As Russian troops enter Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions in eastern Ukraine dominated by forces hostile to the Ukrainian government, the threat of a Russian invasion of the whole of Ukraine is becoming even more acute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a reactionary authoritarian leader determined to re-establish Russia as the dominant power in Eastern Europe. His rhetoric denouncing NATO and the US for meddling in Russia’s backyard is justified only if you accept that great powers have some intrinsic right to “spheres of influence” whereby neighbouring governments are reduced to vassal states whose own national rights are subordinated to the interests of the imperial centre.
The fact that reactionary voices around the world—most recently the Australian former Prime Minister Tony Abbott writing in the Sydney Morning Herald—denounce Putin’s warmongering does not mean that the left should be silent when faced with the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Already, the situation has significantly raised the danger of a broader military conflict in Europe. A full scale or even partial invasion of Ukraine will lead to death and destruction on an enormous scale. The left, the only consistent opponents of militarism and war, needs to raise its voice against a Russian invasion and against the imperial ambitions of Putin and his authoritarian state.
But this does not mean we should fall in behind the anti-Putin rhetoric coming from the Western bloc or accept the facile claims of a struggle between Western democracy and Russian authoritarianism. Everything the US accuses Moscow of it has done itself for many decades and continues to do all around the world, usually with the full backing of its “democratic” allies.
The US may frame Russia’s military escalation as a threat to peace in Europe, but this charge, coming from Washington, is completely hypocritical. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has done its best to bring Russia’s former Warsaw Pact member states into NATO, doubling the number of its members. While NATO is a military pact, supposedly of equals, the US rules—its military forces dwarf those of other states combined, and NATO military command is always vested with the US.
The Russian ruling class regards NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its own interests. NATO was after all created to ensure America’s ongoing military role in Europe and to contain the Soviet Union and its allies. We do not even have to imagine the situation if Russia established a string of friendly states adjacent to the US: in 1962, the US came close to nuclear war with the USSR when the latter attempted to ship nuclear missiles to Cuba. If Canada and Mexico joined a military pact led by Russia or China, there is no reason to expect that the US would respond any differently today.
American talk of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty is also so much rubbish. The US has never recognised the right of countries to self-determination. It has marched its armies, mobilised its death squads and wielded its financial power through its control over the international financial system to destroy the right of people to choose their own government.
As early as 1823, President James Monroe declared that the US would exercise its authority over the entirety of the Americas and would tolerate no interference from within or without. Since that time, whenever US power in the Western hemisphere was challenged by political leaders attempting to establish their independence, the US did not hesitate to back coups against them, sometimes sending in its own soldiers. To this day, it uses sanctions and financial muscle through the IMF to squeeze governments from Cuba to Argentina.
The two world wars turned the US from a continental power to a global power, matched only by the USSR. Each tried to control and extend their spheres of influence with little regard for the desires of the peoples they dominated.
The US used its military to overthrow governments and leaders not just in Central and South America but in Africa and Asia. Those it regarded as supporters it rewarded with massive funding and arms even as those leaders butchered their own people, such as Indonesian President Suharto, who ruled as a dictator from 1965 to 1997. It waged war on the people of Vietnam in an attempt to prevent Communists coming to power there. It established a string of military bases from Japan to the Philippines to Guam and drew in South Korean, Singaporean, Thai and Australian armed forces to help wage its wars in the region.
In Europe, the US and the USSR carved up the continent between West and East. The US established military bases in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Britain and Turkey. It did not give a damn about democratic principles. When Communist parties joined governments in France and Italy after World War Two, the US demanded the right-wing parties drive them out as a condition of financial aid. When a civil war broke out in Greece in 1947 between those who had collaborated with the Nazi occupation and those who had fought in the resistance under Communist leadership, the US took charge of the Greek army and crushed the Communists, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. US intelligence services have for decades used dirty tricks to bring down politicians and governments in Europe that fall foul of US interests.
And while the US trumpets its commitment to democracy, counterposing this to what the Biden administration calls the Putin autocracy, it makes no demands for political reform on NATO member states Hungary and Poland, led by highly authoritarian governments that openly suppress human rights. The US demands Russia not threaten war in Ukraine but refuses to withdraw its nuclear missiles from Europe and refuses to stop rotations of US military personnel through countries of the former Soviet bloc.
The US is the most aggressive state on the planet. It has 800 military bases around the world. Its nuclear armed fleets patrol every ocean. It has the most powerful air force and leads in military might even in space.
President Biden is using the crisis to reassert US military power in Europe, and in particular to bring Germany and France into line. Germany depends on Russia for natural gas and has been inclined to avoid raising tensions with its main energy supplier. By raising tensions with Russia, the US is ramming home to Berlin its dependence on the US as military protector, bringing Germany into line with US-led sanctions against Russia even if these come with significant economic cost.
In all of the US’s hypocrisy and blatant cynicism, the Australian government, backed by the Labor Opposition, has repeated all of its main talking points. “We cannot have a situation where a nation such as Russia can threaten and bully those countries that border its borders”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the media on 19 February. “This is not something we can allow to stand.” Of course Australia, which has thrown its weight around in the South Pacific and Papua New Guinea for more than a century, knows nothing about bullying.
But just because socialists condemn the US does not mean we should make any excuses for the Soviet Union or Russia. It may be a weaker imperialist power, but it is still a predatory power with the same aversion as the US to democracy and self-determination.
When the people of Hungary rose up in 1956 and called for the country’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, Russia sent in thousands of tanks and butchered the revolutionaries. In Czechoslovakia the Russian army put down a popular revolt in 1968. Only its weakness prevented it doing the same in 1989 when people in Central and Eastern Europe rose demanding an end to one-party rule.
