The system is inexorably taking us down a dangerous road. The actual flashpoint might not be either Ukraine or Taiwan, but in these uncertain times nothing can be ruled out. This is a struggle for mastery over the planet, and it will not go away.
Imperialism and the Pandemic
"Climate change is only one of many threats to our future. Life is already hell for millions trying to survive on low wages or no wages at all, who face both environmental degradation and wars over dwindling basic resources. Imperialist powers stoke these into devastating conflicts which force millions to become refugees, kicked from pillar to post, often dying in their search for a secure existence.
Nowhere on the planet is immune from danger. A stagnant capitalist economy that survives on an increasing mountain of debt (like Evergrande in China, which is currently under threat of defaulting) is intensifying imperialist rivalries. The slow death agony of the system is now manifest in so many ways. The post-World War Two order that was imposed by the US in 1945 has been breaking down since the post-war boom ended, which forced the dollar off the gold standard in 1971. Today the increasing rivalry between China and the US stretches from South America, via the Middle East and Africa, to the South China Sea."
So we wrote in our last agitational broadsheet Aurora, which was distributed in the COP26 demonstrations in Glasgow, and across the UK.(1) Obviously in a short piece of a few hundred words we could not expand much on matters there, but here we want to reflect on recent developments in the international arena to try to put them in perspective. The pandemic has stripped away any notion that the current way of life, mode of production, or whatever you like to call it, offers humanity a future. As we showed in our last issue (Revolutionary Perspectives 18) the global capitalist system got lucky over the vaccines.(2) Due to the work of a few derided and/or underfunded scientists, plus the sense of international responsibility of others, the nature of the virus was scientifically identified and new vaccines produced in record time.(3)
But what followed was an unseemly scramble amongst the wealthier states to ensure that they got the bulk of the vaccines. Despite the repeated injunctions of the World Health Organisation that “no-one is safe until everyone is safe”, the US under Trump forbade the export of any material that might be used in vaccines (including the glass for the vials that carry them) whilst others, like the UK, smugly congratulated themselves that they had contractually cornered vaccine supplies early to fulfil their exclusive national needs. The consequences are still with us today, over a year after the first vaccine was licensed. Whilst enough vaccines have since been created to vaccinate the entire world population more than once, half the world’s population have not received a single one. And thus the mutations keep on coming(4) making the game of catch-up in a pandemic, which some virologists think might be around for years,(5) all the more prolonged.
Capitalism as a social system thus continues to be found wanting in its response to the virus. To internationalists this is no surprise. Leaving aside the greed of “Big Pharma”,(6) we live in a world of competing profit-seeking enterprises backed by the states in which they are primarily located. It has been thus since the late 19th century, and we call this intertwining of capital and the national state, “imperialism”.
Imperialism is no longer just a question of colonial domination of a territory by some advanced capitalist state. No state today exists outside the capitalist order (whatever juvenile Stalinists might try to argue about Cuba, China or North Korea) and all participate in the imperialist world order in some form, whether as the dominant global power like the US, a nascent challenger like China, a former world power like Britain, or a client state trying to manoeuvre for its own advantage between the leading imperialist powers. They all have their own national interests which are identical with the interests of the leading capitalists in each state, whatever the precise political form of that state.
Imperialist rivalry continues to evolve even in a pandemic. Indeed, it could be argued that under the radar of the pandemic it has intensified. Certainly if we believed all the stories in the Western press about the threat of Russian expansionism towards Ukraine or China’s imminent invasion of Taiwan, then the threat of global war is as close as it has ever been in the last six decades. During the last three of them of course, it has been the Western powers, under their alias of “the international community”, who have led the way in invasions, as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. This does not prevent them claiming to be the “good guys”, promoting democracy and human rights against corrupt dictatorships. Let’s just state it bluntly: in an imperialist world all the actors are driven to become rapacious powers fighting their own corner. There are no “good guys”. But to properly evaluate where we are in history we need to take a step back, and analyse how we got to here.
The Cold War
There is a lot of journalistic speculation about a new “Cold War” (sometimes between the US and its allies, sometimes with China, and sometimes with Russia). This is an understandable analogy, since both sides openly call the other aggressors, but it overlooks an important difference. The rivalry between the USSR and the USA after 1945 was not of the same order as today. Some claim that this rivalry remained a “cold” war only because both sides had acquired nuclear weapons by 1949, so did not dare to have a direct conflict, but this is only part of the equation. The essential point is that both emerged from war in 1945 having massively expanded their imperial reach. They were in a sense “contented powers”, and thus had more to lose than gain from any direct conflict with each other. Nuclear weapons only gave more weight to that calculation. At the same time the massive devaluation of capital which World War Two had allowed a new cycle of accumulation to start. Indeed, for almost thirty years after 1945, the world economy experienced its longest and greatest boom. In this context of a booming world economy dominated by two “superpowers” a new world order gradually emerged. The Cold War imperialist game thus developed according to certain unwritten rules, all predicated on the need to avoid a direct conflict. Instead it became a war of manoeuvre. It was way more predictable than the current situation, which is the culmination of series of factors starting with the end of the post-war boom in the 1970s. This downward shift in the capitalist accumulation cycle eventually brought about sweeping economic restructuring, and the turn to financialisation and globalisation which involved the transfer of Western investment to China’s low wage economy, thus stimulating its rise as the motor of the world economy. Last, but not least, was the dramatic collapse of the USSR in 1991. Thus we live in an infinitely more complex world than that of the post-1945 era.
