The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the new era of global capitalism
The world has been plunged into another catastrophe on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, following the murderous Putin regime’s invasion of Ukraine. The war, which has raged for more than two weeks, has brought with it carnage and human suffering not experienced in Europe since the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
By Tony Saunois, Secretary, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
This conflict reflects the new era which global capitalism has now entered. The COVID pandemic acted as the great accelerator of all of the underlying contradictions of capitalism. This war has already crystallised some of the underlying tendencies present, in particular, the sharpening geopolitical relations between the capitalist powers. What would have seemed unthinkable in a previous period has now become possible during the protracted death agony of global capitalism.
The consequences of this war on geopolitical relations, the world economy and political and class relations are already devastating. Yet the crises in all these spheres will intensify in the coming weeks, months and years. War and revolution are the greatest tests for socialists and revolutionaries. The official left, and the socialist left, in the main, has once again, as they did during the COVID pandemic, capitulated to the ruling classes and failed to provide a comprehensive rounded-out analysis or perspective of these events. Much less have they put forward an independent programme of the working class. At best they have called for ’peace’ but ignored the capitalist roots of this conflict. Thus they ignore the fact that neither Putin, the western capitalist leaders, nor any institution or representative of capitalism are able to resolve this horrific crisis or the consequences which now flow from it.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine reveals the era of the decline of US imperialism we are now in. The brief post-1991 period which saw a unipolar world, in which the US was often able to impose its will internationally, is over. Putin undertook the invasion driven by Greater Russian chauvinism and a desire to establish an expanded Russian sphere of influence, with compliant regimes in countries on Russia’s border. The aim is to obliterate Ukraine as an independent state and its right to exist. Putin has taken up once again the ideology of ‘Novorossiya’ – ‘New Russia’ – establishing an expanded area of Russian language, culture and the assimilation of states or statelets into such an amalgam. This follows three decades of provocative eastwards expansion by NATO, and the rearming and modernisation of Russia’s armed forces.
The right to self-determination
Putin claims he has taken up the cause of recognizing the mainly ethnic Russian enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk. Western imperialism has championed the right of self-determination and sovereignty for Ukraine. Yet Putin is not concerned about the peoples of Donetsk in the declared People’s Republic of Donetsk (PRD)) or the People’s Republic of Luhansk (PRL). Neither is western imperialism concerned about the democratic rights of the Ukrainian peoples. Putin has denounced Lenin, who, along with the Bolsheviks, defended the right of self-determination of the Ukrainian people. Putin embraces Greater Russian chauvinism. The US and its allies have trampled over the democratic rights of many peoples, for example, the Palestinians, who are denied their right to self-determination. Neither are they prepared to accept these democratic rights of Donetsk and Luhansk to democratically decide their future.
The CWI is opposed to the invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s aim of destroying as an independent state. However, there can be no trust in western imperialism to defend the rights of the Ukrainian people. The working class and people of Ukraine need to establish their own cross-ethnic, armed, democratically controlled defence force. What is needed in the face of an invasion are both self-defence and a political programme and organisation of the working class.
The ‘Independent People Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk are ruled by ruthless right-wing nationalist forces compliant with Putin’s regime. The peoples of Donetsk and Luhansk also have the right to decide if they wish to be independent, remain in Ukraine or become a part of Russia. However, this cannot be democratically decided under the rule of Russian bayonets. Such a democratic solution to the national and cultural rights, of all, can only be achieved by the working class and the peoples of the area, by stopping the war and linking together the Ukrainian and Russian working classes. The absence of powerful independent workers’ organisations and parties in the Ukraine and Russia with a socialist programme to overthrow capitalism, is a key obstacle that needs to be overcome to defend the democratic and cultural rights of all the peoples of the area.
War is a continuation of politics by other means
War is a continuation of politics by other means. Although Putin’s precise endgame remains unclear, as a minimum, his objective seems to be to occupy the eastern part of Ukraine and seize the port city of Mariupol and also Kharkiv, forming a Russian-controlled zone linking up Crimea to Donetsk and Luhansk, possibly also including Odesa and extending to Transdnistria. Putin is fighting for this as part of what he perceives as Russian interests and now the prestige of his regime. It seems Putin and his gang imagined a quick victory was possible. By attacking the Ukraine capital, Kyiv, Putin possibly wanted to carry through ‘regime change’ and install a more pro-Russian anti-western government.
This appeared to be the plan. Yet as the 19th-century German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke put it, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Plan 1 failed, so Putin has resorted to plan 2. It seems the Russian army met determined resistance from Ukrainian forces. Whilst making advances in the south, Russian forces appear to be bogged down in the north. Putin is now deploying similar tactics as the Russian army used in Syria and is pounding cities to rubble. In some areas, they are in the process of repeating what they did in Aleppo and Grozny, especially in Mariupol, at a horrific human cost. The shelling of civilian areas with no military significance continues, as does the destruction of entire cities. In the process, part of the Ukrainian infrastructure is being destroyed.
