WSWS for apr 14

US, NATO step up threats against Russia, turning Black Sea region into a powder keg
Clara Weiss, WSWS, Apr 14 2021

A Ukrainian soldier near Donetsk, Apr 12 2021. (Photo:AP)

The US and NATO are dangerously escalating threats against Russia over Ukraine. On Tuesday, Stoltenberg insisted that NATO would decide on Ukraine’s NATO membership and that Ukraine, which has been pushing for accelerated admission, had a right “to apply for membership.” He denounced Russia for allegedly moving its troops toward the Ukrainian border, calling the move “unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning.” Both Stoltenberg and Blinken met in Brussels with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who urged that Ukraine be admitted to NATO. A day before, CNN published a video report with Zelensky, who also insisted that NATO admit Ukraine as soon as possible, even at the risk of an escalation of the conflict with Russia. Later on Tuesday, Biden spoke with Putin, again stressing US support for Ukraine. He also proposed a summit in the coming months to discuss US-Russia relations and urged Russia to “de-escalate” the situation. In reality, it is NATO and Ukraine that have been aggressively escalating tensions in the region. Immediately underlying the current flare-up of conflict was the adoption of a strategy to “retake” Crimea by the Zelensky government, and open discussions of a Ukrainian offensive in East Ukraine. Both were tantamount to declaring that Ukraine was preparing for all-out war with Russia. The Ukrainian government launched these provocations just weeks after Democratic President Joe Biden took office, who has embarked on an aggressive course against both Russia and China. The US is now deploying two warships to the Black Sea through Turkish straits, starting Apr 14. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, NATO has amassed 40k troops and 15k items of military equipment along Russia’s borders, above all in the Black Sea region and the Baltics.

Map of the Black Sea

On Tuesday, NATO launched Locked Shields 2021, which has been described as the largest cyber war exercise in the world. Focused in the Baltics, it involves NATO practicing how to protect civilian and military infrastructure, such as water treatment and energy facilities, in case of international conflict. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has responded to the provocative statements by representatives of the US government by calling the US an “adversary.” He denounced the US deployment of two warships, warning the US “to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good.” Russia is now conducting military exercises on its southern front, and in the Black Sea. The actions by NATO, above all the threats of Ukrainian NATO membership, are extraordinarily reckless provocations, directly posing the risk of war between nuclear-armed Russia and the NATO powers. Russia has long warned that NATO membership of Ukraine would cross a red line. Since the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, despite promises to the contrary, NATO has expanded ever closer to Russia’s borders, including Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states. It was also as part of the encirclement of Russia that the US and Germany organized two coups in Ukraine, in 2004 and 2014. The Black Sea region is an important component of US strategy, aimed at countering both Russia and China. A recent report by the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis think tank (CEPA) stressed:

Growing Russian (and Chinese) influence in the BSR [Black Sea region] affects wider Western interests in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia.

The report, authored by a former commander of US Army Europe, urged NATO to “invite Georgia into NATO and put Ukraine on a fast track to membership.” It further advocated that the Russian Black Sea fleet should be made “vulnerable” off the coast of Crimea, including through “the deployment of drones and cruise missiles … and the deployment of mine-laying capability.” Other recent think tank reports have stressed the need to counter the influence of China in the region, which has established close economic relations with several countries, including Ukraine. Precisely because of the intersection of various geopolitical conflicts and interests, the crisis in the Black Sea region has the potential to trigger a catastrophic regional, and even global war. Already, the conflict has drawn in Turkey, Poland and Belarus. This weekend, Erdogan met with Zelensky, endorsing the belligerent “Crimean Platform.” Moreover, it is only thanks to the permission granted by Ankara that the US is legally able to deploy its warships to the Black Sea. Before the meeting, Putin had called Erdogan, explicitly urging him to not back Ukraine in the conflict and to not scrap the 1936 Montreux convention which regulates passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, limiting warship deployments. The Montreux convention is seen as critical by Russia’s ruling class to prevent the Black Sea from becoming “an American lake,” as one State Duma deputy put it. On Monday, Russia suspended all air travel with Turkey, citing the explosion of coronavirus cases in the country. While other countries, including the UK, have also ended air travel to Turkey because of the pandemic, commentators speculate that the move was a response to Erdogan’s backing of Zelensky.