The material basis of the original Cold War rivalry stemmed from the fact that the USSR’s imperialist order rested, not just on its obvious military occupation of Eastern Europe, but on the concomitant economic bloc it created. The US calculation at Yalta, Tehran and Potsdam was that its largely intact productive apparatus would guarantee an economic dynamism that would simply overwhelm the rest of the world, including whatever states came under the control of the half-devastated USSR. However this was not what happened. After looting Eastern European states of their industrial plant, Stalin, despite promises made at Yalta that free elections would be allowed, put Communist Parties loyal to Moscow in control in every one of them before 1948. But the real blow to US imperialist expectations was that the USSR’s satellite economies were immune from dollar domination (which was to reign supreme in the rest of the world after Bretton Woods)(7) because they were protected by non-convertible currencies. This was the main reason why the USSR refused to allow any of them to accept Marshall Aid which was designed to shape the post-war world to the needs of the US economy. It would have opened up Eastern Europe to the West if it had been accepted there. The erection of this impenetrable trade barrier could be considered the first act of the Cold War on the USSR side.
However, the real first act of the new imperialist world order had already been carried out by the USA, with the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Apologists for US imperialism always maintain it was a strategic necessity to bring about the Japanese to surrender without further loss of US military lives (always conveniently put at “half a million”, or more than twice the total number of civilians who died in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki). This is a smokescreen – even the US’ military thought the deployment of nuclear weapons unnecessary. Japan was no longer in a position to resist and the firebombing of Tokyo had been so intense that more died there than in both nuclear attacks. No, the real reason was to force a Japanese surrender before Russia could advance into China and Korea. At Potsdam Stalin had promised he would declare war on Japan three months after the surrender of Germany.(8) As Germany had surrendered on 8 May, the date for the Soviet entry into the war in the Far East was set for 8 August. Stalin, ever a formalist when it came to international agreements about spheres of influence, could be expected to keep his signed word. He had famously refused to believe that Hitler had invaded the USSR in June 1941 (thus breaking the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939), and he stuck by the territorial agreements he signed with Roosevelt and Churchill during World War Two. He stuck by his Potsdam promise to the letter too. The Soviet Union thus declared war on Japan precisely on 8 August.
It was the final blow for the Japanese military caste but some of them continued to argue against surrender, even after a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki the day after the USSR entered the war in the East. Japan finally capitulated on 15 August, and within 24 hours the 730,000 Japanese soldiers of its Kwantung Army in Manchuria surrendered to the Red Army. Their 1,155 light tanks, 5,360 guns, and 1,800 aircraft were handed over to Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party, thus tipping the balance of power in China in his favour (although they came with an injunction from Stalin to do a deal with the Nationalists). Meanwhile the Red Army advanced into Korea and could have taken the whole peninsula but, much to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin accepted their proposal to divide the peninsula along the 38th parallel, even though the US had no troops on the ground in Korea at this point.
These were indications that Stalin considered the wartime alliance as still in force, but it did not last long. Even before Stalin started imposing governments on Eastern Europe, Churchill, the former British Prime Minister was announcing at Fulton, Missouri in 1946 that an “iron curtain” had now fallen across Europe. By 1947 the US was now announcing the Truman Doctrine which was exclusively about the “containment of communism”.
When China, “a quarter of mankind” “went communist”, and then the US lost its nuclear advantage when Soviet scientists developed the atomic bomb in 1949, the alarm bells started ringing in Washington. The US’ first response was to set up NATO and other alliance systems across the world to “contain communism”. The new world order was now basically defined.
Neither the USSR (which had emerged from the defeat of a proletarian revolution in the 1920s) nor China (where Mao’s victory had nothing to do with the proletariat), was “communist” in the sense that Marx understood the term. From 1928 on Stalin gradually developed a militarised productionist state capitalist economy, which concentrated on heavy industry to produce weapons (starting with the Five Year Plans) but which failed to satisfy many of the basic needs of the population. “Development of the productive forces” under Stalinism did not include development of the lives of workers as it had for Marx. Exploitation continued and a new ruling class of nomenklatura emerged who could pass on their privileges to their families in this command economy version of capitalism. Marxism was also reduced to teleology under Stalinism. In the Stalinist world-view “actually existing socialism” represented the future for humanity, whilst the crisis-prone Western states would “inevitably” “fall like ripe fruit” (Khruschev). The USSR thus did not directly seek to further expand its territorial control but, instead, supported with money and weapons any local bourgeoisie across Africa, Asia and Latin America that sought to shake off the dollar domination which, after Bretton Woods,(9) held sway everywhere except in the Soviet bloc.