The outcome of any war is not predetermined. Yet it will not be possible for Putin’s regime to occupy the whole of Ukraine and suppress its entire population for a prolonged period, even if he manages to take the key cities. With a landmass the combined size of Germany and France, and a 40 million population, Putin would face an ongoing protracted struggle of armed resistance. Although with many differences, Ukraine in such a scenario would become Putin’s Afghanistan.
The consequences of the war have been profound for the western imperialist powers. In the short term, it has appeared to unify them and strengthen NATO and the EU. In the western capitalist countries, a wide layer at this stage is looking to NATO more favourably, as it is seen by many, although not all, as a force that could stop the fighting or at least prevent it from spreading. The pro-NATO, pro-EU mood amongst Ukrainians, which is powerful at this stage, reflects a desperate desire to save their lives and homes and improve their situation and win more ’democratic‘ rights. However, this can turn into its opposite, flowing from a feeling that “your words of support failed to provide real support”. This sentiment is already beginning to be expressed by a layer that feels “the west has abandoned us”.
At the same time, Western imperialism, especially US imperialism, is trying to use this crisis to hold onto the old world order in a fundamentally changed world situation.
Asia, Africa and Latin America
This more favourable view of NATO is not echoed in many countries of the neo-colonial world, especially Asia and Africa. This was reflected in the vote at the UN general assembly to condemn Russia’s invasion where 35 countries abstained – all from Asia, Africa and Latin America. In some countries, a more sympathetic attitude towards Russia exists amongst layers of the population. This reflects two main issues. Firstly, a reaction to the astounding hypocrisy of the western imperialist powers which have an equally brutal record of intervention. Bloody interventions by western imperialism in Iraq and Yemen, along with other examples, are ingrained in the consciousness of millions in these countries.
These sentiments are reflected by some of the bourgeois regimes in these countries. When a Pakistani ex-general expressed support for Russia and was condemned by the US, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, who has implemented reactionary policies in Pakistan, responded in kind, proclaiming, “We are not your slaves”.
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all indirectly supporting Russia in this conflict. In Uganda, the army commander, General Kainerugaba, the son of President Museveni, tweeted that, “the majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine”. Evo Morales in Bolivia has attacked the US and denounced it for causing the death of millions by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and by the Condor Plan in Latin America and other NATO interventions.
This is not Marxist opposition to western imperialism. Museveni is an authoritarian ruler. Morales has compromised with capitalism when in power. But they reflect what is seen as hypocrisy by western imperialism. Amongst sections of the masses in these countries, there is a sentiment that the protests of the west about the horrors unfolding in Ukraine are in contrast to the attitude towards the horrific suffering of the masses in Ethiopia, Yemen, Gaza and other war zones.
Amongst a layer, there is also a hankering back to the past and a failure to fully accept the reactionary gangster capitalism of Putin’s regime. Some have not come to terms with the fact that the collapse of the former Soviet Union meant a new social system of reactionary oligarchical capitalism replaced it, epitomised by Putin. In South Africa, for example, the idea that the USSR helped in the armed struggle against the apartheid regime is equated today with a more sympathetic attitude towards Putin and Russia, in this war. In many countries in the neo-colonial world, the hypocrisy of western imperialism is reflected in an attitude that Russia is the ‘lesser evil’. Yet in the main western capitalist countries, however, the overwhelming mood is against the war and opposition to Russia.
China’s response to the crisis
Some of the countries which have lent more support to Russia have been increasingly tied to China economically. For its part, China has adopted a position akin to ’pro-Russian neutrality‘. Whilst not explicitly supporting the Russian invasion, Xi’s regime is pursuing a careful policy aiming at defending its own interests. For this reason, Xi and the Chinese regime want an end to the conflict. It is intervening in discussions with the Ukrainian regime with the hope of attempting to broker some deal – which will not be easy – and strengthen its global position, as a result. A major crisis in the global economy would not be in the interests of Chinese state capitalism. The impact of slowdown in the global economy arising from the Ukraine war will have an impact on Chinese exporters. It is not coincidental that during March 2022, China set its lowest growth target in thirty years, following a slowdown in 2021.
Significantly, in response to NATO’s ’strengthened’ position and the attempt of US imperialism to defend the ‘old order’, China has forcefully responded with a warning to US imperialism. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, speaking at the National People’s Congress, stated that “Russia and China jointly oppose attempts to revive the cold war mindset.” He denounced the US for wanting to establish an Indo-Pacific NATO and then warned that “Taiwan is not Ukraine”.
