[Updated] David Harvey: Remarks on recent events in Ukraine — An interim statement (and responses by Hall, Kalb & Cullen Dunn)
By David Harvey
February 25, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from FocaalBlog —The outbreak of full-fledged war with the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a deep turning point in the world order. As such it cannot be ignored by the geographers assembled (alas by zoom) at our annual meeting, I therefore offer some non-expert comments as a basis for discussion.
There is a myth that the world has been at peace since 1945 and that the world order constructed under the hegemony of the United States has largely worked to contain the war-like proclivities of capitalist states in competition with each other. The inter-state competition in Europe that produced two world wars has largely been contained, and West Germany and Japan were peaceably re-incorporated into the capitalist world system after 1945 (in part to combat the threat of Soviet communism). Institutions of collaboration were set up in Europe (the common market, the European Union, NATO, the euro). Meanwhile, “hot” wars (both civil and inter-state) have been waged in abundance since 1945, beginning with the Korean and Vietnam wars followed by the Yugoslav wars and the NATO bombing of Serbia, two wars against Iraq (one of which was justified by patent lies by the US about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction), the wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria.
Up until 1991, the Cold War provided a fairly constant background to the functioning of the world order. It was often manipulated to their economic advantage by those US corporations that constitute what Eisenhower long ago referred to as the military industrial complex. Cultivating fear (both fake and real) of the Soviets and Communism was instrumental to this politics. The economic consequence has been wave after wave of technological and organizational innovation in military hardware. Much of these spawned widespread civilian uses, such as aviation, the internet, and nuclear technologies, thus contributing in a major way to the support for endless capital accumulation and the increasing centralization of capitalist power in relation to a captive market.
Furthermore, resort to “military Keynesianism” became a favoured exception in times of difficulty to the neoliberal austerity regimes otherwise periodically administered to the populations of even the advanced capitalist countries after 1970 or so. Reagan’s resort to military Keynesianism to orchestrate an arms race against the Soviet Union played a contributory role in the end of the Cold War at the same time as it distorted the economies of both countries. Before Reagan, the top tax rate in the US never fell below 70 percent while since Reagan the rate has never exceeded forty percent, thus disproving the right wing’s insistence that high taxes inhibit growth. The increasing militarization of the US economy after 1945 also went hand in hand with the production of greater economic inequality and the formation of a ruling oligarchy within the USA as well as elsewhere (even in Russia).
The difficulty Western policy elites face in situations of the current sort in the Ukraine is that short-run and immediate problems need to be addressed in ways that do not exacerbate the underlying roots of conflicts. Insecure people often react violently, for example, but we cannot confront someone coming at us with a knife with soothing words to assuage their insecurities. They need to be disarmed preferably in ways that do not add to their insecurities. The aim should be to lay the basis for a more peaceful, collaborative, and de-militarised world order, while at the same time urgently limiting the terror, the destruction, and the needless loss of life that this invasion entails.
What we are witnessing in the Ukraine conflict is in many respects a product of the processes that dissolved the power of actually existing communism and of the Soviet Regime. With the end of the Cold War, Russians were promised a rosy future, as the benefits of capitalist dynamism and a free market economy would supposedly spread by trickle down across the country. Boris Kagarlitsky described the reality this way. With the end of the Cold War, Russians believed they were headed on a jet plane to Paris only to be told in mid-flight “welcome to Burkina Faso.”
There was no attempt to incorporate the Russian people and economy into the global system as happened in 1945 with Japan and West Germany and the advice from the IMF and leading Western economists (like Jeffrey Sachs) was to embrace neoliberal “shock therapy” as the magic potion for the transition. When that plainly did not work, Western elites deployed the neoliberal game of blaming the victims for not developing their human capital appropriately and not dismantling the many barriers to individual entrepreneurialism (hence tacitly blaming the rise of the oligarchs on the Russians themselves). The internal results for Russia were horrendous. GDP collapsed, the ruble was not viable (money was measured in bottles of vodka), life expectancy declined precipitously, the position of women was debased, there was a total collapse of social welfare and government institutions, the rise of mafia politics around oligarchic power, capped by a debt crisis in 1998 to which there seemed to be no path for an off-ramp other than begging for some crumbs from the rich folks’ table and submitting to the dictatorship of the IMF. The economic humiliation was total, except for the oligarchs. To top it all, the Soviet Union was dismembered into independent republics without much popular consultation.
In two or three years, Russia underwent a shrinkage of its population and economy along with the destruction of its industrial base proportionally more than that experienced through deindustrialization in the older regions of the United States over the preceding forty years. The social, political, and economic consequences of deindustrialization in Pennsylvania, Ohio and throughout the Mid-West have been far-reaching (embracing everything from an Opioid epidemic to the rise of noxious political tendencies supporting white supremacism and Donald Trump). The impact of “shock therapy” upon Russian political, cultural, and economic life was predictably far worse. The West failed to do anything other than gloat at the supposed “end of history” on Western terms.
