If you are anything like me, a dummy who lives in America, you were alerted to the fact that something strange is going on in Ukraine by a flurry of twitter notifications like these:
“Stocks fell, with US futures dropping more than 2%, after Russia invaded Ukraine. Oil topped $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014.” -The Wall Street Journal
“Dow futures plunge nearly 800 points, Crude Oil spikes 3% after Russia announces attack on Ukraine.” -Yahoo
“The yuan is standing out for its resilience as global markets reel from Russia’s attack on targets across Ukraine.” -Bloomberg
Given this concerning news for your portfolio, you might be wondering, “What is a Ukraine? Should I post Instagram infographics so friends know I’m on the correct side? And what can I do about it?”
Ukraine is a former part of the Soviet Union that achieved independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It now sits on Russia’s southwestern border where it serves as a strategic chokepoint for Russian natural gas exports to Europe and Russia’s access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
So, what is happening in Ukraine? Well, let’s go beyond the infographics and look at some of the issues on the various sides of the conflict. First, we need to get to know our main characters: Ukraine, Russia, and the United States.
Issues in Ukraine
1) Ukraine does not have a long history as an independent country or ethnically homogenous population. Historically, Ukraine has been the western-most border of Russia, with “Ukraine” translating to "the Edge" or “Borderland,” as in the "the edge of Russia." Like all fictitious questions, Ukraine’s historical origin is a hotly debated topic. From 900-1200 the Kiev Rus built an empire that covered modern Ukraine & Belarus and parts of Russia and Poland. This feudal fiefdom is considered the folkloric origin of Russia, but was so short-lived and so far in the past for both Ukrainians and Russians, it might as well be Middle Earth. Kiev Rus fell apart after a Mongol Invasion in the early 13th century and the region was dominated by an everchanging cast of other feudal powers, including Polish and Lithuanian feudal lords. In the 18th century, Ukraine was brought into the Russian Empire where it underwent Russification – a forced cultural assimilation with Russia. Because of Ukraine’s history as being a part of Russia for the past 200 years, it has a large population of people who do identify as Russian or Russian-Ukrainian and not as simply "Ukrainian.”
2) Ukrainian nationalism is a product of capitalism’s consolidation of feudal territories into nation-states during the early 20th century. As such, it peaked in the 1930s when Ukrainian nationalism became the rallying cry of fascist groups such as Stepan Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Groups like the OUN created a Ukrainian identity as something different from/opposed to other “inferior” ethnic identities, most notably Jews and other “Asiatic” (meaning Slavic) identities. These right-wing groups aided the Nazis during the Second World War and played a large part in carrying out the Holocaust, reducing the region’s Jewish population by 70%, or two million people, most of whom were executed. Today, Ukrainian nationalists celebrate people like Stepan Bandera as national heroes, which is why so many people draw the connection between Ukrainian nationalism and Nazism/fascism.
3) Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe, and it is not particularly close. Incomes are low and unstable and unemployment generally hovers in the 8-10% range. Ukraine was the hardest hit by post-Soviet economic reforms and suffered greatly during the Ruble crash of 1998. Ukraine’s economy has never recovered to its pre-1991 level.
4) Russia is not poor. Its incomes are higher, more stable, and have been rising steadily for the last 20 years. Russia made promises last year to raise average wages in Donetsk and Luhansk by 33%. Because of Ukraine’s status as a former part of the USSR, many older Ukrainian citizens would be due state pensions if they were to suddenly become Russian citizens. These two facts combined with closely linked ethnic identities have pushed many in Ukraine to advocate for annexation.
