Latest news from the battlefields of Ukraine indicate that the war game is moving in uncertain and unpredictable directions, and nothing is happening in terms of a final score – either by the Russians who have invaded Ukraine or the Ukrainians who are defending their territory. Russia’s recent decision to withdraw its foot soldiers from Kharson could be a temporary manoeuvre of retreat, to protect them from the ever-increasing Ukrainian onslaught that was leading to mounting loss of these Russian lives. But a vindictive Putin, in revenge for his forced retreat from the ground, is resorting to the alternative tactics of going up to the aerial heights from where his air force bombs Ukrainian cities and villages. Ukraine’s president Zelensky is retaliating by using the NATO-supplied missiles to target these Russian bombers.
As usually happens in such military operations, there are always goof-ups – actions which go out of control of the warring contestants. One such instance is a recent missile strike on November 15 in a Polish region bordering Ukraine, which killed two people. Trying to put an end to the controversy about whether the source of the attack was Russia or Ukraine, US President Biden has now acknowledged that it could have been caused by a misguided Ukranian air-defence missile – which ironically enough was supplied by his own government.
Searching the ground reality in Ukraine
In the midst of this ever-changing scenario and confusing military signals, one trend however seems to runs as a common thread – the determined war of resistance led by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. His war efforts are of course being heavily sustained by the US and NATO powers which are pumping in state-of-the-art artillery and missiles, that have enabled him to prevent the Russian invaders from reaching the capital Kyiv, and to push them back.
But at the same time, one cannot dismiss his fight as a solely Western-aided war. There is ample evidence of the popular support that he enjoys – not only loyalty from his army, but also wide spread support from his people, who had elected him with an overwhelming majority of votes in 2019. That this support still continues is evident from reports and pictures that are coming forth from the ground level – interviews with both soldiers in the battle field, and common citizens living amidst the ruins of their homes destroyed by Russian air raids. All of them are united in the determination to fight to the end the Russian aggressors whom they can never forgive.
Disturbing signals from Zelensky’s war against Russia
There are however certain disturbing aspects of this anti-Russian resistance led by Zelensky. One of his major allies is the ultra-nationalist neo-Nazi armed group called Azov Battalion, whose members have joined the war against Russia. There are allegations about their atrocities against Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, mainly concentrated in the four eastern regions of Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. It is not surprising therefore that Russia could exploit these anti-Ukraine sentiments among the Russian-speaking people, and through a mock referendum annexed these four regions to the Russian orbit.
The other disturbing revelation relates to the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the Center for Civil Liberties of Ukraine. A rival Ukrainian human rights group called the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement has accused the Center of supporting NATO and US donors – thus not worthy of a peace prize. (Re: Ariel Gold and Medea Benjamin: `Who Deserves a Nobel Peace Prize in Ukraine ?’ in Countercurrents, 7/10/2022)
The war in Ukraine is increasingly becoming murky. The initial nationalist urge of the Ukrainians to preserve and protect their sovereignty and resist the Russian invaders, has been usurped and incorporated by the US in its global agenda of settling scores with an aggressive Putin. As a result, the Ukrainian local national resistance war is now being submerged by a larger proxy war between Russia and the US-led European alliance. The US is using Ukraine as a testing site to defeat a Putin-led Russia. The Ukrainian fighters trained and aided with armaments by the US, are pushing out the Russians and reclaiming territories. Putin has been forced to be on the defensive, and in a desperate effort to intimidate the Ukrainians, is bombing Kyiv and threatening a nuclear retaliation, on the plea that Zelensky is planning to use a `dirty bomb’ against Russia – an allegation made without any evidence.
Harking back to the past – fratricidal warfare
To come down to brass tacks, the present war over Ukraine can be described as an outbreak of an internal conflict within the capitalist camp between two of its family members – the senior USA and its junior cousin Russia (both dyed-in-the-wool capitalist regimes, the latter of recent origins) – over territorial expansion.
