The challenge for activists struggling for a more just and peaceful world is not for us all to become experts on the politics and history of Russia and Ukraine. But nearly three weeks into this horrendous war, it’s clear that we will have to become experts on the far-reaching political consequences of it.
Let’s start with first principles.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine violates international law and tramples over the rights of the Ukrainian people to self-determination. Consequently, they have a right to resist the invasion and to source weapons for their self-defence.
That said, the longer the war grinds on, the greater the catastrophe for the people of both countries. A widening of the conflict risks nuclear annihilation.
It’s worth canvassing some of the themes that have featured in much activist commentary about the invasion. These provide some important context and understanding that go beyond just blaming the war on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s megalomania, or the simplistic “evil Russian autocracy versus good liberal democracy” narrative predominant in Western media.
Western hypocrisy and double-standards
The very same countries that are now welcoming people fleeing from Ukraine were only last year beating and tear gassing Syrian and Afghan refugees at their borders.
Australia, the United States and Britain participated in the illegal invasion of Iraq, a crime that led to the loss of about 1 million lives and utterly shattered Iraqi society, creating the conditions for the emergence of the Islamic State.
We’ve also seen a string of US interventions across the globe, including invasions, destabilisation, coup-mongering, illegal sanctions and more.
There’s another hypocrisy too: Western banks have been all too happy to accept billions of dollars from Russian capitalists over the past two decades, even after the devastating war in Chechnya in which 80,000 civilians were killed.
When Russian oligarchs take their ill-gotten fortunes and stash them in Swiss, British and US banks, instead of investing them back in Russia, they’re extracting wealth from Russian workers and keeping Russia a relatively poor and underdeveloped country while making the West even richer. It’s no wonder that Tory politicians in Britain were happily accepting donations from these Russian oligarchs until the very week before the invasion.
The economic system in which we live is based on a division between rich and poor, with the wealthy industrialised world sucking wealth out of the poorer countries or Global South. As we know, that world order is enforced with violence every single day.
We are right to be furious with the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Western leaders. They have no problem with violence and destruction when it suits their own economic and strategic interests.
The West’s cynical disregard for international law has only encouraged Putin to do the same. But none of that can diminish our opposition to the Russian invasion.
Ukraine has a pro-capitalist government, as does Russia. It’s also true that right-wing nationalism is a problem in Ukraine like it is in many countries, and that democratic space is compromised there compared to Australia.
While genuinely fascist political parties only achieved about 2% of the vote in the last elections, they have armed militias, which gives them a disproportionate weight in Ukrainian politics and they use violence against their opponents.
The country is also blighted by “de-communisation” laws that seriously restrict free speech and political expression. Political organisations are banned from calling themselves “socialist” or “communist”.
Even displaying the iconic image of Che Guevara is illegal. Not only have Soviet-era symbols and statues been torn down, in some parts of the country there has been a restoration and glorification of Nazi collaborators.
However, Volodymyr Zelensky, who won the presidential elections in 2019, was moderate by Ukrainian standards. He defeated the more right-wing incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who emerged from the pro-Western Euromaidan movement of 2013–14.
Zelensky promoted peace and reconciliation, but his way was blocked by more right-wing nationalist forces who control the parliament and who considered any kind of settlement in the Donbas, or compromise with Russia, as a betrayal.
Of note is that in the 2019 elections, Zelensky won an overwhelming majority in the Russian-speaking areas in the south and east of Ukraine, while Poroshenko only won a majority in the very far west of the country.
This demolishes Putin’s claim to be invading Ukraine to “liberate” Russian speakers from “genocide”. The only thing more ludicrous is Putin’s assertion that his objective is the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. His own political project, which is based on extreme Russian nationalism and socially conservative right-wing authoritarianism, is its own breeding ground for Russian fascism.
While there is a serious problem of right-wing nationalism in Ukraine, a deeply unpopular Russian invasion will make that worse. Only the Ukrainian people can solve their society's problems in a just manner, and that can’t happen under foreign occupation.
Russia in the world
Criticism of Russia has been a lot more muted in the Global South. Of the 38 states that joined Russia and Belarus to either vote against or abstain on the United Nations General Assembly vote condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine, all were poorer countries.
