A Google search on “Ukraine”, “NATO” and “imperialism” results in 493,000 hits. Right off the top, there’s a Youtube clip of Rick Rozoff who runs the “Stop NATO” Yahoo mailing list and is an old hand at this, followed by other old hands such as Eric Draitser, Global Research, the Spartacist League, and the World Socialist Website. Most of the nearly half-million articles make the same talking points. WSWS.org is typical:
Can anyone seriously believe that Washington did not expect that Russia, at the very minimum, would deploy military forces to secure control of Crimea—a part of Russia until 1954, the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and its sole access point into the Mediterranean? Or that Washington knew Russia would not simply turn the other cheek as the installation of an extreme rightwing government in Ukraine, in which xenophobic nationalists exert immense influence, transformed the country into the new forward base for NATO forces, armed with missiles, on the very border of Russia?
Nobody could ever mistake Rozoff, Draitser or Global Research for Marxists, but one does have to wonder how self-described Trotskyists as the Spartacist League and WSWS.org would have so little interest in understanding why Eastern European nations would gravitate toward NATO. If you were the head of state in a country that had been invaded by Russian tanks in the past, your options are rather limited in terms of alliances after you’ve left the Kremlin’s orbit. One doubts that the Martians can be relied upon, no matter the prowess on display in “War of the Worlds”.
In 1999, three new nations were added to NATO, the first additions since 1982. They were Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. For those whose historical memory goes back further than EuroMaidan, it is not so difficult to figure out why they would hook up with NATO. All had been invaded by Russian tanks “defending socialism” against imperialist aggression.
Under the serene and wise leadership of Mátyás Rákosi, Hungary was proceeding rapidly toward communism in the 1950s, occasionally having to rein in agents of imperialism. According to Wikipedia, they were a motley crew:
Under Rákosi’s reign, the Security Police (ÁVH) began a series of purges, first within the Communist Party to end opposition to Rákosi’s reign. The victims were labeled as “Titoists,” “western agents,” or “Trotskyists” for as little a crime as spending time in the west to participate in the Spanish Civil War or for being Jewish (labeled as “Zionist agents”). In total, about half of all the middle and lower level party officials-at least 7,000 people-were purged.
When the revolution of 1956 broke out, the British Communist Party sent a trusted reporter to Hungary expecting articles of the Rick Rozoff and Eric Draitser variety. Imagine their disappointment when Peter Fryer joined the counter-revolution:
There were Gestapo-like torture chambers with whips and gallows and instruments for crushing people’s limbs. There were tiny punishment cells. There were piles of letters from abroad, intercepted for censorship. There were batteries of tape recorders to take down telephone conversations. There were prostitutes retained as police spies and agents provocateurs. And the young brutes who made up this strong arm of the people’s democratic State were paid – according to documents found on their dead bodies – 3,000 to 4,000 forints a month as men, 9,000 to 12,000 as officers: three to twelve times the average wage. Plus luxurious flats while thousands in Budapest lived cramped in slums and cellars.
Surely Dryer should have understood that stern measures were required against Spanish Civil War veterans and rootless cosmopolitans.
Largely decided at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, the USSR won the right to create “buffer states” that would protect it against another imperialist invasion, or more specifically another German invasion. Like Daniel Goldhagen, the Soviet tyrant considered Nazism to be a kind of essential expression of the German Geist. Feelings of hatred directed against all things German filtered down to the Red Army grunt who thought himself justified in raping German women on a massive scale. In a book on this blot on Soviet history, Anthony Beevor quoted a Russian fighter: “Our soldiers’ behaviour towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!.”
In exchange for the buffer states, Stalin agreed to rein in the Communist Parties in places where they had considerable strength: Italy, France and Greece. In Greece the consequences of this policy were particularly harmful. After Stalin tossed the Greek CP overboard, the Greek bourgeoisie was rewarded with 25 years of stability. When the workers got uppity, they got the back of the hand just like the Hungarian workers. While Greece and Hungary rested on rival social systems, they both knew how to keep the rabble at bay.
