|Simon Pirani |
Ukraine’s defensive war is both a war by the state and a “people’s war”, in my view; Russia’s war is an imperialist one, increasingly aimed at the population. I’ve commented on these things elsewhere (e.g. here, here, here). Here I focus on the western powers and their relations with Russia and Ukraine, and the deep crisis of capital that underlies these.
|“Women in black”, an action inspired by Feminist Antiwar Resistance at the weekend. |
Participants in cities across Russia carried white flowers to remember victims of the conflict in Ukraine
In the western anti-war movement, the issue of NATO expansion comes up in two ways.
On one hand, politically: post- or proto-Stalinist tendencies, and some others, taking their cue from the Kremlin, not only accept (without much explanation) that NATO expansion is a major threat, but also argue that NATO bears more responsibility than Russia for causing the war (yes, you read that correctly), and is at least as significant a political target as the Kremlin. I have written about these corrupt, damaging arguments elsewhere, and Ukrainian socialists have answered them (e.g. here, here and here).
On the other hand, there is genuine fear that the war could escalate beyond Ukraine, and that the western powers could become involved militarily, producing a disaster even greater than that now enveloping millions of Ukrainians.
In my view, we can not rule out the capacity for capitalism to stagger down that road, even though sober analysis suggests that it is unlikely. But how to approach that fearsome possibility? I see a similarity with climate-change-induced social disasters. These are real future possibilities, but collective, social action to change things now can help to prevent them.
To work out where capitalism internationally, the western powers and Russia are going, it is important to look at where they have come from. I’ll do that next. In the part after that, I discuss the reality of NATO expansion and the larger trends of which it is part. The last part is about what might happen next and what we all might do about it.
What actually happened
In the beginning, there was the Soviet Union, the USA and the cold war(s) of the 1950s-1980s. Two nuclear powers growling at each other across the world, according to the history books. But some Marxists always understood this as, primarily, a dual system of social control.
In the USA, the fear of a distant enemy was used to reinforce social discipline over working people. In Europe, the “Soviet threat” was nearer, and evidence that the eastern bloc was far from being a workers’ paradise easier to access. In the Soviet Union, too, the social contract between the bureaucratic elite and working people, forged after the second world war, was reinforced by the presence of an external enemy and the ideological mobilisation against it. In all cases, the fear of nuclear war and its consequences was as important as a way of making populations submissive as it was as a deterrent to the other side.
In 1986, in an analysis of the cold war in the Marxist journal Critique, Mick Cox wrote:
Without the Soviet Union, the rehabilitation of bourgeois rule on a world scale would have been impossible in the post-war period. […] Nor was it just a case of the USSR ‘betraying’ the revolution in a subjective sense. Objectively in fact, the Soviet Union became an indispensable prop of America’s position in the world, and Stalinism a necessary condition for bourgeois hegemony in the post-war period.
Obviously this system of control over populations was not perfect, and obviously there were very real clashes between the powers. But there were limits. The Vietnamese war against the US was prolonged by the limited nature of the support given to it by the Soviet and Chinese elites, for example.
In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union’s autarchic, state-controlled economy staggered towards collapse, eastern European populations demanded freedom from Soviet control, starting with the independent trade union movement in Poland. In 1989-91, when the Soviet system collapsed, so too did the two-power system of international regulation. German reunification was an early result that made western leaders nervous.
The expansion of neoliberal hegemony into the post-Soviet space did not take place only, or even mainly, by means of NATO. The most devastating changes were economic. From the moment of the Soviet Union’s demise (December 1991), both Russia and Ukraine were plunged into the greatest peacetime slump anywhere, ever. Whole swathes of industry, including much manufacturing capacity related to the military, were junked. Social welfare systems collapsed. East European populations also suffered poverty and unemployment.
In Russia and Ukraine, western capital did not always seize property, or try to. Russia’s crucial raw materials industries – oil, gas, minerals and metals – were mostly transferred into the hands of the newly emergent domestic business groups. So were Ukrainian steel, coal and chemicals. The drive from the west was to break up state property and trash every obstacle to the working of markets. Even the banks, by and large, remained in domestic hands.
