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Originally published in Marxism Leninism Today on January 9, 2023
Russia without Blinders: From the Conflict in Ukraine to a Turning Point in World Politics [Original title: La Russie Sans Oeilleres: Du conflit en Ukraine au tournant geopolitique mondial] edited by Maxime Vivas, Aymeric Monville and Jean-Pierre Page. (Paris, France: Editions Delga, 2022.)
Today the conflict in Ukraine advances every day and intensifies with Russian destruction of the Ukrainian infrastructure, with the western gift to Ukraine of more and more sophisticated and destructive weapons, with provocations like the missile aimed at Poland, and the Ukrainian attacks within Russia. Presently, the conflict in Ukraine has brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
In 1962, U.S. leaders believed that Russian missiles in Cuba posed such a national security threat that they were willing to risk nuclear war to get them removed. Yet, the U.S. and NATO propose creating exactly this kind of threat to Russia. The gravity of the current situation is obvious if one can imagine the reaction of Russian leaders at the prospect of American/NATO nuclear missiles in Kiev two hours flight from Moscow. Thus, the lack of an outcry against the war in Ukraine and the almost complete absence of calls for a ceasefire and negotiations constitute one of the most glaring and dangerous aspects of the present moment.
Though Washington officials and the mainstream media always refer to this conflict as Putin’s “unprovoked war,” seldom has a conflict been so clearly provoked as this one. The expansion of NATO since 1991 and U.S. insistence that Ukraine be allowed to join NATO are the most obvious and proximate causes of this conflict. By increasing economic sanctions against Russia, by arming of Ukraine with ever more sophisticated weapons, and by saying that Putin is a “butcher” who “can no longer remain in power” (Biden in March 2022) and by insisting that Ukraine’s right to join NATO is non-negotiable, the United States continues to escalate the conflict and place a negotiated settlement further out of reach.
In spite of this situation in the United States and Europe, no movement for peace in Ukraine has emerged. Aside from a few right-wing outliers like Senator Rand Paul and a hastily withdrawn letter to Biden from the House Progressive Caucus calling for negotiations, no elected officials have denounced American behavior or called for peace. Almost no intelligent and informed discussion of the war occurs in the media and none at whatsoever in the recent electoral debates. The entire nation seems plunging into the unknown with blinders on.
This makes the current volume an island of facts and reason in a sea of insanity. Russia without Blinders was edited by Aymeric Monville, the head of Delga Editions, the main Marxist publishing house in France, Maxime Vivas, author of a recent book on the anti-Chinese “ravings” in France, and Jean-Pierre Page, a writer and past director of the International Department of the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT). It has seventeen contributors mostly scholars, writers and activists in France, whose contributions fall under three headings: Russophobia, the Origins of the Conflict, and Russia and the World. While exposing the phobia and propaganda that has completely obscured the meaning of this war, the book, in the words of the editors, aims to be not pro-Russian but pro-truth.
To the extent that the book’s many authors and subjects could be reduced to a simple argument it would be this: The war in Ukraine did not begin with the Russian invasion of February 23, 2022, but was rooted in events at least as far back as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its meaning is far more serious than the simpleminded notion that this is an “unprovoked” war driven by a madman’s desire to restore the Czarist empire. Rather, this war is symbolic of a seismic change in international relations and balance of forces that has occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union and which has intensified in recent years with the economic recovery of Russia, now the world’s eleventh largest economy and the rise of China, which has become the world’s second largest economy. The United States and its European vassals are determined to hold on to their superiority and even expand their economic, military, and ideological dominance. The authors further argue that these imperial ambitions are doomed to fail and that the war is actually showing the limits of American power and the emergence of a multipolar world. That is, the machinations of American imperialism are giving rise to its opposite, a growing resistance to American dominance not only by Russia and China and but also by much of Africa, Asia and Latin America. This resistance manifests itself by the rejection of American hypocritical espousal of democracy, sovereignty, and the rule of law, as well as the rebellion against the domination of the American dollar, American sanctions, and American neoliberal policies.
It is impossible for a short review to do justice to the array of topics and the wealth of information and the high quality of research contained in these articles, which unfortunately are only available in French. Therefore, I will focus on the book’s main arguments as to the origin of the war and the increasing isolation and weakness of the U.S. revealed by the war.
Bombarded as we are by daily horror stories of Putin’s madness and authoritarianism and Russian war atrocities, torture, executions, mass graves, kidnappings, and civilian bombings, it is hard to focus on the causes of the conflict. Yet, without some factual understanding, it is easy to be swept up by war hysteria. The history reveals that far from this being an “unprovoked war,” it was provoked by the expansion of NATO and the longstanding designs on Ukraine by American policy-makers.
