Imperialism and the invasion of Ukraine

ukraine war

We know that in the context of this brutal war activists in the Ukrainian socialist group Social Movement face very difficult circumstances. The destruction of human lives and material infrastructure happening around you every day is hard for us to imagine. We give our deepest sympathy to all of you who have lost comrades, friends and family as a result of the war.

We understand that you have had to throw yourselves into the defence of Ukraine against a brutal and senseless invasion, while also resisting every attempt by the Ukrainian government to use the war as an excuse to attack working peoples' rights and democratic space. These are circumstances that most of us find hard to even imagine.

I wrote an article for Green Left the very day before the invasion in which I dismissed it as a propaganda beat-up by the United States. Unfortunately, I completely underestimated to what extent the Vladimir Putin leadership was prepared to use force to advance its interests and the interests of Russian capitalism.

Needless to say, I wish I had not been proven wrong. In the Socialist Alliance (SA) we do not set ourselves the task of being the experts on the social and political situation in Ukraine or Russia. But the invasion has had profound consequences for world and domestic politics that we need to grapple with if we are to chart a way forward.

The most immediate consequence for us flows from the fact that Australia is completely embedded in the "Anglo-Imperialist" axis that includes Britain and the US. Our rulers have seized on the golden propaganda opportunity provided by Putin to promote increased military expenditure and to prepare the public for possible military confrontation with China. This of course would be a disaster for working people in our region and the whole world, potentially much worse than the disaster we already face in Ukraine.

How to understand the invasion of Ukraine?

What approach has SA taken in analysing the Russian invasion itself? Beyond opposing the invasion, we have sought to steer a path between what I would call two extremes, or two wrong positions:

  • The first of these is to simply fall in behind the liberal narrative dominant in the media that the war is pitting virtuous Western democracy against autocracy and tyranny. While unequivocally condemning the Russian invasion, we can not concede anything to Western militarism. As socialists in the heart of the Western imperialist beast, we have to remind people that our relative privilege — both material and democratic freedoms — come at the cost of the people of the Global South, on whom war is inflicted every day of the week.
  • The second mistake is to reduce the conflict to a proxy war between the West and Russia; to dismiss Ukraine as just a pawn of the West, thereby treating the wishes of the Ukrainian people as secondary. There are very few on the left that actively support Russia, but there is a tendency among some to effectively frame a Russian victory as a lesser evil to a Russian defeat. According to this view, the desire to see Western imperialism — and the US in particular — get a well-deserved blood nose trumps everything. That’s a fool’s anti-imperialism. Neither the crimes of US imperialism, the US’s own objectives of blocking Russia and China economically and militarily, nor its meddling in Ukraine change my view that the invasion is a catastrophe both for the people directly impacted and the global anti-imperialist struggle.

Based on that understanding, in Socialist Alliance we have adopted a policy on the war that says we support two important things:

  1. The Ukrainian peoples' right to resist the invasion, to expel Russian armed forces from Ukrainian territory and to access the arms needed to achieve this.
  2. A return to diplomacy to de-escalate the situation and resolve the current impasse. This is not a call for Ukraine to capitulate, but rather a demand that both Russia and the Western powers abandon their war aims and allow Ukraine to live in peace.

Now, some people say that it is a contradiction to both support the right of Ukrainians to resist the invasion and to support negotiations to end the war. I disagree, or put another way, I agree but argue that it is a necessary contradiction for the following reasons:

  • If there is a possibility of Ukraine securing a just peace through negotiations, or at the very least a peace that is better than the current hell it is going through, and that Ukrainian society is prepared to accept in the circumstances — then we should support it. But that does not mean we should demand that Ukraine sue for peace at any price, that is to say, by simply capitulating to all of Russia’s demands.
  • Unless one side or the other scores a decisive military victory the war will end, or at the very least pause, through negotiations. Ukraine will be in a stronger bargaining position for having so successfully resisted the invasion.
  • Fundamentally it is not Ukraine that we want to make concessions to secure peace, but Russia and Western imperialism. What do I mean by that? Well, the Russian concession is fairly obvious: withdrawing from territory occupied since it launched the invasion. For the West, it would include re-starting negotiations about a new treaty or treaties regarding the stationing of nuclear and conventional missiles in Europe and lifting the sanctions.
  • Of course we understand that what we want is not necessarily how things will play out. This will also be determined by both the balance of forces on the battlefield and the fact that if the West does decide to cut a deal with Russia, its first instinct will be to pressure Ukraine to concede territory rather than concede to Russian security demands or modify its own aggressive military posture in any way.