There is a hoary tradition – both in mythology and history of religions – of such fratricidal warfare within members of the same family. Remember the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, as described in the `Mahabharata’ ? Or, how the two sons of Adam and Eve fought each other, ending with Cain killing his brother Abel, as narrated in the Holy Bible ? Or take again the killing of the Prophet’s grandson Husain in the massacre at Karbala, by rivals from among the Prophet’s own followers, over the ownership of the caliphate – as found in the history of Islam.
Modern history of fratricidal wars and treaties
Similarly, families of modern nations, who may be sharing common economic systems and following the same models of development, have often fallen out with each other – mainly over territorial disputes. The First World War was fought between two Western global camps which adhered to the same economic order of capitalism within their respective countries, but competed with each other in expanding their control over territories beyond their borders. The Second World War began with a similar conflict between the capitalist and imperialist German-Italian-Japanese axis on the one hand, and the West European capitalist powers on the other, over the issue of territorial expansion. It was only later that the socialist camp of the Soviet Union joined the Western capitalist alliance to fight the Nazi-fascist menace which had become a threat to both, which till then belonged to opposing ideological camps.
There was thus a new constellation of global powers, which after the end of the Second World War, led to a mutually agreed division of spheres of influence between the capitalist and socialist camps. Within the capitalist camp, the European powers swayed influence over the Western hemisphere, while the US took control over its backyard in South America. The socialist camp represented by the then Soviet Union was allowed to take over the states in its backyard in Eastern Europe (which its Red Army had liberated from Nazi occupation).
The period of the Cold War – punctuated by battles
During the decades that followed this post-war agreement, both the super-powers, the USA and the Soviet Union engaged in a global contestation mainly by means of occasional outbursts in the diplomatic arena, and disruptions in commercial trade channels. This came to be described as Cold War.
Meanwhile, in their respective spheres of influence which were carved out by the post-war treaties, how did the US and the Soviet Union treat the people within those countries ? The strategies and tactics that both followed regarding them, curiously enough looked like mirror images of each other – although both claimed that their ideologies and plans of development were mutually opposed. The US-led European capitalist countries described themselves as ` Western democracies,’ and denounced the Soviet Union and its allies in East Europe as `dictators.’ Yet, the US installed local military autocrats (backed by its CIA) in the South American states, while the Soviet Union installed its local protégés (corrupt and power hungry politicians) in power in the states in its domains in the backyard in Eastern Europe. In the political parlance in those days, the US-backed regimes in South America were described as Washington’s ‘puppet states’, and the Soviet Union backed East European regions as Moscow’s `satellite states.’
Within a few years however – both Washington’s `puppet states’ in South America and Moscow’s `satellite states’ in East Europe were facing rebellions from the local populace. In South America, Cubans under Fidel Castro sparked the fire, that was to spread all over that sub-continent against US domination in the 1960s. In Czechoslovakia in Soviet-dominated East Europe, the Czechs under their leader Alexander Dubcek launched the movement called `Prague Spring,’ promising to liberalize their society from the Soviet-style dictatorship. The Kremlin-led Warsaw Pact soldiers marched into Prague to crush the movement. Over the next two decades, popular discontent continued to simmer in East Europe, and finally it erupted in the 1980s in Poland in the form of the Solidarity Movement with roots in working class trade unions.
Fratricidal warfare within the socialist camp
At the same time, the socialist camp was also being riddled with conflicts among its members – often leading to wars. As I read these news about the war in Ukraine, I am reminded of another similar war waged some four decades ago between two states, both swearing by the oath of socialism. In February 1979, Communist China’s PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) invaded its Communist neighbour Vietnam. It was China’s churlish attempt to punish Vietnam for its earlier invasion of Kampuchea in December 1978, that led to the toppling down of China’s protégé Pol Pot. This notorious dictator not only massacred his own people, but also conducted bloody cross border raids into Vietnam, torching villages and killing Vietnamese civilians. Yet, China continued to prop him up. China could not forgive Vietnam for ousting its protégé, and it retaliated with an attack on Vietnam. But after several months of warfare, the PLA was forced to withdraw in the face of stiff resistance from the Vietnamese army. A battalion of PLA soldiers surrendered to the Vietnamese. A photograph of their meek submission is displayed in the War Museum in Hanoi. I remember, during a brief visit to Hanoi 1986, my Vietnamese friend took me to the museum and proudly showed me that picture. I could make out that he was asserting his nationalistic identity against a foreign invader – although both China and Vietnam at that time belonged to the same socialist camp.