Putin is looking towards increased economic ties with China to offset the effect of sanctions and the isolation that the west is imposing on Russia economically, although some Chinese companies have cut back on Russian investments. In the short term, it seems likely that stronger economic ties between China and Russia will develop, as they have been prior to the Russian invasion. As a Financial Times headline put it on 3 March: “Xi is unlikely to ditch his ‘best friend’ despite Ukraine pressure”. How long this ‘alliance’ is maintained is another question. Yet whilst it is possible that the economic ties with China can mitigate against the effects of the western sanctions, it will not prevent the Russian economy from being badly hit and a terrible price being paid for this by the Russian workers and middle-class people.
Russian workers’ paying the price and Putin’s future
The crash of the rouble by over 30% in a week, an increase in interest rates from 9.5% to 20%, and the cutting off of access to international finance will lead to a sharp cut in living standards in Russia. Putin was banking on a war chest of US$630 billion of gold and foreign exchange reserves. Yet how much of this can be accessed is now in doubt. More than two-thirds is held in foreign currencies or securities and is now largely off-limits. This is another blow to Putin. At the same time, the effect of capitalist sanctions can work in two ways. It can enrage a layer to oppose the war and Putin. However, in the short term, it can also strengthen a ‘siege’ mentality and strengthen Russian nationalistic sentiments.
These developments, coupled with the rising number of Russian casualties as the war continues to be more complicated for the Russian forces in the medium to long term, can eventually point to the end of the Putin regime. Yet in the short term, Putin is likely to maintain his regime in power, probably enjoying majority support, at this stage, reinforced by brutal state repression of those opposed to the war. The opposition to the war inside Russia seems fairly substantial and can grow. But Putin has responded with widespread repression, reflecting the oppressive Bonapartist regime he heads. Foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy; the brutality Putin’s regime used in Ukraine can be used against the Russian masses.
The massive internal security machine may, in the short term, act to delay the development of an opposition movement powerful enough to challenge the regime, which still has a layer of support. However, this situation can rapidly change depending on how the war itself develops. If Russia becomes bogged down in a protracted war and a collapsing economy, the opposition could develop and provoke some sort of ‘palace coup’, although this seems unlikely in the short term. The prestige of Putin’s regime and Russian capitalism is now on the line. At this stage, the regime’s main players around Putin all are die-hard loyalists, with many of them, like Putin, originating in the former KGB of the ex-USSR.
Abrupt changes and worsening crisis
The war has also resulted in abrupt historic changes in policies in some countries. For the first time, the EU as a body has officially agreed to fund weapons purchasing. Germany, under the SPD Chancellor Scholz, overnight changed its military policy and introduced a massive special armaments budget of €100 billion, an increase of ’normal‘ military spending to over 2% of its GDP, and agreed to allow the profitable exports of German weapons to conflict zones. The German government is aiming to build the largest military apparatus in Europe, which is a massive change in the position that has existed since the end of the Second World War in 1945. These are important points of departure, reflecting the new situation which exists in world relations. They are part of an explosion of arms expenditure that has taken place globally, not least in China, which has again increased its military budget.
The Ukraine war, at this stage, has unified the western imperialist powers. However, behind this mask, the underlying tensions which exist between them remain. The divisions within the EU and between the EU and US imperialism have not evaporated. They will resurface again, particularly as the effects of this crisis are increasingly felt in the world economy and impact each country. New rifts can also open up about how to respond to the crisis. It is one thing for the US and UK to ban the imports of Russian oil, gas and coal. It is entirely another to demand Germany and other countries which are much more dependent on it do so.
The massive spike in oil and gas prices threatens to trigger a stagflationary shock, especially in energy-importing countries. Oil prices jumped 20% in the morning trading on 7 March to $139 a barrel. The same day saw wholesale gas prices in Europe hit 335 euro a megawatt-hour, up from 16 euro a year ago! At the time of writing, Shell has done a somersault in 24 hours and stopped purchasing Russian oil on the spot market.
Should this process continue, it cannot be excluded that Russia will cut the gas supply to Europe. This would have devastating consequences. EU countries import 40% of their gas from Russia. Russia also supplies 10% of the world’s crude oil.
US imperialism and the western powers are desperately searching for alternative sources of oil and gas to reduce dependency on Russian supplies. Needs must! This has led to the spectacle of Biden’s administration opening “cordial” discussions with the Maduro regime in Venezuela, which they have been trying to overthrow for years.
The consequences of the war will lead to higher inflation. It threatens to choke off the ephemeral economic ‘recovery’ post-COVID and trigger a recession, leading to possible stagflation (recession and higher inflation). Already the cutting off of supplies of parts from Ukraine has forced car makers and others to shut some European plants. It is leading to a sharp attack on living standards globally. In many countries, this will result in an explosive rise in poverty, including rising hunger, malnutrition and homelessness in the western imperialist powers.
