By Ashley Smith
July 1, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Against The Current — Russia’s war of imperial aggression against Ukraine is the most important geopolitical event since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It opens a new epoch of imperialism, one of intensifying rivalry, deglobalization, sharpened conflicts over trade blocs and geopolitical alliances, increased militarization, and proxy wars between great powers over spheres of influence and oppressed nations.
The war exacerbates all the crises of global capitalism: a world economic slump, inflation, climate change and migration. To these it has added new ones, most importantly a new debt squeeze on the Global South as well as famine in countries faced with the loss of Ukrainian grain shipments and a dramatic spike in the price of food. Austerity, destitution and hunger stalk the world’s poorest countries.
All these cascading crises will deepen fractures between states throughout the world. They will also aggravate the already profound political polarization to the right and left within countries as well as trigger both reactionary and progressive uprisings from below. In turn, the capitalist establishment in each state will turn to authoritarian methods to enforce the existing order.
The Ukrainian resistance, backed by NATO’s military and financial support as well as unprecedented sanctions on Russia, has dealt Moscow a severe blow. China, which has struck an alliance with Russia, has been forced on the defensive, caught in a contradiction between its support for Vladimir Putin’s regime and dependence on Western markets and technology.
The beneficiary of Russia’s war will be, at least for the moment, U.S. imperialism, which has tried to re-legitimize its reputation so tarnished by its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reassert its global supremacy, and expand its NATO alliance.
But the multiple crises of the system combined with sharpening conflicts between states and revolts from below will make it very difficult to reimpose U.S. hegemony on the world system. The international left must rise to the challenge of this new epoch and rebuild the tradition of internationalist anti-imperialism.
Roots and nature of Russia’s war
The roots of this war lie in an imperial conflict between, on one side, the United States, NATO and the European Union, which have expanded their reach into Eastern Europe, and on the other Russia, which has tried to reassert its status as an imperial power, especially in its former empire in the region.
Many states that have been under the thumb of Russia throughout their history opted to join NATO and the EU, to ensure their security and in the hopes of benefiting from integration with European capitalism.
This conflict explains but does not justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is a war of imperial aggression against Moscow’s oldest colony. Putin crudely laid out his reasons in speech after speech. He aims to rebuild Russia’s old empire by seizing Ukraine, a country’s whose very existence he dismisses as a creation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
To this he adds a predictable list of lies and self-serving rationalizations: that the country is ruled by an unpopular, U.S.-installed Nazi regime; Russia’s war will liberate the people, especially its oppressed Russian speakers; and Moscow is acting in self-defense against NATO aggression.
Putin has turned to asserting military power to compensate for Russia’s relative economic decline since the Great Recession. He has used this imperialism to whip up domestic nationalism, put down revolts against his regional allies, and crush his domestic opposition. With increasing ferocity Russia has intervened in Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015 to the present), Belarus (2022), Kazakhstan (2022), and now most dramatically Ukraine for a second time.
Putin believed the time was right to seize Ukraine. Biden appeared to be a weak, unpopular leader. At home he was unable to push through his tepid program of liberal reforms. Abroad, Biden had conducted a shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan, struggled to get Washington’s NATO allies to economically disentangle themselves from China in high tech and Russia in energy, and was more preoccupied with confronting Beijing than Moscow.
Putin catastrophically misjudged Ukraine, as well as underestimating U.S. imperialism. Russia expected to win and quickly install a puppet government, but instead met fierce resistance not just from the Ukrainian state and its military, but also from the Ukrainian people including Russian speakers, who volunteered in the tens of thousands for the country’s Territorial Defense Forces.
Their heroic struggle for self-determination has forced Putin to abandon his goal of regime change to annex Donbas and establish a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia had seized in 2014, and potentially expand it along the southern coast to Transnistria, a Moldovan territory Moscow has controlled since 1992.
While the US and NATO had supplied Ukraine with weapons and training since 2014, they, like Russia, expected Ukraine to fall quickly. Nevertheless, they responded with surprising unity, imposing an unprecedented regime of sanctions that strike at the heart of the Russian economy and Putin’s regime.
Under pressure from Ukraine, they also supplied increasing amounts of defensive weapons and financial assistance to power the resistance.
With Russia repositioning to capture Donbas and partition Ukraine, the United States and Britain in particular have adopted increasingly bellicose stances, threatening to use Ukraine to “weaken Russia” (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) and even depose Putin (implied by Biden).
This may just be brinkmanship in response to Putin’s threats to use his nuclear arsenal, as the rival imperial powers prepare to cut a deal behind Ukraine’s back that is not in the service of its interests. Yet we should not rule out the possibility that this war of self-determination against Russian aggression could turn into a war between great powers.
Given the nuclear stakes, however, this scenario is highly unlikely, and a rotten peace deal amenable to both imperialist sides much more so.