The most significant round of NATO expansion belongs to this first post-Soviet period. In 1999, Hungary, Poland and Czechia joined, and plans for accession agreed with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They all joined in 2004 – and since then there have been four accessions by small Balkan nations (Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020).
|George Robertson, NATO general secretary, and Vladimir Putin, 2001|
In the former Soviet space, capital sought not only new NATO members, but the streamlined delivery of raw materials, penetration into new markets for consumer goods … and governments that could manage the societal change. In Russia, the Yeltsin regime of the 1990s did badly on that score.
When Putin took over in January 2000, his team – which combined neoliberal economic policy professionals and the more powerful former security services officers – re-established the strong Russian state, first with the murderous second war in Chechnya, and then by disciplining the business groups and forcing them to pay tax. The oil price rose almost from the moment that Putin took office until reaching record highs in 2008; the economy flourished; Russian state-owned and private corporations accessed international financial markets; the rich got richer, and ordinary Russians’ living standards recovered from the 1990s nightmare.
As for geopolitics, for all their disavowals of dividing the world into “spheres of influence”, the NATO powers treated Putin’s Russia as a gendarme to control parts of the former Soviet space. They had the “war on terror” to fight after the twin towers attack of September 2001; and the wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and the Saudi terror in Yemen, that followed. This policy persisted not only up to 2014, when the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea provoked a limited western response, but in its essentials up to last month.
In 2001-03, NATO supported Russia’s war on Chechnya. Lord George Robertson, then NATO secretary general, explained in 2002 how the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, had been “the midwife of an incredible new rapprochement”; he had “ended forever the Cold War and brought NATO and Russia so closely together”. (Robertson, a member of that supremely pro-NATO political party, the Labour party, went out of his way to defend Russia’s multiple war crimes in Chechnya at that same press conference.)
In 2008, the US pushed its NATO allies to recruit Georgia, but France, Germany and others demurred. Georgia, endlessly provoked by Russian encroachment and egged on by the US, started a war in which it was rapidly defeated. But within weeks, the western powers’ attention was elsewhere: the collapse of Bear Stearns bank in the US triggered the biggest economic and financial crash since 1929.
Putin’s 21st century version of Russian imperialism was born during the oil boom, but took shape in the economic downturn after the crash. Once the oil price started falling again and Russia went into recession, Putin’s skill at compensating for Russia’s underlying economic weakness with military strength came to the fore.
The post-2008 economic downturn formed the backdrop to the 2014 overthrow of Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych. He had vacillated between a closer relationship with Russia, or a turn towards the EU. The EU offered an association agreement, but Yanukovich’s officials were shocked by the miserly support package that went with it, and turned back to Moscow. This triggered the demonstrations that a few weeks later became the “Maidan revolution”.
Accounts of this process highlight the western powers’ incompetence and indecision. The economic historian Adam Tooze concluded:
During the height of the crisis in 2008-09, the West was, frankly, neglectful of Eastern Europe, despite the fact that talk of NATO expansion had led to a war with Russia in Georgia only weeks before the outbreak of the crisis in August 2008. […] Then in 2013, the EU sleepwalked into confrontation with Putin over Ukraine. And all of this at a moment when the Obama administration was pushing TPP [the Trans Pacific Partnership], seen in Beijing as aggressive containment, and Japan and China were confronting each other over rocky islands in the East China Sea.
This picture of a “neglectful, sleepwalking” alliance hardly fits with the narrative that NATO expansion was the chief driver of changing Russian-western relations. Neither does the western response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014. Sanctions were tied not to its support for the armed gangs that created the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, but only to the annexation of Crimea; they constricted the flow of finance to Russian state and privately-owned companies, but carefully avoided impacting oil and gas exports.