Several aspects of this “hidden history” of the war stand out. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, central Asia, especially Ukraine, has assumed major importance in the thinking of strategists concerned with preserving American world dominance. In The Grand Chessboard (1997), Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia…. and America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.” According to Brzezinski, on this international chessboard, Ukraine is the “geopolitical pivot.” Ukraine is a vast territory rich in gas, oil, wheat, rare minerals, and nuclear power. If “Russia regains control over Ukraine,” it automatically acquires the potential to become “a powerful imperial state,” and a challenge to the U.S.
Since 1990, the U.S. has tried to drive a wedge between Ukraine and Russia. In 1990, as the Soviet Union dissolved, the Ukrainians participated in a referendum in which some 90 percent voted to remain in a union with Russia. The United States, however, promoted Ukrainian leaders hostile to Russia. In 2010 Viktor Yanoukovitch was elected president. Yanoukovitch tried to weave a course friendly both to Russia and European Union. In the legislative election of 2012, Yanoukovitch’s party won more seats than the other three parties combined. The next year, however, when he refused to sign an agreement of association with the European Union, mass demonstrations encouraged by the U.S. broke out in what became known as the Euromaidan movement. The administration of President Barack Obama supported, financed and coached this movement, which was taken over by right-wing nationalists including neofascists and which eventually forced the president to flee the country. On December 13, 2013, the U.S. State Department’s Undersecretary for Europe, Victoria Nuland, said that the U.S. had invested over five billion dollars in promoting democracy in Ukraine, that is to say in promoting the movement that ousted the democratically elected president. Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador to Ukraine, played an active role in choosing the new government of Ukraine that included neo-fascists.
In 2019, during the administration of Donald Trump, Vladimir Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine. The millionaire comedian, who is now lauded as the heroic defender of democracy, had a sordid past completely overlooked by the American media. The Pandora Papers exposed him as one of the corrupt world leaders with vast wealth stored in offshore accounts. Moreover, Zelenskyy was closely connected to the corrupt oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, the owner of the TV station where Zelenskyy’s show appeared and the owner of a major bank, Privat Bank, whose assets the government seized for corruption in 2016. In power, Zelenskyy made a leader of the neo-nazis the governor of Odessa. He also outlawed trade unions and a dozen political groups, including the Communist Party. Also, Zelenskyy pursued military action against the separatists in the Donbas, a pro-Russian and largely working class area of Ukraine. Since 2014, military strikes on the Donbas have killed 14,000 and wounded 40,000 citizens. The worst atrocities were linked to the neo-fascist army unit the Azov Battalion. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who served as the American-picked Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016, referred to the citizens of Donetsk and Lugansk as “non-humans.”
According to Page, under Zelenskyy, the U.S. completely “colonized” Ukraine. It sent billions of dollars of military aid and advisors, built 26 laboratories for biological research, seized a big role in Ukrainian industry and media, allowed American agribusiness to buy huge tracts of farmland, and proposed Ukraine joining NATO. Zelenskyy in turn ended all relations with Russia and suppressed all political opposition.
This was the background to the Russian intervention of February 2022. Putin gave three objectives for this action: to de-nazify Ukraine, to de-militarize Ukraine, and to stop the massacre of citizens in the Donbas.
When NATO met on March 24, 2022, Biden said that the conflict in Ukraine meant that there was going to be a “new world order” and “we must direct it.” Biden also said that Putin was a butcher. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said: “Our special military operation is designed to put an end to the rash expansion and rash course toward the complete international domination by the United States and other western countries.”
The book’s argument that the imperial designs of the United States is important and incontestable. The other thrust of the argument–that the war symbolizes the decline of American power and a realignment of global forces–is equally important though more debatable. Jean-Pierre Page and other of the book’s contributors contend that the U.S. attempt to isolate Russia politically and weaken it economically is doomed to fail. In the first place, Russia is one of the most economically self-sufficient nations of the world. The Russian economy has rebounded from the Soviet collapse and privatization and represents one the world’s largest economies. Moreover, it is rich in natural resources — gas, oil, coal, gold, wheat, nickel, aluminum, uranium, neon, lumber among other things. The idea that economic sanctions, which have never proved an effective instrument of international policy (witness the Cuban blockade), are going to force Russia to relent in the face of NATO expansion, which it sees as an existential threat, is simply delusional.
Furthermore, the expectation that the rest of the world would go along with the unilateral economic sanctions, which are illegal under the United Nations charter, has proven to be phantasmagorical. In spite of a tremendous campaign of cajoling, pressure, and threats, the United States has not managed to win the backing of any countries outside of Europe. The countries constituting BRICS–Brazil, India, China and South Africa have rejected sanctions, but so have such other large regional economies as Mexico, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, Algeria and Egypt. The resistance to U.S. sanctions is part of a larger resistance to the domination of American neoliberal policies and the U.S. dollar. More and more countries have agreed to buy oil and other commodities with rubles, yuans and gold in place of the once mighty dollar. In the words quoted by of one of the book’s contributors, Tamara Kunanayakam, the resistance to sanctions is the sign or a new more fragmented global order in which states are avoiding the geopolitical objectives of the grand powers to pursue their own economic needs.