Then there is the issue of NATO. Originally conceived as both defensive and collaborative, it became a primary war-like military force set up to contain the spread of communism and to prevent inter-state competition in Europe taking a military turn. By and large it helped marginally as a collaborative organizational device mitigating inter-state competition in Europe (though Greece and Turkey have never worked out their differences over Cyprus). The European Union was in practice much more helpful. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO’s primary purpose disappeared. The threat to the military industrial complex of the US population realizing a “peace dividend” by sharp cuts in the defense budget was real. Perhaps as a result, NATO’s aggressive content (always there) was actively asserted in the Clinton years very much in violation of the verbal promises made to Gorbachov in the early days of perestroika. The US led NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999 is an obvious example (when the Chinese Embassy was hit, though whether by accident or design is not clear).
The US bombing of Serbia and other US interventions violating the sovereignty of smaller nation states is evoked by Putin as precedent for his actions. The expansion of NATO (in the absence of any clear military threat) up to Russia’s border during these years was strongly questioned even in the US, with Donald Trump attacking the logic of NATO’s very existence. Tom Friedman, a conservative commentator writing recently in the New York Times, evokes US culpability for recent events through its aggressive and provocative approach to Russia by way of NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. In the 1990s it appeared as if NATO was a military alliance in search of an enemy. Putin has now been provoked enough to oblige, obviously angered by the humiliations of Russia’s economic treatment as a basket case and Western dismissive arrogance as to Russia’s place in the global order.
Political elites in the US and the West should have understood that humiliation is a disastrous tool in foreign affairs with often lasting and catastrophic effects. The humiliation of Germany at Versaille played an important role in fomenting World War Two. Political elites avoided repetition of that with respect to West Germany and Japan after 1945 by way of the Marshall Plan only to repeat the catastrophe of humiliating Russia (both actively and inadvertently) after the end of the Cold War. Russia needed and deserved a Marshall Plan rather than lectures on the probity of neoliberal solutions in the 1990s. The century and a half of China’s humiliation by Western Imperialism (extending to that of Japanese occupations and the infamous “rape of Nanjing” in the 1930s) is playing a significant role in contemporary geopolitical struggles. The lesson is simple: humiliate at your peril. It will come back to haunt if not bite you.
None of this justifies Putin’s actions, any more than forty years of deindustrialization and neoliberal labour suppression justifies the actions or positions of Donald Trump. But neither do these actions in the Ukraine justify the resurrection of the institutions of global militarism (such as NATO) that have contributed so much to the creation of the problem. In the same way that the inter-state competition within Europe needed to be demilitarized after 1945, so inter power-bloc armaments races need to be dismantled today and supplanted by strong institutions of collaboration and cooperation. Submitting to the coercive laws of competition, both between capitalist corporations and between power blocs, is the recipe for future disasters, even as it is still regrettably seen by big capital as the supportive pathway for endless capital accumulation in the future.
The danger at a time like this is that the smallest error of judgment on either side can easily escalate into a major confrontation between nuclear powers, in which Russia can hold its own against hitherto overwhelming US military power. The unipolar world US elites inhabited in the 1990s is already now superseded by a bi-polar world. But much else is in flux.
On January 15th, 2003, millions of people all around the world took to the streets to protest the threat of war in what even the New York Times conceded was a startling expression of global public opinion. Lamentably they failed, leading into two decades of wasteful and destructive wars all around the world. It is clear that the people of the Ukraine do not want war, the people of Russia do not want war, the European people do not want war, the peoples of North America do not want yet another war. The popular movement for peace needs to be rekindled, to reassert itself. Peoples everywhere need to assert their right to participate in the creation of the new world order, based in peace, cooperation, and collaboration rather than competition, coercion, and bitter conflict.
David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology & Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), the Director of Research at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and the author of numerous books. He has been teaching Karl Marx’s Capital for nearly 50 years.
Derek Hall: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — A response to David Harvey
By Derek Hall
February 28, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from FocaalBlog — David Harvey’s February 25 FocaalBlog post is presented as “An Interim Report” on “Recent Events in the Ukraine”. Harvey’s essay effectively covers some of the core forces that have led to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, from the devastating impact of 1990s shock therapy in Russia to Russian reactions to NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 and NATO’s incorporation of new members in central and eastern Europe. As a response in real time to the full-scale invasion of a nation of 40 million people by a nuclear-armed great power, however, it is analytically inadequate and misleading and politically and ethically flawed.
The first aspect of Harvey’s piece I critique is the way that the specific explanations he gives for why the invasion happened focus overwhelmingly on the actions of the US and the West. While he does state that “None of this [past Western actions] justifies Putin’s actions” (2022), he presents no explanations for what Russia is doing other than the way the West has treated Russia and Russian reaction to that treatment. He says nothing, most notably, about the way the characteristics of the Putin regime might have led to this war (for an essential contrast see Matveev and Budraitskis 2022); indeed, his analysis of the Russian political economy seems to be stuck in the 1990s. Putin’s systematic crushing of all possible political opposition in Russia, the Russian state’s stranglehold over information, and Russia’s massive propaganda machine go unmentioned. No contrast is drawn between the way ‘millions of people all around the world took to the streets’ against the Iraq War in 2003 and the fact that all Russian protesters against this war are immediately arrested.
Harvey lists many wars that have taken place around the world since 1945, but omits Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014-15 and the Russian proxy war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Putin’s conservative ultra-nationalism, his denial of the existence of the Ukrainian nation, his ludicrous statements about the threat Ukraine poses to Russia, and his claims that Ukraine, a country with a Jewish President, is run by ‘neo-Nazis’ are all ignored. So is the fact that Russia’s repeated claims over the last year that it had no intention of invading Ukraine were clearly lies.
