Posted on 29th March 2022
The ultimate outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine remained uncertain as International Socialism went to press.1 However, the brutality of the offensive was beyond doubt. This was epitomised by the siege of Mariupol, where shelling and airstrikes were said by Ukrainian officials to have killed thousands. A theatre in which 1,300 civilians were sheltering was struck, along with an art school housing another 400. Across Ukraine, although the number of deaths remains unclear, the United Nations has announced that ten million people, a quarter of the population, have been displaced.2
If the plan by the Russian military was rapidly to crush resistance and topple the government in Kiev, it was unsuccessful. At the time of writing, almost a month into the offensive, the Russian army had suffered an estimated 7,000 or more casualties. There were reports of young, bewildered troops, some conscripts, wondering exactly what they were doing in Ukraine. Yet, as the offensive stalled, there were also fears that the Russian military would deploy increasingly destructive methods, as it had in previous conflicts in Chechnya and in Syria.
Among the radical left, the response to the invasion has been contested. One temptation has been to collapse into “campism”, a Cold War term applied to those who painted any state that clashed with the United States as progressive. This is the approach of the US-based Marxist periodical Monthly Review, whose April editorial refers to the invasion as the “Russian entry into the Ukrainian civil war”, and which, like Russian president Vladimir Putin, emphasises the role of “fascist” elements in Ukrainian politics.3 Though the editorial is rightly critical of the role that NATO has played in engendering the conflict, its main function is to exempt Russia from the charge of imperialism, reserving this for the US and its allies.
The opposite mistake is made by figures such as Paul Mason, a journalist and former Trotskyist, who views the conflict as a battle between the “the globalist, democratic former imperialist countries of the US and European Union versus the authoritarian, anti-modernist dictatorships of China and Russia”:
It is rivalry between capitalist power blocks, but it contains numerous just wars of resistance for national liberation and democracy. And, like it or not, it is a conflict between a democratic, socially liberal model of capitalism and an authoritarian, socially conservative one.4
It is quite remarkable to propose that the US and European powers are no longer imperialist. Yet, in Mason’s view, the conflict requires that the left seek to prop up “socially liberal capitalism” in its contest against Russian authoritarianism. This represents the logical development of the position that Mason and some others on the left took during the Brexit referendum: to defend the neoliberal centre, represented by the EU, against the forces of the authoritarianism that might be unleashed were it to crumble.
A more sophisticated version of Mason’s argument is offered by Gilbert Achcar, an influential figure within the Trotskyist Fourth International. In his recent interventions, Achcar has rejected the notion that the conflict can be seen as an inter-imperialist war and downplays the role of NATO. Instead, he views the struggle through the framework of a straightforward national liberal struggle against an “autocratic and oligarchic ultra-reactionary” Russia, making comparisons with the resistance to the US during the Vietnam War. His conclusion is that the left should support arms shipments to the “Ukrainian state”. On sanctions, he argues that the left should “neither support sanctions, nor demand that they be lifted”.5
The problem with these types of position is that they each fail properly to locate the invasion of Ukraine within a system of inter-imperialist competition, pitching imperialists and their allies against one another. Although it is certainly possible to condemn the Russian onslaught without such a conceptualisation, this condemnation is inadequate for two central reasons. First, it detaches the horror in Ukraine from the general brutality of the imperialist system. This includes the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians; the civil war in Yemen, where the Saudi government currently leads a bombing campaign every bit as murderous as that in Ukraine; the Syrian conflict that recently pulverised the country; and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which led to the death of over half a million civilians. Second, detaching Ukraine from the logic of inter-imperialist rivalries also undermines our capacity to explain the current invasion—thus weakening our efforts to intervene to challenge imperialism.
This analysis will briefly outline how the imperialist system has evolved over time, locate the development of Ukraine—and its relationship to Russia and the West—within this context, and argue for a response from the left that both condemns the invasion and the role the Western powers have played in provoking and escalating conflict in the region.
The imperialist context
Imperialism is best conceived not simply as the domination of weak countries by powerful ones, but also a system of inter-imperialist rivalries, drawing different capitalist states into conflict. It emerges as a distinct stage in the development of capitalism. This stage is a consequence of the firms making up capitalist economies reaching a size where they begin to play a decisive role in national life and in which their operations increasingly spill across national frontiers. Under these conditions there is a growing interdependence of state and capital, in which economic competition tends to fuse with geopolitical competition between states. States are able, through military and other means, to project their power abroad, furthering the interests of their capitalists, but those running states also depend on capitalist development to give them an adequate military and industrial base to do so.6
In its early phase, imperialism saw with the creation of formal colonies, along with informal spheres of influence, dominated by one or other of the great powers. Because the development of capitalism is an uneven process, this leads to ongoing struggles to reconfigure patterns of influence, and thus to inter-imperialist clashes. The two world wars reflected the pressure that late-developing capitalisms such as Germany, the US and Japan imposed on the existing imperial order, which was dominated by the older established European powers.
