NATO, EU role in Ukraine war
By John P. Neelsen
This text appeared, dated March 19, on the web portal www.hintergrund.de. The German daily newspaper Junge Welt published a version March 30 that was shortened by removing Neelsen’s extensive footnotes. The article exposes U.S. imperialism’s efforts to push the European Union to follow the U.S. into a military confrontation with Russia (and China) and to sever the EU’s growing economic connections with Russia. Workers World is publishing this English translation from the Junge Welt version, with the author’s permission, to make this analysis available to our readers. Translator: John Catalinotto.
Everyone [in the West European corporate media] agrees: whatever the antecedents, there is no justification, Russia is the aggressor [in Ukraine], international law has been broken. They demand an immediate cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of Russian troops and a return to the negotiating table!
With the unanimous single voice of the established media urging war, the governments of the G7, NATO and the EU, everyone in the West, including Switzerland, Japan and Australia, imposed economic and financial sanctions against Russia, sanctions intended to cause great destruction. These include bans on high-tech exports, exclusion from SWIFT [international banking transactions], halting foreign borrowing and freezing the foreign assets of the Russian Central Bank, and personal “punitive” measures against Russia’s leaders. President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov are affected, as are oligarchs close to them – whether based in Russia or Western Europe – 351 Duma deputies, and 146 senators. Russia is now the country most heavily and comprehensively sanctioned by the West.
The goal: to make the Russian leadership a pariah internationally, to ruin the country’s economy, to force the population to storm the Kremlin and overthrow the government – the poor person acting out of hardship, the corrupt oligarchs acting because they lost their luxurious lifestyle.
Immense rearmament and transatlantic solidarity in NATO are the order of the day; finally even the European Union is waking up. It wants to play a geopolitical role and thus underpin its economic power with military power. That is the prevailing opinion, the opinion of the ruling class.
Ukraine is a poor, torn country
Officially, the West is concerned with defending the right of peoples to sovereignty, in this case the unrestricted right to join foreign alliances of their choice. The U.S./the West as a defender of international law, especially the right to self-determination already established in the UN Charter? This is absolutely implausible in view of Washington’s long tradition, starting with the Monroe Doctrine, of regime change, intervention in the internal affairs of other states, and the claim to extraterritorial validity of its jurisdiction and sanctions policy − secured by 170,000 GIs stationed at over 750 military bases abroad.
The West is concerned with enforcing its interests of global domination. This is presented as a conflict between two systems: democracy versus authoritarianism, that is, of “rule-based order” against revisionist powers, specifically Russia and China.
Ukraine, with a population of 41 million and a per capita GDP of about $3,700 in 2020, is a poor country despite significant agricultural exports and important mineral resources; it is also politically unstable and ethnically and culturally divided. But for the West, it has a special geostrategic value based on its geography: It borders Russia directly for a length of 1,430 miles, 200 miles of which are by sea. As the historical heart of the czarist empire, Ukraine was the gateway to the West for Russia, a country whose 6.5 million square miles stretch all the way to East Asia.
Extracting Ukraine from this close connection to Russia is and was the goal of the 2014 coup d’état – actively supported by the West – along with the installation of a pro-Western government. The first step has been taken with the EU partnership agreement and the Western orientation with full membership in the EU and NATO enshrined in the 2019 Ukrainian constitution.
Turning this wish into reality would be the crowning achievement of NATO’s eastward expansion, which contradicted all assurances to the contrary in the context of German reunification. Territorially and in terms of security policy, following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the loss of its members to Russia’s west as buffer states between Russia and the NATO powers, Russia would be thrown back into the time of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in 1917/18. Its victory in the Second World War, so dearly paid for with 27 million victims, would have been in vain. The envisaged membership of Ukraine, which is located in Russia’s strategic apron, to the war-ready anti-Russian military alliance NATO, threatens Russia’s existence.
It is inadequate to compare Russia’s intervention in Ukraine with the NATO war against Yugoslavia, with the bombing of Belgrade and recognition of Kosovo, which was illegal under international law and violated the German Constitution, for the following reasons: (1) Yugoslavia/Serbia at no time posed a threat to the EU, certainly not to NATO/USA. (2) In Yugoslavia some 2,500 to 3,500 people were direct victims of NATO bombs, hundreds of hospitals, schools, churches and chemical plants were deliberately destroyed, and 30,000 missiles coated with depleted uranium were launched.