Perhaps the most startling thing about Harvey’s article is that while it of course opposes the war (and any war), nowhere in it does Harvey directly condemn Russia for invading Ukraine. That the article is called “Recent Events in the Ukraine” is of a piece with this approach; what, I wonder, would Harvey have made of an article published on 20 March 2003 under the title “Recent Events in Iraq” that found all of its explanations for the US invasion in the actions of countries other than the US?
The second major problem with Harvey’s analysis is that while he, like many other Western leftists (Ali, 2022; Marcetic, 2022; The Nation, 2022), displays great solicitude for the security interests of an authoritarian great power that may have the world’s largest nuclear arsenal (FAS 2022), he pays no attention whatsoever to Ukraine itself. Harvey is presumably unaware that his repeated references to ‘the Ukraine’ (the name of a geographical region) rather than ‘Ukraine’ (the name of a state) implicitly deny Ukrainian statehood. But his usage fits in with a broader failure to see any of what’s happening from the perspective of Ukraine or the other countries and nations liberated from Soviet domination in 1989-91.
All leftists justly celebrate the victorious Asian and African national liberation struggles of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. For left analyses like Harvey’s, however, the fact that 1989-91 marked the end of an empire and a massive moment of decolonization is invisible. The possibility that the liberated states might have desperately wanted, and might now want more than ever, to be protected from the re-imposition of a Russian imperialism from which they have suffered grievously in the past is not raised. NATO ‘expansion’ is thus presented entirely as a Western threat against Russia rather than as in part a response to the desire of central and eastern European countries for protection against a Russian threat that has turned out to be entirely real. The goals, aspirations, initiatives and fears of Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, and many other countries are ignored in favor of a narrative in which all agency is attributed to ‘the US and the West’. This is not to say, of course, that admitting central and eastern European countries to NATO was the right way to address those concerns, or that it did not have real and major negative consequences. The alternative that Harvey proposes, however – that “inter power-bloc armaments races need to be dismantled today and supplanted by strong institutions of collaboration and cooperation” – is pure hand-waving and, as a response to an ongoing invasion, spectacularly inadequate.
These first two aspects of Harvey’s piece, then, make it distressingly similar to the kinds of analyses that have been movingly and trenchantly critiqued in a piece written by Taras Bilous (2022) from a Kyiv under Russian siege. Bilous’ piece should be read in full, but I quote just one part of it here: ‘a large part of the Western Left should honestly admit that it completely fucked up in formulating its response to the “Ukrainian crisis”.’ Ilya Budraitskis (2022), too, points out to the left that “It is necessary to say clearly who started this war and not to look for any excuses for it.” A February 11 article by Terrell Jermaine Starr (2022) develops a progressive response to Russia’s threats to Ukraine by centering exactly the things Harvey misses: the concerns of Ukraine and the history and current reality of Russian imperialism.
I also want to respond to a third element of Harvey’s piece, the arguments he makes about Russia’s ‘humiliation’ by the West after the Cold War and the contrast with the treatment of Germany and Japan after World War II. Harvey is absolutely right to emphasize humiliation as a key object of study in international politics, and right to point out that Germany’s humiliation at Versailles helped cause World War Two. The principle that adversaries should not be humiliated in defeat is of enormous importance. Harvey’s treatment of humiliation, however, suggests that it is an objective condition, a matter of fact. I argue that it must also be treated as a discourse, as a matter of interpretation.
I develop this argument through a discussion of Japan, given Harvey’s claim that humiliation of West Germany and Japan after World War II was avoided by western political elites “by way of the Marshall Plan.” A first problem with this position is factual: the Marshall Plan was not implemented in Japan. Japan did receive other economic support from the US, but was also subjected to harsh austerity in 1949 under the Dodge line. A major contributor to Japan’s improving economic situation from 1950 was the outbreak of the Korean War, with American war procurement accounting for 60 percent of Japan’s exports from 1951-53 (Gordon 2014: 239-40).
A second problem is that many Japanese would disagree with Harvey’s contention that Japan was not humiliated after World War II. They have a lot of objective material to work with in making that case. After having its cities (including Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo) reduced to rubble, surrendering unconditionally, and being stripped of its empire, Japan was occupied by the Allies (effectively the US) for close to seven years. The Americans created a new political system for Japan by writing a new constitution, not one comma of which has been altered since it took effect in 1947. Japan, too, went from being a great power with an empire to being absorbed into the American empire as a junior partner, a ‘semi-sovereign state’ incapable of and indeed constitutionally prohibited (under the famous Article 9) from providing for its own security.
Those are the facts of the case; the question is whether they were humiliations. I side with Japanese on the left who see the 1947 Constitution as the source of cherished democratic and political freedoms that were denied to them under the Meiji state and of Japan’s institutionalized (though rapidly degrading) pacifism. Many Japanese on the right, however, take a different stance, with prominent political figures among them. Tobias Harris (2020: 51, see also 312) writes as follows in his definitive biography of Shinzō Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister:
“Abe has expressed many reasons for wanting to revise the constitution – lamenting the role played by ‘New Dealer’ liberals in drafting the document and the humiliation of Japan’s basic law arising from a period of national humiliation – but his most fundamental reason is that Article 9 is the most enduring symbolic and practical constraint upon the Japanese state’s ability to fulfill its duties to defend the Japanese people.”