However, “containment of communism” also demanded that the USA carry out more active intervention around the world. Campaigns of assassinations, subversions of elected governments and military campaigns to maintain its empire characterised US foreign policy throughout this period. This was all done in the name of democracy and freedom, yet the United States ignored the USSR’s suppression of workers’ rebellions in Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia between 1953 and 1968. Under the rules of the game they were within “the Russian zone”, so all that could be attempted was covert CIA support for subversive elements there (like the Catholic Church in Poland). By contrast the US directly prosecuted wars in Korea and Vietnam whilst the USSR was only present “by proxy”, and the USA did not hesitate to overthrow the governments of places like Guatemala, Chile, Grenada and the Dominican Republic who threatened to nationalise US firms. The pattern was the same in all of them. They either feared that yet another state would go behind the “iron curtain” of non-convertible currency, or that their investments would be lost to some nationalist, and nationalising, government.
This policy of intervention led to the unsuccessful attempt to unseat the nationalist regime of Castro in 1961. It not only failed but also led to Castro’s hasty espousal of “Marxism-Leninism” in order to court USSR protection. Getting a foothold in “America’s backyard” was the biggest gain for the USSR in the post-war period but it brought about the severest imperialist crisis that the Cold War produced. It was a confrontation over nuclear weapons (although it should be pointed out that it was not “a nuclear confrontation” as such). In 1962 the USA not only had almost nine times as many nuclear weapons as the USSR, but some were even stationed on the USSR’s border in Turkey. Khruschev had thought to redress the balance by secretly deploying a similar threat only 90 miles from Miami, but the new missile sites were photographed by U-2 spy planes in October 1962. After a 13 day stand-off the dispute was resolved, with the USSR withdrawing the missiles in return for a US public promise not to invade Cuba. Secretly the USA also agreed to withdraw its nuclear missile systems from Turkey, a fact not revealed until 1971.
The fact that the issue did not develop into a war (let alone a nuclear one) was down to the same factors which still operated in 1962. Cuba was the first state to declare itself pro-USSR outside the Eurasian landmass, so the stakes were high. However the post-war boom was at its height, and the USSR’s position was that one day it would inherit the world anyway (this “peaceful coexistence” was seen as a passive position by Mao Zedong’s China, leading to the split with Moscow). When Kennedy pronounced the blockade of Cuba to prevent warheads reaching the island he called it a “quarantine”, as a “blockade” would have been recognised as an act of war. In Moscow, Khruschev feared the US would invade Cuba so Russian troops there were told to resist by all means – except nuclear weapons. The US on the other hand feared an invasion of Cuba would lead to the USSR overrunning Berlin. Both sides were on nuclear alert, but neither was prepared to be the first to strike, though in more desperate circumstances one or both might have contemplated it.
Fast forward to 1983. By then the post-war boom was over. Most western countries were faced with “stagflation”, that combination of unemployment and inflation that brought strikes and struggles across the West in the 1980s. This compelled states to begin the process of restructuring that would lead to the shift of investment and jobs to the East. The USSR though was in even worse shape, thanks to the economic stagnation, waste and corruption of the Brezhnev years. Its rate of growth had more than halved, from the 5.7% per annum in the immediate post-war period, to 2.6% in the Brezhnev years. An indication of the breakdown of Cold War norms had already taken place. For the first time since 1945, the USSR felt compelled to defend its imperialist interests by invading a country outside its bloc when Brezhnev went into Afghanistan in 1979. The consequences were to be momentous. Not only did it become a graveyard for thousands of Russian conscripts, but in a complete role reversal, US support for Islamic fighters, the Mujahideen, led to Afghanistan becoming the USSR’s Vietnam.
It also put an enormous strain on the USSR’s economy. When Brezhnev died in 1982 the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, took over. By then Reagan, by ignoring the soaring US budget deficit was years into a new arms race (sometimes called the Second Cold War) with the USSR. The USSR was already spending a quarter of its GDP on the military, whilst the US was spending much more, but only 6% of its GDP. With its annual growth rate down the USSR was already badly over-stretched. Against this background NATO carried out its biggest ever military exercise (code named “Able Archer 83”) in Europe, targeted at the USSR. It was so extensive that the USSR believed that an attack was imminent. The KGB was tasked with monitoring it. Its report brought Andropov to conclude, with some foresight, that:
"The US is preparing for war, but it is not willing to start a war. They are not building factories and palaces in order to destroy them. They are striving for military superiority in order to ‘check’ us and then declare ‘checkmate’ against us without starting a war. Maybe I am wrong."(10)
He wasn’t. His perception not only summed up the nature of the Cold War, but also the need for the USSR’s bureaucracy to reform. However, within months Andropov was dead, and due to resistance of the old hardliners in the Politburo, it would take two more years before Andropov’s protégé, Gorbachev, would be in a position to start those reforms, under the slogans of perestroika and glasnost. It was too little too late and not popular. The process would be sabotaged at every stage by the ruling class apparatchiks of the nomenklatura, who in the end tried to get rid of Gorbachev but succeeded only in bringing down the USSR itself.
