Britain vs Russia: a conflict between declining imperialist powers

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Theresa May has been talking tough about Russia since the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a nerve agent, mobilising support from the USA and the EU. 23 Russian diplomats were quickly expelled from the UK. When we remember that this is the same Mrs May who, as home secretary, refused an enquiry into the murder of Litvinenko by 2 Russian agents until 2014, because of fears that this would worsen relations with Russia, it is impossible to believe that her present response is guided by indignation at an attempted murder by a foreign power on British soil. Rather we must look first and foremost at the imperialist relations and tensions between the powers concerned.

There have also been wider international ramifications of the conflict with first the USA, France and Germany expressing support for the UK and more recently over two dozen countries, including the USA, much of the EU, NATO, Canada and Australia, joining in the diplomatic expulsions of suspected spies. The expulsion of 60 Russians from the USA is greater than any similar expulsions during the Cold War. These actions, like those of the Britain and Russia, must be seen in terms of the imperialist relations of the powers concerned. We should also note that several EU countries, including Austria, Greece and Portugal, declined to expel Russians, that the expulsions were questioned by some politicians in Italy and Czech Republic, and that Trump failed to mention this event in his tweets, even while the Russians were being expelled.

If there is such an escalation between Russia and GB and many “Western” countries behind the latter, it is not an isolated clash, but is part of a  sharpening of imperialist tensions world wide, where there are a number of increasingly chaotic confrontations, with a growing involvement of the bigger imperialist sharks (US, China, Russia) as well as more regional rivals (such as Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East). Even though at first sight it might leave the impression that this is a remake of the Cold War, when two blocs were confronting each other, in reality in the present phase, , imperialist tensions are no longer marked by antagonisms between blocs, but by a  more centrifugal tendency towards every man for himself,  even though there is a growing polarisation between China and the US, and between Russia and a number of Western powers.

Declining powers

What is most obvious about both Britain and Russia is that they are powers in decline, although they are both nuclear powers, reflecting their former strength. In little over 100 years Britain has declined from imperialist top dog, first of all seeing its industrial strength overtaken, falling into debt to the USA in World War 2, and subsequently losing an empire it could no longer control. Its weakened state has been highlighted, and accelerated, by the disastrous Brexit decision. Russia became leader of an imperialist bloc by conquering much of Eastern Europe in WW2, a status it maintained throughout the Cold War. However its economy was too weak to sustain the arms race against the USA and it lost its empire in 1989 and then much of the former territory of the USSR. It now functions as a kleptocracy, with a great degree of melding between Mafia gangs and the state apparatus[1]. While it will never regain its former strength, it has recovered sufficiently to play a destabilising role in many areas, such as maintaining a toe-hold in Syria by supporting the Assad government militarily, invading Crimea, meddling in Ukraine, and engaging in cyber attacks and vote meddling elsewhere. The latter question of using on-line resources to influence elections, of course, is not limited to Russia as the recent allegations against Cambridge Analytica illustrate.

The collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc nearly 30 years ago ushered in a period of instability, not least in foreign relations. The USA was left as, and remains, the only superpower, but the collapse of the other superpower meant that many of its allies and clients were no longer in immediate need of its protection from the rival bloc and could play a more independent role. This was illustrated when NATO powers supported different states in the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or when France and Germany openly opposed the second Gulf War in 2003. The greatest gains have been made by China, which has taken no part in the diplomatic spat between Russia and Britain.

The use of Novichok

The use of Novichok, a nerve agent developed 500 miles from Moscow, implies that it was intended that the attack should be seen as the work of Russia. Along with the British government, the EU has thus concluded that it is “highly likely” that it was done by Russia. For Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius, Britain is being tested, “Russia is always looking for weak points, and may feel the UK does not feel very strong… The Russian assumption may be that in the process of Brexit, the UK is weaker…” (The Guardian, 16.3.18). They may also be testing NATO, already weakened by some of Trump’s less than enthusiastic statements about it and by conflicts within the alliance, as between the USA and Turkey over Kurdish fighters in Syria. We can certainly have no doubt that Russia is monitoring the response, noting how NATO, the EU and other countries have made statements in support of Britain, and which countries have followed that up with diplomatic expulsions, and which have not. They will also have noted that, in spite of the US expulsion of 60 Russian spies or diplomats, Tillerson was sacked by Trump shortly after a speech condemning Russia for the attack in Salisbury. In any case, divisions inside the US bourgeoisie are plain for all to see after 15 months of the Trump presidency and the Russiagate investigation.

Putin is, as ever, playing the strong leader, recently announcing new missiles that can get through the USA’s defences, essentially claiming to have a first strike capacity, shortly before his re-election. His response to this event projects the same strong nationalist message, standing up for Russia against the allegation of use of a nerve agent, for which there is no definitive proof, matching the initial 23 expulsions from the UK, and then adding to this by banning the British Council from Russia. This certainly did him no harm in the presidential election, not that his success was ever in doubt after the most likely rival was banned and the ballot boxes stuffed. Russia has continued in the same vein since, matching all the expulsions from countries around the world and then adding some more for Britain.

