Russia's annexation of Crimea, and the rising tensions between east and west, marks an era of heightened competition between rival imperial powers, argues Rob Ferguson.
Russia, the US and the European powers are facing their greatest clash since the Cold War. Following the overthrow of Ukrainian president Yanukovich, the new pro-Western government in Kiev turned to seal a partnership with the EU and Russia annexed Crimea, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet and its route to the Mediterranean.
Tensions are spreading to other "buffer" states on Russia's southern borders. Barack Obama has called on EU leaders to increase their military spending.
US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned what he termed Russia's "incredible act of aggression". In a statement that is beyond satire, Kerry told CBS's Face the Nation, "You just don't, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext."
Since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 Russia's aim has been to ensure that the buffer states on its southern flank remained within its own economic and military orbit, or at least "neutral" and free from economic (and military) "partnership" agreements with the West. Ukraine (meaning "the borderlands") was the pivot-point of this strategy and the most important of the buffer states to Russia.
Tensions could now spread. Moldova and Georgia are also looking to sign partnership agreements with the EU and are vulnerable to Russian pressure through its control of energy supplies, important Russian markets, and military bases in the breakaway enclaves of Transdnestria (Moldova) and South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia).
Thus the economic and potentially military tug of war reaches across to the Caucasus and even to East European states. In Hungary Russia is poised to make a 13.7 billion dollars loan to upgrade the Paks nuclear power plant, allowing it to play a large role in Hungary's energy sector.
Both sides wish to avoid military conflict in Ukraine but even the use of economic sanctions could have serious economic and political costs. The European economy could tip back into recession if energy supplies were cut and trade with Russia hit.
Hence the reason why the EU and US are divided over economic sanctions. However, Russia's economic growth, on which Putin's support rests, is also teetering on the edge. A sudden decline in oil revenues could tip it over. The recent fall of share markets in Moscow and massive capital flight out of Russia serve as a warning.
However, while there are real constraints on both sides, both are compelled to press their own advantage in ways that could lead to still greater confrontation. As the West cements its ties with the new pro-Western regime in Kiev and Russia counters by backing and promoting opposition in the east of Ukraine, the potential for a further explosion of tensions is real. This could in turn drag Russia and the West into deeper conflict across other parts of the region.
As Socialist Review went to press, the IMF had just concluded a 27 billion dollars plus loan to Ukraine. The government in Kiev immediately announced a 50 percent hike in gas prices. This is just the beginning. The price of the loan is certain to be further austerity and yet another fall in ordinary people's living standards. It is difficult to imagine the impact on an economy that has fallen through the floor.
Ukraine is the only country in the former eastern bloc whose economic production is still below 1992 crisis levels. During the crash of 2008 the economy contracted 15 percent and the currency lost 40 percent of its value. Living standards are already far below that of neighbours such as Poland and Hungary.
Therefore the IMF deal can only heighten the danger of explosive tensions within Ukraine, unless workers begin to unite across ethnic and religious divisions and take the fight to their own oligarchs. This, however, will require absolute opposition to both the US/EU and Russia.
The one common element the two imperialist blocs share is their reliance on Ukraine's oligarchs; this handful of individuals control a far greater proportion of the Ukrainian economy than even their Russian counterparts and it is they who ultimately control the survival of any political regime in Kiev.
It was not meant to be like this. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the American neocons declared the dawn of "the new American century". In their hubris they presumed that the US would take the world stage as the only remaining superpower and deal with any challenge to its hegemony from below with ease. On both these counts they have been disappointed.
First, the US cannot command unchallenged dominance. It cannot even guarantee with any certainty that its own allies will march in step. In the case of China and Russia, the US and Nato are finding the power advantage they hold over their rivals seems to have diminishing returns the closer they advance towards their immediate sphere of influence.
Second, the Cold War warriors' dream of being able to intervene around the globe at will, not least in the Middle East, lies in ruins under the shredded remains of the banner above George Bush in his televised address aboard USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 declaring "Mission Accomplished".
Instead of the new American century we face a world of rival, albeit unequal, imperialisms, even the strongest of which, the US, faces difficulty in imposing its own hegemony. It is against this context that we must understand the crisis over Ukraine and the competition between the powers along Russia's southern border.