At that time there was no reaction from the self-proclaimed liberal democracies of the West and their foreign policy allegedly based on human and international law. Unlike today against Russia, there was no trace of “punitive measures” against leading representatives of the aggressor states, such as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhardt Schröder or Joshka Fischer, nor even indictments before the International Criminal Court, nor exclusion from international sporting events, confiscation, even expropriation, of private assets (Britain) or ruinous economic sanctions.
Five minutes to Moscow
Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine is quite different. In case of Ukraine’s NATO membership, the flight time of missiles stationed there to Russian targets would be reduced to five minutes. This short time opens up to NATO/the U.S., whose deterrence strategy is based on the first use of nuclear weapons, the possibility of a strike that could decapitate Russia’s political and military leadership structures and thus potentially eliminate Russia’s capability to launch a counterforce/second-strike.
It was precisely this situation of the existence-threatening shortening of warning times that triggered the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the U.S. and the USSR, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. At that time, in response to the U.S. deployment of Jupiter missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Italy and Turkey, the Soviet Union had in turn begun installing intermediate-range nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island. In the end, these nuclear missiles were dismantled in Cuba as well as in Turkey and Italy! Either what was valid then is not considered valid today, or for the USA and NATO other rules are valid, as the U.S./NATO leaders claim their missiles present no threat.
Putin’s warnings of such a scenario, of “red lines,” made first in response to NATO’s Bucharest Declaration in 2008, which had raised the prospect of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, have been disregarded. Moscow’s recent demands for negotiations regarding treaty-based security guarantees, including a neutrality status for Ukraine, were rejected as illegitimate. Even more, Kiev was allowed to reject the Minsk Agreement, which the UN Security Council itself had adopted unanimously in Resolution 2202.
In addition, Ukraine was militarily rearmed, massively, and its aspirations for membership in the EU and NATO reinforced, while NATO conducted extensive military maneuvers repeatedly in the immediate neighborhood. At the same time, Russia and its leadership were demonized, fear of them stoked although Russia’s gross national product is only comparable to Spain’s at $1.3 trillion (Germany $4 trillion, U.S. $21 trillion), a per capita income of $10,130 (Germany $45,700, U.S. $64,000) and, most recently, a rather declining military budget of $61.7 billion, compared to that of Great Britain ($59.3 billion) and the U.S. ($782 billion).
What else could Moscow do, after exhausting all peaceful diplomatic means to meet its security needs, but resort to force and invade Ukraine? Is this a breach of international law?
Yes, but: This is, at its core, a defensive reaction by Russia, which NATO’s actions caused. Even more, since a nuclear war would have catastrophic consequences for humanity, and since – after the cancellation of all disarmament treaties by the U.S. and Washington’s turning EU territories into a probable launching area for U.S. nuclear missiles – it is above all in the vital interest of the EU to prevent Ukrainian NATO membership at all costs because such membership drastically increases the risk of war.
The Western talk of war, of occupation of the Ukraine, of imperial dreams of restoration of the czarist empire or the Soviet Union, are belied by the facts. The Russian army with 150,000 troops is totally inadequate to conquer an enemy territory of 233,000 square miles and a frontline that measures 800 miles in length and 190 miles in width. The data on the ground rather suggest Moscow’s ultimate goal: the destruction of Ukraine’s military infrastructure/demilitarization, and eventual neutralization of the country, as well as securing the Donbass.
The global South abstains
These considerations may also have been behind the decisions at the UN General Assembly on March 3 by 35 countries that abstained from voting in favor of the resolution that condemns Russia and demands the immediate withdrawal of its troops from Ukraine. These include India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, South Africa, Vietnam, China, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Tanzania, Cuba and Nicaragua. All of them are countries of the global South, victims of European colonialism and Western interventionism, and have always stressed the absolute validity of the fundamental principles of the UN: territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, peaceful coexistence or peaceful settlement of conflicts. These very same principles were also explicitly emphasized in the communiqué issued by Presidents Xi and Putin on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February 2022, in their call for a new international order with international law and the UN at its center.
The summary and implications for Europe are as follows:
The Ukraine conflict is the current arena of the U.S. strategy to make its global hegemonic role (New American Century) permanent. The main adversaries of the U.S. are Russia and, above all, China, and it relies on political, economic and military leverage, organizationally on military alliances such as NATO in the West and AUKUS, or bilateral alliances such as with Japan and South Korea in the Pacific.
After the previous five thrusts of eastward expansion of NATO, the West is now seeking the final encirclement of Russia and the transformation of Ukraine into an anti-Russian deployment area. Strategically significant in terms of military policy is the reduction of the warning time for missiles to five minutes and thus the chance of decapitating Russia.