Russia’s war on Ukraine from 2014 was both an imperial adventure aimed at the state and an exercise in social control. The Kremlin feared, with justification, that Yanukovich’s overthrow could presage unrest in Russia, where falling living standards and authoritarianism were provoking reactions. Here, too, Putin acted as a gendarme for international capital – as he did more recently by intervening in Belarus (2020) and Kazakhstan )this year).
After Donbas, there followed Russia’s military intervention in Syria from 2015. With its support, the dictator Bashar al-Assad drowned one of the greatest popular uprisings this century in blood. It’s worth repeating these points from an interview with Leila al Shami, published during the siege of Aleppo in December 2016:
The grand advance is being led by Shia militias, who are reporting to Iran, and the air bombardments have been carried out by Russian and Syrian air forces. […] The main defenders of the city are Free Syrian Army troops, and it is these, and civilians, who are now being targeted. It is very clear that this blood bath and this absolute slaughter of the people is only going to increase extremism. The people of Aleppo wanted freedom from dictatorship and now they are just being annihilated. […]
Russia has been systematically targeting hospitals and civilian infrastructure. Not only in this recent escalation but since Russia’s intervention began. […]
This idea [advanced by Putinists in the western labour movement] of intervention and American-supported regime change is not grounded in reality. Because [US president Barack] Obama has taken an isolationist position, he has not intervened to topple Assad’s regime, he has never called for the regime to go. He did at one point call for Assad to go but the idea was that the regime would be kept in place – a Yemen-type solution. Obama has vetoed weapons to the Free Army troops, he has stopped other countries from providing defensive weapons that they need to protect communities from air attacks, and he has effectively handed over Syria to Russia – to another savage imperialism, following the chemical weapon attack in Ghouta. […]
The Assad regime would have fallen long ago if there was not Iranian and Russian support. The regime was on the brink of collapse before Iran stepped in, and then it was on the brink of collapse again before Russia stepped in.
There was no NATO expansion here. There was no reaction when Assad, with Russia’s support, crossed the “red line” Obama had announced on chemical weapons use. There was a division of spheres of influence. Only in February this year did it break down.
NATO expansion and the crisis of capital
On 25 February, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous published a powerful “letter to the western Left from Kyiv”, in which he praised those who had demonstrated at Russian embassies and organised other types of support, and denounced “those who imagined ‘NATO aggression in Ukraine’, and who could not see Russian aggression”. He wrote:
How many times did the Western Left bring up the US’s informal promises to the former Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev, about NATO (“not one inch eastward”), and how many times did it mention the 1994 Budapest Memorandum [under which Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan gave up nuclear weapons], that guarantees Ukraine’s sovereignty? How often did the Western Left support the “legitimate security concerns” of Russia, a state that owns the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal? And how often did it recall the security concerns of Ukraine, a state that had to trade its nuclear weapons, under the pressure of the US and Russia, for a piece of paper (the Budapest Memorandum) that Putin trampled conclusively in 2014? Did it ever occur to Leftist critics of NATO that Ukraine is the main victim of the changes brought about by the NATO expansion?
I talked about this letter with a good friend; let’s call him Errol Duck. He said in an email that, to grasp the reality of NATO expansion, or non-expansion, we had to understand more clearly how the neo-liberal management of capitalism had broken down. To quote (with his permission):
Isn’t the point really that the neoliberal economic component of the New World Order has failed to integrate Russia into the global capitalist system in a way that would make it conform to the rules-based Washington consensus? For my money, the origin of this lay in the fact that the shock therapy of the 1990s went far too far, and the dislocations it imposed on the post-Soviet economy prevented a transfer of state assets to the new elites in a way that would make them respectful of market rules. Instead, gangsterism prevailed, with those coming out on top seeking to legitimise their gains by backing a political leader who had the backing of the one institution of the Russian state that held out the hope of continuity – namely the military.