It is in this context too that we need to understand the re-emergence of Russian influence since its demise as the world's second superpower. After 1991 the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union became independent states. Russia struggled to retain its influence over what became termed its "near abroad" against the background of a catastrophic economic collapse as a result of neoliberal economic "shock therapy".
Gross production sank to 57 percent of 1991 levels. Pensioners lost their life savings on the pyre of hyperinflation while a layer of the old "nomenklatura" and new entrepreneurs made fortunes from the privatisation of state run enterprises.
Millions of workers went unpaid for months; heating systems collapsed in Siberia; people lit fires in their apartments as they endured temperatures at minus 30 degrees. Ambulance crews were forced to ask for the cost of petrol before agreeing to come out on emergency calls.
The collapse reached deep into the military-industrial complex and the Russian army became a shell of its former self; under-equipped, out of spare parts and even unable to pay its soldiers and conscripts. Russia turned to fomenting ethnic and national divisions in its "near abroad" in order to weaken neighbouring states and force as many of their own corrupt leaders as possible into dependency on an albeit weakened Russian state.
So between 1990 and 1994 Russia stoked up a series of bloody civil and separatist conflicts in Georgia, Ingushetia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In total these cost over 170,000 lives and created almost 1.5 million refugees. Nonetheless, the outcomes remained unstable and there remained one outstanding torch of defiance in the Caucasus: Chechnya.
The image of Chechnya as a bandit Islamist terror state is a travesty of the truth. The capital Grozny was a large industrial city, the second biggest oil-refining centre of the former Soviet Union. Up to 1991 its people were Muslim by background but in reality overwhelmingly secular in practice. Its first president, a former Soviet general Dzhokhar Dudaev, won 85 percent of the vote in the presidential election of 1991.
Break with Moscow
In November 1991 Dudaev declared Chechnya independent in defiance of the Kremlin. This was a break too far for Moscow and the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, sent in the notorious Interior Ministry police.
This was met with fury by a population that had returned the highest vote in Russia for Yeltsin in the June presidential elections. Hundreds of thousands turned out in Grozny from all over Chechnya and Moscow was forced to pull back. Chechnya became a de facto independent state.
By December 1994 Dudaev had lost popularity and Chechnya faced economic isolation. Yeltsin felt confident the errant republic could be easily overwhelmed by force and launched a massive attack on Grozny. Up to 4,000 shells an hour rained down on the city in the heaviest artillery bombardment since the Second World War; not a building was left intact.
The tank crews rolled into the ruins but instead of a swift, victorious occupation, they found themselves facing an opposition that shocked the army command and Moscow. The war in Chechnya generated huge opposition inside Russia, with large majorities in favour of withdrawal. Striking miners carried banners, "Yeltsin: Killer of Chechens and Miners".
Victory in Chechnya was an attempt not only to regain Chechnya but to reassert Russian dominance over the "near abroad". Yet 18 months after the launch of the war General Alexander Lebed negotiated "peace" on behalf of the Kremlin. The world's second superpower had been swept it seemed to its final humiliation.
The military defeat in Chechnya seemed to seal Russia's spiral into chaos and disintegration. Months before the June 1996 election Yeltsin faced apparent certain defeat at the hands of the Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov.
At this point Russia's rival oligarchs formed an alliance. They illegally poured up to 2 billion dollars into Yeltsin's re-election campaign; the International Monetary Fund granted a 10 billion dollar loan that paid off outstanding wages and pensions and the media waged a relentless campaign against Zyuganov with wall to wall coverage of the crimes of Stalin. Yeltsin scraped to victory by a 3 percent margin.
However, the rescue of an ill, increasingly drunk and bizarrely behaved president did nothing to resolve the Russian crisis. In 1999 Yeltsin decided not to stand and his appointed successor was none other than the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
The popular image of Putin can be misleading. He is a vicious, populist autocrat but he does not stand independent from or above Russia's ruling class. By 1999 there was a growing consensus among Russia's elite, including many of its most powerful oligarchs, that the anarchic rivalry of privatisation had to be brought into check, the economy, particularly the vital energy sector, had to be restored, the authority of the state over the regions strengthened and Russia's military rebuilt.
