This is not just about Putin. Its about Imperialism.
We’ve been living in a bit of fools paradise in the U.K. While we’ve distracted ourselves over things like Brexit, and the utter stupidity of the idea of ‘Global Britain’ and do you really know what that means, we’ve not seen the much bigger picture. Understandable, as they don’t discuss such things as capitalist imperialism in the Express, Mail or Telegraph. Well, at least they don’t use that phrase. They talk about trade agreements, global markets and liberal democracy. All very nice. All very deceiving.
We ought to see that Ukraine is a fault line currently experiencing an earthquake.
The world has physical fault lines, as tectonic plates move and rub up against each other. Volcanoes and earthquakes are the surface evidence of those tensions.
The world also has political fault lines as imperialist blocs rub up against each other. Ukraine is surface evidence, Taiwan might be the next.
The idea of imperialism has gone missing from popular discussion in the U.K. Instead we talk about globalisation and the spreading of democracy. But, just because Imperialism is not discussed, that doesn’t mean it has gone away. Just as the Portuguese experienced the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 as a local surface catastrophe, they could not understand the deeper physical forces causing it, nor do we understand Ukraine.
Imperialism is a system of global competition between states with economic, political and military dimensions. The underlying dynamic driving this competition is the absolute need to accumulate capital. This cannot be said enough. Strip away surface justifications about history, ethnicity, nationhood or religion, as powerful motivators as they are, political and capitalist elites need to establish their fiefdoms in which ever way they see fit, in any way that meets their narratives. The characters change, the cities change…the story does not.
All states are part of this system. The system imposes upon the political and capitalist elites within each country, the necessity of defending & advancing the interests of their own centres of capitalist accumulation, through both soft and hard power. In the U.K. our soft methods include the Queen, James Bond and ‘Cool Britannia’ – remember that? The current push for ‘Global Britain’, while sending the Royal Navy to fly the flag in oceans far far away, is an attempt to establish our rights to accumulate capital globally through trade (soft power) resting upon a thinly veiled display of hard power using HMS Queen Elisabeth and our ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. The short video in the link asks us whether we know “How big a threat our carrier strike force is to Russia”. It hardly needs saying that HMS Queen Elisabeth is not threat enough to deter Putin.
Imperialism is not defined just by the surface behaviour of particular states such as Putin’s Russia, the Military-Industrial complex of the US or Xi’s China. Imperialism is not about whether a country exports capital home, or if they exploit an “agricultural” periphery country in Africa or Latin America, or if they simply hold colonies/invade & occupy territory of less powerful states (India, Ukraine, Taiwan, Iraq).
Some states will always be dominated by others’ interests and be forced to align with the bigger players regionally and internationally, most of Africa, for instance. Some others have the chance to play the bully in their own backyard, but can do so internationally only on occasion such as India, Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Others will align with the current global hegemon of the US, e.g. the UK and the other Anglo settler colonies of Japan, Israel and the EU, in pursuit of their international agendas. Others such as China and Russia are rivals to the main power bloc of the United States and will behave according to the judgment of their ruling class on a global scale. Their particular role and how they behave toward other states, economically & militarily, is determined by the relationship they have to the global system.
Russia has a complicated econmic and poltical relationship to the current global system that emerged after 1989. It is a relationship characterised by weakness, by humiliation, by exclusion. After the collapse of the Berlin wall, the United States left the Russian economy to collapse and it did so either by design or neglect. Its GDP it has been stated is about the same as Italy. The United States, the UK and the EU exploited that weakness and pushed NATO expansion eastward, partly as a result of Madeline Allbright’s doctine of a) using US military might and b) US expansion. Fooled by ‘end of history’ ideology, western governments overlooked Russia’s internal politics. UK capitalist elites welcomed and gave peerages to Russia’s capitalist elites. Putin emerged and gained support in that context. The political and military dimensions of imperialism have taken a nasty turn as a result. Hindsight? perhaps. But an eye on the dynamics of imperialism was not kept. Maybe we really did believe that ‘our’ Empire had won.
To be truly anti-imperialist is to oppose the whole system wherever it erupts and quakes, not just how one particular state like the US or Russia or China acts internationally in the moment. Even when things are peaceful on the surface, imperialism is building pressure from below.
Go back to that video of the Queen Elisabeth sailing in the Black Sea. You see the UK ‘defending its interests’ far far way. How would you view a Chinese carrier strike force sailing around in the South West approaches in international waters? Defending its interests? If we survive the war in Ukraine, you might not have to imagine it, China might do exactly that as it eclipses the United States.
On a side note, discussion about the World Economic Forum’s ‘Great Reset’ completely misses the point. The reality of imperialism requires a reset of course, we do actually need global governance for climate catastrophe, health and peace. I can’t see it happening while competing capitalist elites in each bloc see the world as a zero-sum game rather than a win-win.