If not for Stalinism, the world would look a lot different today. A socialist Italy, France or Greece would have had much more importance than a socialist Hungary since the pre-existing democratic rights would have militated against Stalinist ambitions. As Fryer points out, Hungary was a dictatorship except for a brief period: “Hungary has never known democracy, except for four and a half quite abnormal months at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, under the bourgeois-democratic government of Károlyi.”
From the day that the buffer states were created, the citizens suffered under dictatorship and economic privation. While the Warsaw Pact was not about extracting profits, Eastern Europe economies had to put up with bureaucratic inefficiencies that were both unnecessary and pain-inducing, particularly in Czechoslovakia, a country that was relatively advanced. When Dubcek proposed a series of economic changes that might be described as technocratic but that remained consistent with socialist principles, the pro-Kremlin wing of the CP attacked him as an agent of imperialism. When Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and re-imposed hardline Stalinist political and economic rules, a layer of the intelligentsia decided that if socialism with a human face was not possible, then you might as well opt for liberal capitalism. The most notable example was Vaclav Havel, who became president after the country left the Soviet fold. In other words, the primary driving force behind Czechoslovakia’s lining up with imperialism and NATO was Stalinist obduracy.
It might have been expected that Boris Yeltsin would have little problem with the former buffer states joining NATO since he was as willing to satisfy Western imperialism’s interests as a member of Congress. So much so in fact that he wrote a letter in December 1991 raising the possibility that Russia join NATO.
The letter stated: “This will contribute to creating a climate of mutual understanding and trust, strengthening stability and cooperation on the European continent. We consider these relations to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels. Today we are raising a question of Russia’s membership in NATO, however regarding it as a long-term political aim.”
Now our “anti-imperialist” friends might write this off as to be expected from a tool of Western interests. But not so fast. He changed his tune just four years later, sounding positively Putinesque. In 1996 he complained that the expansion of NATO as “an attempt to keep the foreign policy mechanisms and the mentality of ‘Cold War’ times.”
Whether or not Yeltsin would have been up to the kind of stiff resistance to NATO expansion as his successor Vladimir Putin is difficult to determine. However, when it came to Chechnya both leaders showed that they were ready to shove the country back into the Stone Age to protect Russian interests.
In contrast to Eastern Europe, the Kremlin has been far more willing to both wage open warfare and to ally with the West in the former Soviet Republics of the southern Caucasus, with Chechnya being the most extreme example. The Party of Socialism and Liberation went the furthest in linking the Chechen revolt to NATO’s expansion, writing in 2004:
If it were to succeed in separation from Russia, Chechnya would join the league of former Soviet lands that are now “hosts” to U.S. and NATO occupation, and whose wealth is exploited for foreign profiteers.
Few could have imagined in the 1980s that today U.S. and NATO would occupy former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kirgizistan, and Georgia, which borders Chechnya and whose pro-U.S. government is playing a key role in the struggles taking place.
One doubts that the PSL ever took the trouble to follow up on this analysis, but the presence of American troops in Uzbekistan did not exactly generate the kind of response from Putin one might expect given this gloomy prognosis. Uzbekistan has an enormous NATO base that has been key for the war in Afghanistan. Furthermore, as long as these former Soviet republics were part of the “war on terror”, Putin had no problem with a NATO presence as the NY Times reported a month after the 9/11 attacks:
Today, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, Mr. Putin seemed to signal a far more flexible approach to enlargement. ”If NATO takes on a different shape and is becoming a political organization, of course, we would reconsider our position with regard to such expansion, if we are to feel involved in the processes,” Mr. Putin said.
”They keep saying that NATO is becoming more political than military,” Mr. Putin added. ”We are looking at this (and) watching this process. If this is to be so, it would change things considerably,” he said.
Mr. Putin has moved swiftly since the terror attacks to lend his support to the West. Most strikingly, he dropped Russian objections to the deployment of American and other NATO counterterrorism forces in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Russia’s Central Asian sphere of influence.
He has already extracted a price for his help. Within days, the United States and Germany lined up behind a Kremlin demand that rebels in Chechnya lay down their arms, notably omitting criticism of human rights abuses there by Russians.
You will note that the West had little problem with the Russians solving the “Chechen problem” in the way that it saw fit. For those who are still expecting the USA to go to war in Syria for “regime change” as pursuant to Samantha Power type “human rights” ideology, it would be useful to review what happened to Chechnya. With both the White House and the Kremlin acting on pragmatic grounds, there’s little reason to expect a penny to be wasted on reversing the biggest humanitarian crisis in decades.
