As Russian forces penetrate deeper into Ukrainian territory, they are encountering a much fiercer resistance than anticipated. A large part of that is due to the determination of the Ukranian people to resist the invaders and defend their sovereignty. As they do so they are finding significant allies amongst the Russian people who oppose their rulers’ war of conquest. The world it seems is on their side in a simple but just cause. But is that the case? Has NATO, and the Western imperialist interests which it represents, suddenly become a champion of self-determination?
Virtually the entire Western media is engaged now in a relentless onslaught of anti-Russian jingoism. Russian capital, which was once welcomed with open arms into London’s financial and real estate markets, has suddenly been coined as “dirty Russian money”. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has consistently sought to occupy the patriotic high ground and outflank the Tory government from the right, demanding tougher, swifter and more extensive sanctions to bring the Russian economy to its knees. In the process he has threatened his former Corbyn allies with expulsion should they question him in parliament.
Starmer’s stance is not an isolated one. Increasingly, his warmongering has become the norm as the Western world ramps up its aggression and begins to put itself on a war footing. This palpable shift, carried out a breakneck speed, was noted in the March 1st edition of the Financial Times.
“Fast-forward seven days, though, and Europe’s strategic outlook has been transformed. It was led by a momentous policy turn in Berlin, which pledged to ramp up defence spending, dropped its resistance to arming Kyiv, endorsed damaging financial sanctions on Moscow and embarked on a costly drive to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.”
The French capitalists, also touted as Russian allies until now, have followed suit. As the effect of sanctions on Russia grew, Bruno Le Maire, French finance minister, promised to wage a “total economic and financial war” against the country, saying: “We will provoke the collapse of the Russian economy.”
“Watch your tongue, gentlemen!” responded Dmitry Medvedev, a top security official and former Russian president, “Don’t forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones.”
From the so-called incremental approach towards sanctions, Washington, London and the EU are waging an unprecedented all-out economic war to cripple Russian capitalism, an economic war which threatens seismic repercussions within the world economy as a whole. As one analyst put it:
“The next stage is an economic war,” said Daniel Yergin, vice-chair of IHS Markit and author of The New Map, a recent book on energy politics. “The ultimate consequence of this can be a big negative shock to the global economy.”
Such are the workings of the world capitalist market, that it has so far proved impossible to sanction Russian oil and gas supplies. Should Washington decide to do so, it would immediately provoke a further surge in world oil prices
“We think we can impose significant harm on the Russian economy without disrupting energy markets and without hitting energy transaction flow,” a senior administration official said at a briefing earlier this week. “There is no need for increased panic in the market.”
In reality, the risks attached to trading in Russian oil and gas - transportation, insurance, letters of credit etc - has already given rise to a process of self-sanctioning by Western oil traders. On an almost daily basis oil prices are skyrocketing and the recent release of oil reserves will have little or any impact. Taken as a whole, the sanctions regime is bound to accelerate inflation rates and further erode the living standards of the working class, a fact which has just been acknowledged by the president of the World Bank, David Malpass. Much of the Western rhetoric about solidarity with Ukraine is designed to make this more palatable as it ups the ante even further.
Whilst oil and gas have so far occupied centre stage, other essential commodities are also being affected.
“Global commodity prices are on track for the biggest weekly rally in more than 50 years,” reported the March 3 Financial Times, “and Europe’s natural gas prices have hit a new record, as the war in Ukraine triggers ‘exceptional moves”’in raw materials from oil to wheat.”
In the last week alone, the price of global raw materials, has jumped 18 per cent this week, leaving it on track for the sharpest rise on records dating back to 1970. At the centre of this, is the trade in wheat. Russia and Ukraine account for just under 30% of world exports with world wheat prices rising by 40% in the last month alone. A similar story is being played out in the world market for aluminium, a critical component in electric car manufacturing. Energy counts as by far the biggest expense in its production, and as been a major factor in driving its world market price to a record high not seen since the 2008 financial crisis.
In a world where big capital rules the roost, deciding what to buy and what to sell on the basis of maximising profits, war is a bonanza for them. For the arms industry in particular, it is like a dream come true. UK arms company BAe Systems, the largest in Europe, saw its share price rise 21% in the last week of February alone.
This bonanza for big capital is a disaster for working people, threatening catastrophic consequences further down the road.
Apart from their immediate impact, these sanctions cannot just be happily removed once the conflict is over, whenever that maybe. What we are witnessing is also a divestment strategy seeking to completely uncouple the two imperialist blocs, above all in the field of energy supplies. Nothing like this has been seen before. Even in Nazi Germany, US and British companies continued their operations.
German re-armament leads the way.
The rapid realignment of German policy on sanctions was coupled with a dramatic and startling escalation of its arms supplies to fight Russia.
The government announced last Saturday that it would send 1,000 shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles to Ukraine, pushing aside a long-held government policy not to send weapons to conflict zones. Germany also announced that it had allowed the Dutch government to send Ukraine 400 German-made anti-tank weapons and the Estonian government to send nine Cold-War-era howitzers, transfers that it had blocked for months.
At the same time, Chancellor Scholz announced a one-time increase of 100 billion euros ($113 billion) for ‘defense’ spending and a pledge to spend more than 2 percent of Germany’s economic output annually on upgrading its military forces. He also proposed enshrining that threshold in the country’s Constitution, ensuring that future governments follow it. Although this comes in the footsteps of a gradual rearmament of Germany demanded by Washington at the beginning of the Cold War, such a radical reconfiguration of its military posture has always met with strong popular opposition.