Putin was highly successful in winning the support of key sections of Russia's ruling class. He used his position to deal with those oligarchs who did not. However, to see Putin as "in control" of Russia's powerful business elite is grossly misleading. They have profited as never before under his leadership. Moscow is the now the billionaire capital of the globe, boasting 76 dollar billionaires, compared to New York's 70 and Hong Kong's 54.
Putin rose to the presidency in 1999 with the support of key media and business oligarchs with just a mere 3 percent rating in the polls a few months before. The key turning point was once again in Chechnya. In 1999 Putin launched a bloody and successful retaliation for the defeat of 1996. This time the lessons had been learnt. The military operation was closely planned and Putin exploited divisions within Chechen ranks, promoting Chechen military forces loyal to Moscow.
The second key factor was the escalation of the world's oil and energy prices from 2000 onwards from less than 30 dollars a barrel to up to 140 dollars a barrel. As oil and gas poured through Russia's pipelines out to Russia's "near abroad" and to Europe, vast revenues flowed into both private and also state coffers to the mutual benefit of both. Russia now supplies up to 40 percent of some European states' energy needs.
Putin ensured that far greater state control was imposed on the energy sector, disposing of any individual oligarch who stood in the way; control of the pipelines that now spanned across the region became a central geopolitical and strategic element in Russia's attempt to reassert its global influence and regional domination.
From this position of strength Putin has reequipped and restructured the Russian military, greatly reducing its reliance on conscripts. The direct election of regional governors - who were unpredictable and too often acted at the behest of local oligarchs - was ended and governors were appointed from Moscow in what Putin called his "power vertical".
It is this combination that has led to Russia's regional resurgence and indeed its ability to exert a degree of influence abroad such as in Syria. This was marked above all by Russia's ability to face down Nato's attempt to draw Georgia into partnership in 2008. Russia used the breakaway South Ossetia as a route to bring Russia's military might to bear. The outcome was a significant victory for Putin and a defeat for the West.
However, there are limits to the resurgence of Russian regional power, as the current crisis in Ukraine has exposed and there are tremendous weaknesses underlying Russia's economic growth. The crisis of 2008 hit Russia's economy hard and there is no prospect of recovery any time soon. Productivity is declining and only oil and gas revenues stand between any semblance of stability and an economic crash. Average living standards have risen significantly since the 1990s but this conceals a wealth inequality that is one of the highest in the world.
If circumstances worsen economically and serious conflict arises in the near abroad Putin could lose both the allegiance of Russia's elite and his popular base of support among ordinary Russians. His support has always begun to look vulnerable when economic growth has faltered and was a key factor in the election protests of 2011.
In these circumstances the dangers of ethnic and national conflict stoked by the rival imperialist powers is rising. Both Russia and the west are torn between their reliance upon each other for markets and energy and the need to strengthen their own rival economic interests and geopolitical dominance.
The West will continue to try and draw Russia's neighbouring states into economic, and where possible military, partnership with the EU and Nato. As in Crimea, Putin will not hesitate to exploit Great Russian chauvinism in the Russian enclaves and among ethnic Russian populations in Russia's neighbouring states. This is the clear message and threat behind his recent speech in defiance of the US threat of sanctions:
"Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders."
The only alternative is for the working class across the region to fight their own oligarchs and governments and to resist uncompromisingly any imperialist intervention from either East or West. If workers in Ukraine or any other state look to one or other imperialist camp as a bulwark against the other, they will be incapable of turning the national and ethnic conflicts into a fight between themselves and their own ruling class.
It is vital that anti-war activists and socialists across Europe also hold to this position. This means two things for us in Britain. We need to oppose the attempt by Western rulers and the IMF to impose austerity at home or abroad and oppose any military expansion or threat to intervene in Russia's near abroad.
However, within the borders of nation states in Eastern Europe and Russia's near abroad workers are often torn in two directions by the imperialist divide. There can be no preference or defence given, however qualified, to one imperialist camp over the other.
The slogan of the International Socialists, forerunners of the SWP, during the Cold War once more fits the times: From Central Asia to the Caucasus, from Moscow to London, from Kiev to Sevastopol, "Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism!"