Only privileged Westerners believe the hypocritical lies about the “civilised” West standing up for democracy and a “rules-based order”. An Indonesian friend told me that he sees many social media posts by ordinary Indonesians cheering Russia on. He said many don’t really understand the roots of the conflict, but see Russia as the underdog in its clash with the West.
Russia does act as a counterweight to the US in world affairs, albeit not on the scale that the Soviet Union did. For left-wing governments in Latin America being crushed by illegal US sanctions and harassed by the constant threat of coups and invasion, Russian trade and military assistance is a lifeline.
However, Putin’s support for these governments is entirely pragmatic. He’s an anti-communist, whose domestic politics is closer to the far-right racist, sexist and homophobic government of Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil than he is to Cuba, Venezuela or Bolivia.
This is a reminder that the enemy of our enemy is not our friend.
Furthermore, the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination cannot be traded off against Russia’s place in the world as “great power”.
Western militarism and NATO
The West clearly contradicted promises, made in 1991, to not expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) right up to Russia’s borders. Even if Russia were a liberal capitalist state, the Russian establishment and Russian people would still, rightly, perceive NATO’s expansion as a threat.
The US and NATO are trying to hem Russia in, not just militarily, but economically. This hostile posture has helped push the war.
NATO’s purpose is to provide military support to the most industrialised Western countries’ own empire building. Since World War II, the leading military powers in NATO — US, Britain and France — have conducted more than 80 wars and military operations in all parts of the globe including against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Yugoslavia/Serbia, Chad, Somalia and Mali. None were defensive.
However, Putin has chosen this war at this time and place. There is no argument that the lives of Russian civilians were under an immediate threat so dire it justified unleashing death and destruction on Ukraine.
In fact, the invasion will increase the appeal of NATO in Europe and convince many people there that they need to remain unconditionally allied to US military strategy, not just in Europe, but around the world.
The invasion is the biggest propaganda gift to Western militarism and the reassertion of US military hegemony you could imagine.
What is Putin’s project?
Politics is sometimes described as concentrated economics, while the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously declared war as the “mere continuation of policy by other means”.
What are the economic drivers of this conflict? What is Putin’s economic project and why is it in conflict with the West?
To answer these questions we need to understand where Russia fits into the global economy.
While the Soviet Union was never as high-tech as the West, it did succeed in industrialising. This achievement was significantly destroyed by the restoration of capitalism after 1991.
Opened up to foreign competition, branches of industry that were not as efficient as US, Western European and Japanese multinationals were either destroyed or absorbed by these competitors. The entire industrial output of the former Soviet Union collapsed in just a few years to that of Belgium.
Those assets whose value were not completely destroyed and could still turn a profit in the domestic market were privatised, often scooped up by opportunistic former senior Soviet bureaucrats who became the owners of these new capitalist conglomerates.
This process of de-industrialisation turned Russia and the other former Soviet republics into countries with economies with a level of industrial development similar to Brazil, Turkey or China; they became members of the so-called “semi-periphery”.
These countries are wealthier and more industrialised than the Global South, but still nowhere near the high-tech economies of Western Europe, North America, Australia and Japan.
The difference in the productivity of labour gives us an insight: a German, Japanese or US worker produces four times as much value in goods and services in the same amount of time as a worker in Russia. The differential between workers in the West and the Global South is more like eight to one.
It’s not because people in poorer countries don’t work hard, but because workers in rich countries are plugged into a whole lot of technology. There’s simply more capital embedded in every step of production.
Despite being poor cousins, in the early 1990s the Russian oligarchs initially hoped to be drawn into the global capitalist elite as equal competitors who would get their slice of the pie.
However, while they were welcome to supply oil, gas and other primary commodities; North American and European capitalism had no intention of subsidising Russia’s integration into the European Union, nor of constructing a new European security agreement that treated Russia as a partner rather than a threat.
Meanwhile, the process of privatisation, de-industrialisation and International Monetary Fund-enforced shock therapy dramatically drove down Russian living standards. Throughout the 1990s, the gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 45%, mortality rose by 50%, life expectancy declined, government revenue shrank by 50% and crime went through the roof. In Ukraine, where GDP collapsed by a whopping 60%, the human toll was even worse.
The political backlash in Russia against this catastrophe explains the rise of Putin.
Putin’s political and economic project was to halt Russia’s decline. Benefiting from high oil prices, his government paid off Russia’s debt and doubled wages. He reasserted the supremacy of the Russian state and jailed oligarchs who were not prepared to play by the new “Team Russia” rules.
