Will the crisis in Ukraine lead to a total war?


Now that president Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine has decided to resume the offensive against the rebels in the eastern, Russian-speaking provinces of Donetsk en Lugansk with all guns blazing, the question arises whether this conflict can possibly degenerate into a larger war. It has been argued by Paul Craig Roberts that the United States are in fact looking to provoke a large conflict with Russia. Roberts was undersecretary of the treasury in the Reagan administration and also was on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Since then he held a number of academic positions. Roberts has meanwhile turned into a severe critic, not just of Washington’s financial and monetary policies, but also of its foreign policy.


His argument is that the US is preparing a nuclear surprise attack on Russia. That is also the purpose of the deployment of an anti-missile system intended to neutralise a Russian retaliatory attack, a system that became operational after George W. Bush signed the order for its deployment in 2002. Recently a second anti-missile frigate of the US Navy arrived in Spain and missile defence batteries are also set up in eastern Europe, purportedly against Iran and North Korea. Why these countries, assuming they really intend to attack the United States, would choose a trajectory for their (actually non-existent) intercontinental ballistic missiles that crosses north Poland, is of course not entirely clear. 

However, it will be reassuring to know that according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the American missile shield for the moment is not exactly up and running. Tests regularly misfire—five out of eight of the costly test launches conducted after the system became operational in 2004, were failures. These tests were conducted by batteries located in the US itself, of which there are 4 in California en 26 in Fort Greely in Alaska (again those devilish Iranians and North Koreans—want to hit America via Alaska of course!). Under the new rules of Bush’s defence policy in the aftermath of 9/11, the missile shield was absolved from the normal research and test procedures by defence secretary Rumsfeld, so it was introduced straightaway. Good news for Boeing and Raytheon, which manufacture the anti-missiles and the test targets, respectively; bad news for the tax payer. 

There is no need to doubt that the Russians feel threatened. In spite of solemn promises made to Gorbachev at the time of German reunification, NATO has advanced to the borders of Russia proper. After the coup in Kiev the Ukrainian crisis has been seized upon to effectively scuttle the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, the consolation prize for Yeltsin to make the advance acceptable. 

Under the NRFA NATO commits not to permanently deploy foreign troops in the former Warsaw Pact states and Soviet republics—which has meanwhile happened in order to ‘protect’ the Baltic states against the Russian bear now that the prospective inclusion of Ukraine and the Crimea (with the Sebastopol naval base of the Russian Black Sea fleet) has been so cruelly derailed. 

NATO meanwhile need not worry about public opinion at this end. It is being kept in high gear by a sustained campaign to demonise Putin as the new devil incarnate. A low point in this respect was an article by Olaf Tempelman in the Dutch daily, De Volkskrant, entitled ‘Putin on the scale of Milosevic’ in which the author speculates on the day that the Russian president will be brought to The Hague as a prisoner.


In fact even this clumsy pro-NATO campaign misses the point entirely. Whether a conflict in a country that disobeys Washington, leads to war, according to the Iranian author Ismael Hossein-Zadeh in a piece on Asia Times Online depends on something completely different. What matters is whether there exists in the country in question an oligarchic elite that seeks a rapprochement with the West. 

Precisely on that score we may, for the moment at least, dismiss the sombre predictions of Paul Craig Roberts. For as the journalist, Chrystia Freeland, writes, whether they reside in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, the superrich of today increasingly constitute a nation onto themselves. 

The citizens of that ‘nation’ may have all kinds of differences, no doubt. Yet under no circumstance do they want to let these degenerate into an uncontrollable conflict. 

In countries like Iraq and Lybia, Hossein-Zadeh argues, there were no billionaire oligarchs who wanted to do business with the West—and that meant war. In Ukraine and Iran, and in the background, in Russia too, such oligarchs are present in force, and their highest aspiration is to be a citizen of the ‘nation of the superrich’. 

In Iran, this transpires in the readiness of men like Rouhani and Rafsanjani to forego the estimated $40 billion that the country has invested over the years in its nuclear energy programme. In order to make the negotiations succeed they are willing to forget about the embargo imposed on the country, or the sabotage including assassinations of its nuclear scientists. And yet, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Iran is fully entitled to peaceful nuclear programme. 

Likewise in Ukraine, Achmetov, Firtash, and now Poroshenko are willing (notwithstanding their mutual differences, which are serious enough) to sacrifice the welfare and unity of the country in order to achieve their aspiration to belong to the club. Poroshenko’s choice for war may prove a short-sighted mistake when it comes to it, because his natural partners have their headquarters in the EU, not in the US or with NATO.

Russia finally also is being governed by oligarchs, in an alliance with the security apparatus, the army, and the Orthodox Church, and with Putin as the leader who has been able to attach these interests to his person. In addition he represents a solid majority among the population and yet his ‘resistance’ to Western pressures is remarkably restrained. Even upon the conclusion of the large gas contract with China, there were some mutterings about payment in currencies other than the US dollar, but nothing more.

Saddam Hussein wanted payment for oil in Euros, Gaddafi in gold dinars. Both men are dead. The aforementioned oligarchs on the other hand want to belong to the rich men’s club first of all. And although things can still run out of hand, this works as a powerful break on a total conflict.

Kees van der Pijl

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