None of this would have mattered much to the West – plenty of gangster regimes in the world – if it wasn’t for Russia’s strategic importance across Eurasia and its vast fossil energy reserves. All of this has led to the weird dance between the western and Russian elites, which has in turn involved unseemly embrace followed by repulsion. Isn’t it the case that Putin has got tired all all this and, judging the present moment to be one of weakness for Europe and the US, has decided to roll the dice with the expectation he’d come out winner?
The current moment shows that the NATO part of the western strategy has been part of the problem – functioning as the big stick, applied whenever economic inducements to behave and conform have failed, and thereby sustaining the idea of expansionist aggression – but its high stakes strategy, which ultimately depends on MAD [Mutually Assured Destruction] means that it can play no role in defending democracy and the right to national self-determination.
That, to my mind, is a good contribution to explaining how the western powers’ relationship with Russia has evolved. My question is: could it have been different? Errol says, the western powers failed to integrate Russia in a way that would conform to the Washington consensus. But it wasn’t from a lack of trying.
The IMF, World Bank and European institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) really tried to incorporate the Russian, Ukrainian and other former Soviet financial markets in to the world system, and tried to encourage the growth of western European style consumer markets. They tried to reform the non-money subsidies to populations (e.g. cheap municipal services and free welfare services) according to neoliberal principles. They made some progress, only for it to be wiped out by the 1998 financial crisis, and again by the 2008-09 financial crisis and its aftershocks.
Gangsterism, in the limited sense, was only a temporary phase of the billionaire-heavy, rent-seeking form of capitalism that emerged. Certainly, as the Russian state crumpled in the early 1990s, most of the oligarchs needed armed force, often provided by gangsters, to reinforce their ownership rights. With Putin came gangsterism in a broader sense: the repressive apparatus honed in Soviet times was remade to discipline both labour and private capital. The whole development of rapacious post-Soviet capitalism was facilitated by the globalised financial architecture that enabled capital flight (the transformation of assets into cash and its transfer to offshore locations). These new capitalists were integrated in to the international financial system, but not according to the Washington consensus or any other rules.
|An impromptu art installation in Lviv, remembering children who have been killed in the war|
Now I return to Errol’s point, that imperialism’s military strategies can not be understood separately from its financial and political strategies. NATO is one system; the US Federal Reserve, the IMF and other financial institutions another; and political alliances a third. Far from being coordinated, or all-powerful, these systems failed to integrate post-Soviet Russia and are now running to catch up.
I would go further, and say that coordinated action by these systems, like the neoliberal economic principles at their heart, is an ideological chimera. The very best they can achieve is crisis management. The crisis of 21st century capitalism, its frightful inherent tendency to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, its inability to manage the pandemic effectively or to deal with the threat of global warming – all this is the rule, not the exception. Putin’s regime, and the war it is now waging, is an expression of the capital’s true nature, not an aberration.
The western powers’ military strategy, if we can call it that, has surely to be set in this context. They have no problem with gangster regimes and their war crimes, be it Turkey in Kurdistan, Indonesia in Timor Leste or Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Even in the case of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, they sought to contain, not prevent, its terrorist slaughter in Bosnia.
Russia and China are different: historical empires with their own imperial ambitions. However real the opportunity to integrate Russia more effectively in the 1990s was, it did not happen. That was an outcome of the deeper crisis of capital; to attribute it to the US military-industrial complex and NATO expansion is absurd.
Shortly after Putin took office that complex did indeed unleash its unbridled force – in Iraq. The Kremlin had only just got back to throwing its own weight about, and then only on the Russian federation’s territory (Chechnya). After Iraq came Putin’s speech at Munich, warning that there could be no “unipolar world” (2007), then the Georgia war (2008). Then, in the years after the 2008-09 financial crisis, the western powers failed to integrate Ukraine: a sin of omission (“neglectful, sleepwalking”) in Tooze’s view, not of commission (“NATO expansion”). And then Syria (2015-16, and afterwards), when Russia oversaw the orgy of killing and torture, and the US stood back. Yassin al-haj Saleh, the Syrian Marxist writer, concluded that:
Yet there have hardly been enough voices in the West condemning Putin’s war in Syria. Why? Because of the long and criminal “war on terror,” which has been the basis of a broad international coalition against terrorists—that is, nihilist Sunni Islamic groups—where the United States and the European Union are in a de facto alliance with Russia, as well as the likes of Assad, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed bin Zayed, and of course the apartheid state of Israel.