5) Ukrainian nationalists reject any project of breaking up Ukrainian territory, particularly to hand it over to Russia. After WWII, the United States reconstructed the Nazi intelligence networks in Eastern Europe. They used these networks to collect intelligence and carry out sabotage. Given that these networks were run by literal Nazis, they tended to push a flavor of Ukrainian nationalism that looks very much like Nazi race theory. Fed on this diet of racism from the West, Ukrainian nationalists tend to see their project of national unity in racial terms. Because of this racial lens, Ukrainian nationalists see themselves as European and white, while they see Russia as Jewish and Asiatic – a great “evil” that it is their historic mission to resist or destroy. Nationalist parties like Svoboda are up-front with their antisemitic politics and Nazi imagery is rife on the Ukrainian right. These right-wing nationalists hold key positions in the Ukrainian state and military and of course continue to receive enthusiastic support from the West. (Fun fact: John McCain appeared with Svoboda leader and infamous anti-Semite Oleh Tyahnybok at a nationalist rally in 2013).
6) The Ukrainian ruling class. Many in the Ukrainian ruling class have become rich through various legal and (mostly) illegal dealings involving the Soviet era natural gas pipeline that runs through the country to Germany. For instance, the "gas princess" Yulia Tymoshenko is worth $20 million despite having never worked outside of the Ukrainian government. Her tenure as deputy energy minister might explain some things, though.
Some thoughts on Ukraine
As shown above, there is a potent stew brewing within Ukraine. Like many post-1991 countries in Eastern Europe, Ukraine is a kleptocracy hiding under a veneer of imagined national identity. At the top are a small group of people who have grown rich off of looting the corpse of the Soviet Union. Below them is a large impoverished population that is controlled via nationalism, which really means fanning the flames of ethnic/racial hatred. Because of the history of European fascism and the nature of the US’s longtime involvement in these regions during the Cold War, the ethnic and racial politics of Ukrainian nationalism has a distinctly 1930s Nazi Germany-vibe.
Given these facts, it should come as no surprise that there has been considerable political instability in Ukraine since 1991. Ukraine’s strategic geographical position and general political corruption has made it susceptible to a significant amount of outside political interference from the United States, the European Union, and Russia. For instance, during the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power, groups like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funneled millions to Yushchenko’s campaign and provided organizers and strategists to Yushchenko and other opposition groups. At this point, it is probably worth remembering the words of NED co-founder Allen Weinstein regarding US ‘democracy assistance’, “A lot of what we [NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
The 2013 Euromaidan crisis which toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych (who was also the loser of the Orange Revolution) began as a reaction to a conflict involving opposing trade deals offered by the EU and Russia. Yanukovych initially accepted the EU deal, but later rejected it in favor of the Russian deal. A “spontaneous” protest then erupted, toppling the Yanukovych regime. During the unrest, Russian intelligence released audio from a phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pratt where the two casually discuss who the US should place in power in Ukraine (eventually they would settle on billionaire Petro Poroshenko, known as “the Chocolate King”). The call would be defended in the press by State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki (you literally cannot get rid of these people!).
Ukrainian politics is a tug-of-war between nationalist and normie forces within Ukraine and larger imperial actors outside of Ukraine.
Issues in Russia
1) The US promised in 1990 that it would not extend NATO up to the Russian border. Of course, the US immediately violated this agreement and has been expanding NATO up to the Russian border as part of a program of containment. This is of particular concern to Russia, because the entire goal of NATO since its inception was to fight a war against Russia. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has offered to join NATO multiple times, an offer that has always been rejected out of hand. Confirming in the minds of Russian leaders that the function of NATO has not changed since the end of the Cold War.
2) Russia derives most of its wealth and its foreign reserves from its exporting of fossil fuels, most importantly natural gas. Russia has agreed with Germany to construct a natural gas pipeline that bypasses Ukraine (Nord Stream 2) that is now complete and only awaits final EU approval to turn it on. This agreement will confirm Russia's status as Europe's largest energy partner and will cut Ukrainian elites out of the lucrative business of natural gas theft and extortion.
3) Russia has been trying to develop itself as an independent power outside of the US run world system (which the US has tried to cut Russia out of since 1998). Part of doing this is developing deeper ties with the EU as a way of chipping away at the imperial alliance between the EU and the US.