The New World Order
In a Kremlin speech in 2005 Vladimir Putin characterised the collapse of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth Century.”(11) The years that followed the break up of the USSR were characterised by triumphalism in the West, summed up in the ironic echo of Stalinism that we had arrived at “the end of history”.(12) A KGB officer in Berlin at the time, Putin subsequently had to observe the Eastward march of NATO and the EU right up to the old Russian borders. Russia not only lost the satellites of East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria but also Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics. The Russian state could do little at this point as its economy was undergoing “shock therapy” on the advice of prominent US economists. Following the economic stagnation of Gorbachev’s perestroika, Yeltsin attempted to impose a more deep-seated restructuring of the Russian economy, one that had taken the West 20 years to accomplish, in a matter of months. It was a disaster which not only saw Russian GDP fall by 40% by 1999, it also saw 45,000 state enterprises sold off for a song to those who already had strong political (as well as criminal) connections, creating a class of oligarchs who were literally a law unto themselves. It culminated in a financial crash in 1998 which led to the devaluation of the rouble, and further misery for a population whose life expectancy was falling. Putin regards this period as one where the West “blatantly tricked” Russia by promising not to extend NATO right up to Russia’s borders.(13) Instead NATO and the EU enthusiastically integrated all the former Eastern bloc states, and parts of the old USSR, apart from Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, into their orbits. It is something Putin is determined to halt, and, if possible reverse, which is why he now talks of defending Russia’s “historic territories” like Ukraine.
Putin replaced Yeltsin in 2000. He first had a few local matters to deal with. His first act was to pass a law guaranteeing Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution. He then ruthlessly crushed Chechen separatists militarily, and at the same time gave Chechnya a degree of autonomy under his chosen appointee. He gaoled Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dismantled his Yukos empire, as a warning to other oligarchs that they either support him, or would face the full force of the state. The rest of society would suffer the same treatment in the course of time, and assassination of opponents, at home and abroad, would become state policy. However, the economic recovery that followed devaluation, based on high energy prices, although it made Russia one of the most unequal countries on the planet,(14) initially made Putin genuinely popular at home.
Nevertheless Western hubris continued. The “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia which overthrew governments favourable to Russia in 2004 were financed and supported by Western elements.(15) The “revolutions” further confirmed the process of the encirclement of Russia as both were accompanied by direct moves to incorporate them into NATO (and in Ukraine’s case the EU as well). These were the first challenges to Russia under Putin, but with a stronger economy he was in a better position to respond. The first dispute was, on the surface, a commercial one but in an imperialist world there is no such thing as a purely commercial dispute. Ukraine received cheap gas (and got some gas in lieu of transit fee payments for Russian pipelines to Europe) from Russia. However in the winter of 2005-6 Gazprom (with Putin’s support) accused Ukraine of siphoning off gas intended for the EU and demanded that they now pay “the market price” for gas. Oil and gas was central to the economic recovery of Russia. They accounted for 70% of Russia’s export revenue at this point and still today account for 40% of the Russian budget revenue. Such dependence on energy revenue means that every move the Kremlin makes has to be carefully calculated. Russia wants to use the energy question to put pressure on both the EU and its closest neighbours to prevent any further deterioration in its geopolitical power, yet cutting off gas supplies not only means lost revenue, but could prompt the Europeans to look elsewhere (US LNG from fracking being one option pushed by Trump in his time) over the longer term.
In 2006 gas was actually cut off for 3 days until a compromise was reached on 4 January, when Ukraine agreed to pay more, and not to prevent Russian gas reaching the EU states. This did not prevent a further confrontation over gas prices in 2009. We analysed this situation at the time as being more sinister for the EU than the previous crisis. Putin (talking for the allegedly private company, Gazprom) has always refused to sell gas on the “spot market” (i.e. for immediate use in an emergency) and will only honour long term contracts. The 2006 and 2009 crises were really about demonstrating to the EU that the pipeline through Ukraine was unreliable, and that the Germans in particular should sign up to the Nord Stream pipeline going directly from Russia to Germany (and not through ex-USSR satellite states like Ukraine, Poland and Belarus) to get a reliable supply. We noted at the time,
"Throughout the Cold War, the USSR did not once cut off the gas supply. Contrast this with today. For the EU, January’s gas crisis has only emphasised that Russia is ready to use energy as a political weapon. The era of blatant antagonism towards Russia without consequences has come to an end and rampant anti-Russian member states like Poland and the Czech Republic will have to be curbed ... On the gas front, Ukraine is in no position but to accept whatever Russia says and this will inevitably increase Russian influence. (Though the wrangling between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions amongst the ruling class is set to continue)."(16)
The wrangling of the factions in Ukraine continues to this day. In Russia, as we saw, the state has largely forced its oligarchs into line. This is not so in Ukraine, where, in 2013, 50 or so oligarchs controlled 45% of the economy(17) and the politicians. Some are based in the Ukrainian-speaking West and others in the Russian-speaking East (especially the Donbass). The rivalry between them in the face of a series of economic crises(18) (especially after the speculative bubble burst across the global economy in 2008) has undermined any concerted response to Russian manoeuvres. The consequences would become clear in 2014 but before we look at that we should take in the impact of the other “colour” revolution – the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia.