The threat to the world’s food supply is potentially catastrophic, especially for countries in the neo-colonial world. Ukraine and Russia account for 29% of global wheat exports, 19% of global corn and 80% of sunflower oil. The war can cut across the planting of this year’s crops. Bangladesh, Sudan and Pakistan receive over 50% of their wheat supply from Russia or Ukraine. The surge in prices which is already taking place will have a devastating effect on these and other countries. Already eight million people face starvation in Afghanistan, which is set to be the fate of millions more in other countries.
Added to this is the fact that Russia and Belarus are major suppliers of fertilizers, which have also seen a massive spike in prices. This will be disastrous for food production in countries of the neo-colonial world.
These developments are certain to provoke massive social and political explosions throughout the neo-colonial world and in the industrialised capitalist countries. Uprisings of peasants and rural workers and a more general social crisis arising from famine can explode in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Famines of this scale can provoke wars and ethnic conflicts for grain and food.
A world war?
The depth of this crisis has led to a fear that world war three and a nuclear holocaust could be unleashed. Putin’s reminder that he has nuclear weapons has certainly raised such fears. Such worries, especially prevalent amongst young people, are understandable especially given the nature of the forces involved in the conflict. Wars can escalate and widen beyond what the contending forces intended. Accidental encounters can trigger wider conflicts. It cannot be excluded that this conflict could lead to wider military exchanges and skirmishes taking place, especially on the Polish border or some other countries.
However, it is not in the interests of western imperialism or Putin to allow this conflict to develop into an all-out war between NATO forces and Russia, to become a third world war, with a nuclear arms exchange. This would not only result in the slaughter of millions but would obliterate the capitalist economy and the rule of the oligarchs. The proposal of the Polish government to send its MiG fighter planes to a US airbase in Germany and then onto Ukraine was rejected by the Pentagon for this very reason: to avert a full escalation of the conflict into a wider war. It also illustrates the potential for divisions to open up amongst the NATO and western powers as the crisis continues. The establishment of direct lines of communication between the Russian military and NATO also illustrates that the ruling elites are putting in place safeguards to avert such a catastrophe.
The decision of the US and UK to ban imports of Russian oil, gas and coal will not come into effect until the end of the year. This partly reflects the pressure to avoid a wider conflict spiralling out of control and also the need for time to establish reliable alternative oil supplies.
The far-reaching effects of this crisis on geopolitical relations have been reflected in the clash which has taken place between the parties involved in negotiations to establish a nuclear deal with Iran. The US and Iran seem close to securing a deal, which the Iranian regime desperately needs. However, Putin has added an additional demand that its trade with Iran is exempted from US sanctions. The Iranian regime, which has friendly relations with Putin, described this as “unhelpful” as it has sent negotiations into a tailspin.
The humanitarian disaster, including over two million refugees fleeing the killing fields of Ukraine, has opened a sea of human misery. It is a repetition of the heart-rending scenes seen in other conflicts around the world in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is the reality of capitalism in its death agony for millions around the world. The war in Ukraine has also brought with it outpourings of human solidarity.
In Poland, Berlin and elsewhere, people have opened their homes to strangers to offer food, accommodation and other support. These positive features were also initially the reaction to the refugees from Syria. However, this mood can also change if the necessary investment in housing, education, health and jobs are not made available, opening a space for the far-right and racist organisations to intervene. The vicious racism displayed towards African and Asian students and others by sections of the Ukrainian and Polish state forces and far-right organisations is a warning of how the situation can be cynically exploited and the mood can change.
Need for a socialist alternative to war
The consequences of this crisis internationally, regarding both economic and geopolitical relations, are still unfolding, and it is not clear how it will develop. However, it is intensifying the underlying multiple crises faced by global capitalism in this new era. The economic and social consequences will sharpen the polarization which exists in all countries. The economic and food crisis which is unfolding, especially in Asia and Africa, together with other issues, will strengthen national and ethnic conflicts and wars. However, these issues will also be present in all areas of the world.
This conflict will continue in one form or another for a protracted period. Contained within it is a struggle by the Putin regime to expand its sphere of influence and assert itself as a global power against the democratic rights and right to self-determination of various peoples. Capitalism, both its western imperialist face and its oligarchical Bonapartist face, can offer no solution to the working class and peoples in the Ukraine, Donetsk, Luhansk or Russia. This bloody conflict is not the first and will not be the last to erupt in this era of capitalism. It highlights the urgency of building mass workers’ parties with a revolutionary socialist programme, including an independent policy for the working class, to combat war and capitalism which breeds it.