Association Agreement with Ukraine increases chances of conflict

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Interviewed by Peter Sas and Hans van Heijningen


The Association Agreement with the EU offers little to Ukraine, says Kees van der Pijl, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the University of Sussex. This is especially true in the context of growing international tensions. “In America there are neoconservative groups aiming at regime change in Moscow and in order to achieve that they’re willing to risk a major war in Europe.”


Kees van der Pijl is known for his critical analyses of global capitalism, on which subject he has published a number of books, including the recent trilogy Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy (2007, 2010, 2014). At the same time he is one of the founders of the committee ‘War is no Solution’, which is actively speaking out against the Association Agreement with Ukraine. We spoke with him about the treaty’s dangers: the disastrous economic consequences for Ukraine and the way it will contribute to growing tensions between Russia and the West.


You’ve found seven other professors in the Netherlands and abroad prepared to become members of a committee to work for a no vote to the Association Agreement. How did that initiative come about?
It was actually an initiative of Oorlog is geen oplossing.nl (War is no solution.nl) which was established in the town of Twente in 2012 in response to the placing of Dutch Patriot missiles in Turkey. At that time we organised a picket in front of the Ministry of Defence. That initiative then grew into a national ‘War is no solution’ committee. Given that what we wanted was for the Netherlands to distance itself more from the US and NATO war policies, obviously we also spoke out against the Association Agreement with Ukraine, because this treaty increases the tensions between Russia and the West. With an eye on the coming referendum we decided therefore to conduct a No campaign and request a subsidy for this campaign from the Referendum Commission. We asked for €40,000, with which we could finance a paper, short films and appearances by speakers.  Such a request, however, had to come from a foundation duly registered and having its own bank account. That’s why we set up the Centre for Geopolitics. I proposed then that we also establish an Advisory Council with an academic profile, to give our campaign more weight. That’s why we asked a number of professors to participate.


You say that the Association Agreement with Ukraine increases the risk of war between Russia and the West. What’s the reason for that?
I do indeed fear that the civil war in Ukraine will escalate further and lead to a spiral of violence into which Russia and NATO could both be sucked. A number of factors play a role in this. Firstly, Russia has already warned the EU and NATO several times that the country will not tolerate any further  advance towards her borders. Early in 2008, during the security conference in Munich, Putin stated this explicitly in his speech. Moreover, he has in the past already indicated that he will not shy away from concrete actions to defend Russia’s interests. The referendum on the Crimea and its incorporation into the Russia Federation were clear examples of  this, as were Russia’s supply of weapons to the eastern Ukrainian rebels. But consider also the military conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008. When the Western-orientated president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, wanted to retake South Ossetia, Putin immediately hit back hard and cut the Georgian army to ribbons. That conflict made it  clear where Putin stood: this is the line, this far and no further. And that was only Georgia. Ukraine is many times more important to Russia. It has a number of modern industrial corporations, principally in the defence sector. So it’s naïve to think that Putin is going to stand idly by while Ukraine is brought into the Western sphere of influence.  


What are Russia’s interests in Ukraine?
Ukraine plays a very important role in Russia’s military-industrial complex. Crucial sections of the Russia armed forces are equipped with products manufactured there. Take the example of the Antonov aircraft in Kiev. But also the motors for helicopters, for submarines, for naval vessels, all of which are manufactured for Russia in Ukraine. Putin’s personal aeroplane was made in Ukraine. The Russian SS-18, a very large and heavy cruise missile, is maintained by the Ukrainian Yuzhmash factory. In addition, Russia’s armed forces are dependent on Ukraine for combat helicopters. These are all vital connections for Russia. If the Association Agreement with Ukraine goes through, these connections will be severed. That would mean disaster for the Russian army, as maintenance and other problems would quickly come to the surface, which Moscow would need years to overcome. That process is now already ongoing. A few weeks ago, for instance, the Antonov factory, where the world’s biggest aircraft are built, was detached from its joint venture partner in Russia. It seems to me that that has everything to do with the attempts by the West and anti-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine to get their hands on the country’s industrial inheritance, and thus remove it from Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin certainly won’t allow that to happen without a hell of a scrap. Not that I think that Putin is going to stamp on Ukraine militarily. Russia’s main desire is not to see Ukraine sink any further into troubles, because that would immediately hit Russia. Russia doesn’t want a neighbour where things are going from bad to worse. The Russians absolutely do not want their conflicts with the West to intensify, and will in the first instance go for a diplomatic solution. From where I’m sitting it seems that it’s mainly the Americans who want to bring the conflict in Ukraine to a head.