In Georgia the pattern was the same but the outcome transformed Russian imperialist prospects. The overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze, once Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, as President of Georgia, opened up calls for Georgia to be admitted to NATO. The South Ossetian and Abkhazian parts of Georgia refused to recognise the rule of Tbilisi, and in 1996 Russia had joined in the sanctions on Abkhazia imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States. This had been set up by Yeltsin as a successor organisation to the USSR. After the Rose Revolution Putin decided to end these sanctions, and in 2008 Russian troops moved into Abkhazia to support the separatists. Saakashvili, the new Georgian President, responded by attacking South Ossetia (believing that NATO hints of support would morph into real aid). Russian troops performed poorly but they still succeeded in invading Georgia, and NATO did nothing. Russian imperialism was making a comeback, and the invasion of Georgia was part of the recalibrating of the balance of power in the old USSR’s territory, as we noted at the time:
"The Russians have also made some headway in restoring their authority in Central Asia (where the US has had to abandon at least one base). Last year as well they joined with China and Iran in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which is aimed to counter US attempts to control the oil and gas of the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Russia has backed away from any support for sanctions against Iran and restarted the building of the Bushehr nuclear power station.
However, the invasion of Georgia from South Ossetia by the Russian Army represents a new departure. The Russian invasion on August 8th was undoubtedly provoked by the rocket attacks of the Georgian Army on Tskhinvali but there is no doubt that the Russians were ready. The US has a base in Georgia and has trained the Georgian Army. 2000 Georgian troops who made up the third largest contingent in Iraq were flown back in US transports to assist in the defence of Tbilisi. The Russian action is a calculated direct challenge to the US. The latter, boxed in by its commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, is reduced to issuing pious statements."(19)
It was the same in 2013-14 in Ukraine. The pro-Moscow Yanukovich had been kicked out by the “Orange Revolution” but the divisions amongst his opponents led to his re-election in 2010 promising to stay out of NATO but to work in association with the EU. When, in 2014, he suddenly reneged on the association agreement with the EU, demonstrators began to occupy Independence Square (Maidan) in Kyiv and after several were killed Yanukovich fled. Putin, emboldened since Georgia, sent Russian troops secretly into Eastern Ukraine to assist the pro-Russian elements there. 14,000 have so far died (and are still dying) in the fallout. Donetsk and Luhansk still remain outside Ukrainian government control whilst Putin subsequently invaded and annexed Crimea. This is the first open re-occupation of former USSR territory by Russia. Ukraine was not part of NATO (although its troops had taken part in NATO exercises) so there was no formal obligation for a divided Europe and US to act.(20) The most they could agree on was sanctions, which clearly have had little impact.
So why is Putin mustering large bodies of troops on the Ukrainian border for the second time this year? It all started with the Biden administration signing an agreement to supply Ukraine with $125 million of weaponry in April 2021. The Pentagon openly declared that this was for “defence against Russian aggression”.(21) This was put on hold in June so Russian forces began to stand down, only for half the package to be reaffirmed by U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, on a visit to Kyiv in October. The Russian troop build-up thus resumed. And the USA is not the only NATO power arming Ukraine. Turkey has sold drones which Ukraine used in October to destroy separatist artillery in Luhansk.(22) And the British, ever seeking arms deals around the world, have also got in on the act by selling missiles to Ukraine. And to affirm their loyalty to the Western Alliance (i.e. curry favour in Washington) the Royal Navy sent the Type 45 destroyer, HMS Defender, on a deliberately provocative route within 5 miles of the Crimean coast.(23)
Both Putin and the West are thus playing at what used to be called in the first Cold War, “brinkmanship”. It is part theatre and part serious, and of course always leaves room for “misunderstandings”. What Putin has seen is that the US has retreated from its previous position as the world’s policeman. In the last decade or so it has withdrawn from Syria (Russia has saved the Assad regime as a result), Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving behind only chaos and misery. He is aware that the West, and the Europe is divided over how to deal with his pushback against the last 30 years of NATO expansion. He is also aware of Russia’s relative weakness against the combined forces of NATO. The Ukrainian conscript army itself is the third largest in Europe (over 700,000 troops), and is undergoing reform and reorganisation, which, with new and sophisticated weaponry from NATO powers, will make it more effective. Putin worries that Ukraine may soon be strong enough to recover the Donbass. He knows too that there are some situations in which neutrality is more important than action. Thus, in the Caucasus in 2020 he remained neutral in the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, allowing Erdoğan’s unconditional support for Azerbaijan to bring about the rapid defeat for Armenia.(24) It seems he has learned from Afghanistan – via both Brezhnev’s adventure in the 1980s and the twenty year US debacle there – that any military action has to be sudden, short and sharp. The added advantage of this is that the Western powers have no settled policy on how to deal with a more aggressive Russian policy in its own backyard, and where there is always the possibility of exploiting the differences between them over such issues as Nord Stream 2.
Trump famously made these divisions worse by his criticism of some of the most important NATO “allies”. Biden has since mended some fences with European allies, but there are still fears in Europe that the US will make some deal with Putin without consulting them, and then leave them to sort out the consequences. Blinken, the US Secretary of State has already conceded that Nord Stream 2 will come on line in 2022 (although the new German government has so far not sanctioned it) although it did get outgoing Chancellor Merkel to agree to the threat of more joint sanctions if Russia starts cutting off supplies of gas to Ukraine.