For all of its merits, the book is not without limitations. For all its strengths in exposing the imperialist ambitions and machinations of the U.S., the book ignores the fact that Russia also has its monopoly capitalists with designs on expanding to Ukraine and elsewhere, and Russia, too, is also part of the imperialist stage of world history. For a book looking at Russia “without blinders,” the authors are strangely blind to Russian imperialism. Lenin argued that is not just a policy but a stage in the development of capitalism dominated by monopolies and finance. As Andrew Murray has pointed out (Communist Review Autumn 2022), Russia ticks off many of the boxes of Lenin’s description of imperialism. It present “an astonishing degree of economic monopolization” with 22 oligarchic groups accounting for 42 percent of employment and 39 percent of sales. In finance, Sberbank provides banking for 70 percent of Russians, controls a third of all bank assets, and operates in twenty-two countries. Moreover, Russia has repeatedly used military interventions in Chechnya, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics as well as in Syria and (with the mercenary Wagner Group) west Africa. Simply put, in Murray’s words Russia “is an imperialist power.”
At the Ideological Seminar in Caracas, Venezuela, in the fall of 2022, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) put forward a similar analysis (see MLToday.com, November 6, 2022): “Recently, in the face of developments and especially the imperialist war in Ukraine, other CPs have focused only on the obvious responsibilities of the US, the EU, and NATO, which has been advancing and encircling Russia for years. In fact, this was combined with the approach that Russia is a capitalist but not an imperialist power. This approach is detached from the fact that imperialism is not just an aggressive policy but capitalism in its modern stage, the monopoly stage. Today, large monopolies prevail in the entire world and in Russia. The plans of NATO, the US, and the EU in the past 30 years have clearly been a powder keg for this conflict, but when did this powder keg begin filling up? Did it not begin with the overthrow of socialism, the dissolution of the USSR —in fact through a coup d’état— against the will of the majority of its peoples? Wasn’t it then when factories, mines, oil, natural gas, precious metals, and labour power became a commodity once again? Wasn’t it then when, after 7 decades of socialist construction, all of the above became once again a bone of contention for the capitalists, for the big monopoly enterprises?”
If the authors of this volume are still wearing blinders with regard to Russia, some are also wearing rose tinted lenses with respect to the emergence of a “fragmented global order” or a “multipolar world.” Of course, the authors are right to point out the decline of American influence as represented by resistance to American sanctions against Russia and the domination of the American dollar and influence. Nevertheless, without actually saying so, some of the authors suggest that this shift in the global balance of forces represents something new and fundamental, and that it might provide a check on imperial expansion and imperial wars. Whether the authors really believe this and whether this idea has any validity remains to be seen, but it is helpful to recall the ideas of Lenin.
In 1916 Lenin wrote his classic analysis of imperialism, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin distinguished his view of imperialism from the leading competing view, that of the social-democrat Karl Kautsky. On the surface both Lenin and Kautsky had similar views of imperialism. They both recognized the development of monopoly capital and finance capital, and saw it leading to expansion, exploitation and war. For Lenin, however, imperialism was a stage, the latest stage, of capitalist development, the stage of monopoly capital that succeeded competitive capital. For Kautsky, imperialism represented a policy adopted by the monopolists. The implications of these different points of view were monumental. For Lenin, only revolutionary struggle against monopoly capital could end imperialism and end imperialist wars. Kautsky, however, thought it was possible to replace imperialist policies by other pacifist policies. Kautsky insisted that it was possible to imagine a new stage of economic development, “ultra-imperialism,” where the world would be divided up among a few great monopolies among whom peace would be possible. The First World War and the Second World War effectively swept Kautsky’s ideas about ultra-imperialism and a pacific imperialist world into the dustbin. Kautsky is barely known let alone read today.
I would suggest that some of Kautsky’s ideas have been picked up or reinvented by contemporaries. The idea of an emerging new stage of multipolarity resembles Kautsky’s stage of super-imperialism. Some of those enamored by the emergence of multipolarity think that it represents a fundamental change in the global balance of forces and seem to think it can countervail the imperialist drive for expansion and war and thus provide a basis for peace within the framework of imperialism. Two of the writers of this volume even say that the time is coming when an alliance of Russia, China, India, Latin America and the Arab world can “prevent” the financial oligarchs of the world from “launching the third world war.” The problem is that such thinking, however beguiling, avoids a tough-minded understanding of the fundamental nature of imperialism rooted in capitalism’s insatiable drive for profit, exploitation, and expansion. It may not be necessary for worldwide socialist revolution in order to stop any particular imperialist conflict, but under the imperialist stage of capitalism war is omnipresent and unavoidable. This understanding imperialism provides a better basis for struggle against it than social democratic illusions about the efficacy of multipolarity. Let’s hope that it will not take another world war to banish these illusions.