Is America out to start a war with Russia?
Not all Americans, of course, and not all American politicians. But we really need to realise that in the US elite neoconservative groups are active who are aiming to bring about regime change in Moscow and who are prepared to risk a major war in Europe for this. The potential conflict in Ukraine between Russia and the West fits very well into that scenario. The prominent American opinion-former Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of State for Finance from the Reagan period, warns explicitly of this. He points to the significance of the neoconservative Wolfowitz doctrine. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Paul Wolfowitz, at the time Assistant Secretary of State for Defence, suggested that the US had ten to fifteen years to replace the remaining regimes which had been on the Soviet side during the Cold War, such as those of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi, with western-oriented regimes. Why within ten to fifteen years? Because after that period a new challenger to the West would arise, namely China.  Before that time arrived, US hegemony in the world must therefore be strongly anchored, Wolfowitz answered.  When Yeltsin became President of Russia, it was thought that regime change was a fait accompli. But Putin drew a line through this. Making use of authoritarian means the strong state is back in Russia, to the outrage of the West. Regime change in Russia therefore remains on the US agenda, and moreover not only that of neoconservative politicians. Someone like Hillary Clinton also, for example, has spoken openly in favour of this. Russia itself is therefore not all that eager for a military conflict with the West, but it can well see that the neoconservative powers are aiming for that. Which brings us to the Ukraine’s importance. The Americans understand very well that if you want you want to bring Russia as it exists now to its knees, you have to get eastern Ukraine out of its sphere of influence, precisely because the Russian armed forces to a large extent support all those factories there.


But Europe’s interest in this Association Agreement is nevertheless not military in nature?
No, as far as that’s concerned there’s a big gap between the US and Europe when it comes to Ukraine. The EU has above all a great deal to gain economically in Ukraine. The Association Agreement includes, for example, a mutual investment treaty with complete freedom to invest in Europe, but that is of course a farce. Ukrainian industrialists are nowhere near sufficiently capitalised to be able to invest in the West. So what it mainly means is that European capital will get its knees under the table in Ukraine.  Around 44.3 million people live In Ukraine, so it’s potentially a major market for European corporations. Ukraine is moreover the country with ‘black soil’, the richest agricultural land in Europe, perhaps indeed in the entire world. It also had one of the world’s biggest acreages. That offers unique opportunities for European agribusiness. One of the provisions of the Association Agreement is therefore also that the obstacles to genetically modified agricultural products can be removed. As things stand GMOs are still banned in Ukraine. But it’s not only the European agricultural sector which has an interest in opening up Ukraine. In the eastern Ukraine a huge amount of shale gas has been found, which a company like Shell will want to get its hands on. Ukraine is a relatively modern country with on the one hand a developed industrial sector and on the other a steel industry and coal mines in its east which have absolutely no chance of being able to compete with Germany, so that sector will to a large extent be driven out of business. But the jewels that lie among these – such as the aircraft industry and the ultramodern companies which supply the Russian armed forces – will be bought out for a song by European corporations, given that Ukraine is bankrupt. Europe sees principally an economic opportunity, the US first and foremost its military-strategic interest. That doesn’t alter the fact also that the economic consequences of the Association Agreement will have an indirect influence on the military conflict in Ukraine. European firms driving Ukrainian industry out of business via competition will lead to hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed workers. And all of these unemployed people will be potential recruits for the current civil war, which as a result threatens to escalate still further.


For the Ukraine itself, then, will the Association Agreement with the EU provide nothing at all?
No, because in addition Ukraine is so economically dependent on Russia. If Russia withdraws from Ukraine as a result of the Association Agreement, it will be an economic disaster for the country. In 2014 three million Ukrainians were still working in Russia, but the civil war means that that figure is ever decreasing. Unemployment is growing as the bonds between Ukraine and Russia are further loosened. But Ukraine is also economically dependent on Russia in other respects. The reason why the oligarchs from eastern Ukraine want good relations with Russians is not out of love for Russia, but because their factories simply could not continue to function without subsidised gas from Russia.  That was also the reason why in 2013 President Yanukovych in the end refused to put his signature to the Association Agreement with the EU. Putin had had him work out through his advisors how Ukraine would go under if the country was opened up to western investors. If a country such as Greece, which is nine times richer per capita than Ukraine, has been dragged into an economic abyss by Europe’s neoliberal policies, then that will certainly happen to Ukraine. That’s why it’s so stupid to think that the Association Agreement will work as a sort of Marshall Plan for Ukraine, as some of its supporters assert.  In doing so they are referring to the rebuilding of a devastated Europe after the Second World War. Looked at superficially this seems a sympathetic idea. The Ukrainian economy does after all find itself in just that kind of hole. The Russians have also themselves again to contend with economic difficulty because of the sanctions and are therefore in no condition to get the Ukrainian economy back on its feet. So western capital is needed and the Association Agreement provides it. But on closer inspection it’s quite perverse to compare western investment in Ukraine with the US Marshall Plan. That was connected at the time with the model of the Keynesian welfare state. The prevailing economic ideology is now, however, completely different. We are now living in the age of neoliberalism. What Europe is going to bring to Ukraine isn’t any kind of Marshall Plan but a cold financial capitalism which will lead to an enormous increase in poverty.


Peter Sas writes for the Dutch Socialist Party monthly Spanning, from which this interview has been translated by Spectre editor Steve McGiffen. Hans van Heijningen is national secretary of the Dutch Socialist Party.