From Ukraine to Baltics, Moscow seeks to extend sphere of influence
BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
Moscow's ongoing military intervention and collaboration with separatist forces battling Kiev for control of Ukraine's eastern regions, a fight that has taken more than 6,500 lives so far, is part of the Russian capitalist rulers' broader drive to establish a buffer zone in territories near the Russian border.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies call this area, including Crimea, Georgia, Moldova, Romania and the Balkans, Russia's "near abroad." Moscow's strategy has roots running back to Russia's defense against the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812.
Fear of Russian interference has pushed regimes in Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere to press NATO and Washington to demonstrate their commitment to defend them, as pledged under NATO membership. This has led to a series of recent NATO military exercises in the region and pledges from Washington to store heavy weapons there.
However, President Barack Obama's administration still seeks a "reset" with Moscow and has no intention of military confrontation in the region.
"It's not hard to believe that the U.S. and Russia might have the beginnings of a tacit understanding on Ukraine," Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg News July 20. "Obama last week praised Putin for 'compartmentalizing' helpfully on Iran. Putin, however, never gives anything away for free."
"From eastern Ukraine to Moldova, from meddling in Georgia to making Armenia dependent on Russia for its energy and security, not to speak of Russia's economic grip over Belarus, Moscow is carving out its spheres of influence," wrote Judy Dempsey, editor-in-chief of Strategic Europe, in a June 26 Newsweek article.
Kiev reports that about 8,000 Russian troops remain in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, despite Moscow's denials, and another 40,000 are stationed in expanding bases close to its borders.
Moscow's aim is not to annex these areas in Ukraine, as it did with Crimea in March 2014, but to advance its sphere of influence in countries bordering or close to Russia. Washington and imperialist powers in Europe have done little to alter this "let it bleed" approach in Ukraine. In June, Obama turned down the Ukrainian government's latest request for defensive weapons, including anti-tank missiles.
As the Ukrainian government's debt crisis mounts with deepening attacks on working people, Washington and European Union governments are holding back on supplying funds to cover Kiev's expenses. The EU has committed $5.5 billion in loans to Kiev compared to $218 billion for Greece. The U.S. has approved $3 billion in loan guarantees.
"Will this be remembered as the summer when the West let Ukraine die? It's beginning to look like it," noted a July 5 Washington Post opinion column by Jackson Diehl.
Washington and the EU have instead imposed economic sanctions on Russia whose brunt falls heaviest on working people.
Shortly after the Iran pact was announced, Moscow, in a move aimed at further strengthening its longstanding ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, said July 16 that it plans to send to Syria from its port of Kerch in Crimea 220,000 tons of liquefied petroleum gas per year, in addition to arms it exports to Damascus. Putin also proposed Washington and Moscow open talks on ways they can work together in Syria.
Moscow's 'near abroad'
The Russian president argues that military moves like its annexation of Crimea are designed to protect Russian citizens living in its "near abroad." This has alarmed governments of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which all border the Russian Federation and have significant Russian minorities.
In Narva, Estonia, just across a narrow river from Russia, more than one-third of the city's 60,000 residents are Russian citizens and just 4 percent are ethnic Estonians. If the Putin regime was to take over this area, it "would be a devastating blow to NATO's credibility," said a New Criterion article. "But, who in NATO really wants to die for Narva?"
The governments of the three Baltic states joined NATO a decade ago and have requested along with Polish officials that permanent brigades of NATO troops be stationed in their countries.
NATO has announced the formation of a 5,000-strong Very High Readiness Joint Task Force to be operational by January. Washington will make "enabling contribu-tions" — surveillance aircraft, weaponry and some Special Operations forces — with Germany and the Netherlands to supply the bulk of the forces, an unnamed senior defense official told the Washington Post.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the media June 22 the U.S. military would position heavy weapons for a military company or battalion on a temporary basis in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and the Baltic States, with the option to move it around the region for further training and military exercises.