Ukraine border crisis heightens tensions between U.S. and Russia


As Russian bombs continue to drop on the embattled opposition in the Syrian city of Idlib, 100,000 Russian troops have amassed on the Ukraine border. The current situation between the U.S. and Russia centered on Ukraine is tense.

The Russian troop buildup is generating a small crisis for President Biden. If Russia invades, the U.S., an ally with Ukraine, has promised sweeping sanctions that threaten the viability of the Russian economy. Chair of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff said, “I think that it would require enormous sanctions on Russia to deter what appears to be a very likely Russian invasion of Ukraine again.” Schiff continued, “And I think our allies need to be solidly on board with it. Russia needs to understand we are united in this.”

Sanctions have delivered mixed results for U.S. diplomacy in the past. Although the Russian economy has rebounded from its 3 percent contraction in 2020 thanks to high oil prices, dismal economic growth forecasts—highlighted by the flight of foreign investment and rise of the Omicron COVID-19 variant—show that a new increased round of sanctions on Russia could have a devastating effect on the economy.

Timur Aliyev reports, “One of the results of the year was the withdrawal of $220 million of foreign assets from Russian stocks—a record amount since April 2020. However, this behavior went beyond the Russian market. International investors sold assets in almost all emerging markets, fearing a tightening of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s policy, with investors transferring money into shares of U.S. companies as a result.”

It is also true that past sanctions have failed to deliver the knock-out punch for U.S. policy makers. A New York Times article quotes Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who has spent decades researching the topic, “We’ve seen that over and over again, that sanctions have a hard time really coercing changes in major policies.” Schott continues, “It’s a limited toolbox.”

The Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border is in response to both the potential threat of the Ukraine joining NATO as well as its own imperialist interests in the region. The very hot conflict between Russia and Ukraine has its roots in the 2013 Maidan uprising, which ousted Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovych from office and established billionaire Petro Poroshenko in his place through a U.S.-backed coup.

Ukraine has been a significant front in Russian foreign policy, including the disputed annexation of Crimea, where Russia claimed that 96.7 percent of the population, with 83 percent turnout, had voted to become part of Russia. Critics of this process like the Brookings Institute, a capitalist think tank, pointed to the Russian military occupation of Crimea at the time alongside evidence of leaked documents by Vladamir Putin’s “Human Rights Council” that state there was only 30 percent voter turnout and only half of those that turned out voted to join Russia.

Putin also justified the Crimean annexation by claiming historical precedent for control of the region going back to Catharine the Great. Crimea was an “autonomous republic” within the Russian Soviet Federation until 1945, when Stalin’s forced removal of the native Tatars supposedly made autonomy unnecessary. In 1954, the Soviet government transferred Crimea from the Russian SFSR to Ukrainian administration, allegedly as a “gift” that would help to cement Russian-Ukrainian “unity.”

Of course, Crimea provides Russia with key shipping, military and naval bases with access to the Black Sea.

Break-away mainly Russian-speaking areas, like large portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, are seeking closer relationships with Russia. In fact, the 250-mile border of the Donbass has been the site of an active conflict for the past eight years. Mainstream sources like Bloomberg News published that more than 13,000 have died in the conflict so far. The Guardian describes the Ukrainian military positions as if they were in a scene from World War I, “There are muddy trenches, fortified command posts and buildings smashed up by shell fire. Novitskyi defends a former textiles factory. It is now a ghostly and roofless ruin. On a wall someone has scrawled a helpful reminder: ‘Fuck up and you die.’”

After speaking with Putin, President Biden has reassured his Ukrainian allies that any move by Russia toward invasion will result in the U.S. responding “decisively.” Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has scheduled a meeting with a Russian delegation next week. Putin is demanding guarantees that NATO won’t expand eastward, meaning that Ukraine won’t join the military alliance.

China has backed Russia’s demand to slow NATO’s role at their border. CNBC reported: “‘Beijing and Moscow are forging closer ties because both governments view deeper bilateral cooperation as beneficial to their respective national interests, and not primarily because of an ideological affinity between Xi and Putin,’ said Neil Thomas, analyst for China and northeast Asia at consulting firm Eurasia Group.”

While U.S. analysts suggest China won’t support Russia militarily, there have been joint exercises as recently as August 2021. The crisis in Ukraine is only one facet of Russia’s foreign policy. Like China, the emergence of Russia as an imperialist nation has introduced a new player in the broader world of  military, economic, and diplomatic fronts. In recent years we’ve seen Russia enter into the civil war in Syria on the side of brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad and play a decisive role.

Through entry in this conflict, the world has seen Russia nimbly navigate inter-imperialist rivalry. This has also included Russia’s turning a blind eye to Israeli attacks on Assad-held military positions just 50 miles from the Syrian capital of Damascus. Putin has proven he can balance a relationship between Iran and Israel while also continuing negotiations with the U.S. and at other times confrontations with U.S.-backed forces. U.S. troop presence has waxed and waned over the years while Biden and Putin have found common ground to keep lines of humanitarian aid flowing into Syria from the Turkish border.

For its part in Syria, Russia has gained new military outposts like its naval base in Tartus. Russia’s show of force in Syria also helped boost arms sales by billions of dollars. Analysts from another capitalist think tank, the Rand Corporation, recently wrote, “Russia is the largest exporter of weapons to Sub-Saharan Africa (PDF). Its arms exports to Africa have increased by 23 percent over the last four years when compared to the previous four-year period, 2011–2015.”

The working class caught in the crossfire of inter-imperialist rivalries has nothing to gain by supporting either side. We need international working-class solidarity, not allegiance to the U.S., EU, Russia, or China. For the working class, Russia and China do not represent progressive alternatives in a multi-polar world. Our past articles have pointed out the inequality of wealth and international exploitation of workers by the U.S. and China. Though to a lesser extent, the same is true of Russia. Domestically, the PBS reports, the “top 10 percent of the population control a staggering 85 percent of wealth in Russia.”

As was stated in the Socialist Resurgence document titled, Russia an imperialist state with regional clout, “On the whole, Russia is the leading imperial power in much of Central Asia. Its networks of military bases, political connections, remittance dependencies, and established investments have secured it in this position for now, despite increasing competition from China. Central Asia plays a key role for Russian imperialism. It constitutes Russia’s ‘backyard,’ in which it holds key advantages by means of geographic proximity and historical domination. It has provided a venue for Russian capitalism to extract surplus profits without having to wrest control from entrenched Western imperial powers.

“While hardly the cornerstone of world economics, Central Asia still consists of a sizable market and population; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan alone constitute a combined population of more than 71.8 million. Tens of millions of workers in the region face economic super-exploitation by Russian capital and the political, economic, and military domination of their resident states by Russia.”

A soldier (without insignias) stands before a Russian flag. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters)

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