There have also been troop movements in Belarus and Poland. Earlier this week, the Polish government reportedly began sending troops to its borders with Belarus. Warsaw has denied that the deployment had anything to do with the crisis in the Black Sea. However, it comes just over a week after Russia reportedly sent troops to the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. On Tuesday, the Belarusian Defense Ministry summoned the attaché of the Polish embassy after an unidentified aircraft had violated Belarusian airspace on the Polish-Belarusian border. Tensions between Belarus and Poland have grown in recent months as Warsaw has openly supported the anti-Lukashenko opposition. Warsaw is also closely aligned with the Ukrainian government of Zelensky, whose “Crimean Platform” Warsaw supports, and the NATO war drive against Russia. By contrast, President Alexander Lukashenko, besieged by mass protests that initially also encompassed significant sections of the working class, has recently turned to the Russian oligarchy for political and military support, endangering Belarus’ earlier close ties with Kiev.

The current war crisis starkly underlies the disastrous outcome of the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the culmination of the decades-long betrayal of the October revolution by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Three decades after the restoration of capitalism, living standards of the working class everywhere have been decimated, and endless wars by US imperialism have devastated much of MENA. The FSU itself has been turned into a geopolitical powder keg. The working class has no interest in the catastrophic wars that are being prepared. Already, hospitals across the region are overwhelmed and thousands are dying every day from COVID-19 because of the criminal response of the ruling class to the pandemic. In the US, more people have died from the pandemic than in both world wars combined. In Ukraine itself there is enormous popular hostility to any continuation, let alone expansion, of the conflict with Russia. However, the opposition to imperialist war within the international working class must be armed with a political program and leadership. Foreseeing the beginning of a new period of wars and social revolution, the IC4I organized a Conference of Workers against Imperialist War and Colonialism in Berlin in Nov 1991. The Manifesto, issued almost exactly 30 years ago to rally for the conference, on May 1 1991, concluded:

The defeat of imperialism and the menace of colonialism and war can be guaranteed only through the international unification of the working class. This unity can be achieved only through the building of the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

Taiwan, semiconductor manufacture and the US conflict with China
Peter Symonds, WSWS, Apr 14 2021

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen walks to her inauguration ceremony in Taipei, May 20, 2020.

A rash of op-ed comments, reports and warnings in Washington over the past month have raised the danger of a catastrophic war between the US and China over Taiwan in the not-too-distant future. All the increasingly bellicose anti-China propaganda accusing Beijing of planning to invade Taiwan ignores Washington’s provocative actions in deliberately stoking potentially the most explosive flashpoint in Asia. The US is accelerating its confrontation with China, which began with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” and was intensified on all fronts under Trump. Any suggestion that Biden, who played an active role as vice-president in Obama’s “pivot” against China, would ease tensions has been rapidly dispelled. Biden has elevated the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, a quasi-military alliance involving the US, Japan, Australia and India—by holding the first ever leaders’ meeting on Mar 12. The Quad summit was followed by an extraordinary altercation at a top-level meeting between US and Chinese officials in Alaska, provoked by Blinken’s castigation of China across a range of concocted issues. Taiwan, however, has rapidly emerged as the focus of war tensions, eclipsing the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. In testimony to the US Congress last month, the outgoing head of the Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phil Davidson warned of a US war with China over Taiwan in the next six years. His replacement Admiral John Aquilino told his confirmation hearing that such a war was “much closer than most think.”

While Davidson and Aquilino warned of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it is the US that is upsetting the fragile balance in the Taiwan Strait established in 1979 when Washington ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of relations with Beijing, which it recognised under the “One China” policy as the legitimate government of all China, including Taiwan. The US is building ties with Taiwan that fly in the face of the “One China” policy—previous restrictions on contact between US and Taiwanese officials have been junked and moves are being made for closer military collaboration. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US is committed to supplying Taiwan with supposedly defensive weaponry, and a major expansion of sales took place under Trump. The Act also contained an ambiguous commitment by the US to support Taiwan militarily in a conflict with China. Anti-China hawks are pressing for the US to end this “strategic ambiguity” in favour of “strategic clarity”—that is, a guarantee akin to a military alliance to go to war with China over Taiwan. All this poses a direct threat to China. Taiwan is just 130 kilometres from the Chinese mainland at its narrowest point. Small, heavily fortified, Taiwanese-controlled islets lie just kilometres from major Chinese cities. Beijing has repeatedly warned that it would use military force to reunify Taiwan if the government in Taipei ever declared formal independence from China, a step that could be encouraged by US guarantees of military and diplomatic support.