From being an international pariah at the end of World War II, German imperialism was suddenly and deliberately re-armed to take its place in Nato’s offensive against the Soviet Union. Following an enforced disarmament, entailing the destruction of German military capability at the end of 1945, Washington forced France and its other allies to accept Germany as part of the new anti-communist axis.
German re-armament proceeded apace but without deployment overseas until the end of the 20th Century when German troops were deployed in locations ranging from Lithuania to Afghanistan and Mali. The new German Chancellor has accomplished something which Angela Merkel wanted to do but could not. Just as Westminster did in its last Strategic Defence Review, which witnessed a substantial upscaling of its naval combat forces, the German bourgeoisie has taken a similar strategic decision.
In uncoupling itself from Russia, it wants to be a bigger part of but not entirely dependent upon Nato’s offensive operations. As Brexit and the current war drive has foretold, neither the EU nor Nato are homogeneous formations. Whilst the current re-alignment and display of unity against Russian seems impregnable, Britain, France and Germany – not to mention Italy - are clearly jockeying for a more senior position in the coming offensive.
From sanctions to war
The implications of this for the future cannot be underestimated. What we are witnessing now is preparation for a war with Russia, using the pretext of defending Ukraine. Everything points in that direction.
“It was not long ago that European capitals argued over the need for a European Peace Facility to provide weapons to third countries,” reported Ben Hall in the Financial Times. “Now Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has earmarked €450mn to arm Ukraine, including with fighter jets.”
“The paradigm has changed. Everything has changed. Nobody is questioning where we stand any more,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute for International Affairs.
The decision of the European parliament to accept Ukraine as a candidate member of the EU, reflects this and brings us closer to the Russian invasion being considered as an attack on the EU as a whole. Moreover, with Russian aircraft and naval vessels now being banned from using European and North American air space and ports, there is an increasing likelihood of this triggering an incident which in turn could be used to justify the direct involvement of Nato.
The prospect of this engagement is certainly being enhanced by the increased deployment of Nato air power in some of the states on Ukraine's western flank. By the end of February it was reported that six U.S. F-35A Lightning II fighter jets were deployed from Germany to multiple countries for air policing flights of arm shipments and other materials to Ukraine. They’ll disperse alongside F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle fighter jets across Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Romania.
An engagement between Nato and Russain air forces may not be imminent, and has currently been ruled out by both sides. However, it is virtually an open secret that the Pentagon is considering using drones as part of a covert operation that does not entail "direct" involvement. According to the March 1st edition of the Newsweek, US military officials told them;
"Russia's inability or unwillingness to close the skies over Ukraine has presented a potential opportunity for the United States to conduct a secret drone campaign in the conflict-ravaged country."
Among the possible targets referenced in the report is the huge convoy heading south to the capital, Kiev.
Amidst the rapid twists and turns of events and reactions, there is one thing that emerges with crystal clarity: the US and European imperialist powers are preparing for war just as ruthlessly as the Kremlin has been doing for its own purposes. The more Russian imperialism gets bogged down in the Ukraine and its economy is plunged into a deep recession, the weaker it will become and the readier will Nato be to get involved.
This may not involve boots on the ground, but it will almost certainly entail aerial combat and missile attacks. Ukraine is not yet a member of Nato, but it’s economy is already dependent on the EU and its military capability is becoming increasingly contingent on Nato and EU supplies. From this position it is but a short step from being considered, at least symbolically, as a Nato member. A no-fly zone over Ukraine, enforced by Nato, would logically ensue.
Zelensky is not a puppet of the West but all his speeches come across as an attempt to engineer direct engagement of the Nato powers. As he does so, there is a rapidly growing acceptance of his characterisation of Russia being “a terrorist state” which is also guilty of war crimes. The top prosecutor at the International Criminal Court has said that there is a "reasonable basis to believe" that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Ukraine, and he has just announced that the ICC will open a formal investigation "as rapidly as possible."
All of this is already adding fuel to the fire of potentially direct Nato engagement. Almost certainly, coupled with the sanctions and arms supplies, it is a harbinger of a longer term strategic war with Russia that would inevitably draw China into its wake. The likelihood of finding a lasting middle ground has long since disappeared.
For the labour movement internationally, it is not enough to demand Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. Nor should we lapse into a simple pacificism that seeks to redraw or re-establish the former boundaries of the conflict. Calling for a return to the Minsk agreements, which is the position of Corbyn and the Stop the War Coalition in the UK, is completely utopian and actually plays into the hands of the Kremlin who are demanding a restoration of the previous "architecture of peace", which of course would recognise the seizure of Crimea and the assimilation of the Donbas region.
Ukraine has now become the battleground of a wider conflict which looms over Europe and the rest of the world. Increasingly, these opening salvos not only echo the approach of a third world war but are already merging with and accelerating a structural crisis of the world capitalist system itself.
The struggle against this particular war, and for a truly lasting peace, is one which will be fought on the streets. First of all, by the Ukranian masses resisting the occupation at every turn, including against their own capitalist rulers. Secondly, by the Russian workers, youth and farmers who will be asked to pay an extraordinary price for prosecuting this war. And lastly, but not least of all, by the labour movement in Europe and the Americas which will inevitably be called into battle for one side or another.
In all three instances, we have a common interest in opposing sanctions. This is big capital's weapon of choice in the current stage of the war and looks likely to continue for some time. To demand peace not war, can only be meaningful if we also condem and oppose the instruments of war.