As in Vietnam in 1979 where the people of a small state dared to repulse a superior global power, today also the Ukrainians of a small state are challenging the military might of a global power, and burst out in glee whenever a Russian tank is destroyed. As in the past again, while the Vietnamese resistance against China was militarily aided by the Soviet Union, today the Ukrainian offensive is being bolstered by arms supply by the US and Western powers. While the Sino-Vietnamese conflict ultimately became a proxy war between China and the Soviet Union, both swearing by the name of Communism at that time, similarly the conflict in Ukraine today is also fast assuming the shape of a proxy war between Russia and the US – both belonging to the same capitalist camp.
Significantly, both the wars share a common backdrop. As in the past, today also a realignment of global powers is taking place, that is determining the course of the war in Ukraine.
Parallels in the geo-political background of the two wars
The Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 was fought against the backdrop of changing relationship among the global powers. The schism in the international Communist movement between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, which began in the early 1960s, exacerbated during the 1970s over border disputes between the two states. While mouthing Communist rhetoric for his domestic audience, Mao-dze-Tung drifted out from the Soviet-led socialist camp, and had no qualms in striking an alliance with his one time enemy President Nixon of US, welcoming him to Beijing on February 21, 1972. Yet, these were the days when Nixon’s air force was bombing Vietnam and killing thousands of freedom fighters and common citizens.
Over the next years the Sino-US bond grew apace with increasing mutual trade. These years were also marked by increasing distancing between China and Russia, leading to hostilities. It spilled over to the proxy war in Vietnam – where the Soviet-aided Vietnamese nationalists managed to oust the Chinese soldiers from their soil. This was a fratricidal war of sorts waged by two members of what was till then described as the socialist camp. It was plagued by bitter internal dissensions. The last nail in the coffin of the Soviet-fashioned model of socialism was the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in the early 1990s.
Over the next decades, Russia and China managed to overcome their differences, and moved closer to each other to be able to emerge as a rival camp in the global arena to challenge the US-led West. But their rivalry with the West was never based on any ideological differences, or alternative models of socio-economic development. Both the camps followed the same capitalist . model of free market economy in their domestic spheres that allowed the emergence of billionaires, corrupt politicians and authoritarian rulers in their respective states. Thus we find mirror images of politicians like Trump, Putin, Xi, Modi among rulers in other states of the world – whether in the South, or even in the West where Right-wing populist leaders are coming to power. In the global financial market, Indian billionaires are rubbing shoulders with their counterparts from Russia and China. Ironically, both these countries at one time were identified with the dream of socialism !
Today’s reconfiguration of global powers and their allies
The present Russo-Ukrainian war is occurring in the context of another new reconfiguration of global powers. The two traditional contending camps – one the US-led alliance of the West and oil-rich Arab states, the other led by the Sino-Russian alliance – are undergoing a process of disturbing changes in the international scene. They are discarding some of their old partners and acquiring new ones. For instance, cracks have appeared in the US-led camp after the latest decision of the Saudi Arabia-led oil-producing countries of OPEC- plus (of which Russia is an important member) to cut down their oil production. This will further deprive the Western nations of their energy needs.
The US has therefore accused its old ally Saudi Arabia of siding with Russia. This signifies a crucial turn in the geo-political scenario. Is Saudi Arabia, which had traditionally been a loyal ally of the US, tilting towards Russia ? Such a speculation is further strengthened by a recent report about a Saudi prince who has brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine for swapping prisoners. (Re: `Why Saudi Arabia rebuffed Biden’s pleas for more oil ?’ Times of India, October 9, 2022).