Putin restored a sense of national pride. That is why his approval ratings have consistently been 60–80% — figures that most Western leaders could only dream of. Whether that will endure is another question.
In reasserting Russia’s place in the world, Putin’s project is thoroughly capitalist. He is not nostalgic for the Soviet Union, rather for the Russian Empire. What he wants is a strong centralised state — not socialism in any form.
This includes defining the former Soviet republics and other adjoining countries as the “rightful” sphere for Russian capitalism and encouraging them to join the Eurasian Union, which is Russia’s alternative to the European Union.
Of course, this economic project is buttressed by an assertive military strategy, just as the US does through NATO, AUKUS and the Quad as it seeks to keep Russia and China in their box. As far as the US is concerned, it is the only one that is allowed to have zones of influence.
Russia does not have the economic or military power to project invasions across the world like the US did in Iraq, but it still seeks to break out of its encirclement by the US and its allies to expand its zone of influence, and to stop former Soviet states from falling into the US’s economic and military framework.
In doing so, Russia is just as prepared to meddle in the affairs of its neighbours, sometimes with terrible consequences. This has included propping up authoritarian, pro-Russian governments in former Soviet states like Belarus and Kazakhstan, carving off bits of Georgia and providing military support to the Assad dictatorship in Syria.
The possibility that such a large neighbouring country as Ukraine, whose history is intertwined with Russia, could be drawn into the Western economic and military sphere of influence is simply unacceptable to Putin.
While we must reject Western militarism, including US attempts to aggressively “contain” China and Russia, this does not mean we can have any particular sympathy for the Putin project.
Russia may not be an imperialist power in terms of its place in the global economy, but Putin certainly has imperial or expansionist ambitions for Russian capitalism and there is nothing remotely progressive, socialist or anti-imperialist about this.
Challenges for the left
The consequences of Russia’s invasion are many. Apart from the tragic loss of life and destruction, the war is boosting the appeal of NATO among neighbouring countries; it helps to justify militarism.
Germany has just announced it will nearly double military expenditure, a move supported by the Social Democratic Party and the German Greens.
It makes it easier for the US and its allies to hypocritically pose as defenders of international law as they continue to unleash violence on parts of the world outside the gaze of Western media.
It will fuel far-right nationalism in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia. Just imagine how hard it is right now for a socialist in an Eastern European country to argue against nationalism, increases in military spending and Russophobia.
Any hope Russia’s capitalists had of growing their share of the pie may be blocked by sanctions that will affect Russian workers the most without necessarily weakening Putin’s grip on power. The US sanctions on Iraq in 1991 are a pointer: they caused 500,000 children to die and left Iraqi people too exhausted to organise a protest movement against the dictatorship.
One terrible consequence of this war is the possibility that Ukraine will end up split in two, with an increasingly right-wing nationalist regime in the west and a Kremlin-controlled puppet regime in the east and south slugging it out in protracted and destructive war.
Alternatively, a broke and broken Russia subordinated to triumphalist Western imperialist hegemony, ruled by oligarchs prepared to play second fiddle to Berlin, Washington and London, while the US has a free hand to wage war everywhere else in the world, would be just as grim.
Our job in Australia is to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people's struggle for self-determination and the Russian peace movement, which need to settle scores with their oligarchs and the invaders. Despite severe repression, the spread and courage of the Russian peace movement is inspirational.
However, we cannot take our eyes off our own rulers’ militarism. That means campaigning to stop Australia’s participation in AUKUS, the Quad and ANZUS and ending the $100 billion nuclear submarine deal, including the proposed nuclear-powered submarine base on the east coast.
We are already facing a propaganda scare campaign. The Coalition government is trying to beat the khaki election drum and Labor is falling over itself to prove it is just as keen on the US alliance and more war spending.
The stakes are high, but after 20 years of war and occupation in Afghanistan and slightly less in Iraq, anti-war consciousness remains strong. It would have been harder for activists to take a stand for peace and justice in the middle of the Cold War.
We have less than 10 years left to stop 1.5°C of global warming. That will be impossible if we squander billions on preparations for war.
[This article is based on a talk given to a “Behind the war in Ukraine” public meeting on March 3. Sam Wainwright is the national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]