by Andrew Murray
Could a general war break out in Europe, pitting NATO against Russia, over the Ukraine?
As Washington considers arming the Kiev regime, and British soldiers are deployed, albeit in small numbers, to the Ukraine, the prospect of a great power conflict in Europe is greater than it has been in generations.
To hear politicians in London and Washington talk – faithfully echoed by much of the media – this development has come as a surprise. They have been “let down” by Russian President Putin; distressed that the restoration of capitalism in Russia has not led to a compliant government in Moscow. All in all they are deeply shocked.
They needn’t have been.
Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a book published under the title Flashpoint: World War Three. Don’t worry – it didn’t disturb the 3 for 2 tables at the front of Waterstone’s and the author didn’t retire on the royalties.
The thesis of the book was out of joint with the times. It was that the “end of history”, ushered in by the collapse of the USSR above all, would not lead to a new world order of peace, as promised by the prevailing powers, but would instead open up a new epoch of imperialist wars.
Few people were interested in such Jeremiads in the mid-1990s, when liberal democracy was apparently sweeping all before it, with some [prodding from US marines when necessary, and most of what passed for the left were displaying the enthusiasm of the convert for free-market economics and liberal interventionism in world affairs.
Today –and indeed for some time past – the argument that the new world order, centred on the great US “unipolar moment”, with one superpower bestriding the planet and ordering its affairs, would be a bloody business is scarcely controversial. The last illusions on that score, perhaps, perished in the streets and the sands of Iraq.
Yet many people may have thought – well, the Middle East, with its unending history of sordid western intervention, is one thing – but surely Europe has moved past that point, once the clearing-up exercise of the Yugoslav wars is consigned to history.
This is what they could have read in Flashpoint in 1996, as part of a broad survey of emerging tension between the great powers:
“The Ukraine itself is clearly pregnant with the possibility of conflict, divided between a Russian-oriented and heavily industrial east, and a nationalistic west…
“’Ukraine for the Ukrainians’ shout the western Ukrainians; ‘union with Russia’ and ‘life was better under the Communists’ say the eastern. Russia’s conflict with the Ukraine over control of the Crimea, most of whose people wish to be reattached to the Russian Federation, is a further source of friction. The US and Germany have clearly declared for an independent Ukraine, primarily as a means of weakening their Russian rival. Germany is in the lead here, too….the burgeoning Ukrainian fascist movement is closely aligned with German sympathisers.” (p 49)
And later, looking at where the next great war could actually break out:
“The biggest prize…must remain the Ukraine…The Ukraine is an agriculturally rich and industrialised land divided between a generally pro-Soviet east with a large Russian minority and a ‘Western’, nationalistic west, based around Lvov and other lands which were part of the Polish state until 1939. Of all the new ‘nation-states’ the Ukraine holds the greatest capacity for dramatic fragmentation, and is the object of the greatest interest by outside powers. Russia cannot accept Ukrainian independence, still less its incorporation into a German bloc, without accepting its own permanent relegation to the second rank of powers and denying its privatised giant industrial companies the most obvious ‘external’ market to attach. Yet without the Ukraine, Germany’s domination of Europe would remain attenuated and provisional, always at the mercy of a Russian resurgence. The splits among the Ukrainian people, reflecting different histories and culture, could provide any number of internal pretexts and possibilities for external intervention.” (p 159)
The publisher of Flashpoint was so taken with all this that he inveigled the author into adding a special introduction at the last moment, pre-publication, in which a sort of Sarajevo episode for the 21st century was outlined in fantasy form, the better to dramatise the book’s thesis.
Hence Flashpoint begins with the speculative “Lvov incident” set in 2010, where conflict around the western Ukrainian city, once a Polish citadel and today the heartland of bellicose Ukrainian nationalism, was the spark which dragged Russia on the one hand, and Germany and the USA on the other, into a third world war.
So, Flashpoint was few years and a few hundred miles out, but it identified the right country and the right flashpoint. Substitute Donetsk for Lvov, and little else would need changing.
The book was wrong about quite a few other things – it made projections about US economic decline which were excessive, if not entirely wrong; and foresaw an upward trend in Japanese economic and military power which was, again, exaggerated. Much of the theorising regarding the connection between imperialism and war was half-formed, too.
Nevertheless, in the midst of the self-congratulatory euphoria of the 1990s bourgeoisie, it was a fairly prescient analysis, and on the money about Ukraine. Even in the moment of its greatest eclipse, what one might term Leninist crystal-ball gazing proved a better predictor of the future than the commonplaces of liberal democratic triumphalism – the introduction also foresaw the installation of a post-Saddam puppet regime in Iraq by the USA!