How the UK has been able to orchestrate an international response

It’s also true that the British government has turned these events to its advantage as much as it can. From a situation of looking weak, divided and indecisive over Brexit negotiations, Theresa May and her government have been able to project an image of not just the government but Parliament and the whole country united behind their strong response to an outrage committed on British soil. Statements of support, first by USA, France and Germany, and then by NATO and the EU, as well as the international wave of diplomatic expulsions, have added to this. We have even seen Jeremy Corbyn castigated for reminding the government not to rush to judgement before the police investigation has taken place, despite the fact he fully supported the actual measures taken by the government.  For a large part of the bourgeoisie, this was too much opposition in words, even when there was none at all in policy!

Unfortunately for Mrs May and her government, none of this changes the very real weaknesses and divisions in the British bourgeoisie that have been highlighted and worsened by Brexit. The international response she has orchestrated from countries that have previously ignored many murders on foreign soil says much more about the need to counter Russian destabilisation than her leadership or powers of persuasion. Condemnation of Russia is simply hypocrisy on the part of countries that carry out their own murders on foreign soil, as with the drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.. However, weeks before announcing the expulsion of diplomats in support of Britain, at the time of its first statement with France and Germany, the USA imposed sanctions on 19 Russians over cyber attacks on critical infrastructure and meddling in the election of Trump. Russia is also suspected of trying to influence the Brexit referendum.

More important is the fact that Russian support for Assad in Syria, rapprochement with Turkey against Kurds there, and its support for Iran, have weakened the USA in that region, which in turn has increased Putin’s aggressive policies. Russia also has common interests with China, a much more important imperialist competitor, in Syria and Iran, and against Japan and the US. However, these can only lead to unstable and temporary alliances since the two powers are rivals in the Indian subcontinent and in Asia over the New Silk Road. Also it is unlikely Russia will easily tolerate the reversal of roles with China, which it dominated for much of the Cold War. Russia remains a nuisance that the USA and much of Europe would like to put in its place, but after its collapse nearly 30 years ago it can no longer build a solid alliance around itself. It is even possible there are some in the US (in the Trump camp for example) who would like to use it against China.

Russia’s defenders

Corbyn essentially agreed that it was most likely Russia was behind the poisoning in Salisbury, and supported the measures taken, and is therefore not one of Moscow’s open defenders. However, in demanding that the government not rush to judgement and in pointing to donations to the Tory Party by various Russian oligarchs he echoed the themes of some of those who really are defending Russia  - a stance that that may be tolerated, even useful, in a back bencher with no hope of office, but not in a leader of the opposition who may be seen as PM in waiting. This has been too much for many in the Parliamentary Labour Party, who have been reminded why they – and the central parts of the British bourgeoisie – don’t trust him, particularly on foreign policy, and he has come under renewed pressure after a period of truce since the last election. Apart from direct criticism of his Commons performance on the Skripal case, they have used the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and particularly among Corbyn supporters in Momentum to put pressure on the leader[2] Anti-semitism is certainly a reality in the Labour Party and the capitalist left, as we argued in an article on ICC online during the last furore in the Labour Party[3]. However, the fact that it is being raised so loudly today when little has really changed suggests that it is being honed as a weapon against Corbyn. 

For an outright defence of Russia, we can refer to John Pilger, who wrote an article in the Off-Guardian that demands Russia be given ‘due process’ before it is condemned[4]. In an interview with Russia Today he went further and argued that Russia has demonstrated that it has destroyed all its chemical weapons, that Porton Down is not far from Salisbury, and that the Skripal case is a drama carefully constructed by Britain[5]. Essentially giving the Russian line, in other words.

We cannot trust any of the protestations of innocence, neither the claim that Russia has destroyed all its chemical weapons, nor the denial that the nerve agent used could have come from Porton Down. The UK government is just as capable of cynical extra-judicial murder as the Russian government or the mafia. And since we have no access to proof all we can rely on is an analysis of the imperialist interests of the various players in the situation. In the present situation of weakness of the UK and NATO it seems that Russia had the most to gain by probing weaknesses and divisions. It is also consistent with its role as a force for destabilisation. At the same it is possible to say that if the Russian state did order this assassination, it has not turned out particularly well for it so far, since it has not resulted in increased divisions among its main rivals.

Socialist Worker, on the other hand, echoes Jeremy Corbyn on donations, “The Russians are coming and have bought the Tories”, noting that this includes oligarchs who are both pro and anti-Putin[6], and call for a rejection of “Tory’s warmongering[7].

Let us be quite clear, Britain, Russia and all states today are capitalist and imperialist, and so they are all capable of warmongering when this is in their national interest. There is nothing specifically “Tory” about warmongering. Russia was at war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and is at war in Syria today. The Labour Party supported the Falklands War in the 1980s and went to war in Iraq in 2003 (while the SWP called for the defence of Iraq “against imperialism”). In fact, since the Russian revolution degenerated, and was defeated, there has been absolutely nothing ‘anti-imperialist’ about the country, not in the 1930s, not in World War 2, not in the Cold War, and not today. To put about the idea that only the Tories who are warmongers is to disarm the working class in front of all the other bourgeois political ideologues who are also warmongers.

Alex  2.4.18

[1] Asked in a TV interview whether it is fair to call Russia a mafia state, former British “man in Moscow” Sir Andrew Wood  said: “Yeah, I think it’s a bit unfair….on the mafia.”






Imperialist Tensions