End of the unipolar order
This entire course of events represents a radical departure from the unipolar world order the United States had superintended since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Coming out of that bipolar conflict, Washington had devised a grand strategy of incorporating all major economies in the world into a neoliberal order of free trade globalization it envisioned through its international financial institutions and the World Trade Organization.
To enforce the norms of this system, the United States expanded its security footprint through the expansion of NATO and its empire of bases to prevent the rise of any peer competitor that might challenge its hegemony. It launched wars for regime change against so-called “rogue states,” conducted so-called humanitarian interventions to impose order on societies like Haiti ripped apart by neoliberalism, and to isolate and crush any government that bucked the Washington Consensus.
This is the venerated “rule-based order” that U.S. imperialism policed for the last four decades. Several developments undermined it. The neoliberal boom and the globalization of supply chains enabled the development of new centers of capital accumulation, even while it drove whole swathes of the world into greater poverty.
From this process, China emerged as the second largest economy. It retained state ownership of strategic industries, backed private ones as national champions capable of competing in the world economy, and required multinationals in China to share their technology. It thereby leapt up the value chain to become increasingly competitive with the United States, EU and Japan.
While China stands out as the most important new global player, it was not alone. Russia rebuilt itself into a nuclear-armed petro-power at the center of Europe’s energy system and several states such as Brazil and India established themselves as regional economic powers.
Aware of these developing changes, Washington attempted to lock in its dominance through the so-called War on Terror. The barely disguised aim of the interventions in Afghanistan and especially Iraq was to secure control of the world’s strategic energy reserves, a control that would enable the United States to blackmail and bully China and other potential rivals that depend on the region for oil and natural gas.
Those wars catastrophically failed, leading to what retired General William Odom called “the greatest strategic disaster in United States history.” Instead of advancing U.S. power, the wars of the 2000s exposed and contributed to its relative decline against its emerging rivals.
The Great Recession following 2008 then hammered the U.S. and European economies in particular, weakening their global position. China, at least for a while, became the main growth center of world capitalism based on its massive state stimulus and state spending, which sucked up raw materials from countries throughout the world.
But given its deep integration into the world economy, China too succumbed to the global slump, with declining growth rates exacerbated by the recession triggered by the pandemic. China’s newfound difficulties have only made it more aggressive in asserting its interests.
All these developments have ushered in a new asymmetric multipolar world order with a three-cornered strategic rivalry between the United States, China and Russia over the Eurasian heartland of global capitalism as well as countries in its periphery. Of course the United States remains the global hegemon, but now faces these imperial rivals as well as a host of regional ones.
In this new order, ruling classes, their states and conflicts are not the only players. The Great Recession and consequent global slump have also set off one of the largest waves of protest and revolt in nearly every corner of the world.
From the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, workers and oppressed people have risen up for democracy, equality and liberation. At the same time, a new far right has emerged globally led by Putin, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen to name a few, that has galvanized the petty bourgeoisie and shattered sections of the working class to offer reactionary solutions to the system’s problems.
The great powers have responded by coopting and repressing the progressive forces, adapting to the right, ratcheting up nationalism, and doubling down on conflicts between one another often over subject nations in their spheres of influence. Each have become more assertive of their ambitions. China, sensing its opportunity with the relative U.S. decline, has become more aggressive economically, militarily and geopolitically.
Under Xi Jinping, it launched its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for infrastructure development in over 70 countries. China’s aim is to incorporate them as spokes around a Chinese hub. It paired this with an industrial policy, China 2025, designed to increase its high tech industry’s competitiveness against the United States, Japan and the EU.
With its economic ascension, China has become more geopolitically assertive, building new alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, deepening its partnership with Russia, and challenging U.S. hegemony in international affairs, especially since NATO’s intervention in Libya.
To back these efforts up with credible force, it has revolutionized its military, established bases in the South China Sea, and begun to establish foreign military bases beginning with one in Djibouti and two others, one planned for Equatorial Guinea and another for the Solomon Islands.
Russia similarly rode its economic recovery based on energy and weapons exports to contest NATO’s eastward expansion. Faced with its relative economic decline, democratic resistance at home, and growing waves of revolt in its former empire, Moscow has intervened more aggressively, most importantly in Syria and Ukraine, and turned to China as its key counterweight against the United States.
Beyond these key strategic rivals, Washington’s traditional allies and a few regional powers also became assertive. Countries in the EU balanced between their traditional alliance with the United States and their increasing economic and energy integration with China and Russia, while Japan relied on the U.S. security umbrella despite its deep economic relations with China. Lower down the hierarchical state order, various powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Brazil, India, and others staked out their own interests.
The United States, faced with its own relative decline, has tried to defend its global hegemony against emerging imperial and regional rivals. Obama started the shift away from the War on Terror toward great power rivalry with his “Pivot to Asia” to rally allies to contain and discipline China, sanctioned Russia for its seizure of Crimea in Ukraine, and pressured the EU against further integration with China and Russia.