To summarise, I think it is a mistake to trap ourselves into insisting, as some sort of moral principle, that Ukraine should sue for peace at any price, or to insist on military victory for Ukraine at any price.

Preparing for war with China

Not only are we being told to prepare for war with China; we are being told to expect it. The determination with which our rulers and media are beating the war drums makes it clear. Even if China does not strike first, we are drifting to war anyway. It is the stuff of nightmares.

The US is absolutely determined to stop the growth of China’s influence and its further economic development, by force if necessary. With its vassal states Britain and Australia in tow, it has seized on the invasion of Ukraine to galvanise support for military escalation.

However this has been the intention for some now. An important turning point was Barack Obama’s 2009 East Asia Strategy or “Pivot to Asia”. This was continued by Donald Trump — complete with all his unhinged rhetoric — and now by Joe Biden.

The Australia, United Kingdom, United States (AUKUS) agreement must be seen in the wider context of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the proposal to extend NATO to the Indo-Pacific. Under AUKUS, Australia will be further militarised and turned into a US garrison. This means: More deployments of US aircraft, vessels and joint war games; four new military bases, two new bases for the militarisation of space and greater support for combined military operations in the region; and proposed increased cooperation in hypersonic weapons and cyber warfare, underwater systems, artificial intelligence and long-range strike capabilities.

US annual military spending is triple that of China and has been for many years. Furthermore, China is ringed by US bases, which the US intends to supplement with a network of precision-strike missiles. Every step China takes to break out of this military encirclement is presented in our media as more proof of its aggressive intent.

The military posture of China is overwhelmingly defensive, designed to protect its own coastline and preserve its access to the world via the South China Sea. However it is also possible that it may overreact and take measures that lead to full-scale war. In fact, that seems to be what the US is trying to provoke.

We are absolutely opposed to any attempt by China to achieve reunification with Taiwan by force. But the US policy of actively encouraging such a conflict is utterly reckless.

It is simply impossible to confront the existential threat posed by runaway global warming while also pouring billions into a new cold war in the expectation that it will one day become a hot war.

This will become a defining issue of Australian politics, and while it is early days, we need to go on the offensive and popularise the need to Fight climate change, not war

This is not just a slogan, but a decisive choice for humanity.  It is one or the other — and right now the Australian government is choosing war over serious climate action. We need to find ways to really popularise this understanding.

Unfortunately we start on the back foot. A propaganda campaign whipping up the “China threat” has had a real impact. According to a poll conducted by the Lowy Institute in 2018, 52% of Australians believed China would act responsibly in the world. In two years that had dropped to 23%, and by 2021 it was down to only 16%.

It is truly frightening to see how easily public opinion can be manipulated in this way. However the small but growing networks and activity in opposition to AUKUS and the war drive more generally is a good sign. We need to strengthen anti-AUKUS coalitions where they exist, and to start educating Australians about the war drive and where it comes from. 

In doing so we have to turn the language of the warmongers on its head. The Australian government is committed to war, not security. We are the ones with a security policy based on demilitarisation and uniting humanity in the fight to confront climate change.

Shifts in world capitalist order: what is going on?

On the left there has been some debate about whether Russia is an imperialist power. Oftentimes this is more frustrating than useful because the people involved are using different definitions of the word.

So let us start with the definition developed by socialists in Vladimir Lenin’s time, most notably in the 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. This identifies imperialism, among other things, as a world economic order in which value is extracted from the Global South by virtue of the fact that productivity of labour is so much higher in the wealthy countries because that is where capital and technology is concentrated.