While the collapse of the USSR in 1991 decimated Russia, in the 21st century, Putin has revived the country’s ambitions for great power status. It remains an economic minnow, with an economy smaller than South Korea’s and only just larger than Australia’s, yet with a population many times the size. But its armed forces put it in the big league. Its nuclear arsenal, second only to the US, gives it outsize influence.
The military has nearly 1 million active personnel with hundreds of thousands of reservists. It has eleven nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, substantial numbers of tanks, attack helicopters, fighter aircraft and heavy artillery, and its military technology is in some respects on par with the US. And Russia remains an energy superpower, enormous gas and oil reserves giving it diplomatic heft in negotiations with Europe.
Russia is now using its revived power to push back against the US to re-create the buffer territory it enjoyed during the Cold War. In particular, it is trying to prevent Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, while securing the rule of those loyal to it. There is nothing defensible about this.
In 2008, following President George W. Bush’s invitation to Georgia to join the US military bloc, Russia invaded Georgia and, in the process, brought two Russian-speaking regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, under its control. The US, then bogged down in the Middle East and in no position to defend its ally, stood by powerless.
In 2014, following mass protests in western Ukraine, which brought down a pro-Russian president, Russia seized Crimea. At the same time, Russia sent significant shipments of weapons to eastern Ukraine to support a separatist movement of pro-Russian militias. Hundreds of far-right Russian fighters joined these militias and carved out two territories in the Donbas at a cost of more than 13,000 dead and a million displaced.
In 2020, Putin backed Belarussian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, one of Moscow’s main allies, in the face of massive demonstrations calling for his resignation. Russia loaned Lukashenko $1.5 billion to help him stay in power. Last month, Russia sent troops into the Kazakh capital, Almaty, to smash protests against the government of President Tokayev, resulting in more than 200 deaths. Further afield, Putin backed Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad to crush a popular revolution in 2015.
The conflict in Ukraine illustrates not just the growing tensions between the US and Russia but the global stage on which imperialist competition is playing out. The US faces a challenge not just from a revived Russia but also from China, which, besides being a rising military power, is also an economic giant.
In recent years, whether under Trump or Biden, the US ruling class has focused its efforts on combating China’s threat to US domination of the world. US responses to Putin’s threats to Ukraine can be partly understood in this light: Biden is clearly concerned that if the US is seen to be weak in fighting Russia’s attempts to coerce Ukraine, China will be emboldened to behave more aggressively towards Taiwan. With US power already in question following its failures in the Middle East, culminating in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, any sign of weakened resolve in Ukraine will also signal to America’s allies that the US is not a reliable military protector.
Imperialist competition on two fronts explains why the Biden administration has sought to identify Russian aggression in Ukraine with China. Russia and China have often blocked together on the UN Security Council in defence of each other’s interests. Now the US and its allies are using the crisis as an opportunity to portray the two countries as threats to world peace. US politicians, including the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, have even suggested that China will use the opportunity of any Russian invasion of Ukraine to attack Taiwan. The Morrison government, as one of the US’s allies most hostile to China, has backed the US, denouncing China for not condemning Russian threats to Ukraine.
There is a kernel of truth to all this. On the global chessboard that is imperialism, rival ruling classes can work together on the basis that: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. In early February, China and Russia signed a statement of friendship and their mutual opposition to the US. China confirmed its support for one of Russia’s chief security demands, an end to NATO expansion closer to Russia’s borders, and the two sides also called on the US to abandon plans to deploy intermediate range missiles in Europe and Asia and to end its “interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries”. Russia sees China not just as an ally on the UN Security Council but also an important customer for its gas and oil. Any conflict between the US and Russia could bring China into the fray as a Russian ally.
Nonetheless, in a sign of the ever-swirling eddies of imperialist competition, Russia and China are also divided, imperialist frenemies. For decades they have competed for influence in Asia and Central Asia and there is also friction between the two in the race to control the energy and mineral resources of the Arctic. The US, while denouncing them, is doing its best to stoke their mutual suspicion.
All this shows that the imperialist powers are out for their own interests. All of them are arming themselves to the teeth and preparing for war. It may be Ukraine today, but it could be Taiwan or the South China Sea or the Baltic Sea tomorrow.
Imperialism is not a policy of governments but is built into the system of capitalism. Capitalist competition between big corporations is transferred in the final analysis into competition between capitalist states where the outcome is decided by military power. International bodies such as the United Nations are only forums where each imperialist ruling class tries to exercise its domination over others. Nothing is to be gained by left forces throwing their lot in with any of these states.
There can be periods where competition between them does not break out into open warfare, but warfare is always just beneath the surface. Such warfare today has the potential to end life on earth. And even in periods of “peace”, the military budgets of each country represent theft from the working class and the poor, and government propaganda targeting the country’s “enemies” only fuels authoritarian tendencies, nationalism and racism. It is all too obvious the ways in which Putin in the East and Biden, Johnson and Morrison in the West are using militarism to divert hostility to social and economic injustices at home.
The danger of war demonstrates the urgency of radical change in the whole political set-up. At the very least, we must demand an end to threats of invasion and war and an end to warmongering rhetoric that might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The lives of the people of Ukraine are not bargaining chips to be used by the great powers. They have the right to determine their own destiny free of imperialist bullying, whether by Russia or the US.
Imperialism has already brought devastation to the people of Europe in two world wars. None of the continent’s rulers, nor those of the US can offer a genuine alternative to a future of recurrent military crises, invasions and occupations. They all have to go if the world is to live in peace. Our responsibility in Australia is to do whatever we can to fight our own ruling class, to eliminate its ability to wage wars in our name.
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