What the Japanese case brings to an understanding of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is, first, that in analyzing humiliation in international politics we should not assume that we know how people in the humiliated country will interpret (what we see to be) the objective facts of the case; and, second, that we must carry out our own ethical evaluation of their interpretations. Harvey also misses the extent to which Putin’s sense of Russia’s “humiliation” is a response not just to 1990s shock therapy and NATO enlargement but to the break-up of the Soviet Union – that Putin feels humiliated by decolonization. Surely, we on the left should not be validating this side of Putin’s ressentiment or his blood-drenched nostalgia for empire.
My concluding points are much simpler. At this specific moment, the western left must stand in full solidarity with Ukraine as a nation fighting for its independence and self-determination against open imperialism. Ukraine’s independence must be defended; Russia’s invasion must be unequivocally condemned and resisted.
Derek Hall is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He does research on international political economy, critical agrarian studies, and the theory and history of capitalism, with particular focus on Japan and Southeast Asia.
“Fuck Off” versus “Humiliation”: The Perverse Logic towards War in Europe’s East
By Don Kalb
March 1, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from FocaalBlog — I like the tone and the global historical perspective of David Harvey’s FocaalBlog article. Harvey’s socialist internationalism versus competitive nation-statism should be the only national flag allowed in the 21st century. It was always already essential to make that point against the environmental and public health catastrophes we are facing. It has become even more essential now that humanity is obviously sliding into a deadly phase of imperial competition of which Russia’s criminal assault on Ukraine is a first episode; as is the West’s emerging reaction to it, and the duplicitous self-serving pro-Russia position of China as well (I am writing 27 February). We should be aware that these are just early moments in a developing story that has been incubating in the dying post-1989 world order for some time.
But in this Harvey piece there is much more on the deeds of NATO and the US than on Russia, let alone Ukraine (see Derek Hall). This, sadly, is a recurrent, understandable, but not quite excusable problem of the Anglophone Left. I am not trying to launch a call for ‘local history’ or ‘ethnography’ of the ‘provincializing America and the West’ type here. On the contrary, the call is for an in-depth vision of the dialectical relationships between and within these three ‘worlds’ in motion, their dialectically entwined histories in the making. That is what is needed if we want to understand the direction things have been taking in time and space.
Harvey makes a welcome, though by now broadly accepted point about the West’s humiliation of Russia and the ongoing eastward expansion drive of NATO against earlier ‘promises’ of ‘no inch’. However, what gets easily forgotten is that even Russia, from Gorbachev to around 2007, had itself dreamt of becoming a member of a reconstructed NATO. NATO not only pushed quite deliberately towards the East after 1994, it was just as deliberately sucked into it, also, by the passionate requests of Eastern politicians and nations. When all modernist projects had collapsed in the East, as it seemed in the mid 1990s, the supposedly universalist Western project of democratic capitalism was simply the only available project left. The post-socialist East was happily sharing for a while in Western hubris.
I am writing from Budapest. Like the German parliament in an impressive ‘historical’ session today (27 February), people here are keenly aware that an epoch, their epoch, the post 1989 liberal Western hegemonic world, has now ended. The young new Left, to which many of us are connected as teachers, colleagues, and friends, wrote a terrific statement on their LeftEast blog. Many of us know people who are right now escaping from Ukraine or being called up as reservists; some are possibly already standing with a machine gun in hand and facing an enemy that is capable of launching outright genocidal mayhem if it can’t get its way via routine bloody assault. Imagine Kyiv as Grozny after it was levelled by the Russian army at Putin’s behest. The Chechen war is not something that has stuck in the West’s memory, but people in CEE remember it at once. And then there are the longer run local historical memories of lethal violence, state crack downs on populations, holocausts, cycles of human sacrifices for imperial self-satisfaction of all kinds – none of which the Anglo-sphere (to use a word) has ever experienced in the last millennium, at least not with its white populations as victims. Harvey’s point about being approached by a guy with a knife is well taken but also supremely understated.
Harvey writes that people were not consulted when the Soviet Union was dissolved into so many somewhat arbitrary successor states. In truth, people mobilized by the millions to demand or support these nationalist secessions. The peoples’ chain across the Baltics, connecting the Polish and Russian borders over a stretch of more than a thousand kilometers stands as a symbol of such sentiments. Ukraine was not different. There was a referendum on independence in 1992: over 90 percent support, including in the Donbas (where the percentage of supporters was lower but still overwhelming). Nationalism was scripted into the new independent states in the East from the very beginning, including of course the ones that later accessed the EU. That nationalism was anti-communist, anti-Russian, largely liberal-democratic, and, in the spirit of the times, thoroughly neoliberal. It worked by way of reimagining their bourgeois ‘civil democratic’ and ‘morally virtuous’ openings in the interbellum that were cut short by the Second World war, the Soviet occupation, and the establishment of “really existing socialism”.
That is the starting point: democratic bourgeois-peasant nationalism – also in Russia itself, going back not to the 1930s but to Czarism – thrown into the neoliberal collapses of the 1990s and then into the deeply contradictory, socially polarized, and uneven reversals of the 2000s. Over time, practically everywhere, with Leftist politics switched off, those liberal nationalist impulses transformed into sometimes virulent majoritarian ethno-neonationalisms in search of an enemy, both at home and abroad.
