Putin justifies the military build-up on the border with Ukraine by denouncing the “aggressive” intentions of NATO and western powers. The political and media mouthpieces in the western “democracies” call for standing firm against Russia’s “aggressive” threats to the sovereignty of the Ukraine, pointing to the intervention of Russian special forces to help “restore order” in Kazakhstan as further proof of Putin’s “empire building” (or rebuilding) ambitions.
These are the mutual accusation of capitalist, imperialist powers, and the position of our class, of the workers who “have no fatherland”, is to refuse to enter into these quarrels, still less to make any sacrifice, economic or physical, on behalf of their exploiters, whether American, European, Russian or Ukrainian.
But in order to expose the propaganda being poured out on both sides, the task of revolutionaries is not only to denounce all the lies they spew forth, but also to provide a coherent analysis, to dig down to the roots of this sharpening of inter-imperialist tensions.
Fall of the empires
Prior to 1989, Moscow stood at the head of the second world power, the leader of an entire imperialist bloc. Ukraine and many of the other “independent” republics that surround the Russian Federation were part of the USSR, the so-called “Soviet Union”. But in 1989-91, the culmination of a long economic and political crisis whose origins we have analysed elsewhere, the eastern bloc collapsed and the USSR itself was swept away in the tsunami.
One of the foremost means of this unprecedented victory for the US-led bloc was the policy of encircling the USSR, by forging an alliance with China, using Turkey as a missile base, seeking a “Pax Americana” throughout the Middle East. This was accompanied by an intense arms race which accelerated the bankruptcy of the USSR. The increasingly beleaguered Russian bloc tried to break the circle, notably by invading Afghanistan in 1979, but this move towards access to the “warm seas” backfired as Russian troops got bogged down in an unwinnable war against Islamist forces supported by the US and its allies. And at more or less the same time, the mass strikes of the working class in Poland showed the USSR’s rulers how little they could count on the workers in their own bloc in any further military adventures, above all in Europe itself.
The USA thus emerged as the one and only “superpower” and Bush Senior proclaimed the advent of a “New World Order” of peace, prosperity, and democracy, while US military strategists planned for “Full Spectrum Dominance” and the “New American Century”. But within a few years, the USA’s triumph proved to be hollow. With the common enemy to the East laid low, the western bloc itself began to splinter, and the principle of “every man for himself” more and more replaced the old bloc discipline – an expression, in international relations, of the dawn of a new and terminal phase in the long decline of the capitalist system. This process was graphically illustrated by the Balkans war in the early 90s, where the USA’s most “loyal” allies found themselves at odds, even supporting different factions in the bloody massacres that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The American response to this threat to its hegemony was to try to reassert its authority by calling on its overwhelming military superiority – with some success in the first Gulf War of 1991, but with much more negative results from the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Now it was the turn of the US to get its feet stuck in unwinnable conflicts with Islamist gangs. Instead of blocking the tendency towards every man for himself, these adventures accelerated the centrifugal tendencies throughout the strategically vital Middle East region. In particular the USA’s main enemy in the region – Iran – profited from the mess in neighbouring Iraq, advancing its pawns in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
At the same time, this new world disorder created a space for China -which had already been benefitting from the massive western economic investments aimed at finding a way out of the economic recessions of the 70s and 80s – to emerge as a real imperialist rival to the US.
Russia’ imperialist revival
After a short period – the Yeltsin years – in which Russia seemed ready to sell itself to the highest bidder, Russian imperialism, steered by the ex-KGB man Putin, began to reassert itself, counting on its only real assets: the huge military machine inherited from the Cold War period, and its considerable energy reserves, especially in natural gas, which could be used to blackmail more energy-dependent countries. And even if could not directly confront its imperialist rivals, it could do its best to worsen divisions among them, notably through the judicious use of cyber warfare and black propaganda. An obvious example was its efforts to weaken the EU through supporting populist forces in the Brexit referendum, in France, Eastern Europe and so on. In the US its social media trolls supported the Trump candidacy, and as president Trump proved to be, to say the least, soft on Russian ambitions and actions – partly because Trump’s financial and possibly sexual escapades had opened himself up to Russian pressure, but also because there was a sizeable faction of the US bourgeoisie which was in favour of wooing Russia as a counter-weight to China.
