One of the problems with the view that the war in Ukraine is unprovoked is that it erases much of history, wipes clean western imperialist actions, supports the idea that this imperialism is democratic, and robs the working class of the knowledge it needs to orient itself in the world.
Far from being unprovoked the war is a result of repeated provocations that we can outline, beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, when the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze made this “reasonable proposal” to James Baker, the US secretary of state: “Let’s disband both NATO and Warsaw Pact.” It hardly needs saying what the reply was and how it relates to the current war; unless of course you belong to the band of ‘socialists’ who blame Russia in toto.
There was nevertheless an obvious problem for western imperialism, and the United States in particular: how to justify the existence of NATO as a ‘defensive’ alliance when the enemy no longer existed. Further to this, the problem was couched in the context of a possible Soviet Union offer for quick unification of Germany in return for leaving NATO and declaring neutrality. This was even further complicated by the knowledge that this offer would have “widespread support among the members of the public in both East and West Germany”, as the German chancellor Helmut Kohl later admitted. Polling showed that 84 per cent of West Germans wanted to denuclearise their country and leaving NATO in return for German reunification would win widespread support across the country.
The US and NATO has portrayed its expansion into central and Eastern Europe as an exercise in democracy–’all the countries joined of their own free will’–but the German events are only one example of the dismissal of the views of local populations that was repeated later in Ukraine. This includes Soviet offers to get rid of nuclear weapons that the US rejected but that, if we follow the logic of the pro-war left, we should now endorse. Not that this left currently follows its own reasoning to its conclusion. It is just that it has no logical claim to reject it, and leaves the working class in the West open to the argument that the problem is an aggressive Russia and the solution a suitably armed NATO with nuclear capability to prevent Russia from doing what it wants.
The US faced the additional problem that the German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher publicly supported the idea that there should be no expansion of NATO to the East, something repeated on several occasions. The US was bitterly opposed, as one US official stated in an internal memorandum, this “would forfeit the prime assets . . . that have made the United States a post-war European power.” However, when Gorbachev stated that any expansion of the “zone of NATO” was unacceptable, US secretary of state James Baker stated, according to Gorbachev, that “we agree with that.” This, of course, was a lie, one that became particularly controversial and the focus of repeated complaints by the Russians that are still routinely derided by the western media today, but was repeated by Kohl in relation to the territory of the then East Germany.
While the German chancellor was saying that NATO would not expand its territory eastward into East Germany, Genscher repeated the position that “for us, it is clear: NATO will not extend itself to the East”. The secretary general of NATO, Manfred Worner, also asserted that the fact it would ‘not deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees.’
After agreement to German reunification the problem then became how to remove Soviet troops without also having to remove NATO ones. Proposals by Gorbachev for the Soviet Union to join NATO were rebuffed, as were later attempts by Yeltsin and still later ones by Putin for Russia to become a partner of western imperialism; something that discomforts both supporters of ‘Russia is to blame’ and ‘Russia is to be supported’ camps today.
The weakness of the Soviet Union at this time was exposed by its requests to Germany for funding for its troops stationed in the country, a weakness that the West, and particularly the US, exploited when it promoted the shock therapy applied to introduce capitalism into Russia. Throughout the NATO expansion, Russia was too weak to resist, and the US was able to proclaim a “new world order” that included this expansion and wars against Iraq and Afghanistan plus others. It might seem impossible to separate this history of imperialist aggression from the war in Ukraine, but that is exactly what supporters of the war must affirm if it is to be seen as uniquely free from Western complicity.
However, as early as 1992 an official of the US State Department had contacted the Ukrainian ambassador in Washington to urge Ukraine to join NATO, while in the following year the Ukrainian deputy foreign minister was stating that it was “unacceptable for NATO to expand without Ukraine becoming a full member.” Russian leaders were meanwhile saying that it should be first.
In 1994, Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to conclude a framework agreement with NATO through the Partnership for Peace initiative, a road by which Central and Eastern European countries could join NATO, and was its most enthusiastic participant, seeking to join exercises and contributing 400 troops to the Implementation Force in Bosnia in 1995. The next year its Foreign Minister discussed the potential to become an ‘Associate Member’ of NATO while Russia made it known that this would be considered an ‘unfriendly policy’ with ‘all the resulting consequences.’