After the Second World War, the configuration of imperialism changed in important ways. Many of the former colonies were able to throw out their rulers, achieving formal independence, even if remaining in a subordinate position economically. Meanwhile, the US’s rulers, having emerged from the war with by far the most powerful economy—a status they maintained in the decades that followed (figure 1)—sought to create an imperialist order based not on colonies but on open markets. Powerful corporations, built around the US’s mass production industries, would possess major advantages in this arena. Meanwhile, the dollar would underpin the global financial system, again conferring advantages on the US. Finally, US military power would outstrip that of any potential rivals within the Western world (figure 2).
Figure 1: Share of global GDP (current US$), 1960-2020
Source: World Bank and United Nations data.
Figure 2: Military spending (millions US$, constant 2019 prices), 1949-2020
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its allies were excluded from the liberal market system, instead organising their economies as more or less autarkic “bureaucratic state-capitalisms”, each functioning somewhat like a single giant enterprise, with the state bureaucracy directing production.7
The formation of two competing blocs of capitalist powers, with the leading state in each armed with nuclear weapons, led to a “partial dissociation of economic and political power”.8 In the Western bloc, the Japanese and European economies were reconstructed, the latter increasingly integrated through the forerunners of the EU, under the political and military leadership of the US. Although there could be sharp economic tensions within this bloc, they did not result in military clashes.
The wars that erupted during the Cold War typically took the form of proxy conflicts, in which one or other of the superpowers might intervene directly, but in which both avoided a direct confrontation. The overall global order remained broadly fixed: “Both the US and the Soviet Union, at least in the period of détente in the 1960s and 1970s, were willing to regard themselves and each other as status quo powers with no interest in revisiting the post-war settlement”.9
However, preserving and expanding their military capacities placed immense strain on each of the superpowers. In the case of the Western bloc, extremely high levels of military spending in the post-war period helped to sustain the long boom; however, because the costs of this “permanent arms economy” were unevenly shared, this also contributed to the erosion of US economic preponderance in the face of competition from less militarised powers such as Germany and Japan.10 Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, reliant on more slender economic resources and without access to the emerging global division of labour that was developing in the West, stagnated. Stalinism would be swept away across much of Eastern Europe in 1989; two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.
The end of the Cold War brought about a new phase in the development of imperialism. Initially, there was euphoria among the rulers of the Western camp. As President George H W Bush launched the first US-led war on Iraq in 1991, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait, he pronounced “a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind”:
For some two centuries, the US has served the world as an inspiring example of freedom and democracy… And today, in a rapidly changing world, US leadership is indispensable.11
The opportunity presented by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc also led, by the late 1990s, to the start of NATO and the EU’s eastwards expansion, integrating former state capitalisms into the liberal capitalist order. This “unipolar moment” of unrivalled US supremacy was, however, short lived. In the following years, economic and military power would be rearticulated in new and dangerous ways.
This was demonstrated in dramatic fashion as the neoconservatives clustered around the administration of the younger Bush, George W, seized on the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001 to initiate the “War on Terror”. Here, the US’s colossal military advantages were to be used to shore up the country’s economic power. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to demonstrate to potential rivals—in particular, China, now identified as the major long-term threat to US hegemony—that access to the vast oil reserves of the Middle East depended on US goodwill. In the event, the War on Terror proved disastrous, further weakening the grip of US imperialism.
The rise of China, meanwhile, prompted its own rulers to begin to develop a military capacity appropriate to their economic power. According to a 2020 report prepared for the US Congress, this involved striving for at least equivalence with the US military by 2049. The report claims that China already has superiority in shipbuilding, possessing the largest navy in the world; in “land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles”; and in integrated air-defence systems.12 Though it shows no sign of seeking to displace the US at a global level, China already threatens regional US hegemony—particularly in the South and East China Seas.13
The resulting tensions between the US and China today constitute the main faultline in world politics. However, this does not mean the straightforward recapitulation of the Cold War. Even though China is excluded from the system of political alliances created under US leadership since the Second World War, it is highly integrated into global circuits of capitalism. Although this does not preclude future military clashes between the two biggest powers—after all, Germany and Britain were highly integrated prior to the First World War—it does imply a complex pattern of interdependence and rivalry. Within this increasingly unstable order, several less powerful imperialist or sub-imperialist powers have also been able to assert themselves at a regional level.14 This is reflected in the efforts of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and others to intervene in conflicts such as those in Syria and Yemen to try to shape the outcome in their own interests.15
Russia’s growing efforts to reassert itself in its own “near-abroad” and the plight of Ukraine should also be situated in this context of inter-imperialist rivalry.