While the strategic and military importance of Taiwan in any conflict between the US and China is evident, not so obvious is the crucial role that the relatively small country of just 24m people plays in the global economy through the manufacture of semiconductor chips. The mass production of computer chips is essential to everything from smart phones, laptops and vehicles to cutting-edge applications, such as artificial intelligence, supercomputers and quantum computing, that augur what some have termed the “fourth industrial revolution.” One giant corporation, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), accounts for about 55% of international chip production, but its dominance rises to 90% when it comes to the most advanced chips. US companies such as Apple and Qualcomm and their counterparts in Japan, Europe and other countries continue to design chips but have outsourced their production to TSMC fabrication facilities or “foundries.” The huge costs of chip production have accelerated, resulting in companies contracting TSMC to manufacture their chips. TSMC is now building an enormous new “foundry” in southern Taiwan at an estimated cost of $20b to produce the next generation of 3nm chips, which are predicted to be 70% faster in computing and more power-efficient than the currently most-advanced 5nm chips. TSMC’s stranglehold is considered virtually unassailable. An FT article published in February, entitled “Geopolitical supremacy will increasingly depend on computer chips,” commented:

Most other semiconductor companies have dropped out of the race to manufacture 3nm chips due to the stratospheric costs. It will now be hard for any rival to catch up with TSMC because of its vast capital spending, its technological expertise, its network of suppliers and its support from the Taiwanese government. Only Samsung of South Korea is visible in its rear-view mirror. TSMC’s virtual monopoly of advanced chip production has obvious military implications. If military capability in previous centuries was built on breech-loading rifles, warships or atomic bombs, it may well depend in the 21st century on the smartest use of advanced chips.

Such chips are essential for everything from the artificial intelligence built into the latest generation of warplanes to missile guidance systems and computer modelling of trajectories. The Pentagon has long pressed from the establishment of comparable chip “foundries” in the US to ensure supplies of these vital components in the event of war. Similar military calculations are being made in other capitals as the US-led war drive against China intensifies the danger of conflict. The Trump administration’s decision to cut off supplies of chips to the Chinese technology giant Huawei, which included pressure on TSMC to do the same, undoubtedly triggered shockwaves in Beijing. China imports all but 15% of its chips, especially of the most advanced chips. It spends more on imported semiconductors than oil. US economic warfare against Huawei will only spur Beijing to spend even more to build domestic capacity. Restrictions have also been placed on one of China’s largest chip-makers, the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, and more recently, by the Biden administration, on three Chinese companies associated with the production of supercomputers as well as four branches of China’s National Supercomputing Centre. Ironically, the ban on Huawei played a significant role in the current acute global shortage of chips, because Huawei spent billions stockpiling before it came into effect.

The strategic significance of chip manufacture was underscored yesterday when the Biden administration convened a virtual meeting of key companies over chip shortages and the need for domestic US chip production. Biden touted his $2t infrastructure plan, as well as congressional moves to provide $50b in funding for chip production, as incentives to expand manufacture in the US. TSMC had a seat at the virtual table. It is already establishing a $12b chip foundry in Arizona and facilities in Japan, which is concerned about its own lack of domestic chip manufacture. However, the Arizona facility is being geared up to produce 5nm chips, which will already be dated when the new TSMC plant in southern Taiwan starts making 3nm chips in 2023. Intel is planning to expand its chip production in the US. But the difficulties of attempting to catch up with TSMC are highlighted by the fact that Intel, currently the main US chip manufacturer, is also planning to outsource some of its chip production to TSMC for the first time. Biden’s infrastructure plans face opposition in the US Congress, threatening to dilute chip manufacture funding. Moreover, even if the $50b in funding is passed, this may well fall far short of what is required. TSMC recently announced plans to spend more than $100b to maintain its dominant position. As cited in a Politico article on the White House meeting, James Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Washington-based CSIS, commented:

I think people are still hoping we can stay ahead of China without spending any money, and it’s just not going to work. If you intend to compete with China and other countries on infrastructure and semiconductor research and production, then you need to spend money, and Congress has not quite shifted out of a peacetime mode of thinking.

