February 25, 2022
By Stephen Gowans
The “military operation” announced by Russian president Vladimir Putin on February 24, is the latest episode in a struggle between two powers, the United States and Russia, for control of Ukraine. There is little good that can be said about either of these powers.
Russia is no more a progressive state than is the United States, and, indeed, is a good deal less so. The country’s president, Vladmir Putin, an anti-Bolshevik apostle of “traditional values”, i.e., homophobia, misogyny, and religious superstition, is admired by the Tucker Carlsons and Donald Trumps of the world, as well as some supporters of the trucker convoys, for his “anti-woke stance.” Trump thinks the world of Putin, much as US reactionaries of another time admired Hitler and Mussolini for their “strong” leadership and anti-Bolshevism. Putin has little good to say about Lenin and Stalin, disapproving of the Bolsheviks’ nationalities policies and criticizing Stalin for not pre-emptively attacking Nazi Germany. Putin proudly announced that he wouldn’t make in connection with Ukraine what he sees as Stalin’s mistake in connection with Germany.
Nor is Russia any less an imperialist state than the United States, though it is, to be sure, much less powerful than its US rival, far less dangerous, and its domains far less extensive. But it is imperialist, all the same, however much it is opposed to the prospect of its own domination by the United States. For all its anti-hegemonism, Moscow is not opposed to subjugating other countries. Russia intervened militarily in Syria in 2015, not out of a selfless commitment to rescuing the government in Damascus, but to advance Russian aims. Syria is a vassal of Moscow, and while Damascus may (or may not) find the terms of its vassalage preferable to those the United States would impose, it remains a Russian vassal state all the same.
As to Ukraine, it has the unfortunate fate of finding itself in the middle of an inter-imperialist struggle. Through subterfuge and machination, the United States in 2014 installed a pro-US, anti-Russian puppet government in Kyiv. That government has acted to integrate the territory, people, military, and markets of Ukraine into the United States’ informal empire. In insisting on membership in NATO, participating with NATO forces in military exercises along Russia’s borders, refusing to implement the Minsk II agreement, vigorously engendering opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and proclaiming its intention to reclaim Crimea, home to the Russian Black Fleet, the US puppet government in Kyiv has done much to provoke Russian aggression. Indeed, it is difficult to conclude that this wasn’t its aim, since Kyiv played it cards as if it was. Moscow would rather Ukraine be integrated into its own informal empire, the Eurasian Economic Union, though faute de mieux, it has been prepared to accept Ukraine neutrality. An independent Ukraine, one not under the de facto control of Washington, would likely have opted to join neither the (vast) informal empire of the United States nor the (much smaller) informal empire of Russia. But a Ukraine under the informal control of the United States has recklessly crossed so many Russian red lines.
On a moral and legal plane, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is indefensible. Putin’s invoking Article 51, Chapter VII of the UN Charter, (the right of self-defense in response to an attack) is a total farce, as is Putin’s claim that the Kyiv government is a neo-Nazi government and that Kyiv is carrying out a genocide against Russians. These claims demonstrate that Moscow can stoop as low as Washington in inventing totally ridiculous pretexts for wars of aggression. To be clear, there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, a few in government, and more than a few in the military, but they tend to be Russophobes first and neo-Nazis second; that is, they’re neo-Nazis because they hate Russians—as in, the greatest enemy (the Nazis) of my enemy (Russia) is my greatest friend. That’s not to defend Russophobia, but the neo-Nazi reference is frequently invoked, not out of respect for the truth, but because its utility in shaping public opinion against Ukraine is greater, at least in the West, than pointing out that there are many Ukrainian nationalists who dislike Russia for its history of dominating Ukrainians, some of whom are neo-Nazis, and others who are not. Moreover, the presence of neo-Nazis in government and in the military is hardly unique to Ukraine.
As to Ukraine carrying out a genocide against its ethnic Russian population, this is only true if we accept the kind of infinitely flexible definition of genocide that the United States, in the person of Adrian Zenz, is infamous for deploying against China as an exercise in mobilizing public opinion against a rival. To be sure, the Ukrainian nationalist Russophobes in Kyiv have hardly sought to find an amicable way to co-exist with their ethnic Russian compatriots, but when Putin likens this behavior to genocide, he takes a page from the execrable Adrian Zenz, and shows himself to be just as execrable for doing so.
The Russian president says he has no plans to occupy Ukraine, and this may be true. Certainly, it would ill-serve Russia to become bogged down in a second Afghanistan. But Moscow says it intends to de-Nazify and de-militarize Ukraine, which means, it intends to install its own puppet government in Kyiv, after it jails or murders the Ukrainian nationalists who, whether neo-Nazi or not, are painted with a broad neo-Nazi brush. Thereafter, the Russian president will try to persuade ethnic Ukrainians that they’re part of the same Russian family, and should feel at home with their pro-Russian Quisling government.