The USA really wants to concentrate on the far more dangerous threat to its global dominance that comes from China. Although the rhetoric is different, “the pivot to Asia”, and the need to cut the faux frais of its imperialist reach elsewhere, are about the only issues which unite the bulk of the US ruling class (from Trump to Biden). As part of the need to concentrate on China, the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan was negotiated by the Trump administration whose concessions to the Taliban undermined the Afghan government(25) to the point that only a massive re-commitment of US troops would have preserved it. Biden was just as critical of the futility of the Afghan adventure as Trump, so did nothing to prevent the Kabul debacle. Although there is much bluster about “red lines” and “serious consequences on both sides, the prospect of meetings in Geneva in January and a face to face between Biden and Putin in February, should ensure that the current theatre around Ukraine will go on into the new year. As a token of this Putin withdrew 10,000 troops from the “exercises” on Christmas Eve, which still leaves an estimated 90,000 on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea. However, whilst the US is more focussed on “the threat from China”, and wants to deal with Russia separately, the distinction may be harder to maintain given recent developments between these two states. In the last year in particular Russia and China have been seeking closer cooperation.
Russia/China and the USA
It was not always so. Despite sharing a Stalinist past (for only 7 or so years, it has to be said) the People’s Republic of China and the USSR/Russia have never been very close. They even fought a seven month undeclared war in 1969, which some sources claim was much closer to nuclear conflict than any rivalry between the USA and the USSR.(26) Today there are now a lot of material reasons why the two largest powers in Eurasia are being drawn together, and their separate rivalries with the US has given these added impetus since the Russian move into Crimea in 2014.(27) In 2020 the value of Russian-Chinese trade stood at $103 billion but the two states have signed an agreement to double this in four years.(28) Russia is China’s main supplier of weapons and is the second largest source of its oil. In addition, China has at least a 20% investment in the Yamal LNG plant in the Arctic Circle and the Power of Siberia pipeline, a $55bn gas project that is the largest in Russian history. Both will deliver gas to China. The Yamal LNG will be delivered via icebreakers that can cut through ice 2.5 metres thick to traverse the Northern Sea Route,(29) whilst the Power of Siberia pipeline, the largest Russia has ever constructed, has a branch to China from Blagoveshchensk although it will only open in 2022, four years behind schedule.(30) Indeed, with global warming, the Arctic Circle has become an area of opportunity for both powers offering a faster route for Chinese exports to Europe. As our Canadian comrades recently noted:
"The polar silk road is attached to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to institute massive infrastructure projects throughout Asia, Africa and Europe to greater tie the world economy to Chinese capital and openly challenge American capital."(31)
China not only hopes to build a port at the mouth of the River Dvina in Russia, but additionally to benefit from the mining of the rich deposits of nickel, iron, lead, zinc, phosphates and gold to be found in Russia’s Arctic regions.
Since 2014 US sanctions against both states have ensured that China-Russia rapprochement has gone beyond economic cooperation. Whilst the US was scrambling to get people out of Kabul in August, the two countries were engaging in “large-scale joint exercises for the first time inside China”.(32) In October, Chinese and Russian warships held joint manoeuvres in the Pacific completing a near circle around Japan’s main island in the process. Then on November 19, both militaries sent bomber flights into Japanese and South Korean air defence zones, “forcing Seoul to scramble its fighter jets in response”.(33) Four days later the Defence Ministers of Russia and China then signed a “roadmap of closer military cooperation” for the next four years citing US aerial threats as the reason.(34) It adds that the two countries share a desire to counter a perceived U.S. ideology “of militarism, interventionism and the forcible imposition of U.S. values on other countries.”(35) And of course this new military alliance is “a contribution to peace”.
If that sounds familiar it is because we have been subjected to exactly the same propaganda from the US and its allies. Although they remain the most powerful forces on Earth, both economically and militarily, together accounting for 60% of the world’s expenditure on arms, they want to keep it that way. As Biden made clear earlier this year:
"On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world."(36)
However in the Indo-Pacific the US does not have any alliance like NATO, with its integrated command and control structures. In fact, the only one of America’s Asian treaty alliances that has such a structure, is the one with South Korea. During the Cold War the US did try to set up a NATO-equivalent in the region called the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation, or SEATO. This however never became a real military alliance, and lacked the common foe the USSR represented in Europe, so it was wound up in 1977. The US is now trying to nudge the NATO allies to take up more of the cost of the military expenditure in their own backyard against Russia, whilst it is also trying to build towards a series of alliances against China that might, in time, amount to the kind of close cooperation enjoyed by NATO states.
It is not difficult for the US to build a picture of “a Chinese threat”. Stories of Chinese military exercises simulating an invasion of Taiwan, or the constant overflying of Taiwan’s airspace, all add to a genuine picture of a much more assertive China.(37) The building of artificial islands in the South China Sea, the insistence that this is virtually China’s Mare Nostrum and the disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines and other states in the region are real enough. China’s maritime militia (hundreds of fishing boats with guns) are used to enforce China’s claim to control various islands whilst not being officially part of the state apparatus.(38)
At the same time the US is stepping up the ideological issue too. The repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the dismantling of democratic opposition in Hong Kong, as well as the increasingly authoritarian control which President Xi wields over the Chinese Communist Party, all fit the US “we defend democracy” narrative. In February 2021 Biden made this more explicit.