Lewis reflects the wartime thinking that now dominates military and strategic circles in Washington as it prepares for war with China, which is viewed as the chief threat to the global domination of US imperialism. Admiral Davidson in his congressional testimony last month emphasised the need for a massive expansion of military spending in the Indo-Pacific and in particular for the installation of ground-based intermediate range missiles. Supply chains of strategic items such as chips were the subject of discussion at the Quad meeting last month. TSMC’s role in chip manufacture is by no means the only factor that has rapidly brought Taiwan into sharp relief in US strategic planning, but it is certainly an important one. The US is determined to maintain a predominance over a critical choke point in the supply of semiconductors for its military and economy. Its moves to strengthen ties with Taiwan will only further fuel tensions with China, heightening the danger of war between the two nuclear-armed powers.

German and US defence ministers announce increased troop deployment to Germany
Peter Schwarz, WSWS, Apr 14 2021

Blinken waits for Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels, Apr 13 2021. (Photo: Johanna Geron/AP)

The US and Germany want to return to close military cooperation. This was the pledge made by US Sef Def Austin and German Minister of Defence Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer following a meeting in Berlin. Austin promised to increase the number of troops deployed to Germany by 500 instead of cutting the deployment by 12k as the Trump administration had planned. Austin is the first Biden administration official to visit Berlin. He travelled from Israel and will travel on to Brussels and London to consult with leaders of NATO and the British government after a brief stopover with American troops in Germany. At a joint press conference, Austin and Kramp-Karrenbauer sought to outdo each other with professions of friendship. They carefully avoided discussing controversial topics. Austin recalled his military service as a young lieutenant in Germany and invoked the “common values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” The stationing of 500 additional troops in the Wiesbaden area, according to the former general, would strengthen defence and deterrence in Germany, make available more capacity for the waging of war in space, cyberspace, and electronically, and “increase the readiness to fight and win.” Germany will continue to be an important economic and security partner for years to come, promised Austin. The strengthening of relations with Germany has a high priority for the Biden-Harris government, he continued:

We are further expanding the Transatlantic relationship and partnerships with NATO allies.

Kramp-Karrenbauer returned Austin’s compliments and hailed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which she said is based on values and freedom. The contribution of the US to the security of Germany and Europe is a “decisive pillar of our peace and freedom,” she said, adding that she is confident that a strong NATO alliance can overcome any challenge together. she remarked:

We need a NATO capable of action with a corresponding German contribution.

Kramp-Karrenbauer emphasised that Germany will spend €2.5b more on its military this year, and would stick to the goal of increasing defence spending to 2% of GDP. She pledged to work together with the US to bring the Afghanistan operation to an end. Kramp-Karrenbauer made great play of Germany’s decision to send a frigate to the Indo-Pacific so as to show its presence in the region. With the overseeing of sanctions on North Korea and the securing of free navigation through the South China Sea, it was sending a signal. Austin explicitly praised this. Asked by a journalist about the mounting tensions in eastern Ukraine, Kramp-Karrenbauer praised the “restraint on the Ukrainian side” and expressed concern about the “Russian mobilisation.” The reality is that the explicit solidarising of Austin with Kramp-Karrenbauer has nothing to do with freedom, democracy, human rights, and the other values mentioned. Rather, it is part of the war preparations against China and Russia, which the Biden administration has been pushing ahead with tremendous energy since he came to power.