In 1997 the Ukraine Foreign Minister went further in stating the strategic goal as complete integration into NATO. Later he voiced concern that this might involve the deployment of nuclear weapons in Ukraine’s western neighbours and proposed a nuclear-weapons free zone, which NATO rejected.
Ukrainian President Kuchma continued steps to join the European Union and in 2002 established a schedule for meeting accession requirements by 2011, while the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council also discussed the need to “start practical implementation of the course to join NATO”. Ukraine continued to pass parliamentary resolutions stating its objective of joining NATO until mid-2004, sending 1,650 troops to support the US occupation of Iraq. In 2005 the new President, Yushchenko, sought a NATO Membership Action Plan, and in 2008 the Ukrainian government’s aspiration that Ukraine would become a member was approved at the NATO summit in Bucharest, pushed by the United States against some European reservations.
Yet opinion polls regularly recorded that there was still not majority support within the country for membership, with opposition reaching over 60 per cent in one poll, a result confirmed and reported in others here and here. One other from Gallup reported as its conclusion that ‘Ukrainians Likely Support Move Away From NATO, Residents more likely to view NATO as a threat than protection.’
As one of these argued: ‘As for public opinion, NATO membership should generally not be a matter of broad public acquiescence, but of a conscious geopolitical choice by a consolidated national elite. As part of NATO’s post-Soviet expansion, only Slovenia and Hungary have held referendums on membership – and Hungary’s was nonbinding. Slovakia’s 1997 referendum was declared invalid, as it gathered only 10 percent of eligible voters.’
Opinion polls in Ukraine repeatedly demonstrated majority opposition to NATO membership, or at least major division, even after the Ukrainian government approved ‘a four-year, $6 million “information campaign” to improve NATO’s image.’ The article quoted above argued that ‘While the jury is still out regarding its effectiveness, even with the best of PR campaigns and outreach programs, the West by now has generally accepted the uncomfortable fact that NATO may never gain broad popularity among Ukrainians, especially in the eastern regions of the country.’
We now know, of course, that the United States never gave up intervening into Ukrainian politics with the objective of moving the country into NATO. The author of these lines showed remarkable naivety in believing that popular opposition was anything more than an obstacle to be overcome rather than a democratic wish to be respected. The price to be paid to overcome this obstacle was forecast right from the start, as we see below.
Russia reaffirmed its opposition to NATO expansion, and in particular into Ukraine and Georgia, on the grounds of violation of the principle of equal security and the creation of new dividing lines in Europe. While Putin claimed that Russia had ‘no right to interfere’ with Ukraine foreign policy’, and if it wanted to restrict its sovereignty (by joining NATO) ‘that is its own business’, Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that “Russia will do everything it can to prevent the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO’.
In the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ the American columnist Charles Krauthammer stated that ‘this is about Russia first, democracy only second . . . The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east . . . The great prize is Ukraine’. As Putin complained, they “have lied many times’ and in Ukraine “have crossed the line”. “Everything has its limits.” The Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov was even more blunt in stating in 2011 that “NATO expansion into Ukraine is something Russia would view as absolutely unacceptable because it then becomes a vital threat. In political jargon, this kind of threat means war.’ (The quotations not referenced are taken mainly from. ‘Not One Inch, America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate’, M E Sarotte, Yale University Press)
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At the start of the invasion I commented on Facebook that the Russians had warned that Ukraine could not join NATO and that this was a red line, only to be rebuked that, in effect, I was saying that Ukraine ‘was asking for it’. I replied that this was, as a matter of simple fact, what had just happened.
Facebook is not a great medium for political debate so it should be elaborated here that, as we can see, the Ukrainian state played its own role in advancing the war through its repeated attempts to join NATO, even voting to place it as a constitutional imperative in 2019. So, while the Ukrainian people did not invite war, its political leadership and its western backers certainly did. How tragic is it then to now rally to the defence of the state that walked you into war and rely on western imperialist forces that led you there?
Even in 2012 only 28 per cent of Ukrainians supported membership of NATO. What we see here is thus a sterling example of the old socialist maxim that ‘the main enemy is at home’; in this case the main enemy of the Ukrainian working class was its own capitalist state for whom it is now fighting and dying. How much more obvious must it be that this should be opposed by all those who claim to be socialists and Marxists? How obvious is it now that if they don’t, their claims to express any sort of socialism must be repudiated?
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