This is not the only story. There are liberal ones to be narrated too, as well as social democratic and democratic socialist ones, even feminist and LGBT ones, and various religious ones. But there is, by now, hardly a post-socialist nation in Central and Eastern Europe or the Commonwealth of Independent States that does not have a potentially biting ethno-nationalist undertone or overtone in its dominant politics.
Russia: The come-back of the Kremlin
Harvey’s piece rightly emphasizes the Russian (and Ukrainian, but that’s overlooked) 1990s. Humiliation, collapse, IMF, the first reversal of male demographic gains (later to be repeated in the US rust belt), massive outmigration; and a West in self-celebratory mood, NATO in search of an enemy (finding it in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, etc.). In the post-socialist countries, this was not just a lost decade, like in Latin America. It was an outright kleptocratic and often lethal decade, with the West showing little interest except, as Harvey rightly notes, blaming the victims for their own cultural ills (‘corruption’, ‘mafia’).
Putin became Putin by first levelling Grozny against the Chechens (the stigmatized ‘gypsies’ of Russia), then beating the oligarchs into submission (Khodorkovsky), reestablishing central state capacities (making the regional governors subject to Moscow again), and finally by reaping the fiscal windfalls from the rising oil and gas prices since 2003 and redistributing a bit of that into a rather desperate population that now finally saw some income growth and stability returning.
These moves are still the bases for Putin’s reign. However, since the financial crisis Putin has kept up an austere regime over the Russian population, refusing to democratically share the oil, gas, and grain revenues, and instead building up a big sovereign wealth fund (600 billion USD now) that remained at the discretion of the Kremlin itself, along with substantial central bank reserves. Starting as a seemingly liberal reformer, Putin had become the pinnacle of a steep stately hierarchy, surrounded by cliques of billionaires, with an austere attitude towards the wider Russian population.
Ukraine: stagnation and revolution
Ukraine, never an imperial center, failed to grow a Putin, and got stuck in the 1990s. State collapse or failing state is too big a word, but oligarchic kleptocracy remains roughly correct amid a rather democratic freewheeling public sphere. While everywhere in the post-Soviet world, economies turned around in the 2000s, also the most Stalinist ones such as Belarus or Turkmenistan, Ukraine never reached its 1992 GDP again. This was so despite Ukraine being among the highest educated parts of the Soviet Union, with better life expectancy and quality of life than in many other places, though in Kyiv and the East more so than in the West.
Western Ukraine has for long remained a basket case (things have been going a bit better since 2014, as everywhere in CEE). The Donbas economy, but also Charkiv, has remained closely interwoven with the Russian military industrial complex, one reason why the East was leaning more towards Russia then towards NATO, apart from the Russian origin of much of its population. The area around Lviv, former Habsburg territory and under Poland until 1939, had been the scene of a bloody anti soviet guerilla from 1944 to 1949. In the 2000s it took the template of its 1940s ‘social-fascism’ (Stepan Bandera) and developed it into a new equally anti-communist engram such as embodied in the Swoboda party, which began winning local elections in the areas around Lviv in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It blamed enduring communism for Ukraine’s failings and projected that imagined communism onto Russia and its continued influence over Ukraine.
During the Maidan uprising, the new engram energized the street-fighting ‘Right Sector’, who were the front troops for the revolutionary coup of February 2014. The Maidan outcome turned these regional and increasingly ethnically imagined divisions into lethal ethno-contradictions. The post Maidan state enshrined ‘de-communization’ with overt anti-Russian connotations into its constitution, as well as future NATO membership (the earlier constitution had declared ‘neutrality’).
The new nationalist state was not nice to the Russian language and heritage, nor to other minority languages, sacrificing Ukraine’s deep diversity as a historic ‘border land’ for an openly ethno-nationalizing project in which the fascist heritages of Galicia were now celebrated and officialized nation-wide. While losing Crimea and parts of the Donbas to Russian aggression, it found it hard to bring itself to offering a positive vision for the ‘Russian’ dissenters in the East and elsewhere. As after the orange revolution (2004), a new IMF diktat would reign over its social and economic policies, making each ruling party swiftly unpopular.
Ukraine is the only state in the Global North that resembles the typical Western vassal in the Global South: dependent on Western aid and capital flows, an internationalized rentier economy in the capital focusing on finance and real estate, surrounded by stagnating provinces (with some recent urban exceptions) from whose laboring populations wealth is continuously extracted by a local rentier oligarchy and then transferred to bank accounts in London or Switzerland (see also Adam Tooze).
In the same years, Putin, fearing a ‘color revolution’, mobilized the Russian provinces against the metropoles that were rising up in protest against his continued dominance and electoral fraught. Here was the Russian version of the global urban risings of 2011. In Moscow, Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and other large centers there were massive demonstrations in late 2011/early 2012. Putin crushed them by embracing Russian Orthodoxy, Czarist state symbolism, police state tactics, and playing out the ‘common Russian worker’ of the declining mono-industrial towns against the ‘decadent creative classes’ of the metropoles. This was the start of an accelerating dismemberment of liberal democracy and ‘civil society’ in Russia. After Grozny, after the showdowns with the Chechens, the oligarchs, and the regional governors, it was now the turn of the urban dissenters.