Trump made great-power rivalry Washington’s explicit grand strategy, naming Beijing and Moscow as its two antagonists. But his erratic and transactional approach to both rivals and allies left the United States if anything weaker, reeling from the pandemic he catastrophically mishandled and the deep recession it triggered.
Biden came into office declaring “America is Back.” He promised to restore the United States to the center of the world system, rebuild its alliances so damaged by Trump, redevelop the country’s domestic infrastructure, and introduce an industrial policy to ensure U.S. supremacy in high tech against China.
He carried over Trump’s commitment to ending so-called forever wars and carrying out great power rivalry against Beijing and Moscow. Unlike Trump, however, he attempted to rally U.S. alliances to join a sophomorically named “League of Democracies” to defend the “rules based order” against autocracies and their violations of human rights.
While all this stank of hypocrisy from the butcher of Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington was serious about it, going so far as to call a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, where Xi and Putin consolidated their “friendship with no limits.”
New stage of imperial rivalry
Thus, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inter-imperial rivalries were heating up. The war will intensify these, exacerbate and multiply global capitalism’s crises, deepen political polarization, and launch yet more progressive as well as reactionary movements.
As previously noted, the United States is the immediate beneficiary of Russia’s stalled attempt to seize its former colony. Washington rallied its North Atlantic allies to join its sanctions regime, compelled them to raise their military budgets, forced Germany to suspend operationalization of Nord Stream 2, and pressured Europe to lay out plans ending dependency on Russian oil and natural gas.
In the process it consolidated NATO, revitalized the military alliance, and will likely expand it by adding at least Finland and Sweden. Thus, Putin’s alibi for invading Ukraine has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Washington will use NATO to fulfill its longstanding purpose, in the words of its first Secretary General Lord Ismay, to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
By all measures, Russia will suffer its worst strategic defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union’s empire. It will remain at best mired in a protracted standoff with Ukraine over occupied territories while it suffers an economic depression triggered by isolation and loss of energy export markets and geopolitical isolation, driving it into an increasingly subordinate relationship with China.
Beijing will be happy to take advantage of the situation to secure cheap energy exports from a weakened Russia. But Putin’s war is double-edged for China, which wants to preserve its alliance with Moscow but, on the other hand, needs export markets in North America, Europe, and Japan, maintenance of supply chains with their multinationals, and their continued foreign direct investment.
China is thus caught in the contradictions of inter-imperial rivalry amidst an integrated world economy. To overcome this predicament, it is developing a dual circulation economic strategy, which would continue its export model while it focuses on expanding its internal market.
On the geopolitical front, China has closely watched how the U.S. and NATO support Ukraine. It no doubt considers this an ominous precedent for how they will respond to China’s assertion of power in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the case of any aggression by Beijing against Taiwan. Already, Washington is encouraging its ASEAN allies to increase their military budgets, especially Japan, which for all intents and purposes has voided its pacifist constitution.
As a result, while China has whipped up a domestic propaganda campaign in support of Russia, it has adopted a cautious approach internationally, blocking with Moscow in the Security Council but at this point abiding by the sanctions regime and not sending military aid to its ally.
Nevertheless, Beijing shows no signs of retrenching its regional and global ambitions. While the United States has staked its claim to continued hegemony against Russia and China, there are already signs of the challenges it faces. As economic consequences of the war begin to hit not just Russia but the EU as a whole, key states like France have already begun to push for negotiations to bring the crisis to a conclusion.
The United States has also had difficulty compelling capitalist states outside its North Atlantic alliance to join its sanctions regime against Moscow. Many states in the Global South have opted to balance between NATO powers and the Chinese-Russian alliance, with 35 abstaining from the UN resolution that condemned the invasion.
In short, the US will not be able to reconstruct the neoliberal world order it has superintended for the past four decades. In fact, globalization is already in relative decline. Growing inter-imperial rivalries, combined with the pandemic, are driving states to pressure multinational capital, which is heavily invested in the current structure of global supply chains, to implement near and onshoring of them, a process that could lead to the reemergence of trade blocs.
Crises and revolt from below
None of this reordering of global capitalism’s imperialist order will be peaceful, either between states or within them. Indeed, the war has already disrupted and destabilized the system. It has dramatically increased the cost of energy, driven up inflation and slowed growth, evoking panic among central banks about a return to the stagflation that wracked the world economy in the 1970s.
In response, the U.S. Federal Reserve has raised interest rates even at the risk of triggering a global recession. Its hike will cause another debt crisis in the Global South as countries are forced to borrow at higher rates and abide by structural adjustment measures that will further cut their welfare states and lower workers’ living standards.