This was the essence of western-Russian relations between 2014 and last month. Russia was sanctioned for annexing Crimea, and removed from the G8 group, but its hold on eastern Donbass via its proxies was reinforced, and it was allowed a free hand in Syria.
Lindsey German of the Stop the War coalition, fantastically rewriting history to portray Russia and China as victims, claims that they “felt they had been duped into supporting regime change” after the western bombing of Libya in 2011; G8 removal was a “bitter blow to Putin”, who then “intervened in Syria to demonstrate that Russia still had an important role to play internationally”. Again, the colonised “other” is disempowered. The Syrian uprising, Putin’s real target, just does not exist – and nor does the current people’s war in Ukraine, judging from Stop the War’s web site.
The one-sided focus on NATO expansion is politically wretched for the obvious reason that it deflects from the Kremlin’s single-handed responsibility for the assault on Ukraine. But it is also wretched analytically, because it obscures the interrelated crises of the capital system and its neoliberal statecraft. It has more in common with a distorted conspiracy theory than a coherent explanation.
What happens next
Whatever the outcome of the war, the spheres of influence will be redivided. The post-Soviet settlement is over. The western powers’ measures against Russia look set to wreck its economy for years to come. The sanctions, including on the central bank, are wide-ranging, on a different level from 2014. The largest western oil companies are quitting Russia. German policy has turned 180 degrees, to arm Ukraine. The prospect of drastic cuts in oil and gas purchases is being discussed.
It seems inevitable, too, that central and eastern Europe will be further militarised, both through NATO expansion – which will surely be reinvigorated as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine – e.g. in Scandinavia and the western Balkans, but also through new formations such as the Joint Expeditionary Force now championed by the UK government.
The consequences for the world economy, too, are profound, and this is the context for fears of a wider war.
The most plausible triggers – the use by Russia of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons, Russian military action against Poland or other NATO member countries, military miscalculations or miscommunications – have been discussed in the press. I won’t attempt to duplicate that. The Economist (19 March edition) concluded:
It is important to distinguish relative risk from absolute risk. The chances of an escalating confrontation leading to the use of nuclear weapons in Europe are higher than at any time since 1962. That does not mean such a development is likely. For Mr Putin to escalate the war in a way which brings in NATO would be to invite a decisive defeat in Ukraine; to plan on staving off that defeat by nuclear means would be to risk massive retaliation.
But, The Economist adds, “the stakes are higher – perhaps existential – for Mr Putin than for his western opponents”.
The threats being traded between Russia and the western powers publicly suggest that everyone knows where the boundaries are. Those powers can supply weapons to Ukraine; the Russian declaration that convoys carrying these on Ukrainian territory would be legitimate targets changes little on the ground. The Ukrainian government’s calls for a no-fly zone have been repudiated. The press speculates that Russia might use chemical weapons to goad the western powers into a response. Time will tell.
How can social and labour movements respond to these horrors? That’s a huge question, and I will not attempt a comprehensive answer. Here are some thoughts about it.
First, we must rely on the methods through which our potential can be realised – collective organisation, and mobilisation at community and workplace level, on the basis of which we can form networks of international solidarity. These methods are already being used by thousands of activists to support millions of Ukrainian refugees.
Second, solidarity activity does not stop at the Ukrainian border or the Russian border. There are numerous ways in which we can support – and many organisations already are supporting – Ukrainian people. And we can build – and in the NEU teachers’ union, for example, people are building – links with the anti-war movement in Russia.
