An earlier version of this article ws published earlier this month. This version added a new final paragraph.
The Obama presidency was supposed to be about resolving the most devastating economic and financial crisis since the great depression. In foreign policy it was supposed to be about ending America’s wars in the Islamic world, those seemingly endless wars that had also threatened the very financial stability of the US. Obama’s aim in foreign policy was bring the troops home from the wars in the Islamic world, and to pivot to East Asia, to meet the economic, political and military challenge of China. Russia seemingly was no longer a threat or a problem for American interests. Indeed, Russia and the West were now partners, their economies interlinked. That was then.
Yet over the past year, Ukraine has become a flashpoint for heightening inter-imperialist tensions between Russia and NATO, as the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime in Kiev was overturned because of its unwillingness to further link Ukraine economically to the European Union, and to begin to take the steps towards bringing the country into NATO. The result was Putin’s decision to both annex Crimea, and to help ethnic Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine (the Donbas) seek to attach the region to Russia by waging war against the Ukrainian government. What followed were Western sanctions against Russia, which exacerbated its economic crisis as oil and gas prices were plummeting internationally, bringing it to the edge of recession, as the value of the Ruble plunged and fears of controls on capital outflows rose. Meanwhile, the new pro-Western government in Kiev of Petro Poroshenko had unleashed a military campaign to retake the rebel held areas in the East, aided by military and political support from NATO, a campaign that stalled as Russia increased its support for the rebels and sent its own troops into the disputed region, winning back control of much of the territory that had been just lost, and leading to a cease fire, buffer zones, and the Minsk agreement between Kiev and Moscow to grant autonomy to the Donbas region, and for Kiev to halt its military efforts to regain control of the disputed areas.
Yet a provisional stalemate on the battlefield ignores the destruction of cities (much of Sloviansk, Luhansk and Donetsk are in ruins), the stream of refugees from the battle zones who now fill cities like Kharkiv, the large numbers of civilian casualties as a result of indiscriminate and constant bombardments by both sides, all the ugly face of imperialist war supported from Moscow and Washington, and waged in the name of democracy and nationalism.
The origins of this conflict go back to the early twentieth century, and World War One, when what is today Ukraine was split between a Western region then part of the Habsburg empire and an Eastern region which had been part of the Russian empire for several centuries. In 1939, as Germany and Russia divided Poland between them, the Western Ukraine (then part of Poland as a result of World War One) was incorporated into the Soviet Union. When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, far-right nationalists supported the Nazis, seeking an independent Ukraine, while by 1945 Stalin’s Russia re- incorporated that part of Ukraine into the Soviet Union, with the agreement of the Western allies, as its troops moved back into the region towards the end of the war.
The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to Ukrainian independence, and to the resurgence of the debate over whether Ukraine was a “Western” nation or one bound to mother Russia by a plethora of cultural, political, and economic bonds. To that must be added a series of informal agreements at that time between Russia and the West that NATO would not expand to the East, and certainly not into countries that had been part of the Soviet Union (and historically of Russia) like the Baltic states and Ukraine. The violation of those agreements by NATO, the continued lure of the EU to Ukraine, and the events on the Maidan at the end of 2013, where Ukrainian ultra-nationalists played a significant role, culminating in the overthrow of Yanukovych, reignited Putin’s fears about the intent of NATO and the West. Therein lay the beginning of the cycle of events leading to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and intervention in the Donbas, which provoked the sanctions imposed by the West and its military support for Poroshenko.
A provisional balance-sheet can perhaps already be drawn. Where the Obama administration had wanted to focus on China, it has now not just been drawn back into war in the Middle-East, but also into a growing conflict with Putin’s Russia, now centered on Ukraine, but with implications farther afield in Central Asia (Eurasia to Putin) and even Iran. Moreover, this first round at least has already been won by Putin, who has drawn closer to China, who has stared down the American president who has failed to get the needed support from his allies (e.g. Germany, France, Britain), to impose “real” sanctions on Russia, who has annexed Crimea with only verbal brickbats being hurled by Obama and the West, and who has compelled Poroshenko to halt his military campaign and accept autonomy for the Donbas. In terms of the inter-imperialist chessboard, it is, for the moment, a setback for the US.
The parliamentary elections in Ukraine on October 26, were a victory for the nationalist and pro-Western Poroshenko Bloc together with the equally pro-Western “People’s Front” of Areseny Yatseniuk, and the task of the two oligarchs is to now form a coalition government. Nonetheless, while the victory for the “democratic” parties is celebrated in Western Europe and the US, both by governments and by “progressives,” the tacit agreements wrung from both Kiev, and Western governments, to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, which leaves Russia in control there, will be respected (at least for the time being). More important, the Ukrainian economy is contracting at a rapid rate, as is its currency and inflation is now out of control. For the working class, that means that the new government will have to impose draconian austerity just to meet its looming debt obligations, as well as reducing the even meager subsidies that workers receive. That could increase the support for ultra-nationalist and populist parties like Svoboda, but it could also be the prelude to class struggle by a collective worker, to whom the democratic Kiev government, the EU and the IMF will now send the ever-growing bill.
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