The NATO/West refuses to recognize Russian security interests, and therefore makes no offer to negotiate: it seeks to eliminate Russia as a potent military adversary, which it has been because of its military-technical equipment, including missiles and nuclear weapons.
The personal “punitive measures” turn the Russian leadership into pariahs with whom negotiation is a priori forbidden. The financial and economic sanctions are aimed at ruining the country economically, and destabilizing it socially and politically, with the goal of regime change and the takeover of power by a Western-oriented political elite.
The EU, especially Berlin and Paris, although directly involved, were hardly heard as an independent voice during the months’ long, steadily escalating confrontation. Although guarantor powers of the 2015 Minsk Agreement, they neither pushed for its implementation nor presented their own substantive security-related proposals to Moscow. On the contrary, they participated in the delegitimization of Moscow, actively supported Ukraine’s economic and military rearmament, reiterated − most recently at the Munich Security Conference 2022 − the country’s future as a member of the EU and NATO, and even allowed President Zelensky − without opposition − to bring up obtaining nuclear weapons of his own.
The big loser is Ukraine itself (like Georgia under Mikheil Saakashvili). Instead of seizing – as [U.S. Cold War strategists] Henry Kissinger and Zbiegniew Brzezinski analyzed – Ukraine’s historical-geopolitical role as an economic and cultural bridge between the West and Russia, and basing its security and prosperity on this role, the country’s current political class is taking sides, making Ukraine a frontline state.
Using military, discriminatory and violent actions against its own [Russian-speaking] minority, Kiev puts its trust in assurances and invokes the protection and − military − assistance of NATO and the EU. It is true that after the conclusion of protracted negotiations involving territorial losses, a lot of aid money for the economic and military reconstruction of the country is likely to flow from the West. But the hoped-for membership in NATO and the EU is likely to take a long time, if it happens at all.
The current agreement within the EU to employ comprehensive anti-Russian sanctions and immense rearmament, now celebrated as a great success, is a fundamental long-term strategic mistake with highly negative geopolitical consequences, especially for the EU and all of Europe. It is the beginning of a new Cold War, the second division of Europe.
Broken European house
Economic relations with Russia will be frozen for many years, political ones will be characterized by hostility and the feeling of mutual military threat. The project of a “common house of Europe,” first envisioned by Gorbachev, then under Yeltsin in the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act, and most recently invoked by Putin at the 2021 World Economic Forum in his plea for a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, has been buried.
Unlike the U.S., which is the destructive winner of the current confrontation, the EU will have to pay the burdens of the current sanctions with migration surges, high inflation (euro countries 5.8 percent, U.S. 8 percent), halving of growth in 2021 to 1 percent from the previous 2 to 2.5 percent, energy shortages, import restrictions on wheat, rare earths and steel. All these negative effects have come at a time when the EU economy has barely recovered from the aftermath of the covid pandemic, including drastically indebted households.
Democracy also faces negative consequences.
With the threat of stagflation, social inequality will continue to rise, and the lower-income groups will be particularly negatively affected. In this context, it is worth recalling the months-long, sometimes militant protests of the “yellow vests” movement in France. Originating over increased gasoline prices, they expanded territorially and socially, and in their demands eventually challenged the established democratic institutions. The confrontations led to the strengthening of the executive branch at the expense of the legislative branch and of the state’s apparatus of order and repression at the expense of civil liberties.
Added to this is the changed role of the established print and audio-visual media, of freedom of expression and censorship. Instead of educating, promoting political awareness, and providing background argumentation, the media reports are dominated by sensationalism, dramatization, personalization, and psychologization. Instead of acting as the fourth estate, they act as mouthpieces for those in power and as an agitating mob that works the home front (second front) with the goal of war readiness and Russophobia – with success! Bans on information sources (such as RT, Russia Today) or a priori defamation as propaganda or “Putin-understanders” are added.
Collectively, a drastic shift to the right can be expected born of fear and insecurity, nationalism or Western chauvinism toward Russia, and increasing Sinophobia.
Russia will turn as far as possible away from the EU toward Asia, especially China, symbolized in its recent withdrawal from the Council of Europe. At the same time, Russia’s relations with the Central Asian former Soviet republics are likely to be comprehensively strengthened with attempts being made to integrate them more firmly into a Eurasian alliance. In the economic field, this means the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in conjunction with the New Silk Road (BRI), whereas in military terms, one has to think of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) .
The project of peaceful coexistence is dead. All states – identified as adversaries by the West – have seen that only military power, backed by nuclear weapons, offers some protection against blackmail, military intervention and economic ruin. This is especially true for the People’s Republic of China, the most important economic competitor and geopolitical system adversary of the U.S./the West.