Meanwhile, the Sino-Russian camp is seeking new allies. Russia’s Putin has struck up an alliance with his Iranian counterpart, president Ebrahim Raisi, who under the blessings of the religious fundamentalist Supreme Leader of his country, Ali Khamnei, has been supplying military drones to Russia. These drones are being used by Putin to target common citizens of Ukraine, destroying their lives and homes.
China’s role as a global usurer
Similarly China, the other member of the Sino-Russian camp, while continuing to pump financial aid and diplomatic support for its all-weather ally Pakistan, is also enlarging its camp of allies by wooing other states, extending its commercial influence and power in south and central Asia and Africa. But unlike Russia’s blatant militarist interventions to extend power, as in Syria and Ukraine, China is resorting to a sophisticated economic means – through the crafty tactics of financial blackmailing of poor developing states.
Beijing is luring these states into its fold by offering financial loans for developing infrastructural projects in their countries – loans which have to be paid back with interest to China after a fixed period. Under these inter-state treaties, these projects are usually allowed to be manned by Chinese contractors and fed by raw materials imported from China – since the host country may be lacking the expertise and the required resources. But the amount of payments for the Chinese experts and the imported materials that has to be borne by the host country, is deducted from the total amount of the Chinese loan that was given to the beneficiary state. Thus, the actual amount of the Chinese loan gets reduced by these deductions.
Over and above this, when the debtor country fails to pay the required amount, China bullies it into conceding economic or political privileges. This is how it obtained a 99 year lease over the proposed Hambantota International Port in Sri Lanka. Initially, the Exim Bank of China offered loans to Sri Lanka for building the port in 2007. But for various reasons, the project began to lose money and Colombo could no longer suffer the continuing burden of debt-servicing China, that was exhausting its exchequer. As its last resort, it had to submit to China’s demand for leasing out the port in exchange of the much needed readily offered cash.
Again in the same way, China has acquired control of the Port of Mombasa in Kenya. Earlier, it offered loans to Kenya to help it develop the port, with conditions of repayment. Kenya came close to default on Chinese loans in 2018, forcing it to relinquish its control over the port, and give it away to China. Through such financial blackmailing, China is usurping and occupying strategic maritime spots in the South Asian and African peninsula, thus extending its influence and power over these continents.
Further, Xi’s China is also entering the markets of Central Asia’s former Soviet republics like Turkmenistan, Kazhakistan, Kyrgistan, thus challenging the hitherto Russia control over them. This is creating friction with Putin’s Russia – thus fracturing the Sino-Soviet camp.
Flawed perception of the global conflict as between monolithic democracies and dictatorships
This global conflict between the two camps – the US-led West and the Sino-Russian axis – is often simplified as a war between democracy and dictatorship in popular perception. Thanks to the media propaganda, people tend to identify the former with democracy and the latter with dictatorship. But to come down to brass tracks, the US, the so-called champion of democracy, has had a long record of destroying democratic regimes and propping up dictatorships in its backyard in South America. Even beyond, it employed its CIA to stage a coup in distant Iran in 1953, whereby it ousted the democratically elected prime minister Mosaddegh to replace him with its puppet, the monarch Shah Pahlavi. It had no qualms in aligning with the despotic regime of Saudi Arabia which suppressed the democratic rights of its citizens. It went the whole hog in bolstering up a religious fanatic group, the Taliban, with military aid in order to overthrow a government in Afghanistan that was supported by its rival, the then Soviet Union.
The US thus claims to be a global power, supposedly entrusted with the responsibility of establishing `democratic’ regimes in other countries – a la the nineteenth century British colonial claim of the White Man’s burden to `civilize` the colonized people. It follows an aggressive foreign policy of intervention in other countries, described as `regime changing’ in the name of establishing democracy. It has designed a model of twin strategy for such intervention. At times, it can be through direct invasion (as in Iraq), at other times through an indirect route. This latter route has been followed by exploiting anti-incumbency sentiments in Left-ruled states in South America, by manipulating public demonstrations against their rulers – usually through its paid agents among the native population of these countries, in order to overthrow these regimes and replace them with Washington’s puppets.