4) Russia has deep cultural and historic ties to Ukraine. Kiev is generally seen as the historic/folkloric homeland of Russia and Ukraine has been a part of Russia dating back at least to the 18th century (It should be noted that there are no solid, agreed-upon borders for Ukraine which makes placing its history difficult. This is because Ukraine, like all nation states, is not a natural creation but the by-product of politics and history). Russia also has a deep cultural memory of WWII. Allowing Nazis in Ukraine to kill what many people in Russia see as their Russian siblings is not a politically popular position.
Some thoughts on Russia
For geo-strategic reasons, Russia simply cannot accept NATO’s expansion all the way up to its borders. If this is difficult to understand, remember that the US was willing to kill every living thing on the planet if Russia didn’t remove its missiles from Cuba in 1962. Think about how insane the completely made-up story of “Chinese soldiers massing on the US-Mexico border” makes your Facebook-uncle when it pops up every six months. It is simply not reasonable to expect Russia to acquiesce to a hostile nation expanding its anti-Russian military alliance all the way up to its border. Also, NATO shouldn’t exist, guys... I mean, c’mon, some things are easy.
Ukraine’s history with Russia means that there are a lot of cultural and familial linkages between Russians and Ukrainians that is putting political pressure on Putin and company to act in the region. That being said, Putin is not eager to accept millions of the poorest people in Europe – many of which would be immediately eligible to receive their Soviet pensions – into Russia. Putin had to recognize the vote in Crimea to join Russia after the Euromaidan crisis because the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based out of Sevastopol. Annexation has not been a given for Russian separatists in the Donbas, however. This has led to considerable violence between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian separatists in the region since 2014 which in turn has turned up the political pressure on Putin to “do something.”
Finally, we get to the real point. This is largely about natural gas pipelines. Russia wants to transition from its old, Soviet-era pipeline that is connected to a depleted field which currently runs from Russia to Germany via Ukraine, with a new state of the art pipeline that is connected to a newly tapped field and bypasses the politically unstable klepto-state that is Ukraine. I promise you, this is what Putin and Biden actually care about. Nord Stream 2 coming online would tie Russia and the EU together via a multi-decade energy deal that would increase European dependence on Russian natural gas. The US does not want this.
Issues in the US
1) The US has recently – thanks to fracking – become a net exporter in natural gas and has heavily invested in technology that allows for the shipping of natural gas on container ships. The US wants the EU to be its major export market. This would make a lot of very powerful people in the United States a lot of money. It would also have the added benefit of returning Europe to a reliance on US controlled energy, something that the US was able to achieve via the Marshall Plan after WWII and that Europe was able to slowly extricate itself from in the decades following the 1970s oil crisis.
2) International oil sales are conducted in dollars. The international energy market is the key to understanding how the US is able to maintain a stranglehold on global markets via dollar hegemony. US influence or control over various oil producing regions has meant that the dollar is the currency of the international energy trade. Because oil is the largest and most important good traded on international markets, the bulk of international trade is conducted in dollars. This means a couple of things:
- Countries are forced to always keep a large supply of dollars on hand in their foreign reserves. These dollars are then re-invested in American stocks, bonds, and securities because it is easy to do. This functions as a sponge for the US to soak-up global wealth or “surplus value.”
- Having the global currency allows the US to essentially set global monetary policy, meaning it gives the US considerable say in other people’s political & economic decisions or “imperialism.” Even though natural gas is not as important as oil, allowing Russia to expand its natural gas trade is seen as bad for the empire. Particularly since Russia has been very vocal and active regarding the need to change the world energy currency from the dollar to a basket of other currencies (the dollar, Chinese yuan, Russian ruble, and the Euro). This is seen as unacceptable to the US. (It is worth remembering that one of the last things that Saddam Hussein did was request that Iraqi oil exports be exchanged in Euros and one of the first things that the US did was codify in law that Iraqi oil would only be sold in dollars).
3) The US wants to expand its military presence up to the Russian border. This is to encircle Russia, break-up any chance of the EU connecting with another regional power, and provide potential relief for US military bases in places like Germany and Italy that are deeply unpopular.
