Great power rivalry and capitalist crisis

December 29, 2021
Vladimir Putin's Great Russia vision does not go beyond capitalism and nationalism.

It is now 30 years since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ceased to be. The end of the Cold War was to herald an era of peace, harmony and the “end of history”. Instead, we have wars, inequality, economic crisis, climate catastrophe and pandemic.

The Cold War had a certain logic to it: there were ideological differences. Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, there are no ideas beyond capitalism, nationalism and the pursuit of power.

Much has been made of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remark in 2005 that the collapse of the USSR was a disaster. Putin’s right, but he was not talking about the passing of an idea of socialism. His anguish is tied to his vision of a Great Russia.

The tragedy of the past three decades for the former Soviet people is there for all to see. Poverty and inequality are growing: the economy works for some, but not for the bulk of the population.

A sense of hopelessness stalks the land. Over the past three decades, the former USSR has been whittled away as NATO forces steadily encroached and borders are seen to be threatened.

Such conditions make the lure of nationalist responses and calls to past glories alluring. Millions of Russians have memories of times which, in their estimation, were better, more stable and that allowed for a sense of pride in what had been achieved.

Since coming to power, Putin has promoted the symbolism of the USSR at every turn. It is a symbolism that ignores the revolution that created that same Soviet Union. His is a confection that seeks to promote nostalgia for the lost prestige that went with the Soviet state. He has successfully reasserted the sense of nationalism that had been manipulated by Stalin.

The parades are back, although not May Day or November 7. Instead, they have a purely martial air. It is a narrative that plays well with Russians and, particularly, those who remember a USSR that appeared to challenge the might of the United States.

Those Cold War images have been rebadged by Putin for the 21st century and are images that the US is happy to run with.

The two states have different motivations for returning to the rhetoric of the Cold War. The existence of the USSR was, for the US, at once both an interesting problem and a blessing. The Cold War was able to be used to maintain political stability at home, while also providing a useful means of promoting its “values” abroad. It permitted an obscene arms race and cemented US global power.

The US is now facing even greater problems. The interrelated problem of capitalist crisis internationally and domestically is compounded by the rising economic power of China.

The US has chosen to replay the same ideological, but now illogical, threat scenario that once existed. It has invoked Cold War memories to demonise both China and Russia in a deliberate repeat of earlier tactics and policy.

Towards the end of the Cold War, the US engaged in a massive spending campaign on its military with the view to “bleeding” the USSR’s economy. It was a case of who had the biggest economic reserves.

Today, the US seems prepared to suffer economic losses in the hopes that its rivals will sustain even more crippling losses. It is a dangerous strategy.

There is another obvious danger and that is the clear link between nationalism, economic nationalism and the drift to militarism and war.

Nationalism and national identity dominated every stage of Russia’s long history. Putin has, rather unashamedly, manipulated the images. Mythmakers have been able to translate the brutality of successive regimes into a heroic history. The people suffer, but in the name of something great. It has been sustained for generations.

The Russian Revolution offered a chance to put the myth to bed; to create a new narrative where the people might come to play the significant role. It was a fleeting moment, as Stalinism snuffed out that narrative and returned to “Mother Russia” and to nationalism.

When the USSR crumbled in 1991, the carpetbaggers swept through. The long history of great Russia was being replaced by a fistful of dollars. National pride was trodden into the mud. Is it any wonder that Putin’s grotesque parody and pastiche of nationalist symbols gained such traction?

The West’s demonisation of Russia serves a very real purpose. Russia represents no threat to US power but its economy, largely based on the strength of its natural gas exports into Europe, does.

Any reliance on Russia is perceived as a weakening of direct US influence. Ever since the collapse of the USSR, the US and its NATO allies have sought to physically reduce the territory that had once been the USSR.

Today, Putin issues warnings to the US and NATO about any further expansion which threaten Russia’s security. In the post-Soviet period, former Soviet republics have formed alliances with the European Union and, by implication, with the US.

In the face of this push from the US and its allies, the Russians pushed back. War is now being spoken of and Biden has threatened “severe” economic repercussions should war break out in Ukraine.

For any economic sanction to be “severe” would necessitate a concerted US-EU approach. Russia is the EU’s 5th biggest trading partner and the EU ranks as number one for Russia.

Whether the US could rely on its European allies to hold the line would depend entirely on ensuring supplies of gas to Europe. If supply chains could be secure, then the Russian economy could easily be destroyed. This economic strangulation echoes the policies of the Cold War, but without any ideological justification.

This is a dangerous juggling act for all parties concerned.

The US feel impelled to weaken any potential rivals, be they economic, political or military. This has both domestic and international implications. The home audience needs to be massaged. Important allies need to be reassured that alliances are worth maintaining and smaller powers need to be reminded that it is in their best interests to remain within the orbit of American power.

The US military doctrine has shifted from its “war on terror” and returned to the great power conflict view of international relations. When such a policy was last in place, the Cold War framed the thinking of the world. It was based on the flawed logic of ideological difference.

Today, naked aggression and the desire to hold on to global power makes enemies of all and leaves the world in a most precarious state.

A return to Cold War rhetoric remains irrational and dangerous but after all, as Harry Angstrom, in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest put it: “Without the Cold War, what is the point of being an American?”

[William Briggs is a political economist.]

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