As far as the oft-sworn friendship between Berlin and Washington is concerned, it has the character of an alliance between mafia bosses against a common enemy, while the weapons for the future mutual settling of accounts are being prepared in the background. The Biden administration did not have to alter Trump’s ruthless pursuit of imperialist interests under the slogan “America First,” but merely the subjective and erratic manner in which he pursued this goal. While the Democrats agree with Trump that the rise of China poses the greatest strategic challenge to the US and must be stopped by any means, they viewed Trump’s stance towards Russia as much too soft. Instead of intensifying pressure against Russia, Trump repelled NATO allies like Germany, who are useful for the US at least in the short term. The journal, an important voice in the US foreign policy establishment, has published a series of articles recently calling for a tougher line against China. Michael McFaul, who served as the US ambassador to Russia for two years under Obama, wrote:

Many analysts wrongly assume that Russia is a declining power. But Russia remains one of the world’s most powerful countries, with significantly more military, cyber, economic, and ideological might than most Americans appreciate, one of only two nuclear superpowers. Biden and his national security team must retire outdated perceptions of the Russian threat and formulate a new policy to contain the Kremlin’s economic, military, and political influence.

This requires a military strengthening of NATO and an increase of “US military, political, and economic support for Ukraine.” A article from Apr 6 entitled “US-Russian Relations Will Only Get Worse” recalled that NATO was retained and expanded eastwards after the dissolution of the Soviet Union so as to keep Europe under control. The article stated:

For the US, NATO was the right instrument to achieve European stability and security because it enabled the US to remain in charge.

Austin’s visit to Berlin takes place under conditions where the conflict with Russia is threatening to erupt into open warfare. During its first three months in power, the Biden administration has systematically intensified pressure on Russia by inciting the Zelensky regime in Ukraine, which is threatening to capture Crimea, by intensifying the war in Syria, and by supporting Israel’s provocations against Iran. The situation in Ukraine is on the verge of spiralling out of control. Berlin supported the right-wing coup in Kiev in 2014, which brought a corrupt, pro-Western regime of oligarchs to power, and it is now once again backing the Zelensky regime. The renewal of the NATO alliance by Austin and Kramp-Karrenbauer is thus aimed at paving the way for a war that would have devastating consequences for the whole of Europe. At the same time, it contains the germ of future inter-imperialist wars, since the interests of German and American imperialism, which fought two world wars against each other, are by no means identical. Germany certainly wants to push back Russia so as to strengthen its own position in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. But unlike the US, Berlin does not want to totally economically isolate Russia, which has been among one of Germany’s most important energy suppliers since the 1970s. This is the background to the unresolved conflict over Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline that the US wants to halt, while Germany insists its construction must continue. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently warned:

An economic isolation of Russia would result in one forcing Russia and China closer together. And that can’t be part of our strategic interests.

Berlin and Washington are also pursuing divergent interests with regard to China. The German government and European Union no longer view China as a “partner,” but as a “strategic rival,” and are supporting the campaign over the oppression of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. But in spite of the China- American conflict, they do not want to be left out of the lucrative Chinese and Eastern Asian markets.” Merkel personally ensured that prior to the change of government in the US, the EU concluded an investment treaty with China that Washington opposed. She justified this by saying that on this issue, it is “absolutely clear” that there is “no identity” with America. It is noteworthy that the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the mouthpiece of German capital, is debating which side Germany should take in a war between the US and China. FAZ wrote with incredible bluntness on Mar 29:

With the fate of the pitiable Muslim minority in northwest China, this provides a pretext to act. What this is all about is geostrategic jockeying that is gradually affecting all of world politics. America has already decided where it will stand in this major conflict. The old world power wants to hinder the rise of new countries and prevent them from drawing level with the US. For Germany, the calculation is not so clear-cut. Exports are the most important pillar of German prosperity, playing a much larger role for us than they do for America.

According to the EU statistics agency, China surpassed the US last year as the EU’s most important trading partner.

While in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, trade with the ‘rest’ of the world fell, exports and imports to and from China grew. In this, Germany is the dominant actor: it administered 48 percent of the EU’s goods exchanged with China.

If Germany is now sending a frigate to the South China Sea, it is to pursue its own imperialist interests. This is why Kramp-Karrenbauer repeatedly noted that the increase in defence spending is aimed at “our own security and our own interests,” and not “doing the US a favor.” In the final analysis, the reason for the growth in militarism and the threat of a third world war lies in the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. As in 1914 and 1939, the ruling elites in Germany, the US and all other imperialist powers are responding to the mounting social and international contradictions by driving humanity as a whole into the abyss. Only an international movement of the working class, connecting the struggle against exploitation and war with the fight against capitalism, can stop the danger of war.

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