Russia’s imperialist revival passed through a number of stages – domestically, by ending the Yeltsin sell-off and imposing a much tighter control over the national economy, but above all through military actions: in Chechnya, which from 1999 through the 2000s was pounded to rubble as a warning against future attempts to secede from the Russian Federation; in Georgia in 2008, where Russian forces intervened in support of the secession of South Ossetia and to stymie Georgia’s move towards NATO; the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the culmination of a Russian reaction to the “Orange Revolution” in the Ukraine and the emergence of a pro-western government which sought membership of NATO; and in Syria, where Russian arms and forces have been decisive in preventing the fall of Assad and the possible loss of Russia’s naval base in Tartus. In the 1970s and 80s, the US had largely succeeded in driving Russian influence out of the Middle East (eg in Egypt, Afghanistan…). Now Russia has returned and it is the USA which has been pulling out. In many of these military actions Russia has enjoyed the open or tacit support of China – not because there are no imperialist divisions between the two countries, but because China has seen the benefit of policies which weaken the hold of the US.
America’s imperialist offensive has not gone away
However, despite Russia’s recovery and the many set-backs for the US, the latter has not given up all the gains it has made in the countries bordering Russia; in many ways the old policy of encirclement continues. The expansion of NATO has been the spearhead of this policy, drawing in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Slovenia – the majority of which were formerly part of the Russian bloc. All of this has taken place over the last two decades. So it’s hardly surprising that the Russian state feels threatened by the efforts to pull Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO. One of Putin’s key demands to “defuse” the Ukrainian crisis includes a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO and that foreign troops or weapons be removed from countries that joined NATO since 1997.
In addition to which, the US has also given maximum backing to various “colour revolutions”, notably in the Ukraine, seeking to channel protests against economic misery and despotic pro-Russian rulers into support for pro-EU and pro-US political forces.
Russia thus remains essentially on the defensive in this situation. However, Moscow also knows that the US is facing major difficulties itself, preoccupied by the rise of China and anxious not to be engaged on too many fronts at the same time, as sharply illustrated by the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is thus a “good” moment for Putin to rattle the sabres and, as ever, this can help to reinforce his strong-man image at home, especially when his popularity has been waning in the wake of corruption scandals, increasingly repressive policies against opposition politicians and journalists, and the country’s mounting economic difficulties.
None of this means that Ukraine is an “innocent party” in this military build-up. Ukraine holds yearly joint military exercises with NATO allies and is one of 26 countries participating in NATO’s Defender-Europe 2021, the US Army-led military operations “to build readiness and interoperability between U.S., NATO and partner militaries” across Europe (See: “Defender-Europe 21 Fact Sheet”).
Kiev has taken steps to upgrade its military assets and equipment to meet NATO membership criteria. In June 2020, Ukraine even became a NATO “enhanced opportunity partner,” deepening cooperation with the military alliance.
In the beginning of 2021 Ukraine’s Foreign Minister announced that the National Security and Defence Council has approved a strategy aimed at retaking and reintegrating Crimea into the country. Zelensky’s administration sought “full Ukrainian sovereignty” over not just Crimea but that of the port city of Sevastopol as well.
War is capitalism’s way of life
Are we heading towards a direct conflict between Russia and the US over the Ukraine, even a third world war, as some of the more alarmist reports suggest?
Neither the US or Russia are part of a stable military bloc which has the discipline to mobilise for a global war. And neither has an interest in an immediate, direct military clash. Despite the Ukraine’s considerable agricultural and industrial assets, invading and annexing the Ukraine has been compared to a python swallowing a cow: invading it might be one thing, holding onto it quite another. And as we have said, America has more pressing concerns on the imperialist front, hence Biden’s rather ineffectual warning that bad things will happen if Russia invades, and his commitment to high level diplomatic talks.
We should not forget, however, that a low-intensity conflict with Russian separatist forces in the east of the Ukraine has continued despite various cease-fire attempts. Even if Russia stops short of an outright invasion it may be pushed to step up its backing for such separatist forces, or nibbling away at Ukraine’s integrity as a state on other fronts. And even if the last thing the “west” wants is boots on the ground of Ukraine, it is not entirely powerless. It can continue to provide arms and training to the Ukrainian miliary, and it can also respond with some damaging economic measures against Russia, such as a full blocking of major Russian state banks and investment agencies, and new sanctions to include mining, metals, shipping and insurance.
The phase of decomposition which world capitalism entered thirty years ago is marked by chaotic military conflicts and a growing loss of control by the ruling class. Prior to this, during the Cold War, the major planetary powers suspended the nuclear Sword of Damocles over humanity’s head. It is still hanging there in a world which no longer obeys the diktats of coherent blocs, and where more countries than ever before are armed with weapons of mass destruction. In short, whatever, the “rational” calculations of the players on the imperialist chess-board, we cannot rule out sudden outbreaks, escalations, or dives into irrational destructiveness. War remains the way of life of this decadent system, and the fact that the powers-that-be are ready to gamble with the life of humanity and the planet itself is already a reason for condemning this system and fighting for a global human community which has consigned national states and borders to the museum of antiquities.