’s separatists—Russian citizens backed by Russian guns.

Denis Pushilin, head of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, said that a full-scale war could break out there at any time. He said his forces might need to turn to Moscow for support. Some 15,000 people have been killed since 2014 in fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian army, according to the Ukrainian government.

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