Ukraine and Russia
For much of its history, Ukraine has been subject to the control of external powers. By the late 17th century, it had become a battleground for several of these, inaugurating a period known as “The Ruin”. The clash, involving the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Cossack Hetmanate, ultimately left much of present-day Ukraine partitioned between Poland and Russia. As Poland itself lost its independence, the Russian Empire absorbed the east of Ukraine, while, to the west, Galicia and western Volhynia were absorbed by Austria. These borders would be called into question by the First World War and the revolutions that helped to end it. Efforts to establish an independent Ukraine following the 1917 Russian Revolution were complicated, to put it mildly, by German occupation and then by the post-revolutionary civil war, in which Ukraine was a major battleground.16 Amid the chaos, Poland, which had now regained sovereignty, also managed to take control of Galicia and most of Volhynia. By 1922, with a pro-Soviet regime in power in areas of Ukraine outside of Polish control, albeit one dependent on support from Moscow and the Red Army, the Soviet Union was proclaimed by the Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Transcaucasian republics.
For all the complexities, and the desperate struggle to preserve the 1917 Revolution, early Bolshevik policy was built around the right of formerly oppressed states to determine their own destiny. As Leon Trotsky put it:
The right to self-determination, that is, to separation, was extended by Lenin equally to the Poles and to the Ukrainians… Every inclination to evade or postpone the problem of an oppressed nationality he regarded as a manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism… In the conception of the old Bolshevik Party, Soviet Ukraine was destined to become a powerful axis around which the other sections of the Ukrainian people would unite.17
However, early attempts by the Bolsheviks to promote the Ukrainian language and culture, along with efforts to improve social conditions, were short lived, falling victim to the broader reversal of the gains of the revolution under Stalin.18 As Trotsky argues: “To the totalitarian bureaucracy, Soviet Ukraine became an administrative division of an economic unit and a military base of the Soviet Union”.19 Not only was there a crushing of any aspiration to independence, the collectivisation of farming associated with Stalin’s attempts at rapid industrialisation would lead in 1932-3 to a famine, known as the “Holodomor”, in which several million Ukrainians died.
When the Second World War broke out, Ukraine was again subject to the predations of rival imperialisms. In the first phase of the war, under the Hitler-Stalin pact, Poland was partitioned. Then, when Germany launched its invasion of Russia, Ukraine was overrun. Some seven million Ukrainians lost their lives. This included around a million Jewish people, including those killed at the infamous Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, where tens of thousands were shot and dumped in mass graves. Tragically, a minority of Ukrainians sought to align themselves with Nazi Germany in this conflict, including the followers of Stepan Bandera, a figure rehabilitated by recent governments in Kiev.20 The war ended with the Soviet army expelling Germany forces, reunifying the east and west of Ukraine.
Looking at this history of oppression and bloody warfare, it is hard to disagree with historian Tim Snyder’s comment: “When Hitler and Stalin were in power, between 1933 and 1945, Ukraine was the most dangerous place on earth”.21
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the first time a relatively stable and independent state was able to form within the borders of present-day Ukraine. It was a far from ideal moment for nation-building. Not only did independence occur in the wake of the stagnation of the Soviet Union, but worse was to follow. With the support of Western advisers, Russia, and a little later Ukraine, were subjected to neoliberal shock therapy to introduce a market economy. As political economist Isabella Weber puts it:
Shock therapy was at the heart of the “Washington consensus doctrine of transition”…propagated by the Bretton Woods institutions in developing countries, Eastern and Central Europe and Russia… The package consisted of (1) liberalisation of all prices in one big bang, (2) privatisation, (3) trade liberalisation, and (4) stabilisation, in the form of tight monetary and fiscal policies.22
As Weber points out, privatising an entire economy previously based on state ownership goes well beyond the limited privatisations carried out by figures such as Margaret Thatcher in Britain. When Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet era president, imposed price liberalisation in January 1992, the result was not an orderly transition to a market system, but prolonged price inflation and collapsing output. Instead of a new class of private entrepreneurs spontaneously developing, those who ran enterprises under the old state capitalist model, the so-called nomenklatura appointed by the Communist Party, sought to reinvent themselves as private capitalists.23 Some enterprises had already had their assets transferred illegally into private ownership through “spontaneous privatisations”. Now, in “voucher privatisations”, citizens were given vouchers that could be exchanged for cash or shares in enterprises. These traded on poorly regulated secondary markets and ended up in the hands of those “with large amounts of hard currency and connections”. Workers and managers in enterprises received preferential rates when they purchased shares, but workers often found their shares were “locked in trusts controlled by managers”.24
It was out of this chaos that the oligarchs—rich and powerful individuals operating at the nexus of economic and political power—emerged in Russia and other post-Soviet states.25 Ukraine embarked on its privatisation programme more slowly than Russia, but it followed a similar pattern. As swathes of the economy collapsed, much of the wider population was plunged into deepening poverty.