The Maidan revolution in Ukraine afforded Putin a further jolt to his Czarist emergence by acting on behalf of the protection ‘of all Russians’ abroad, in Crimea and the Donbas. And Syria gave him a chance to showcase his power on the world stage. Just before the Ukraine war, even ‘Memorial’ was closed down. This was one of the last standing critical NGO’s in the country, now accused of being a foreign agent. Memorial was the curator of the memory of the victims of Stalinism and went back to no one less than the Russian nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrej Sakharov. Earlier there was the cruel and treacherous Navalny story; the shooting of Nemtsov; the closing down of the ‘European University’ in Saint Petersburg, to name a few of the violent interventions. Russia was becoming a very sad state, with continued low life expectancy, subjected to unrelenting ‘political technology’, lies, and repression. It was also the paramount leader-state of the global illiberal movement, if something like that indeed exists.
Sabotaging Minsk 2
Resurgent ethno-nationalist Russia, a petro-state with Putin as a new Orthodox Czar seeking to restore Slavic empire, was now facing a weak, virulently anti-Russian, NATO affiliated, ethno-nationalist but at the same time divided and diverse Ukraine. Both states were temperamentally inclined to sabotage the Minsk 2 accord. And then there was NATO in ongoing imperial mode as if the 1990s were never going end, pushing its frontiers further East and promising membership to a Kyiv that was now more openly anti-Russian than ever before. NATO seems to have been hardly taking note of what was simultaneously happening in Russia.
More precisely, it was the US and the UK not taking note and doing the pushing (applauded by the Baltic states and the other East Europeans). France and Germany, with an eye on Russia, had sought to block the Anglo efforts to bring in Ukraine (and Georgia). Ukraine, in short, was subjected to the inevitable contradictions within NATO. And of course, no one was openly telling the Ukrainians that if the new Czar would become really angry, no one in the West would ever want to die for Ukraine. Nor was the West until the very last moment willing to find a diplomatic formula for saying that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO – that is, until German chancellor Olaf Scholz at his press conference with Putin in Moscow uttered wryly that it was a non-issue and just not on the agenda and would not ever be so before even Putin, whom he imagined would want to stay long, had stepped back from power.
But that was too late and too understated to matter, and who were the Germans anyway? It had to come from the Americans. And so, the US imperial mantra that every sovereign country that wanted so would always be welcome in the Western club had to be repeated over and over again. In the accelerating global imperial rivalry, imperial rhetoric, once broadcasted, cannot be lightly abandoned lest weakness is betrayed. In a crisis, ritual repetition is therefore vital, even when the issue is demonstrably irrelevant; and so it is for one’s opponent who must seek to bring precisely that rhetorical banner down.
It was as earlier in Georgia: Western imperial rhetoric feeding deliberately into local desires for the NATO, lies about membership and support, and then war. In 2005 I landed in Tbilisi just after Air Force One. I asked my interlocutors, “do you really think the US will send their aircraft carriers into the black sea in order to rescue you from a war with Russia?”. They were willing to bet on it. Until it happened. Ukraine was just like that. If only not to be in ‘Burkina Faso’, as Harvey quotes a useful quip from Boris Kagarlitsky.
How the West helped set up a monster in the Kremlin
In early February I and Volodymyr Ischenko argued in a Dutch newspaper that Ukraine should forget about NATO and finally embrace Minsk 2. It would be war or Minsk 2, we wrote. And with war we meant the military occupation of the Donbas. The Donbas had to be solved, and probably Crimea acknowledged; and not NATO but the EU should become much more involved, and not in armaments and IMF type macro-economic management but in post-conflict reconstruction. And the US and UK should finally support the French and German efforts for Minsk 2 rather than encouraging Kyiv to work against it. We were asking for another form of ‘Western unity’ then the belligerent one steadily admonished in the English language press and reproduced through NATO channels. Two weeks later we were surprised to find even someone like Jeffrey Sachs in our camp. But it was again far too late.
What we, like so many others, did not reckon with was that Putin had meanwhile gone insane. So, the knives and all the rest are now out. Unless Putin gets repelled in Ukraine and there is a coup in Moscow, Europe (and the West) will be facing a fierce and nasty new cold war. Note that none of the current sanctions is effectively aimed at the flow of oil, gas, and grain out of Russia that pays for the Kremlin’s militarism (writing 27 February). Western capitalism has set up a monster in Moscow. Threatening he Kremlin with NATO and ‘orange revolutions’ while at the same time feeding it lavishly with petrodollars, and allowing it to get away with all sorts of ongoing minor thuggish behavior is asking for trouble. Petro- and commodities’ dependencies in semi-peripheral states are nothing special. But there is only one case where the rents accumulate in an openly revanchist, militarist, and aggressive imperial center.
I am not defending an exploitative global system that is anyhow running towards its own demise. Of course, we need international peace and collaboration rather than competitive states or rivalling blocs that seek to eat each other, as David Harvey emphasizes. Socialist internationalism, there is no rational alternative. But I am torn between the fundamental pacifist and eco-socialist goals that inspire my discipline of social anthropology as much as my own politics, and the knives that are now out in the East. Ukraine’s temerity to loudly say “fuck off” in the face of unjust overwhelming power and oppression, like its border guards on Snake Island, and then accept the inevitable sacrifices, is a more sophisticated political lesson for us all than it superficially seems.