4) The US understands the Russian economy relies heavily on energy exports, so it is trying to control Russia's economic growth by strangling its ability to export. The collapse in oil prices in the mid-2010s was the product of US-ally Saudi Arabia dumping oil onto the market. It has been speculated that one of the reasons for this dump was to punish Russia for its invasion of Georgia in 2008 – actions which cut-off the route of a natural gas pipeline that would bring Central Asian natural gas to Europe, bypassing Russia. The proposed pipeline had been backed by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who had been brought to power by the US-financed Rose Revolution in 2003.
5) The US has fucked up royally on Covid, killing over a million people domestically and wildly exacerbating the spread internationally by enforcing patent rights. For most in the US, their economic situation is a disaster and it is clear the state intends to do nothing about it. Conflict with Russia is jangling the keys to distract the big baby that is the American populace from the stunning failures of American capitalism domestically. It doesn’t take more than a glance at Twitter to see that the dumbest babies in America are all trying to grab those keys.
Some thoughts on the US
The US plans to maintain its global hegemony by controlling the rise of any potential rival as well as regional hegemons in key areas. The US plans to do this through a policy of strategic containment centered on surrounding China and using NATO to occupy Eastern Europe to prevent any potential alliance forming between the EU and Russia. Controlling global energy resources continues to be a key part of this plan with emphasis on strengthening the US military presence in Central Asia and the Middle East.
This is not wild speculation on my part. The statements above are taken nearly verbatim from the US Commission on National Security/21st Century’s (known popularly as The Hart-Rudman Commission) report that they published in three phases in 1999 as well as the Project for a New American Century’s report Rebuilding America’s Defenses which they released in 2000. Both these projects were designed around the concept of creating a 25-year plan to maintain US global dominance. As the Hart-Rudman Commission notes, “It is a critical national interest of the United States that no hostile hegemon arise in any of the globe’s major regions, nor a hostile global peer rival or a hostile coalition comparable to a peer rival.”
What we are seeing is a conflict created by inter-imperialist rivalry. Capitalist Russia, in order to expand its economy and increase profits for its capitalist class, needs to sell natural gas to Europe. In order to do this, it needs to find a solution for its “Ukrainian problem.” This is then translated into politics by the Putin government. Capitalist America, in order to protect the profits of its own capitalist class, needs to maintain the stranglehold over world markets that it created in the aftermath of WWII. This need of capitalism is then translated into politics by Joe Biden and the national security state. Ukraine, caught between these imperial powers, has its own parasitic capitalist class that is scurrying around trying to find the best way to steal as much as it can, as fast as it can before the whole thing blows up.
The world is not a Marvel movie, made up of clear cut good-guys and bad-guys. Events tend to be dictated by the political economy rather than morality. When capitalism has expanded to its outer-most limits with no rival in sight, inter-imperialist rivalries will take over and drive history. Russia is not a “good guy” in Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists are not “good guys” in Ukraine. And you are out of your goddamn mind if you think that US involvement in Ukraine has been anything but a disaster up to this point and would be anything but a disaster after this point.
The end result of this conflict is that a lot of Ukrainians are going to get sacrificed on the altar of capitalist imperialism. Some will die thinking that they did it for some mystical notion of an “ancient and sacred” Ukraine that never was, for “blood and soil.” Others will die thinking that Russia is there to make them an equal part of Russia. Most will not be won to either of these views, but will die just the same.
As a dumb American, the only position I think that I can take is that the US should absolutely not be involved in this conflict in any way. The best thing Americans can do if they actually care about this kind of stuff is demand the dismantling of the US empire – the dissolution of NATO, the removal of the hundreds of overseas bases, the decommissioning and dismantling of the nuclear arsenal. US involvement in Ukraine only has two possible outcomes:
- There is a general settlement reached either on Russian or American terms that merely kicks the can of conflict down the road to a different time and location.
2. The conflict spirals out of control, goes nuclear, and the world ends.
Capitalism is the enemy in the conflict in Ukraine. Capitalism and the imperialism it spawns is at the root. Capitalism is driving it forward. Workers choosing one capitalist to root for over another is more than just stupid; it is suicide.