The United States’ role in this tragedy is as much about its relationship with its former imperial rivals, Germany, Italy, and France, as it is about its attempts to weaken Russia. These three powers, and the Europe they lead, incessantly threaten to spin out of the US orbit. Increasingly, they talk of strategic autonomy, while pursuing economic integration with Russia and China, to US dismay. Russian aggression provides the occasion to bind Europe more firmly to the United States, by rallying Europe against Russia through the US instrument of NATO, and pressing the continent to sever some economic ties with Russia. Germany will be expected to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to its great disadvantage, since it will lose an inexpensive source of energy, and to the great advantage of the US liquid natural gas industry, which will fill the void with a more expensive product. While certification of the pipeline has only been suspended for now, Washington will continue to pressure Germany to cancel the pipeline altogether. The benefits of Russian aggression against Ukraine for the US investor class are so numerous, that champagne bottles must have popped in Washington and on Wall Street when the Russian president announced the beginning of his country’s military operation in Ukraine. European drift toward the Russian economy is eclipsed. NATO is strengthened, with indubitable benefits in new orders from NATO countries for arms from US weapons makers. Calls for more weapons purchases to bolster the US military will escalate; yesterday, for example, a Wall Street Journal op-ed demanded a naval build up. And the arms industry will run at full-tilt pumping weapons into Ukraine to fuel an insurgency, as Washington fights Russia to the last Ukrainian. Wars for which the United States has not participated except to act as an arms supplier have always been kind to the country’s investors; this one promises to be the same. Finally, Russian military operations, along with Western sanctions, will drain the Russian economy, weakening Russia, or at least stifle its growth, and make it less a formidable US rival. How could Wall Street not look with pleasure upon the prospects?
Most Left pundits and “anti-imperialists” thought Russia wouldn’t invade, and that Washington’s warning that an invasion was imminent was utter nonsense, along the lines of the Iraqi WMD scare. Patrick Cockburn, though hardly alone, dismissed the possibility of a Russian invasion, arguing that Russia had assembled too few troops along its borders to invade Ukraine. This was just Washington hype and war hysteria, he wrote. Others took as gospel the words of Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many fakes, disinformation, leaks, slander and lies” she said—a self-referential statement, it turns out. The lesson here is that governments lie but sometimes they don’t, and that it is unwise to assume that governments always lie or that ones that are in the cross-hairs of US aggression don’t. Putin talked of a US empire of lies. He omitted mention of a Russian empire of lies.
Before leaving the topic of information warfare, something ought to be said about RT (Russia Today). RT exists in the first instance to serve Russian ends, and specifically to propagate information favorable to the attainment of the goals of the Russian state. The modus operandi of RT’s US network is to act as a platform for anyone with a compelling critique of US policy or who will go to bat to defend Russia. There may be a partial overlap between the pursuit of Russian state aims, and the provision of progressive discourse and analysis, but no one should be mistaken that RT’s raison d’etre is to promote a progressive point of view. It is doubtful that RT would long provide a platform to persons whose critique of US society and foreign policy was matched by an equally rigorous critique of the Russian side. I may be wrong, but we may soon find out if this is true if anyone tries to advance, on RT, the kind of analysis I’m presenting here.
What ought to be done?
First, Ukraine should be neither the means to US ends nor the means to Russian ends. Ukraine ought to be the means to Ukrainian ends. The country must be allowed to develop independently and to choose its own government freely, without foreign interference or involvement. The country’s leaders must be answerable to the people of Ukraine, not to the president of the United States, nor the president of Russia. To achieve this, Russia must immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine and cease interfering in Ukrainian affairs. The United States and its satellites must do the same. Next, the countries of Europe, along with Canada, must withdraw from NATO. NATO is not a defensive alliance. Europe can readily defend itself against Russia. Its military expenditures are four times greater than those of the Russian Federation, (France’s alone are equal to Russia’s), and France has an independent nuclear force. NATO is a cover for the United States to maintain a military presence in Europe, on the territory of its former imperialist rivals. Al Haig, former NATO Supreme Commander and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, once acknowledged that US troops are in Europe (stationed at what are called NATO bases to hide the fact that US bases are scattered across the continent) to ensure that European markets remain open to US exports and investment. Fourth, the United States and Canada must withdraw their forces from Europe (and from elsewhere abroad.) North American militaries must be re-oriented to self-defense, not power projection. The same demand must be made of all the world’s militaries; they must exist for one reason alone: to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The struggle against reactionaries who masquerade as anti-imperialists
Finally, regarding the variegated group that calls itself anti-imperialists. Anti-imperialists come in many hues. Marxists of various stripes are almost always anti-imperialist but tend to self-identify as Marxists (Marxists, Marxist-Leninists, Communists, socialists, and so on.) It is taken as a given that if you’re a Marxist, you’re anti-imperialist, and, hence, that the anti-imperialist moniker is unnecessary. But the converse isn’t always true—anti-imperialists are not always Marxists. Some people who self-identify as anti-imperialists, but not as Marxists (and I say some, not all), practice an anti-imperialism of a sort favored by Charles Lindbergh and others in the late 1930s and 1940s, and expressed as America First, a name that has resonance with Trump. Supporters of the America First cause admired Hitler and Mussolini, especially their opposition to bolshevism and the “wokeism” of the day, and opposed US war against fascism in Europe. Their intellectual descendants exist today. Some of them can be found on the conspiracy theory web site, Global Research. They admire Putin’s commitment to “traditional values,” including faith, homophobia, misogyny, submission to authority, and strong leadership. While they call themselves anti-imperialist, they’re really only opposed to US imperialism. The imperialism of Russia and few other countries never shows up on their radar. They are, in reality, anti-Marxist conservatives, who falsely identify as anti-imperialists to create a progressive façade to mobilize the energies of Marxist anti-imperialists to a reactionary agenda. These are the same frauds who have celebrated the far-right truckers’ convoys, and are very likely at this very moment denouncing anyone who has an unkind word to say about Vladimir Putin and his imperialist war on Ukraine. In its statement on the Russian aggression, the Party for Socialism and Liberation argued sagely that the role of anti-imperialists “is not to follow the line of countries in conflict with U.S. imperialism, but to present an independent program of peace and solidarity and anti-imperialism.” That is the hallmark of Marxist-inspired anti-imperialism. We can do without the other kind.