Militarism, Nationalism and the Crisis in Ukraine

Demonstrators in Maidan Square, Kiev
Demonstrators and police face off
By Nathan Paulsen
March, 2014

The jockeying for position between Russian and U.S. governments in Ukraine has dominated headlines since the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late February. In the writing to follow Nathan Paulsen highlights recent events and places them in a broader context of US militarism.


US militarism has long been the brute physical force underlying a global economic order that systematically privileges US capital vis-à-vis state rivals, not to mention the vast bulk of humanity. The 19th and early 20th centuries were the period of U.S. gunboat diplomacy, which secured its control over the Americas, and wide swaths of the Pacific, while European powers conducted their “Partition of Africa.”

A lot has changed since those earlier colonial days. With the historic gains of the independence movements in the post-World War II period, such direct military power grabs are more difficult to orchestrate and come with higher costs – as both France and the United States discovered in Vietnam. In fact, since Vietnam the United States has generally found it less costly to maintain its empire through a combination of “free” trade and aid agreements, proxy wars, and support for friendly elites in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These measures have the added advantage of being less visible on the world stage than naval destroyers. This new reality was confirmed yet again when recent efforts to undo the “Vietnam syndrome” in Afghanistan and Iraq simply reinforced the popular desire to avoid armed conflict.  

And the same dynamic informs current events. The sentiment that sovereignty ought to be respected allowed US officials to mobilize opinion against the Kremlin when Russia recently annexed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine. As Secretary of State John Kerry – himself a key Congressional ally of the Bush administration war on Iraq - so ironically asserted, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.”( U.S. moralizing about national sovereignty is an odd spectacle, in view of this country’s extensive drone assassination program, which operates in a score of countries, often without their governments’ consent, or even knowledge)

Indeed, things are not the same as they were in the 19th century, when naked land and power grabs were the norm. But the link between militarism and empire is as robust as ever – as is the contest between modern states to carve up the world for national and corporate exploitation of peoples and earth. 


After the rise of a right wing nationalist regime in Kiev oriented decidedly toward the West, Russia sent an occupying army into Crimea, which is home to a strategically important Russian naval unit (i.e. the Black Sea fleet) and represents a key site for international maritime trade. With Russian forces visible en masse throughout the peninsula, a March 16 referendum was passed in which Crimean officials reported 82% turnout with over 96% voting in favor of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. The Russian Federation quickly assented to this “request” for annexation. (Although ethnic Russians are the majority in Crimea, about 24% of the population is ethnically Ukrainian and another 12% ethnically Tatar; Tatars in particular are thought to have widely boycotted the referendum. The Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group native to the Crimean peninsula who suffered persecution under Russian and then Soviet rule, culminating in a 1944 mass deportation ordered by Stalin.)

With the annexation complete, eastern Ukraine - where there is a majority Russian speaking population - has come under increasing pressure. Nationalism on both sides of the divide has been whipped into a frenzy erupting into violence on a number of occasions. Nationalist prejudice threatens to escalate the conflict in the weeks ahead as Kiev and its Western backers compete with the Kremlin for power in a country experiencing deep economic turmoil. It is worth mentioning that eastern Ukraine has significantly more industrial and manufacturing strength than the western portion of the country. 


As imperial powers are wont to do, the US government has put itself in the middle of the fray. Why else spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually supporting a military apparatus with hundreds of outposts around the globe, if not to project power and influence events?

In hope of securing a favorable geopolitical outcome —by consolidating the power of a Western-friendly regime in Kiev and preempting further Russian incursions into Ukrainian territory — the US government has provided the newly-minted Kiev leadership with diplomatic and material support. On March 12 Obama met and photo-opped with recently appointed interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Ukraine. The Obama administration successfully organized to boot Russia from the G-8 economic summit, which began March 24. On March 27 the UN General Assembly declared the referendum that led to the annexation of Crimea to be invalid.

Together these measures – and the propaganda attending them from US officials – likely have emboldened the fledgling Kiev government and supported the nationalist narrative that has inflamed tensions and deepened the crisis for ordinary Ukrainians.  


Parallel to Obama administration attempts to isolate Russia politically has been a concerted financial effort to support the solvency of Kiev while causing the Putin regime economic pain. On March 27, the US government approved a $1 billion aid package to Kiev. Japan has promised $1.5 billion and the European Union has pledged $1.6 billion. The International Monetary Fund stepped in with $14 - $18 billion in additional monies. With the IMF loan more funds are likely to be freed up bringing the total to some $27 billion over two years. (Kiev’s debt is expected to rise from $80 billion to over $100 billion this summer.) The IMF loan is contingent on the Ukrainian government taking austerity measures that will let its currency float downward and cut state subsidies for energy. In addition, IMF terms dictate sharp cuts to state employment and pensions as well as privatization of government assets. As a sign of good faith to its new Western backers Kiev announced that energy prices will rise 50% on May 1 and subsidies will be done away with completely by 2016. Whereas ordinary workers will pay a heavy price for Western “aid,” the loans themselves prioritize the concerns of Western banks by servicing their debt payments.        

In this manner, US and European capital, allied with Ukrainian oligarchs, are attempting to lay the economic crisis on the back of Ukrainian workers by eroding their standard of living to pay the debts of a corrupt regime. The inspiring Maiden protests that toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych – and whose encampments have yet to disband – were driven by anger generated by the sharp downturn that has ravaged the incomes and security of poor and working Ukrainians while billionaires dominate the political landscape. Having rid themselves of one corrupt government,  Ukrainians now face a regime intent on savagely cutting social supports and leaning even more heavily on the oligarchs for governance.