"We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that … autocracy is the best way forward and those who understand that democracy is essential."(39)
By playing on these military and ideological threats the US has been ratcheting up alliances, both formal and informal, as part of its manoeuvring to hold on to its position in the great game for world domination. These include the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) which includes the USA, Australia, Japan and India, the Five Eyes intelligence sharing organisation of the English-speaking states of the USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and most recently, the US controversial deal with Australia and the UK, AUKUS.
The Five Eyes operation is basically the US keeping its allies informed about what it has learned of Chinese advances but the Quad has organised joint naval manoeuvres annually throughout the Asia Pacific region since the 1990s. The 2020 exercise took place off the Malabar coast and significantly had the added presence of the navies of New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. It was during this exercise that the creation of a “NATO” for the Asian-Pacific region was first openly discussed. A further step towards a new anti-China dominated alliance in the Pacific came this year with the formation of AUKUS. Our comrades in Australia summed up its aims:
"On September 15th, as part of revamped efforts by the US under Biden to gather its allies against China, Biden, Morrison and Johnson signed the AUKUS pact, which not only involves Australia to now be building nuclear submarines at the Corp in Osborne, South Australia, but also entails enhancing military interoperability, new forms of meetings and engagements between defence and foreign ministers and officials, and deeper cooperation across cyber, applied AI, quantum technologies and undersea capabilities."(40)
And to round 2021 off Japan and the US have now concocted a plan in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan:
"Under the plan, the US marine corps would set up temporary bases on the Nansei island chain stretching from Kyushu – one of the four main islands of Japan – to Taiwan at the initial stage of a Taiwan emergency and would deploy troops…"(41)
These alliances enormously help to consolidate US power particularly against the perceived growing challenge from China. There are many ironies in this contradictory situation into which imperialism has stumbled. Not least is that the rise of China was predicated on the injection of massive doses of Western capital which could not find sufficient profit levels at home after the 1970s. Cheap Chinese commodities produced by the highly exploited Chinese working class, not only allowed Western economies to restructure in the face of a global economic crisis of accumulation, but also led to the creation of an economic giant which openly claims it will become the world’s dominant power by 2049, challenging the very country from where its initial capital came in the first place. It certainly undermines the capitalist notion that trade, especially “free trade” promotes enduring peace, but then the whole history of imperialism has already amply demonstrated this. The shock in the West is that China’s embrace of “the market” has not automatically led to the collapse of the Communist Party’s rule. It was assumed it would go the way of the USSR. More than thirty years since the Tiananmen massacre, Party rule seems as strong as ever.
The real fear for the US is that China’s economic growth will give it a basis for transforming power relations. At the moment this seems a long way off and the dollar still rules supreme in world trade with no serious rivals, just as it has since 1945. However there are worrying signs for the US. China’s much trumpeted Belt and Road iniziative has been analysed in these pages before, but now 142 states are signed up in various ways to it. There are problems with many of these countries but the project continues. At the same time, Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has opened the door for China to sponsor an alternative trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
"The RCEP trade bloc is the world’s largest, both in terms of population and GDP, roughly accounting for 30 percent of the global total for each. The RCEP member countries are Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. This equates to a market value of close to US$25 trillion and a total consumer base of about 2.5 billion, of whom an estimated one billion are middle-class consumers. That is roughly the equivalent of 3 x the United States."(42)
The trade bloc aims to reduce tariffs to zero on 92% of traded goods of its members so, although there are many economists who think it will not amount to much, it is a potential game changer. China has recovered from the pandemic faster than expected. Its annual exports were up 22% in November 2021 which is its highest growth in a decade. On the other hand the Chinese real estate sector is in crisis after the 6 December default of the Evergrande conglomerate. The Chinese property sector accounts for about a third of total economic output so this is bound to have a detrimental effect on overall growth figures for 2022.
Even without the pandemic, the current situation thus lacks some of the predictability of the post-war rivalry between the USSR and the USA. Whilst Putin is openly trying to redress the balance of power on the Southern and Western borders of Russia(43), the US has also dubbed China a “revisionist” power. On its own the US still has, at least on paper, enough military might to take on not only Russia and China, but the next 5 ranked powers in the world as well. Its military budget will rise to $750 billion this year but whereas this was 6% of its expenditure in Reagan’s time that figure now represents 15% today. It is unlikely to diminish given both the seriousness of the perceived threat (naturally talked up by the military and the industries that get the contracts) and the constant development of new types of weaponry. There is in fact an arms race in cyber warfare, in drone warfare and in missile defence systems going on at some pace, all driven by the fear of losing a strategic advantage in any field.
Most worryingly is the increased notion in all the military forces that low yield tactical nuclear weapons can be used on the battlefield. In February 2020 the US conducted a military exercise which simulated using a submarine-launched nuclear weapon against Russia(44) (which US intelligence believes is also looking at the same possibility). Additionally China is credited with new weapons which could override the US 5-1 superiority in aircraft carriers such as the Dongfeng-41 (“East Wind”) “carrier-killer” missile,(45) while its recent test of a hypersonic glide vehicle(46) which it is claimed launched a missile whilst travelling at five times the speed of sound, has only added more intensity to the arms race. The question begged by all this is “where is it leading us”? You cannot eat weapons nor can they be used to create anything. As tools they have limited use for hunting down the Earth’s declining wildlife, but other than that they only make money for those who sell them to the many warring parties in the world’s “local” conflicts from the Sahel and Syria to Ethiopia and Yemen. They bring misery to millions but the scale of today’s suffering will be nothing compared to what the system is now preparing.
