What does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tell us about 21st century imperialism?

Image: Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels
'The immediate effect of Putin’s incursion has been to consolidate the Atlantic bloc under the command of Washington'. Photo: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

Russia’s war on Ukraine has opened up debates regarding the nature of the invasion and what position anti-imperialists should take in the conflict. To discuss these issues and the state of 21st century imperialism, Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke with Argentine Marxist economist Claudio Katz, author of Under the Empire of Capital.

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There are various positions within the left regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How would you characterise Russia’s actions?

I think we have to look at this on two planes. The first is to register that the invasion of Ukraine was a response to United States imperialism’s belligerence. The Pentagon has sought on countless occasions to incorporate Kyiv into NATO’s missile network. The Kremlin tried to halt this potential aggression by proposing negotiations, but never got a response.

It proposed a status of neutrality for Ukraine, similar to that of Finland and Austria during the Cold War. Russia also called for a resumption of the treaty regulating the deactivation of certain atomic weapons. These are legitimate demands, given Russia’s long and terrible history of suffering at the hands of foreign invasions and its population’s heightened sensitivity to any such threat.

On the other hand, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin exaggerates when he denounces a “genocide” is taking place in the Donbass [in eastern Ukraine], a reference to the violence carried out by reactionary militias. These are the sectors he is referring to when he demands “denazification”. Since 2014, these ultra-right gangs have block any attempt at a negotiated solution. They reject the re-integration of the east as autonomous regions with recognised rights for the Russian-speaking population.

But with Russia’s invasion, it is Putin who has buried the accords he was promoting seeking neutrality for Ukraine. This is where we move onto the second plane. Putin opted for an invasion, assigning to the Kremlin the right to overthrow an adversarial government. This decision is unjustifiable and functional to the interests of Western imperialism

It is true that the US had advanced in negotiations to incorporate Ukraine into NATO. But Ukraine has not taken this step, it has not installed missiles and fascist militias have not carried out large-scale acts of aggression. The decision to invade a country, surround its principal cities and change its government cannot be justification as a defensive action by Russia.

Putin has shown complete contempt for Ukrainians. Even if [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky heads a “government of drug addicts”, as Putin claims, it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide who should replace him. This is not a decision for the Kremlin. Russia’s attack has stirred panic and hatred towards the occupying force. This same opposition can be seen across the world.

Putin has ignored the main aspiration of all those involved in the conflict: a peaceful solution. He went even further and signalled that Ukraine did not have the right to exist as a nation. This characterisation is even more unacceptable. It is a direct challenge to the right of a people to decide their fate.

This outlook carries with it an implicit vindication of the old Tsarist oppressive model and indicates that the incursion was not driven solely by defensive or geopolitical motivations. It also derives from a despotic outlook, which Moscow assigns to itself, alleging that Ukraine belongs within Russia’s borders.

For these reasons, criticising Putin’s actions is essential in any left statement. But this stance should be preceded by a firm denunciation of US imperialism, which carries the main responsibility for this bellicose escalation.

Putin’s actions are extremely counterproductive for emancipatory projects and have provided an unimaginable external impulse to Ukrainian nationalism. Whatever the final result of the war, the impact of the invasion will be terribly negative for popular struggles and consciousness.

Ukrainians have the same right as any other people to decide their fate. But self-determination will remain an empty phrase so long as forces associated with NATO or Russian troops maintain their presence in the country.

The first condition for advancing towards sovereignty is resuming the peace negotiations, withdrawal of foreign soldiers and the subsequent demilitarisation of the country with the granting of international status of neutrality. This is a dual battle against NATO and the Russian invasion.

What do the events surrounding the invasion tell us about imperialism today and the role played by different power blocs?

Ukraine offers us a panorama of the current geopolitical scene. It confirms, above all, that the US heads up the main imperialist bloc. It has been the instigator of the conflict through the expansion of NATO, which in 30 years went from 16 to 30 members. The encircling of Russia began by violating commitments to restrict US military presence to the Germany border. That line has been pushed forward time and time again.

Washington has also fanned talk of war to reinforce Europe’s subordination. In ambushing Russia, it has achieved the mobilisation of troops by Spain, Denmark, Italy and France. The Ukrainian crisis has reinforced Britain’s post-Brexit pro-US alignment and demonstrated France’s impotence, which attempted its own negotiations [between Russia and Ukraine], and in the end remained faithful to the White House.