For ordinary Ukrainians, IMF austerity is no less a weapon than sanctions or bombs. As if to demonstrate that the Russian government’s disdain for the welfare of Ukrainians matches the contempt of US and European governments, Russian state companies cut off subsidies for energy and demanded huge debt payments from Ukraine just as the IMF austerity is scheduled to take effect.

The economic punishment of Russia that has been crafted by Western states - with the US in the lead - has been advertised as affecting only those responsible for the annexation of Crimea. But these economic sanctions have proven to be about as accurate as “precision guided” missile systems. Although the sanctions implemented by the US government and European Union name specific Russian and Crimean officials, their consequence is much more far-reaching. If tensions continue, capital flight from Russia is expected to reach $100 billion this year and to push the Russian economy from its present slow growth into recession. Already more capital has left Russia in the first quarter than in all of last year. In other words, open threats of sector-wide sanction  are having devastating impacts on everyday Russians who have no voice or power in the Russian state.

Obama seemed to recognize this as an intended effect of the economic war his regime has declared on Russia: “[Russia will not be] dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force. But with time, so long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve security, prosperity, and the status they seek through brute force," he said. (My emphasis.) Never mind that “the Russian people” control their government even less than we control Washington. 

With the potential for an economic tit-for-tat that includes Russian manipulation of European natural gas supplies – which is an outlier concern in the current scenario - the Obama administration is under pressure to fast track the development of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and is using the opportunity itself to promote passage of the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) on the grounds it will speed this process. TAFTA has been roundly opposed on the left as a device to further empower corporations, weaken living standards and devastate local ecologies, as NAFTA has already done, but on a much larger scale. 

In this way the crisis between US and Russian state rivals[RAG3] , each pursuing its own strategic interest without regard for ordinary Ukrainians, is setting the stage for policies that promise a bonanza in corporate profits - and ruin for the rest of us. Critics rightfully contend that building expensive LNG terminals will lock the US into production of carbon-intensive energy for generations to come, even as dire warnings of climate-change-induced social crisis grow. The terminals rely heavily on fracked natural gas whose life cycle carbon emissions from ground to consumption through LNG exports likely is worse than coal.

Reinforcing this message of putting environmental concerns on the backburner when addressing security issues that stem from a militarized world. Obama used a closed door meeting with top European leaders to urge Europe to rapidly accelerate investment in shale gas and nuclear power despite popular opposition.


With Putin already in possession of broad war authority to act in Ukraine, Russia has massed up to 35 - 40,000 soldiers on the border – including the establishment of supply lines and a mix of military units suggestive of possible occupying force. Earlier in the month Ukraine called up reserve forces and threatened resistance to additional Russian incursions on Ukrainian territory; however, those forces are no match for a sophisticated Russian military and unlikely to be deployed. Although there is bipartisan agreement that military intervention is not an option in Ukraine, in recent days the United States has conducted large scale war games with NATO allies in countries bordering Russia and pledged to build up NATO forces in the region.

The military build up is backdrop for the Paris talks in the concluding days of this month between Kerry and his Russian counterpart. In a scene that has been repeated hundreds of times over the years, there was perhaps no better illustration of the arrogance of powerful capitalist states than the spectacle of Russia and the United States negotiating the fate of a third sovereign nation.


The rapid pace of events and distorted media coverage have left confusion in their wake. At the root of the crisis is the economic disorder that has roiled Ukraine in recent years and now is spiraling into depression (the Ukrainian economy is expected to contract 5 – 15% in 2014-2015). The power to address the crisis rests in the hands of ordinary Ukrainians whose mass action made history with the departure of Mr. Yanukovych. In the immediate aftermath of those successful protests, nationalists and organized right wing forces – whose militias Kiev is now attempting to disband - took advantage of the power vacuum left by the lack of a strong labor movement that might have been able to overcome ethnic divides and lead a progressive fight around common economic issues.

With the Maidan demonstration continuing and a series of hugely unpopular measures put in place by a fragile interim regime soon to take effect, there continues to be space for the revolt to widen and take on a more progressive character. Clearly there is little hope of overcoming the billionaire oligarchs or their state backers – whether US or Russian - without the broad unity of ordinary Ukrainians.    

The democratic space for that solidarity to develop closes more each day Russian and US governments exacerbate nationalist tensions to serve their own strategic interests in Ukraine. Unlike the gunboat diplomacy of the past (which remains always a future possibility), when colonial powers directly competed using military force for control of strategic territories, Russia and the US almost certainly will not meet on a battlefield over the Ukrainian crisis.

Nonetheless their competition for supremacy in the region is an extension of the aggressive pursuit of “national” interests that fuels more overt forms of militarism. Just as US economic growth of the past few years has almost exclusively benefited the top 1% of income "earners," competition between capitalist states in the international arena harms everybody but the tiny clique of rulers who come out on top. In the course of divvying up the globe to one or another elite, nationalism acts to unite the oppressed with their oppressors in common cause against oppressed people who happen to reside across borders. In the US, corporate power calls us to get behind expanded NATO military forces in Eastern Europe, LNG terminals and a destructive free trade agreement to meet the “Russian” threat. Similarly, ordinary Ukrainians and Russians are encouraged to fight with one another rather than join in common cause to overthrow the rule of the Western bankers and local oligarchs who plunder their wealth.

There are ways to oppose this kind of militarist nationalism. This April 15th, 2014 has been declared a Global Day of Action against Militarism. Take a look at War Times’ Take Action section to see how you can get involved.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

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