Eastern Europe & Central Asia: A center for inter-imperialist conflict


Negotiations between the U.S. and Russia over the deployment of 100,000 Russian troops near the border of Ukraine have not resulted in any breakthrough agreements that would satisfy Russian demands to curtail NATO’s presence in the region. Key on that list of demands is denying Ukraine’s admittance into NATO as well as the removal of NATO military personnel from bordering countries like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, NATO began to prioritize the Baltic States by sending four multinational battalions to the region.

At the request of the Ukrainian government, imperialist powers like Britain are supplying short-range anti-tank missiles, and Canada is sending small units of special forces. While Joe Biden has said he will not send troops, we should expect that sending arms, drones, special forces, and training has not been ruled out.

Despite Russia’s reassurance that it has no imminent military plans to invade Ukraine, tensions remain high between imperialist powers. The subtext to this conflict for the U.S. is containing Russian imperialism’s expansion abroad by pushing back against Russia’s regional dominance. For example, since 2020 Russia has intervened against the popular uprising in Belarus and in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of former Soviet States, Russia has again demonstrated its clout with a swift deployment and withdrawal of so-called “peacekeeping” troops in Kazakhstan to help suppress a popular uprising by securing key areas. This was the first use of the CSTO since treaties were negotiated following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it’s being deployed against an uprising that includes working-class leadership organized largely among the oil workers.

Instability in Kazakhstan, especially in the oil fields, creates a problem for Russian and other international businesses situated around uranium mining and petroleum extraction. China has a long-standing economic relationship with Kazakhstan going back to the Han Dynasty. Currently, Chinese companies also have petroleum running through pipelines in Kazakhstan, the second largest trade agreement with the country, and have poured investments into Kazakhstan including $24.5 billion in projects set to wrap up in 2023.

SCMP reports on China’s trade relationship with Kazakhstan: “Total bilateral trade was US$22.94 billion in the first 11 months of 2021, according to data from Chinese customs, up 14.7 per cent from last year. China exported US$12.59 billion worth of goods to the country and imported US$10.35 billion dollars worth of products from Kazakhstan over the period.”

China has not played a significant military role in Kazakhstan, opting to try and gain influence through economic measures. As a recent article in The Diplomat suggests, China may have to reevaluate its role in Central Asia: “In any case, it is clear that in an era of global transformation, the Sino-Russian division of labor in Central Asia, and the siloing of security and economic interests, is outdated. It is not a question of a fracture in China-Russia relations. The general picture, with its many half-tones, is forcing Moscow and Beijing to look for a new model of interaction, and in some cases, to act independently of each other.”

Putin is proving to the international community, one intervention at a time, that his regime can provide security and stability. The results should mean a return to more normal oil production, which would benefit Russian companies like Lukoil that have significant stakes in petroleum production. This would help Russia, since gasoline prices in Europe are at an all-time high, driven up by the tensions with Ukraine. S&P Global reports, “Russian supplies into Europe have fallen sharply since the start of 2022, with deliveries via main routes—including the first Nord Stream system—down compared with the final months of 2021.”

S&P continued, “Nord Stream is currently supplying around 146 million cu m/d of gas, down from its regular 158 million cu m/d flow rate, while deliveries via Ukraine at the Velke Kapusany interconnection point are down at just 26 million cu m/d, according to data from S&P Global Platts Analytics.”

The U.S. and Europe Union also want access to Ukrainian and Baltic State markets and to keep them away from Russian and Chinese influence. For the EU, this means a serious look at strengthening military armaments alongside but also outside of NATO. French President Macron, speaking at a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, said, “The security of our continent demands a strategic rearmament of Europe as a power of peace and equilibrium, particularly when it comes to dialogue with Russia.”

Baltic and other Eastern European states are becoming wary of being caught in the crosshairs of inter-imperialist maneuvers. Most of all, they may be worried about supporting actions that cross the U.S. “It cannot be the situation that the EU has one position and NATO has a totally different one,” said Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s veteran foreign minister. “Let’s face it, the way the United States conducts this business—the level of transparency and coordination—is something that I can really praise.”

A Polish government official said, “We are really looking to keep this within the NATO framework.” He continued, “We are thinking this is sending mixed signals.”

Lithuania has also been swayed by the U.S. and bucked China’s economic advances by recognizing Taiwan. In May 2021, Lithuania left the 17+1 group that combined 17 Central and Eastern European nations to participate in China’s Belt and Road initiative. Lithuania taking a step closer to the direction of the EU and U.S., and it opened diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This led to China’s issuing diplomatic sanctions on Lithuania as well as a ban on all EU imports with component parts made in Lithuania.

For now, it’s unclear how these new alliances will develop. We can see is that the rivalry between imperialist powers is complex, and that many questions are raised by current events. Will China and Russia draw closer ties or move apart over the situation in Kazakhstan? Which imperialist powers will gain influence in Europe and Central Asia? And although imperialist conflict for geopolitical clout and access to resources may be unavoidable between the U.S., EU, China, and Russia, will new agreements or new alliances come to the fore in 2022?

Russia, following a request by the U.S., recently dismantled hacking group REvil after a May 2021 cyber-attack using DarkSide encryption software that shutdown gas deliveries from the Colonial Pipeline on the East Coast of the U.S. Perhaps this explains President Biden’s new remarks, downgrading Russia’s troop build-up to “minor incursions” in the Ukraine. Reuters reported the president’s remarks on Jan. 19: “My guess is he (Putin) will move in,” Biden said. “He has to do something.”

“Russia will be held accountable if it invades—and it depends on what it does,” Biden said. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and what to not do, et cetera.”

Clearly shaken, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted,  “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”

Photo: Ukrainian troops take part in NATO exercises in September 2021. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn / AFP / Getty Images) 

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