A new anti-Western coalition with Russia, China and Iran at its core – Brzezinski’s nightmare – is just being launched in the form of expanded and deepened cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Even though the energy and financial repercussions of Russia’s restrictions on gas and oil exports have already opened up new opportunities for Venezuela and Iran, in the form of reduced Western sanctions and compensatory easing for the purpose of increased energy exports, the painful experiences with the West’s double standards and its pure power politics, while couched in terms of superior moral values, have left a lasting mark.
The unprecedented economic and financial sanctions imposed on Russia to exclude it from international trade, based as that is on the U.S. dollar, accelerate efforts to replace the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency. It will favor commercial agreements to conduct bilateral trade in third or their own currencies, and accelerate the process of economic and financial disengagement currently being pushed by the West. The geoeconomic basis of U.S. hegemony is thus likely to erode further.
At the same time, a new wave of rearmament and militarization, already initiated by the EU, will be unleashed globally under Western leadership. Funds spent on armaments won’t be available for necessary investments in new technologies, including renewable energy sources. This also concerns the inflow of funds to the “Fourth World,” which, following the COVID-19 crisis, is now particularly burdened by the conflict over Ukraine with rising prices for grain and energy, in addition to climate damage.
As far as the EU is concerned, it is being marginalized economically and geopolitically. This is especially true when, in the face of an aging and shrinking population and a stagnating economy, important future markets are closing off, especially in the Euro-Asian region.
More importantly, however, the desirable development toward “strategic autonomy” and an independent, above all peacemaking role in the multipolar world of tomorrow has been buried in favor of a renewed close relationship with the U.S. in combination with rearmament, increased dependence, junior status and vassalage. Based on the EU, Berlin is planning its future as the global military-economic champion of capital in the shadow of the U.S. For the future, a prioritizing division of labor along the lines of EU versus Russia, U.S. versus China, is emerging.
New security architecture
What should be demanded:
The accusation of breach of international law and the demand for immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine − without considering the background of NATO’s eastward expansion, the existential security threat to Russia and its futile efforts to reach contractual agreements − are formalistic and hypocritical, confusing the aggressor and the threatened parties.
Demands for Russian withdrawal from Ukraine can be serious only with proposals for securing recognition of the Donbass republics and the further recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, but primarily the contractual rejection of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. The country’s eventual membership in the EU is still open, a process that will probably drag on for many years.
The sanctions against Russia and personal “punitive measures” are – if peace is desired – counterproductive and must be withdrawn immediately. Only if the other side is recognized as a legitimate negotiating partner with legitimate security interests, in this case Russia’s interests regarding Ukraine, are negotiations and diplomatic solutions possible.
A new European security architecture including Russia is called for. Instead of deterrence, it must be based on mutual security, peaceful coexistence and cooperation.
The EU must break free from trans-Atlantic ties. The EU’s interests are not identical with those of the U.S. The latter’s primary strategic goal is to maintain its global dominance against any possible competitor by any means, including war. The future of the EU, on the other hand, lies in closer integration in Eurasia. Increased military spending, building the EU as a military power, on the other hand, forces the formation of an antagonistic bloc with Russia, China and Iran at its core, to the EU’s detriment.
The dissolution of NATO, founded by the U.S. and still used today “to keep the Soviet Union (or “the Russians” – J.P.N.) out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” − according to its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay − remains a constant fundamental demand. NATO has not only been historically outdated since the dissolution of the Warsaw Treaty. It was subsequently transformed from a defense alliance into an offensive alliance for the purpose of securing global Western or U.S. power and regulatory dominance. It is not a protagonist and guarantor of peace, but on the contrary the greatest threat to peace.
Only a few data suffice as proof: The U.S., for example, with $778 billion, contributes almost 40 percent to global arms spending; the EU-NATO members another $300 billion. The 30 NATO countries represent 12 percent of the world’s population and about 40 percent of the world’s social product, but are responsible for about 60 percent of military spending and arms exports. International and human rights are only pretexts, mainly targeted at their own populations.
Cooperation instead of confrontation
In view of global problems, starting with climate change, worldwide cooperation is called for, not confrontation. Instead of extraterritoriality and a “rule-based” order serving the narrow particular interests of the West, a new international order is needed, based on international law, the UN, justice, development and sustainability for all countries and people. But a priori neoliberalism, military alliances and (increasing) arms spending are fundamentally opposed to this; they should be eliminated.
John P. Neelsen is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tübingen and member of the scientific advisory board of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. His research interests include political economy and the sociology of developing countries.