Unless you are one of those people who still take Russian press conferences seriously, there’s little reason to believe that the Kremlin is intervening in Ukraine for fear of NATO encirclement.
Long after Yeltsin had departed from the scene (leaving aside how he eventually put some distance between himself and the West, arguably under pressure from his military), the Kremlin continued to see NATO in terms far less apocalyptic than the “anti-imperialist” left as the EUObserver reported on January 4, 2009:
Russia does not rule out NATO membership at some point in the future, but for the moment it prefers to keep co-operation on a practical, limited level, Moscow’s envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told EUobserver.
“There is no such necessity at this moment, but we cannot rule out this opportunity in the future,” Mr Rogozin said in a phone interview on Tuesday (31 March), one day after Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Russia should join the military alliance, if it meets the membership criteria.
Ironically, the obstacle to joining NATO was not primarily over the occasional flare-ups of the sort that took place in Yugoslavia or Georgia but whether or not NATO was the appropriate place for a Great Power:
“Great powers don’t join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power,” the Russian ambassador stressed.
He said Russia wanted to be NATO’s “partner,” provided the alliance took into account Moscow’s “interest” – a catchphrase alluding to NATO enlargement to its neighbouring Ukraine and Georgia, which it fiercely opposes.
Well, who can blame Rogozin? Interests are paramount when it comes to Great Powers. Kissinger said it best: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”
For reasons we can only guess at, Russia sees the carve-up of Ukraine in its interests. It now seems bent on either annexing Donbas in the way that Crimea was annexed or keeping Kyiv in a constant state of turmoil so that it will eventually accede to a state of affairs that allows de facto separation of Donbas.
Anton Shekhovtsov, a PhD student at the UCL in London, has a very useful blog for keeping track of what is happening in Ukraine if you are looking for an alternative to WSWS.org, Global Research et al. Of course, I imagine that if you prefer being spoon-fed from RT.com, you’d probably not be here in the first place. Here’s from his latest post, titled “The ‘Ukraine crisis’ is a long-planned operation” that should make clear that fearing encirclement was not what drove Kremlin policy:
For the Russian authorities, the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine that brought to power pro-Western governments in 2003-2004 was a sign that these countries were willing to leave the Russian sphere of influence choosing liberal democracy over semi-authoritarian kleptocracy. President Vladimir Putin perceived these revolutions as a direct threat to his rule: if Russian citizens see that post-Soviet countries such as Georgia and Ukraine can successfully modernize and democratize, then they may want the same for Russia – and this would dramatically undermine the authoritarian regime that Putin and his elites have built. Hence, Putin’s task was to subvert democratic governments in the neighbouring countries to prevent them from successful modernization.
In the past one could possibly understand why the Western left would have a tough time making up its mind what was the lesser evil, Stalinist authoritarianism that at least provided a social safety net or liberal capitalist democracy that at least opened up the possibility for a genuine socialist movement to develop and eventually take power. But how does one explain a left that seems so anxious to see the Ukraine return to the state of affairs that prevailed under Yanukovych and the Party of Regions?
Under Yanukovych, you had police repression and economic insecurity. For all of the blather about how bad life in Ukraine would become if it became tied to the EU, there’s plenty of evidence that for the average Ukrainian things couldn’t be much worse than they were in 2011, as the Kyiv Post reported:
Ukraine is on the verge of another wave of labor and intellectual potential losses, expert from the Razumkov Center and former First Deputy Labor and Social Policy Minister Pavlo Rozenko has said. During a press conference on Nov. 14, the expert said that employment does not protect a person from poverty in Ukraine nowadays.
Rozenko also said that, according to recent data, 23% of families in which all members have jobs, and 37% of families in which only one member is employed, are below the poverty line.
The poverty risk is even higher for families with children. According to the expert, 26% of families with one child, 39% of families with two children, and over 70% of families with four and more children are living in poverty.
Meanwhile, while this state of affairs existed, Yanukovych—Putin’s golden boy—lived like this. No wonder the country rose up.