Third, we can not pretend that armed resistance to the Russian invasion – action by Ukrainians to protect their communities – is not part of this. We must be aware of the tremendous dangers: that military conflict inherently favours state machines and other hierarchies, and disfavours collectives and communities. To my understanding, that was a lesson of Syria. Nevertheless, our movement must support our Ukrainian friends who join territorial defence units, and the young people in anti-fascist milieu across Europe – hundreds, I suspect – who are travelling to Ukraine to join the resistance to Russia.
Fourth, as a movement we can put demands on our own government or any other government, but we do not have to play the game of solving capitalist politicians’ problems for them. Take, most urgently, Ukraine’s call for a no-fly zone. I know why many Ukrainian friends, whose cities are being pulverised by Russian bombs, support it. It personally scares me, because it brings the prospect of a widening conflict, and I would find it difficult to vote for – although I would support the delivery of weapons to Ukraine in the present circumstances. But of course no-one is going to ask me, anyway.
What I can do, and we can all do, is to highlight those measures that the UK’s vile, opportunist government could undertake, and does not even talk about: writing off Ukraine’s foreign debt; clamping down on the offshore financial system, without which sanctions against Russian oligarchs will always be of limited effect. And of course we can challenge the xenophobic hypocrisy over refugees, as many people and organisations already are doing.
Does our movement have to be dragged into arguments about what to do with NATO? Paul Mason, the socialist journalist with whose denunciations of labour movement Putinism I often agree, proposes we do. He sees an opportunity to “redesign NATO as a defensive-only alliance” and to “democratise the professional, right-wing dominated security and military machines of the West”. To me that sounds like a variation on the classic social-democratic proposal to democratise the capitalist state, and has far less potential in the 21st century than when it was first mooted at the end of the 19th.
The Stop the War coalition, from an opposing angle, also focuses on NATO. Eleven Labour MPs were threatened with discipline by the Labour leader Keir Starmer, for signing a Stop the War statement that refuted the idea that NATO was a defensive alliance and called for it to “halt its eastward expansion and commit to a new security deal for Europe”. But the statement itself offered a sordid moral equivalence between Ukraine’s defensive war and the Kremlin’s aggression. It started by opposing “any war over Ukraine”, and calling for a settlement “which recognises the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination and addresses Russia’s security concerns” (as though those two things weigh the same).
Fifth and finally, we must not be paralysed by fear of a wider conflict. Just such fears were used during the post-war boom, by both the US ruling class and the Soviet elite, to make working people politically submissive. Today, when the social contracts of that boom have long ago been torn up, it may be attempted again, by rulers on all sides. It is compounded by the threat of global warming, that, like the nuclear danger, is rooted in capitalist crisis.
The methods we have to resist – solidarity, organisation, collective action – have brought down dictatorship, remade societies and turned the world upside down in the past. And can do so again.
 Mick Cox, “The Cold War as a System”, Critique no. 17 (1986), pages 17-82 (here page 36). The whole article is well worth reading, and so are many things written in Critique in the 1970s and 1980s. Hillel Ticktin, editor of Critique, developed the view of the Soviet Union as part of a dual system of social control by capital. There is an interesting recent interview with him here.
 Adam Tooze, Crashed: how a decade of financial crises changed the world (Penguin Books, 2018), pages 611-612
 I use the term “oligarch” to mean a politically-influential businessman in the post-Soviet countries (and have been using it that way since the 1990s). It’s been suggested that it’s a normative moral judgement, and that people use the term “oligarch” of Russian businessmen who wouldn’t use it about Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. I am not one of those people.
More on Ukraine and Russia
Here are some web sites and articles I think are worth reading.
- Operation Solidarity
- Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
- The Russian Reader: news and views from other Russias
- A feminist argument for air defence, by Darya Tsymbalyuk and Irina Zamuruieva, Open Democracy
- The Russian on line hate group backing Putin’s war, by Michael Colborne, Bellingcat
- Ukraine’s government dismantles labour rights during the war, by Serhii Guz, Open Democracy
- The truth about Ukraine’s far right militias, by Aris Roussinos, Unherd
- The historical background to Putin’s invasion, by Rohini Hensman, New Politics