In Russia, what growth there was came to depend on the export of primary goods, particularly oil and gas, the proceeds of which were largely funnelled abroad.26 Alongside this came wild financial speculation and endemic corruption. At one point, the rate of creation of new banks reached 40 a week. As the instability of this model of growth became clear, pressure grew on the rouble, whose value was propped up through an expansion of state debt. It took the 1998 East Asian financial crisis to trigger a full-scale currency collapse, a Russian default on its loans and a new phase of economic chaos.27
Ukraine suffered many of the same problems but lacked even the energy resources accessible to Russia to cushion its economy. Instead, it depended largely on agriculture; what industrial base it had possessed before 1991 centred on military production, which became unsustainable without Soviet procurement programmes. Its transition was one of the most catastrophic among the former Eastern Bloc states, with the country remaining, to this day, by most measures, the poorest in Europe. The per capita GDP figures below (table 1) are all the more remarkable when one realises that the population has fallen from over 52 million in 1993 to around 41 million today—a result of rising mortality, declining births and huge levels of emigration.
Table 1: GDP per capita (current US dollars)
Source: World Bank data.
A clash of imperialisms
As noted above, the 1990s, a period of sudden weakening of Russian influence, saw a push to expand both the EU and NATO towards Russia’s frontiers (figure 3).
Figure 3: NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe
Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (later Czechia and Slovakia) had formed the Visegrád group as early as 1991 to press for both EU and NATO membership. However, it was under Bill Clinton’s US administration that expansion truly gathered pace. The 1999 NATO summit, held in Washington, formalised expansion into Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, and announced “Membership Action Plans”—a newly created procedure for would-be members—for Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Incorporation of the Baltic states in 2004 meant that former Soviet states bordering Russia were now part of a military pact viewed as hostile by Moscow. As Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, put it:
Many Russians see NATO as a vestige of the Cold War, inherently directed at their country. They point out that they have disbanded the Warsaw Pact, their military alliance, and ask why the West should not do the same.28
The eastward march also breached the understanding reached with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, during 1990-1 talks that allowed a newly unified Germany to remain in NATO.29
Despite its economic collapse, Russia remained an imperialist power. Now it sought to secure its borders, preventing other regions breaking away, and to restore its influence in its own “near abroad”. In the 1990s, this involved it in three major conflicts. Each reflects the way in which the patchwork of nations, languages and ethnicities absorbed into the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, created scope for the promotion of rival versions of nationalism, many of them rooted in genuine experiences of national oppression. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union local ruling classes could seek to build a base of support by promoting various nationalisms, and so too could imperialist powers looking to manipulate the resulting tensions in their own interests.
So, in Transnistria, on Moldova’s eastern border, separatists played upon attempts by the government to impose Moldovan, a Romanian dialect, on the region, even though only about a third of the population there were of Moldovan origin. Transnistria declared itself independent in 1991. A brief war in 1992, in which separatists were supported by Russian troops stationed in the area, along with Russian Cossacks, established a de facto state. The legacy was one of a series of “frozen conflicts”—unresolved clashes with the potential to be reignited by Russia and local leaders if the balance of power in the region looked as if it might shift against them. In particular, the conflict in Moldova acts as an impediment to the country’s attempts at EU membership, a formal application for which was issued in March this year during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A second frozen conflict developed in another former Soviet state, Georgia, when two regions with significant non-Georgian populations, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, sought to break away, the former waging a war in 1992-3 with Russian support. Georgia, like Moldova, applied to join the EU in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, but is unlikely to be accepted while the separatist regions function effectively as separate states under Russian protection.
By far the most brutal conflict was fought within the Russian Federation’s own borders, in Chechnya, a region of the Caucasus bordering Georgia. Here the collapse of the Soviet Union was met with demands for independence, which was proclaimed in November 1991. After a failed attempt by Moscow to subvert the government, a full-scale Russian assault began in 1994. Yeltsin calculated that crushing the Chechen movement would not only preserve Russian influence in the Caucasus, but also secure control of routes for lucrative oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea and restore his now flagging popularity. However, the offensive met considerable resistance, drawing on a long history of opposition to Russian oppression.30 As the war escalated, the shelling of the capital, Grozny, left an estimated 27,000 dead.31 With the country’s infrastructure destroyed, a popular insurgency took hold, combining urban and guerrilla warfare, and fighting the Russian army to a standstill. A ceasefire was signed in 1996, by which time around 80,000 Chechens had died.32 Ctd....