Behind Russia's War on Ukraine

NATO has expanded to encircle Russia. Image: @TKruxed/Twitter

Russia has no right to launch attacks across Ukraine and it must pull back. We must stand with Ukraine against the war being waged on it by Russia, and demand that Russia immediately stop bombing Ukraine and withdraw its military from Ukraine territory and airspace. All sides must return to diplomacy to de-escalate the situation and resolve the current impasse.

The Kremlin is responsible for this terrible act of war, however the conflict cannot be understood outside the relentless drive by the United States to expand NATO up to Russia’s border and to encircle it militarily.

NATO should have been dismantled in 1991 at the same time as the Warsaw Pact. Its continued existence and eastward expansions prove that its primary purpose is not defensive, but that it is aimed at boxing Russia in.

Some of Russia’s security demands, in particular that NATO not deploy missiles on its borders, are quite reasonable. Just imagine the US reaction if Russia were installing nuclear missiles, aimed at US cities, on its southern border: the invasion of Mexico would have already happened. 

From the outset, the Biden administration has used the current tensions as a pretext to push its own strategic objectives. These include: stationing more NATO forces on Russia’s borders; imposing tighter sanctions; stopping the expansion of Russian gas sales to Europe and pulling European powers, such as Germany, closer to the US position.

But none of this changes the fact that the recent military strikes against targets across Ukraine are a totally unjustifiable response on the part of Russia, and a complete violation of the right of the Ukrainian people to decide their own future.

For weeks Biden has been insisting that Russia was planning a wholesale invasion and occupation of Ukraine. Is this a serious option for Russian President Vladimir Putin?

The cost to the Russian economy of occupying all of Ukraine would be enormous, especially as it would surely face stiff resistance, particularly in the west of the country. The consequences for the Russian and Ukrainian people would be catastrophic.

Russia is a big country that has inherited some of the former Soviet Union’s military technology. But it has a small economy relative to its population of 145 million: it has the eleventh largest GDP in the world, after South Korea, with 51 million people, at number 10, only just ahead of Australia, with 25 million people.

Ukraine, with a population of 43 million, is even poorer with a smaller GDP than New Zealand with 4.7 million inhabitants.

This demonstrates that Russia’s economic development places it among the countries of the “semi-periphery” — like Brazil, China, Turkey or Mexico — rather than the very wealthy high-tech economies of North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia. Furthermore, Russia’s annual military expenditure of US$60.1 billion is absolutely dwarfed by the US$778 billion spent by the US.

While Russia and China remain well behind the economic development of the richest and most industrialised countries, they still control large territories and, in the case of China, it has a big economy in absolute terms, with a GDP second only to the US.

Critically, Russia and China pursue their own economic and military strategies independent of, and sometimes contrary to, the interests of US capitalism. For the US establishment this is intolerable and explains all the talk about “containing” China and the drive to expand NATO.

Neither Russia nor China has the ability to launch invasion forces reaching across the globe like the US did in Iraq. However, in their determination to break out of their encirclement by the US and to draw other territories and populations into their own economic projects, both are prepared to interfere in the affairs of their neighbours, sometimes with terrible consequences.

Since 2011, Russia has provided critical military support to the Assad dictatorship in Syria. China, ringed by US bases in the western Pacific, has responded by running over the top of its South East Asian neighbours to control the South China Sea.

A primary obligation of those serious about world peace must be to oppose the US-led campaign of encirclement and confrontation.

In Australia, this means rejecting AUKUS and the whole rotten murderous military alliance with the US. However, this does not mean we should endorse the actions of the Russian or Chinese governments; that would be a fool’s anti-imperialism.

The situation in eastern Ukraine is complex. It’s a mistake to dismiss the 2013–14 Euromaidan protest movement that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych as nothing more than a US-backed coup carried out by ultra-nationalist fascists, although they certainly provided the street-fighting muscle and the US was very active behind the scenes.

The movement had a mass base in the west of the country, but so too did anti-Maidan in the south and east. The factors motivating both sides in this conflict have roots in a combination of cultural, linguistic, historic and economic factors. Both were led, or influenced by, capitalist oligarchs concerned for their own interests.

There cannot be a military solution in the Donbass. Despite this, the US and other NATO powers have been doing their best to reignite the conflict. Not only have they been pumping billions of dollars of weapons into Ukraine, they have been providing military training, including to the Azov Special Operations Detachment, an outfit made up of neo-Nazis and which opposes any kind of compromise.

More recently, and ignored by the Western media, is the stationing of more than 120,000 Ukrainian government troops along the line of control separating Ukrainian and separatist forces in violation of the 2015 Minsk agreements.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has reported numerous ceasefire violations across the line of control. Most ominously, Britain, US and Canada recently withdrew their staff from the OSCE Monitoring Mission.

It seems the Ukrainian government, egged on by the US, was seriously considering trying to take back these territories by force. This was a red line for Putin. Combined with the US and its allies’ refusal to seriously consider Russia’s security concerns, he decided to recognise the self-proclaimed republics in the parts of the Donbass controlled by the separatists.

In conditions of war, these administrations have become economically, politically and militarily dependent on Russia, so it’s important to emphasise that the people of the Donbass themselves should have the right to decide their own future.

In addition to the terrible destruction and loss of human life, an escalation in conflict will reinforce the violent authoritarian nationalism pushed by the governments of Russia and Ukraine, where it is already being used to stifle opposition. In both countries, democratic space is severely restricted and war would squeeze it out even further, to the benefit of the capitalist oligarchs. Russia's military strikes today will have surely reinforced that dynamic already.

Russia needs to stop its attacks and to get out of Ukraine. The US and its allies need to pull their missiles away from the Russian border and dissolve NATO. At a time when climate change poses the greatest existential threat our species has ever known, the last thing humanity needs is for precious time, resources and lives to be squandered on a new war.

[Sam Wainwright is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance. The article has been updated after Russian strikes on Ukraine and its incursions into zones beyond the areas already controlled by separatists in the Donbass.]