Don Kalb is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen where he leads the Frontlines of Value project. His last book, edited with Chris Hann, is Financialization: Relational Approaches (Berghahn Books, 2020). He is the Founding Editor of Focaal and Focaalblog.
When Western anti-Imperialism supports imperialism
By Elizabeth Cullen Dunn
March 3, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from FocaalBlog — The invasion of Ukraine has been a shock not just to Eastern Europe, but to the post World War II international order. While the fundamental tenets of postwar geography—that national boundaries would not be moved, that each country had the right to territorial integrity, and that every nation-state could govern its own territory without interference—might have been weakened before, now they have been quite literally blown up. Making sense of these world-historical changes will take time. A recent article on FocaalBlog by geographer David Harvey argues that the post-Cold War policies of the West played an important role in pushing Russia towards the current war in Ukraine. Harvey argues that the West’s failure to incorporate Russia into Western security structures and the world economy led to Russia’s political and economic “humiliation,” which Russia now seeks to remedy by annexing Ukraine. By focusing on Western imperialism, however, Harvey ignores the politics of the USSR’s successor states as well as regional economic dynamics. It is Russian neoimperialism, not the West’s actions, that motivates the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Harvey’s argument rests on the idea that in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Western institutions inflicted grave “humiliations” on Russia. He argues that “the Soviet Union was dismembered into independent republics without much popular consultation.” But this begs the question of consultation with whom. Estonia declared national sovereignty in 1988, and both Latvia and Lithuania declared independence from the USSR in 1990–all of them before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 (Frankowski and Stephan 1995:84). All three of these countries were independent prior to 1940, and, like Ukraine, were forcibly incorporated into the USSR; all three saw declarations of independence after 1988 as a restoration of previous national sovereignty. Georgia, too, elected a nationalist government in 1990 and formally declared independence in 1991. Like Ukraine, Georgia claimed a restoration of national sovereignty that was held prior to forcible incorporation in the USSR in 1921. Like Ukraine, each of these countries held referenda on independence which passed with over 74% percent of citizens voting to leave the USSR permanently. Ukraine’s own referendum passed with 92.3% of the population voting “yes” (Nohlen and Stover 2010:1985). There was thus plenty of consultation with the people who mattered–the citizens of countries formerly colonized by Russia who demanded the right to decide their own futures. Why Russia should have been consulted on the independence of nations that had been incorporated into the Russian empire and the USSR by force is unclear; colonizing countries are rarely asked for permission when their colonies declare independence.
Second, Harvey argues that Russia was “humiliated economically.” He writes,“With the end of the Cold War, Russians were promised a rosy future, as the benefits of capitalist dynamism and a free market economy would supposedly spread by trickle down across the country. Boris Kagarlitsky described the reality this way. With the end of the Cold War, Russians believed they were headed on a jet plane to Paris only to be told in mid-flight ‘welcome to Burkina Faso.’”
Harvey blames the collapse of the Russian economy in the early 1990s on the Western-led practice of so called “shock therapy,” or rapid marketization, saying that it resulted in a decline in GDP, the collapse of the ruble, and disintegration of the social safety net for Russian citizens. But an explanation of economic collapsed based solely on “shock therapy” negates the internal dynamics of state-socialist economies, which were already in free-fall as the supply-constrained planned economy succumbed to its own internal contradictions (Dunn 2004:Chapter 2). As the Hungarian dissident economist Janoś Kornai aptly showed, soft budget constraints, which allowed state socialist enterprises to pass their costs onto the state, and thus prevented them from ever failing, led to intense cycles of shortage and hoarding. In turn, endemic shortage led to limited and low-quality production, which in turn led to more shortage and hoarding. All of this disincentivized investments in industrial modernization. Why invest in modern equipment or production methods, when a firm could sell whatever it made, and when there was little incentive to improve profit margins? It was the Soviet economy that kept Soviet industry technologically behind, not the West. The result of the dynamics of state-led planning meant that when Soviet industries were exposed to the world market by shock therapy mechanisms eagerly adopted by reformers in their own governments, they were not at all competitive. Thus, the deindustrialization of the USSR was a product of state socialist economics.
Shock therapy, too, was largely a local production rather than one led by the West, despite Jeffrey Sachs’ relentless advocacy of it. The point of shock therapy was not just to make East European economies look like Western economies as quickly as possible. Rather, local non-communist elites argued that it was a tool to prevent a Communist restoration. They argued that if the Communist nomenklatura, which controlled both politics and production, was allowed to dismantle state owned enterprises and repurpose state-owned capital for their own private gain, its members would oppose political reform or seek to regain political power (Staniszkis 1991). As Peter Murrell, an ardent critic of shock therapy, writes, shock therapy was thus pushed most heavily by East Europeans:
“These reforms were condoned, if not endorsed, by the International Monetary Fund; they were strongly encouraged if only weakly aided, by Western governments; and they were promoted, if not designed, by the usual peripatetic Western economists.” (Murrell 1993:111).