The war’s disruption of the global grain market has an even more devastating impact on the Global South, which disproportionately depends on shipments from Ukraine and Russia. The suspension of these has led to massive price increases and shortages of staples essential to life like bread. Hundreds of millions more people will be subject to famine.
The war’s interruption of the international energy market will exacerbate the climate crisis. While states will turn to more so-called green energy (a toxic extractivist industry in its own right), they will also increase drilling and fracking to replace Russian oil and gas, exacerbating global heating.
War, economic crisis and climate change will drive more people from their home countries adding to the already record flow of migrants around the world. While states have opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees, they have on the whole doubled down on building their border regimes to criminalize migrants, blocking many and reducing those that evade capture to a disenfranchised, cheap labor force for capital to super-exploit.
These crises will further polarize politics within states, opening space for the far right as well as the far left. It will also increase both reactionary and progressive uprisings throughout the world. The massive revolt in Sri Lanka is one taste of things to come, as is Le Pen’s record vote total in the French election. These will drive the capitalist establishment to turn further to the right as well as use repression to maintain social order.
The international left is ill-prepared for the challenges of this new period of crisis, rivalry, polarization and revolt. We are coming out of several decades in which opposition to U.S. imperialism was seemingly the sole geopolitical task for the left and antiwar movement.
Therefore, we have little experience opposing other imperialisms like those of China and Russia, responding to their conflicts with the United States — and standing with all oppressed nations like Ukraine, without exception.
In this new circumstance, social democrats have in the main lined up with the United States and NATO. They have uncritically supported Biden’s use of the Ukraine crisis to build his “league of democracies” to confront “authoritarianism” in defense of the so-called “rules based order.” In other word, they are loyal to U.S. imperialism, even with its record of barbarity from the Spanish American War through Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its support for apartheid Israel’s colonialism and for Saudi Arabia’s horrific war in Yemen.
On the other hand, sectors of the far left like the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) have resurrected a version of the old Stalinist tradition of campism — taking the side of any state or grouping of states opposing the United States, even when these states crush movements for democracy, popular revolutions and national liberation struggles.
Thus, they backed the Iranian regime against the Green Movement’s struggle for democracy, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s counter-revolution, and the Chinese state’s repression of Hong Kong’s democratic uprising — all struggles from below that they dismissed as “color revolutions” orchestrated by the CIA.
In the case of Ukraine, they have recycled Putin’s lies for invading, in particular blaming the U.S. and NATO as the aggressor and dismissing Ukraine’s defensive struggle for national survival as a mere pawn of Western imperialism.
Sometimes the campists adopt a pacifist guise, calling for “ceasefire and negotiations,” even if that ratifies Russia’s partition of the country. This is neither anti-imperialist nor internationalist, since it legitimizes Russian imperialism and betrays Ukraine’s right to self-determination.
This campist position often interacts with pacifist parts of the antiwar movement like CodePink, who tend to take a stand against all violence on principle. Thus they oppose Ukraine’s call for arms and its military resistance to Putin’s invasion. Such a position would deprive the Ukrainian resistance of arms and pave the way for Russian conquest against a defenseless people.
Tragically, sections of the international left like the British Socialist Workers Party, who should know better, have adopted a position of geopolitical reductionism that simplifies the Russia invasion to an inter-imperialist war between the United States and Russia. While supporting Ukraine’s struggle on paper, they too oppose Ukraine’s right to secure arms for its self-defense, a position like that of the pacifists that in practice enables Russian imperialism.
For internationalist anti-imperialism
We must build an alternative to these disastrous positions. We must oppose all imperialisms in the new asymmetric multipolar world order; support all struggles for equality, democracy and liberation, regardless of which “camp” they occur in; and build solidarity from below among progressive and socialist forces throughout the world.
Applied to Russia’s war in Ukraine, that means supporting Ukraine’s fight for self-determination and defending its right to secure defensive arms to resist Russia’s invasion. We must oppose Russia’s war and support the Russian left and antiwar movements’ fight against Putin’s regime.
At the same time, we must resist the U.S. and NATO’s use of the war for their own purposes. It has little to do with Ukraine’s national liberation and more to do with their goal of preserving Washington’s hegemony over global capitalism. We must speak out against both Washington’s threat to expand the war into Russia or any plan to cut a deal behind Ukraine’s back that does not serve its interests.
We must also oppose all the imperial and regional powers’ rush to expand their arms budgets in preparation for more conflict. They are diverting funds into their war machines that could otherwise go to reforms to address the multiple crises from the pandemic to climate change, risking nuclear armageddon in the process.
Throughout, the international left must build a pole of attraction for workers and oppressed people independent of all capitalist parties and states. They each have their stake in the existing order that is the cause of today’s crises, growing inter-imperial conflicts and wars. Only a principled position of internationalist anti-imperialism can guide a new left to offer the alternative, however emergent, of socialism from below against the horrors of global capitalism.