Germany has been greatly affected given its industries need access to Russia’s energy supplies. Due to this, Berlin tried to de-escalate the situation. But at no point did it weaken its alignment with Washington, and ultimately chose to suspend the inauguration of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline [that would allow for a further increase of gas imports from Russia].

The immediate effect of Putin’s incursion has been to consolidate the Atlantic bloc under the command of Washington. Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, NATO’s imperialist profile has been reconfirmed.

Attempting to characterise Russia is more complex and any attempt can only be provisional. It is probable that the final result of the invasion of Ukraine will define the status of this country.

Russia is not part of the dominant Western imperialist bloc (headed by the US), nor is it an alter-imperial partner (such as Europe) or a co-imperial piece (such as Israel) within this broader framework. But it enacts policies of domination via intense military activities and various modes of internal colonisation.

On the one hand, Russia is harassed by the US, while on the other hand it carries out oppressive actions against its neighbours. Within this framework, it de facto operates as a non-hegemonic imperial power in embryonic form. It is located in a position that is counterposed to the centres of imperial power and, at the same time, due to its capitalist nature and its dominant position in the region, tends towards resuming its old traditional role of oppressive power.

These imperial tendencies, which until now appeared as embryonic possibilities, have deepened with the invasion of Ukraine. This episode marks a qualitative shift in Russia’s international status.

But we also need to underline the limits of this foreign intervention. Moscow’s military power is sweeping, but its effective capacity to sustain operations is minimal. Russia is an intermediate economy in global terms. Its GDP is not significantly different to that of Spain or Canada. Its level of capital exports is barely higher than that of Finland and lower than Norway.

The economic recuperation that Putin has achieved is significant when compared to the desert left behind by [former president Boris] Yeltsin, but it has not been enough to position the country among the club of great economic powers.

Finally, China is once again acting with great caution towards the war in Ukraine. Putin has negotiated various economic agreements with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping to counteract the West’s boycott, but no one knows how much effective convergence exists between the two giants challenging the US. It was very striking that China abstained on the United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

China’s careful conduct — which seeks to avoid involving itself in military-geopolitical conflicts outside its borders — confirms that the Asian giant, up to now, does not act as an imperial power.

China is already a key economy — ranked second in the world — but imperialist positioning is not defined by economic criteria. It is determined by observing foreign policy, interventions abroad and military deployments. On these grounds, the qualitative differences with Russia are enormous.

Some look to Russia and China as allies in the struggle against imperialism and for a “multi-polar world”. Should leftist support such an outlook?

Effectively, there exists an important tendency towards a multi-polar configuration, that is, towards a greater dispersion of global power, as a result of the crisis of US supremacy.

This scenario has been ratified in Ukraine by [US President Joe] Biden’s pathetic disorientation. He knew of Russia’s plan, but prepared no response. He discarded the idea of military escalation as well as Putin’s proposals for negotiations, without considering any other alternatives.

This disorder confirms the impact of the recent defeat in Afghanistan on Washington’s actions. The US State Department faces serious limitations when it comes to involving marines in new operations. The same resistance to committing troops can be seen in Europe. That is why NATO has restricted itself to emitting vague declarations.

Putin has promoted multi-polarity as a geopolitical alternative to US preeminence. But the outcome of the war in Ukraine could lead to a new situation, especially if the invasion stalls and Moscow digs its own grave like the USSR did in Afghanistan.

In the immediate term, the invasion perpetrated by the Kremlin has fuelled a resurgence of all the myths perpetuated by Western democracies that had fallen into disgrace due to the Pentagon’s accumulated failures. Putin has given Washington what it needed to reconstruct ideological fallacies that had lost appeal due to the devastation wrought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its adventure has revived the counterposition between Western democracy and Russian autocracy.

We do not know how the war will modify this framework of incipient multipolarity. This framework opened up a more favourable situation for popular projects compared with the previous period of US unilateral domination. But we should not idealise multi-polarity, which contains within it a heterogeneous variety of regimes lacking any real progressive characteristics. Multi-polarity, moreover, does not imply resistance to imperialism nor actions that impede the suffering generated by capitalism.

I believe we should distance ourselves from outlooks that exclusively focus on observing geopolitical events from above. We need to focus our attention on popular movements and struggles against the dominant classes in each country.

One consequence of substituting political analysis with its geopolitical equivalent is the casting aside of social and democratic struggles. While the former emphasises the role of social forces in conflict, the latter outlook only ratchets up the dispute between powers for global supremacy.