The result, as we now know, was the destruction of state-owned enterprises, the rise of mass unemployment, and the creation of oligarchs whose wealth was founded on formerly state-owned assets. But this was not the result of policies pushed by the West, but rather of the devil’s bargain necessitated by internal political dynamics in Soviet successor states, including Russia. As Don Kalb points out in his response to Harvey, “When all modernist projects had collapsed in the East, as it seemed in the mid 1990s, the supposedly universalist Western project of democratic capitalism was simply the only available project left. The post-socialist East was happily sharing for a while in Western hubris.” This was as true about free-market ideologies as it was about the political support for NATO that Kalb discusses.
Third, Harvey decries the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, citing this as a further humiliation as well as a security problem. His formulation of this problem is odd: he seems to assume that NATO expansion is entirely a question of relations between the Western powers and Russia, which can make decisions on behalf of smaller countries without consulting them. Nowhere in all this are the security imperatives of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, the three countries who wanted to join NATO at the Bucharest Meeting of NATO in April, 2008, each of whom had legitimate reason to fear Russian invasion (Dunn 2017). The right of smaller countries to decide their own foreign policy and to join alliances for their own strategic reasons is entirely absent from Harvey’s account. This absence of the Ukrainian state as an actor in determining the country’s future is an implicit acceptance of Putin’s claim that the former Soviet republics are rightfully in Russia’s sphere of influence. But imagine this argument applied in a different context: Should Canada’s security interests give it the right to occupy upstate New York? Is Arizona rightfully in Mexico’s sphere of influence, given the dangers that US military adventures might pose? Both of those propositions are obviously untenable. Yet the same argument, which is most often made by Vladimir Putin, is taken by many on the Western left as a legitimate basis for Russian action in Ukraine (Shapiro 2015, cf. Bilous 2022).
The notion that the Russian invasions of Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Ukraine again now are defensive actions on the part of Russia is deeply wrongheaded. They are pure aggression. They are first of all aggression towards the peoples and territories forcibly incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. As the experience of Chechnya shows, Russia is willing to utterly destroy places and people that seek to leave the empire (Gall and DeWaal 1999). Russia continues to signal that willingness with the presence of the Russian 58th Army in South Ossetia for the past 14 years, where it has been poised to overrun Georgia at the first sign that it is unwilling to be controlled by Moscow (Dunn 2020). Likewise, the current invasion of Ukraine is not defensive. There was no realistic possibility of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future, and Ukrainian sovereignty posed no credible threat to Russian security. (As German Chancellor Olaf Schultz said, “The question of [Ukrainian] membership in alliances is practically not on the agenda”). The invasion of Ukraine is about Russian control of what it believes is its historical sphere of influence, rather than any particular defensive imperative.
David Harvey clearly believes that his analysis is anti-imperialist. But it is in fact a pro-imperialist argument, one that supports Russian irredentism and the restoration of empire under the guise of a “sphere of influence.” (As Derek Hall points out in his response, nowhere in Harvey’s argument does he condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) Russian imperialism has always worked on different principles than Western imperialism, given that it has been largely non-capitalist, but it is imperialism nonetheless, in cultural, political and economic senses of that term. Blaming the West for “humiliating” Russia occludes Russia’s own expansionist ideologies and desires for restoration of empire, and justifies the violent military domination of people who can and should decide their own destinies.
Elizabeth Cullen Dunn is Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for Refugee Studies, Indiana University. Her work has focused on post-Communist Eastern Europe since 1992. Her first book, Privatizing Poland (Cornell University Press 2004) examined the economic dynamics of post-socialist property transformation. Her second book, No Path Home (Cornell University Press 2017) looked at the aftermath of the 2008 Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia and the effects of Western humanitarian aid on IDPs. Dunn also serves on the board of two refugee resettlement agencies.
Bilous, Taras. 2022. “A letter to the Western Left from Kyiv”, Commons, February 25, https://commons.com.ua/en/letter-western-left-kyiv/
Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. 2020. ” Warfare and Warfarin: Chokepoints, Clotting and Vascular Geopolitics”. Ethnos https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00141844.2020.1764602
Dunn, Elizabeth Cullen. 2017. No Path Home: Humanitarian Camps and the Grief of Displacement. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Dunn, Elizabeth C. 2004. Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business and the Remaking of Labor.
Frankowski, Stanisław and Paul B. Stephan (1995). Legal Reform in Post-Communist Europe. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Gall, Carlotta and Thomas De Waal. 1999. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York; NYU Press.
Hall, Derek, 2002. “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Response to Harvey.” https://www.focaalblog.com/2022/02/28/derek-hall-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-a-response-to-david-harvey/
Kornai, Janoś. 1992. The Socialist System. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Murrell, Peter. 1993. “What is Shock Therapy? What Did It Do in Poland and Russia?” Post-Soviet Affairs 9(2):111-140.
Nohlen, Dieter and Philip Stöver (2010) Elections in Europe: A Data Handbook, Baden-Baden: Nomos
Shapiro, Jeremy. 2015. Defending the Defensible: The Value of Spheres of Influence in US Policy. Brookings Institution Blog, March 11. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/03/11/defending-the-defensible-the-value-of-spheres-of-influence-in-u-s-foreign-policy/.
Staniszkis, Jadwiga. 1991. .Dynamics of the Breakthrough in Eastern Europe: the Polish Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press.