But enough of my own self-congratulation. What has actually turned the prediction of 1996 into near-reality in 2015, and what does it mean about the actual crisis in the Ukraine today? The possibility of war within and over Ukraine was latent in the 1990s, for those who chose to look, but today it is patent.
Four major factors have contributed to this pass. The first is the breakdown – but not yet collapse by any means – of the US global hegemony. The unipolar moment has passed, amidst the burgeoning strength of China’s rise and the calamitous failure of the “war on terror.” US might, while imposing to say the least, is no longer unchallengeable. Its capacity to prevent the emergence of independent, even out-of-control, actors on the stage of world politics – one of the central objectives to the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Guidance of 1992, a foundational document of the “new world order” – is gravely attenuated.
Secondly, and within that context, has been the rise of Russian power. There was always going to be a bounce-back from the state of near-absolute social collapse which engulfed post-Soviet Russia and was represented by the buffoonish and inebriated darling of the west, Boris Yeltsin, whose social base at home consisted largely of wanton oligarchs equipped with private armies and no sense of social responsibility.
Under Putin the oligarchy has been consolidated into something more approximating a conventional ruling class with more ordered procedures and a cohesive approach to world politics, based on an outlook of Russian nationalism and Orthodox-inflected conservatism. High oil prices have permitted resources to be allocated to a neo-imperial programme of extending Russian interests, largely through exploiting the very genuine grievances left behind by the Soviet collapse and the transformation of intra-Soviet boundaries into state frontiers, encircling for the most part impoverished quasi-dictatorships without much trace of internal legitimacy.
The third aspect has been the restless drive of the European Union and NATO eastwards, into the former socialist countries and soviet republics, in breach of understandings reached at the time of the USSR’s demise. To simplify the inter-play of great power interests and institutions considerably, the EU primarily expresses the German bourgeoisie’s outer drive, while NATO is above all an instrument of US global power and its aspiration for domination by, in part, corralling all other powers under its wing.
They do not always march in lockstep – hence US diplomat Victoria Nuland’s celebrated “fuck the EU” remark at the height of the 2013-14 crisis in Kiev. EU Commission top honcho Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for the creation of a “European Army” will exacerbate this difference, if enacted.
However, they have a common interest in removing the Ukraine once and for all from Moscow’s orbit, no matter what view the people of the country itself, particularly those in its eastern and Russian-speaking regions, may feel about it.
Perhaps the EU and NATO could have imposed such an arrangement – turning the Ukraine into their satellite – in the 1990s, when US power was in its pomp and Russia flat on its back. But not in the second decade of the 21st century.
The greatest military power in the world is not – a significant difference this – the greatest military power in the region, and in the short term it can do little about that. In that sense, the reach of the US-centred imperialist bloc exceeds its grasp. And whatever allure the EU might have exuded in the go-go days of the economic boom has been diminished by its present role as avatar of Berlin-inspired austerity.
This connects to the fourth factor which has powered the slide to the precipice of war. The NATO and EU-centred part of the planet has been convulsed by the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s which is continuing, in Europe especially, to this day. It is a capitalist crisis which has affected the world unevenly – China has so far mostly survived unscathed, while Russia did too, at least until the recent slump in oil prices, which is due to factors largely separate from the banking-centred slump in the west.
As a result, the last seven years have seen Chinese power expand peacefully into Africa, and challenge the US more assertively in the Far East. Russia bloodied the nose of a NATO surrogate regime in Georgia during a brief war in 2008. Even in the Middle East “order” has wobbled – venerable clients of Washington like the Saudi Arabian kleptocracy have taken to following a more independent approach, distrusting what they see as a declining US power to protect their interests as they would like.
So the attempt to draw Ukraine into full-on dependence on the EU and NATO, going to the lengths of working to overthrow a democratically-elected government, looks like a considerable gamble driven by a determination to stop a potential economic competitor emerging stronger from the ruins of the economic crisis, or at least blocking their further expansion.
Considerable historical evidence substantiates a connection between prolonged economic crisis and war, often passing by way of a general assault on democracy and labour movements. This is not automatic, of course, unless people reduce themselves to the status of spectators at the processes which determine their lives.
So, will the “Donbass incident” lead to a world war? At present, the NATO leaders discount any possibility of actually fighting the Russian army in the Ukraine. Nevertheless, they probe forward -arms supplies here, “advisers” there.
But of one thing we can be pretty sure. It may be that it is best to quit while you’re ahead in the field of prophecy, but it is all-but-certain that, if NATO and the EU carry on expanding eastwards, above all at a time of economic crisis, a third world war will be a near-certainty.
What could derail this development? As ever, only the mass mobilisation of people against war and, ultimately, the system that breeds it.
Andrew Murray is vice chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto