New American sanctions against Russia, support for continuing war

The new sanctions made public by Obama today, 17 July, target a number of Russian corporations, among them the energy company Rosneft. They testify to an unprecedented arrogance and cynicism. According to the American president the Russians must learn to acknowledge that ‘their actions in Ukraine have consequences’. We are living in a complex world and in an age with many challenges, Obama continues. None of these challenges are a matter of quick and easy solutions, but ‘they all require American leadership’. One must have guts to put it like this—after Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya (not to mention the policy towards Somalia and Yemen, or the sustained support for Israel)—American leadership is required!  

Even so it is the readiness of the ruling classes in the rest of the world to continue to fund the trillions of US debt, which allows Obama to persist with the bluff. That is the paradox of the whole business. Often the same countries that have suffered most by the onslaught of American imperialism turn out to be happy to finance the deficits incurred in the course of these actions. The Chinese state continues to purchase US Treasury bonds and comes a close second after Japan on the list of the largest financiers of the US dollar. 

Vietnam, where millions have been killed and which like no other country in the world has been devastated by the Americans (still today deformed babies are being born as a consequence of defoliation raids) today occupies sixth place on the list of formerly state socialist countries which are most vigorously liberalising and privatising. 

Russia, the heir of the Soviet Union after it was defeated in the nuclear arms race with the United States, likewise is offering its services to the West. Of course this happened at record speed under Yeltsin, and the train no longer runs that fast. But under Putin too the desire to collaborate prevails. To facilitate the provisioning of the occupation of Afghanistan the NATO countries continue to use Russian air bases; privatisation in Russia continues, foreign investors are being encouraged to participate in various lucrative enterprises.

In Ukraine too Moscow tries to moderate, however much the opposite is being peddled to the public here. The fact that the country has still not recovered to the level of Gross Domestic Product it had at the time of the dissolution of the USSR (Russian GDP has climbed to 45 per cent above that level) also constitutes a concern for Moscow because of the many ties, economic and otherwise, between the two countries.

True, Russia has interests and defends them. When the European Union in 2009 proposed a series of association agreements to the former Soviet republics Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, Armenia, Georgia en Azerbaijan, but not to Russia, Moscow felt threatened, and not only economically. For apart from Belarus and Armenia, these were the countries which in 1999 formed GUUAM, a subsidiary of NATO (the second U stands for Uzbekistan, which soon after left again). Ukraine an Azerbaijan in that year demonstrated that they took their commitments seriously by obstructing Russian deliveries to Serbia during NATO’s war over Kosovo.

In 2010 the Russian responded to the EU plans with a customs union (mutual free trade, a common external tariff) with Belarus and Kazakhstan. When Yanukovych on behalf of Ukraine signed a far-reaching free trade agreement with the EU in 2011, he proposed a 3+1 formula that would give Ukraine free access to Putin’s customs union (the Russian market after all represents 30 percent of Ukraine’s foreign trade), but which would leave the country inside the free trade agreement with the EU first of all. 

This led to serious irritation in Moscow and when warnings that the EU agreement would lead to the demise of Ukrainian industry, were not heeded, several exports of Ukraine, such as the chocolate of current president Poroshenko’s company, were prohibited from entering Russia on account of ‘risks to public health’. In the end Yanukovych caved in and accepted Russian assistance, not least because of the uncontrollable deficit of Kiev which Russia, unlike the EU, was willing to cover. The consequences are known: the Maidan occupation and the wrecking by pro-NATO forces, on two different occasions, of attempts to arrive at a domestic compromise.

Did Russia then show its true face? Was there, as the BBC’s Bridget Kendall maintains, a grand plan behind the annexation of the Crimea? I don’t think so. When the initial wave of violent occupations of government buildings, vandalism and violence against Russian-speaking Ukrainian personalities by neo-fascist groups threatened to spill over to Crimea, Putin supported the wish of the Russians and Russian-speakers living there to return to Russia—of which it had been part for centuries until Khrushchev gave it as a present to Ukraine. Of course the naval base of Sebastopol played a big role too. But even Gorbachev, no friend of Putin’s, declared that by the reunification of Crimea with Russia, a great injustice had been rectified.

The Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern provinces on the other hand were urged by Moscow to forego their referendum for secession. The permission granted by the Russian parliament to use military force in case of large-scale violence against the population in the east, was rescinded at Putin’s request. This does not exclude that the rebels in Lugansk and Donestk are being supplied with money and goods across the Ukrainian border. But it is not official policy because Putin wants an agreement with the West, as do the oligarchs with whom he shares power. 

So why new sanctions? 

For the same reasons that twice already, scuttled an agreement. The EU wants influence in Ukraine for economic reasons, and therefore has an interest to normalise things now that Poroshenko has signed the EU free trade agreement after all. The United States and NATO on the other hand want to destabilise Russia by creating unrest on its borders—where and with whom, that doesn’t matter. ‘They all require American leadership.’ That is why the EU this time has not (yet) joined the sanctions, even though all EU ambassadors had been summoned to the White House to be put under pressure. There is too much at stake for the EU, not least trade with Russia itself. 

Meanwhile the war in Ukraine’s east rages on, with a relatively high number of casualties because of the undisciplined nature of the warring parties. The National Guard, into which neofascist militias have been incorporated, but also the regular Ukrainian army, are being allowed to run rampage against the population. The Russian-speaking rebels in turn constitute a motley collection of veterans and volunteer auxiliaries without a unified command. Deep wounds are being inflicted which will heal only with great difficulty. 

The oligarchs around Poroshenko appear to be gaining the upper hand over their rivals in the east (Achmetov, Firtash); the impoverished population, stirred up against each other, is paying the price. 

Kees van der Pijl

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