That understanding remains vital because it continues to describe fundamental features of the world in which we live. Here are three recent events that illustrate this in operation:

  • EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s declaration that, “Europe is a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.”
  • US measures to stop China from developing microchip technology, including export controls, and the restriction on US citizens and permanent residents from working with Chinese semi-conductor producers.
  • The 400,000 dead in Yemen that barely rates a mention in Western media while Western countries, including Australia, jostle to sell more arms to the Saudi dictatorship.

It should not be a surprise that many people in the Global South effectively support Russia as the lesser evil in the current war, or at least are indifferent to Ukraine’s plight. Understandably, all they see is Western hypocrisy.

Let us look at Russia's place in the world economy. Despite a population of 147 million, it has a GDP smaller than South Korea (population 51 million) and not much bigger than Australia’s (population 26 million).

With labour productivity about a quarter of the West, minimal foreign direct investment by Russian capitalists and a dependence on the export of primary products; Russia is clearly not an imperialist power when measured against the criteria of Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet. Even China, whose economy is very large in absolute terms, has a labour productivity four times that of India, but about 25% of that of the US or Western Europe.

Traditionally, we would have described such countries who are more industrialised than most of the Global South, but still way behind the West, as “semi-peripheral”. However this has usually assumed a subordinate relationship to a major Western imperialist centre, such as that between Mexico and the US. Given the political independence of Russia and China, and indeed their confrontation with Western capitalism, perhaps we need a different term.

Certainly Russian capitalism is much weaker than its Western counterparts and lacks the means to project military power across the globe like the US does. However Putin’s Russia still embodies an aggressive capitalist project that believes the states of the former Soviet Union and other near neighbours are its rightful “sphere of influence” — and it is prepared to use war to enforce its project, just like Western imperialism is.

In an earlier phase, Lenin himself used the word “imperialist” to describe the Russian Empire despite the much weaker development of capitalism in Russia at the time. So while definitions are important, it is also important not to confuse semantics with substance. In this case, the Russian invasion is a catastrophe, no matter if you call Russia an imperialist power or not. 

While opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we can not drop our opposition to efforts by the US to reassert its control over world affairs. For the US there seem to be contradictory outcomes of the war emerging.

In Europe, the US has reestablished its strategic hegemony and broken the growing economic links between Germany and Russia. The closure of the Nord Stream gas pipelines, forcing Europe to buy more expensive US fracked gas instead is just one proof of this.  

But elsewhere it seems to have accelerated the decline of US pre-eminence. Not only has the Eurasian capitalist bloc of Russia, Iran and China been drawn closer together; but the other big-hitters among both the semi-periphery and Global South have refused to fall into line behind the US sanctions regime, seeing opportunity in crisis. This has been the approach of Turkey, India, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia, which refused US requests to boost oil output to put downward pressure on prices.

Any erosion of the capacity of the US to play “world cop” is welcome. It potentially frees up room for the people of the world to push back against Western imperialism and choose their own paths. In Australia, our contribution to that process has to take the form of resisting the dangerous AUKUS war drive with everything we have got.

However, an emerging “multi-polarity” led by the governments of Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, India and Qatar is no guarantee of the development of a democratic anti-imperialist struggle, much less a stepping stone towards socialism. They viciously repress the workers and democratic movements in their own countries. Their “anti-imperialism” extends only as far as the interests of their own capitalist projects.

While disrupting the world order, these right-wing, nationalist and authoritarian capitalist governments that are sometimes in conflict with the West over “spheres of “influence” are not and can not be the spearhead of the anti-imperialist struggle. The dirty dealing between Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad at the expense of the Kurdish freedom movement is proof of this.

It is a reminder that we are on the side of working people the world over and it is they who will make the change we need.

The above speech was given at Ecosocialism 2022 as part of the panel "Ukraine, imperialism and the left" held on October 25. Sam Wainwright is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.