Washington and Kremlin – fighting twins
Ironically, it is this model of US foreign policy, with all its aggressiveness and intrigues and manipulations, that has been exactly adopted by Putin’s Russia in its operations in Ukraine during the last several years, topped by its annexation of Crimea, which is followed by its present mode of conducting the war in Ukraine. The US and Russia, facing each other in Ukraine, can discover themselves as twins born of the same womb.
The dispute between the Sino-Russian-Iran-Saudi Arabian axis and the US-Western axis with its partners in other parts of the world, who are equally authoritarian and dictatorial as the Sino-Russian allies, is a conflict between two camps of ambitious global powers.
But as indicated above, neither of these two camps is monolithic. Cracks are already appearing in both the camps following the economic consequences of the continuing war in Ukraine. Some of the Western allies have expressed their reservations about the punitive sanctions imposed on Russia, as a result of which they are blocked from the cheap Russian energy supplies via pipeline. As for the other camp – the Sino-Russian axis and its supporters, the alliance appears to be rather shaky. As Russia increasingly faces reverses on the warfront in Ukraine, even its closest ally Chinese President Xi is becoming less vociferous in his support to Putin. His other bear-hugging friend in India, Narendra Modi, has also distanced himself from him by advising him to quit the `era of war,` and opt for peaceful dialogue. This mood was evident at the latest G-20 summit of the global powers in Indonesia, where the majority condemned the war in Ukraine and urged for immediate dialogue to end it.
Way out from a static confrontation ?
But how can a peaceful end be brought to the war in Ukraine ? It remains frozen within a cage – where two contending global camps are fighting with each other, at the expense of the common citizens of Ukraine. But sparks from within that cage are spreading out and the world economy is catching fire from them. How do we break open the doors of that cage, and release its inhabitants ?
There are signs of attempts at peace negotiations – with both Putin and Zelensky at times sending signals for such talks. In his latest message, Zelensky has laid down conditions for such talks – that Russia must relinquish the occupied areas of Ukraine, recompense the victims of its bombing attacks and punish its soldiers for the atrocities that it had committed. Russia has totally rejected these conditions.
Can there be a half-way house compromise – that will provide Putin with a face-saving device for retreating from Ukraine, and at the same time satisfy Zelensky with meeting some of his demands ? Can it be based on an agreement by both sides, Ukraine temporarily accepting the present status quo of the Russian annexed four Ukrainian regions, and Russia promising to hold a plebiscite soon in those regions under UN supervision to ascertain whether their citizens choose to remain in Ukraine or join Russia ? In the meantime, both the sides can agree to a cease-fire, each holding on to its respective zones of occupation.
While the European allies of the US which are economically suffering from the war can put pressure on Washington to persuade Zelensky to come to the table of negotiation, Beijing (also aware of the long term effects of the war that would adversely affect its ambitious trade and commercial interests in the global economy) can persuade Putin to sit at the table. A compromise could be worked on the above mentioned suggestions.
But even if this compromise may put an immediate end to the war, it will face other hurdles in the aftermath. Questions will be raised at international fora about the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine – condemned by the UN and other international human rights bodies. Shouldn’t Putin be hauled up before the International Court for War Crimes – as his predecessors, the rulers of Congo and Serbia ?
[In the midst of writing this article, I received Farooque Choudhury’s `Response…..’ (to an earlier article of mine) carried by Countercurrents on 4/11/22. I also received a response from Saral Sarkar (through Countercurrents again) who is my old school class friend from the Calcutta days of 1947-48, who is now settled in Germany. I am trying to respond to their queries – may be in a befuddled way – relating to the issues emerging from the background of the Ukraine war.]
Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).