The growing tensions between Russia and the US have come out into the open. The media talk is of a new Cold War, with Putin responding to US ‘Star Wars’ plans by threatening to point his nuclear missiles at the heart of Europe. But if anything, the situation is more dangerous than it was in the period between 1945 and 1989 when the two superpowers held us in the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction.
‘Communism’ collapses; imperialism continues
According to the official ideology of the old US bloc, the world was a dangerous place in the Cold War period because the Soviet Union was an aggressive power aiming to spread the tyranny of ‘Communism’ across the globe. It was thus reasoned that when the USSR and its bloc imploded at the end of the 1980s, we would automatically enter a new era of peace, and Russia could join the fold of the democratic nations, enjoying the fruits of free enterprise and free elections.
It is hardly necessary to argue that the ‘New World Order’ promised by Bush Senior at that time has been exposed as a total and utter lie. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the world has been more unstable, more chaotic, more infected by war and genocide than at any time since the 1939-45 World War.
One prediction that did, at first, appear to have some substance was the idea that the new ‘post-Communist’ Russia could become a reliable ally of the USA. Even before the USSR was officially disbanded, it made little or no attempt to stand in the way of the USA’s first great military adventure of the new period, the Gulf War of 1991. And when the fraction around Boris Yeltsin came to power in the newly-formed Russian Federation, it seemed to be in indecent haste to open Russia up to foreign investment by selling off whole chunks of the state-owned sector to ‘private’ investors. Many of these were home-based cronies of Yeltsin and Co – this was the period which saw the rise of the Russian oligarchs (like Roman Abramovitch) who made vast fortunes by getting their hands on Russia’s potentially lucrative energy industries. But Russia’s gates were also opened to a mass of foreign investment vultures, and the ensuing wholesale pillaging of Russia’s economy led to mass unemployment, a drastic plunge in living standards and a dangerously fragile national economy, as revealed in the collapse of the Russian currency in 1998.
These developments threatened to totally undermine Russia’s status as an imperialist power, which had already been knocked down several pegs by the collapse of the USSR and its bloc. This is something that no bourgeoisie can accept. Russia made this clear with its brutal campaigns in Chechnya after 1994: by crushing the Chechen independence movement with such overwhelming force, it was issuing a clear statement that it was not prepared to tolerate any further fragmentation of the Russian Federation. The ‘western’ powers largely turned a blind eye to the devastation of Grozny and other atrocious massacres in Chechnya, because they saw little benefit in the entire Russian Federation, with its intact arsenal of nuclear weapons, fragmenting into a patchwork of unviable fiefdoms. But an imperialist power can never be content with ensuring order within its own borders. Russia’s long-standing alliance with Serbia led to confrontation with other imperialist powers during the series of wars in ex-Yugoslavia – with Germany which backed Croatia, and with the US which switched its patronage to Bosnia and then used NATO to push ahead with the bombing of Serbia. ‘Post-Communist’ Russia thus showed that it was pursuing the same imperialist policies in the Balkans as Czarist and ‘Communist’ Russia.
The accession to power of ex-KGB leader Putin in 2000 marked a significant turning point, both in domestic and foreign policy. At home it marked a return to a much more centralised direction of the economy accompanied by an increasingly ruthless attitude towards internal political opposition. The assassination of former spy Litvinenko in Britain was only one in a series of politically motivated murders that have in all probability been carried out on behalf of the Putin regime. At the economic level, curbs were put on the power of the oligarchs (symbolised by the imprisoning of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky for fraud and tax evasion, and the exile of Boris Berezovsky, who gained fame by apparently calling for the revolutionary overthrow of the Putin government) and the vital energy industries were restored to state direction.
Centralised control over the oil and gas industries were essential not just to protect the Russian economy from international competition but also to put a formidable weapon in the hands of the state in its relation with other powers. This was demonstrated very graphically in 2006 when Russia sought to put pressure on Ukraine by cutting off its supplies of gas, and the same threat can be brandished at western European countries which have become increasingly dependent on Russian energy supplies (and indeed were already affected when Russia shut off the gas to Ukraine).
Towards new confrontations
All this demonstrates, once again, Rosa Luxemburg’s thesis that imperialism is not the policy of any particular state, but the necessary mode of survival of every state in the present epoch. It is not determined by ideology, but by the fundamental economic and strategic interests of national capitalisms engaged in a life or death struggle on the world arena.
Putin’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy is thus the inevitable product of the needs of Russian capitalism. But it is determined as much by the aggressive policies of its rivals as by its own internal dynamic. The increasingly bellicose stance of US imperialism in recent years, above all since the announcement of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001, has further aggravated Russia’s tendency to throw its weight around in foreign affairs. The USA’s attempt to impose its hegemony in the Middle East was seen, rightly, as part of a strategy to encircle Europe and Russia through its control of this key geo-strategic region; and Russia’s fears of encirclement were made even more concrete when a number of Russia’s former satellite states were admitted into NATO. They are now to be used as bases for the USA’s anti-missile defence system, with the ludicrous justification that this has been established on Russia’s borders to counter the threat from rogue states like North Korea and Iran.
In The Guardian recently there have been some anguished comment articles in the centre pages, by Martin Jacques and Simon Jenkins, lamenting the fact that the Russians are being pushed into a corner by the belligerent behaviour of the west and the White House in particular. Jenkins worries that the revival of the open conflict with Russia is a growing danger to the future of the world, and that it is almost being hidden by the smoke and dust generated by the ‘war on terror’. Jacques, while accepting that Russia is not entirely innocent either, sagely warns that “Russia is not about to change, and we must find a Modus Vivendi that respects what it is and recognises its legitimate interests” (5/6/07).
There is no doubt that the sharpening conflict between Russia and the US (and with Britain, which has used the Litvinenko affair to yap at Putin’s ‘authoritarian’ regime) is a very dangerous development. In many ways it is more dangerous than the Cold War because the overall line-up of imperialist forces is much less stable and containable than it was during the period of the two blocs. Alliances are forged on a temporary basis – such as between Russia, France and Germany over the invasion of Iraq, or between Russia and China as a counter-weight to the US and Japan – but they can easily disintegrate into open hostility between the allies of the day before. Without the discipline of the old bloc system, these hostilities can much more easily spin out of control.
Martin Jacques, a former guru of the so-called Communist Party, offers his expert advice to the bourgeoisie: why don’t we all try to get along. This is pure mystification, pretending that it is possible for imperialist cut-throats the world over to be reasonable and considerate towards each other. Above all, it is posed entirely as a problem for the ruling class. From the proletarian standpoint, all states and all ruling classes, east and west, are the enemy. The only Modus Vivendi we are interested in discovering is the one with the workers of Russia, who have the same class interests as we do, the same need to struggle against the capitalist drive towards war. Amos 8/6/7