War drums on the Dnieper
There is talk of war in Ukraine. Actually there is already a war, but there is talk of more war. Russia is massing it’s forces along its borders. America is warning Russia that if they attack, America will…well, not do very much actually. How did we get here? Seven years ago, the streets of Kiev were full of demonstrators calling for freedom, and an end to corruption. Now the country is locked into a low level conflict with the possibility of Russian invasion imminent. Understanding how we got here can explain a lot about the state of the world today, the nature of conflicts between nation states, what cross class movements mean today, and the situation of the working class. In order to understand these things we need to go back, at least to the Arab spring, perhaps even to the end of the Cold War and beyond to grasp the context within which these developments can be understood.
The 1980s were terrible years for the working class in the west. It saw huge defeats inflicted upon workers particularly in traditional industries, perhaps best represented by the defeat of the British miners after a year long strike. Reagan and Thatcher symbolised the end of Keynesianism, and the triumph of monetarism. The decade was crowned by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of so-called socialism in Eastern Europe. In the transition privatisation ran rampant. What had taken a decade in the west was accomplished in a matter of months in the east. The economy was torn apart by vultures, and workers’ living standards tumbled. At the time it was hard to realise the depth of the defeat of the working class. As the nineties wore on though, and new technologies caused the complete destruction of traditional industries, and the work process was completely restructured, the working class was decimated. It’s fair to say that it still hasn’t recovered from these defeats.
Even worse than the restructuring suffered across the eastern block was what happened in Yugoslavia. As the state disintegrated, workers turned upon each other, and committed horrific massacres, and atrocities, often against people who were former workmates or neighbours, at the behest of the bosses of the newly emerging nation states. In Europe’s deadliest conflict since the Second World War, workers suffered ten years of horrific massacres, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Serbian workers, and Croatian workers aren’t the people who win in situations like this. They are the ones who suffer. Those who call for the defence of the nation are the ones who cause this suffering. America, following its almost complete victory in the Cold War, went onto the offensive. It’s ideologues proclaimed ‘the End of History’, and it’s generals took chaos and destruction to the Middle East, beginning with Iraq.‘The End of History’ was seen as a world where all of the globe would be made up of free democratic states, and because of this there would be an end to the causes of antagonism between these states. Of course, it was never going to happen. Following the defeat of America’s leading ideological enemy, the so-called communism of the USSR, America found a new ideological enemy. This time it was muslims. After supporting Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and other places during the Cold War, America turned on Muslims in general once the usefulness of their temporary allies was exhausted. America fought its first war in Iraq to get rid of a dictator who had been oppressing his own people, and had even used poison gas against his own citizens. America knew that he was responsible for this because they had helped supply the very same gas that he used when he was a useful ally against Russia. Iraq was devastated, and so began the new series of wars across the Middle East.
Russia too was caught up in wars against Islamic militants in Chechnya. Meanwhile America saw its chance to consolidate its victory against Russia in Europe. As the Soviet Union fell apart, NATO expanded. A whole host of countries, such as this one, which were once in the Russian zone of influence, and even some within the USSR itself were integrated into NATO. Here lies the root of the current conflict. America wants to expand the influence of NATO eastwards into Ukraine. Russia wants to draw a red line here and retain its own influence. It’s for the interests of these two powers that workers are dying in Ukraine today.
To return to the Middle East America’s interventions caused an increase in Islamicism and reaction. After the destruction of the twin towers in New York City, America unleashed its ‘War of Terror’ across the region. Devastation followed. Many countries across the region suffered American from drone strikes, bombing raids, or had troops stationed there, alongside direct invasion of Afghanistan, and, again, Iraq. In 2011, Spring hit the Arab world like a whirlwind. After years of quietism, all across the Arab world people rose up against their governments. In Tunisia at least, where the spark had been lit, the previous December, the movement seemed to have been dominated by the working class. In Egypt, two movements seemed to run alongside each other, contemporary, but not really interacting, general society sitting down in Tahir Maydan, with workers standing up on picket lines outside their factories.
Elsewhere the working class was less able to assert itself. Mass movements ignited by people’s hatred of their governments were pulled apart into religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal conflicts. Instead of fighting for their own interests, workers ended up killing each other on behalf of local, regional, and global powers. Of course, the barbarism was more extreme in the places where the US intervened under the banner of ‘freedom’. Libya, and Syria descended into complete chaos. The scene is now set for Euromaidan. The years following the Arab spring saw a repetition of similar events, where the working class was able to make its voice heard to a greater or lesser extent, but was never able to exert it’s authority, perhaps the most notable one in our region was the one in Turkey that blew up after the police attacked environmental protestors in Gezi Park in Istanbul. There, at least, protestors didn’t get pulled into fratricidal attacks upon each other.
Ukraine was different from the start, the protestors were being used as tools by international powers. The west manoeuvred to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit. Moscow responded militarily, resulting in the occupation of the Crimea, and the ongoing war. Workers, instead of fighting for their own interests were once again killing each other on behalf of the great powers. And as in Syria, the war drags on to today, comparatively smaller, but still thousands of deaths, and over two million forced to flee their homes. Meanwhile as the war drags on America has realised that it has over extended itself. First it pulled its troops out of Syria abandoning its Kurdish allies. Then this year it withdrew from Afghanistan leaving chaos in its wake. Currently China is making waves over Taiwan, an issue over which the Americans seem very rattled. It’s in this context that Putin is making his play.
America, in its current isolationist mode, has little more than empty words to threaten him with. Biden has talked of ‘the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives’, and having ‘a long discussion’ with Putin. He has made it clear though, through its very omission, that military action is off the table. Perhaps Putin is merely trying to put pressure upon the west. It could be that the more than 100,000 troops upon Ukraine’s borders are merely part of an aggressive negotiating tactic. Russia’s recent set of demands for solving the crisis which include the withdrawal of troops from all of the Eastern European countries who joined NATO since the collapse of the USSR will not be acceptable to America. Moscow undoubtedly knows this. It merely expects to use these troops as a point to open negotiations and would settle for far less. On the other hand, Biden behaving as timidly as a kitten might encourage Putin to take more aggressive action. Whatever course plays out, what is clear is that the interests of ordinary working people won’t come into consideration. Workers will continue to be killed whatever happens. Neither side has anything to offer except on going war, and horror.