The boom after the Second World War was predicated on the massive destruction of capital which allowed a new cycle of accumulation to begin. The extent of that destruction was enough to ensure that no power would lightly engage in generalised warfare. The costs had to be weighed in the balance. However the boom came to an end in the early Seventies, and the system has staggered from one expedient to the next to survive. The transfer of much productive capacity to China was just one of these, but today this has simply reproduced an imperialist rivalry of the most dangerous kind, with new alliances and a new, highly sophisticated, arms race in many fields. It cannot be predicted when this will lead to a more generalised conflict, although Admiral Davidson, the outgoing head of US command for the Indo-Pacific, openly declared that it would be within “the next six years” (as he, of course, called for an increase in the military budget).(47) The system is inexorably taking us down that more than dangerous road. The actual flashpoint might not be either Ukraine or Taiwan, but in these uncertain times nothing can be ruled out. This is a struggle for mastery over the planet, and it will not go away. As our Italian comrades concluded in a recent article on Taiwan:
"It is obvious that capitalism is preparing a new conflict of global significance and is not afraid of pushing the planet to the brink, not only on the environmental level, but now openly also on the economic and social level. Even if sometimes unconsciously, capitalism pursues the idea which every sensible human being instinctively hates and rejects: the idea of destruction, as its salvation, its resurrection. By devaluing capital and obtaining the much desired “creative destruction” according to the famous Schumpeter definition, capital would then have the paved the way to restart a new cycle of accumulation as after previous wars, regardless of the effects that this “regeneration” would have on the planet and on its population."(48)
Jock (Communist Workers’ Organisation)
Photo from: commons.wikimedia.org
(2) See “How the Pandemic Revealed the Real Health of Nations” in Revolutionary Perspectives 18, https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-09-15/how-the-pandemic-revealed-the-real-health-of-nations
(4) These lines were written before the latest Omicron variant appeared.
(5) For example, the WHO’s Special Envoy Dr David Nabarro.
(6) For sheer greed Pfizer takes the palm, See “The Inside Story of the Pfizer Vaccine” Financial Times 1 December 2021 https://www.euronews.com/2021/11/23/covid-19-the-pandemic-could-be-with-us-for-many-years-who-warns
(7) See our last issue Revolutionary Perspectives 18, https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-08-15/1971-2021-50-years-since-the-usa-reneged-on-bretton-woods
(8) For an expansion of this theme see http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2005-08-01/holocaust-and-hiroshima-imperialism-and-mass-murder-in-the-twentieth-century
(9) See https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-08-15/1971-2021-50-years-since-the-usa-reneged-on-bretton-woods
(10) The Russian KGB archives are still not really open but the Ukrainian KGB archives are and have been analysed by US historians. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/the-possibility-third-world-war-real-researching-nuclear-ukraine-the-kgb-archive
(11) See "Putin deplores collapse of USSR". BBC News. 25 April 2005.
(12) Marx had always argued that the establishment of communism would be “the beginning of real human history”.
(13) A point he repeated recently as reported in the Financial Times. See https://digital.olivesoftware.com/olive/odn/ftuk/default.aspx?olv-cache-ver=20210809032046
(14) 110 individuals control 35% of Russia’s revenue. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/09/russia-wealth-inequality_n_4070455.html
(15) For details see https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2014-06-09/ukraine%E2%80%99s-crisis-%E2%80%93-local-players-and-imperialist-games
(17) Now the figure is much lower due to the pandemic and the conflict with Russia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukrainian_oligarchs
(18) According to the World Bank, Ukraine now has the lowest per capita GDP in Europe, and thousands have emigrated to Poland and elsewhere.
(19) For more details see https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2008-09-01/the-war-in-georgia-not-just-another-international-crisis
(20) It should be noted that Putin regards the taking of Crimea as wronging an historic injustice from the USSR era. Crimea was always Russian until 1954 when it was given to Ukraine by “ukase” (decree) issued by Khruschev in February 1954 in his power struggle to succeed Stalin. A facsimile of the decree is in the Ukrainian KGB archives held by the Wilson Centre quoted above. Putin describes this as illegal even by Soviet law.
(23) The British Government at first tried to deny that the route was provocative and that it it was just a matter for the Royal Navy but the discovery of MOD documents at a bus stop in Surrey left by the candidate ambassador to NATO revealed that this is precisely what was discussed “at the highest levels” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57624942 The ambassador did not get the job!.
(24) See https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2020-10-15/nagorno-karabakh-war-for-workers-the-real-enemy-lies-at-home
(25) See https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-08-24/afghanistan-the-usa-and-its-allies-retreat
(26) Official documentation is hard to come by as hard sources for this are still not available. One thing that does seem to have happened is that it led Mao to the idea of a rapprochement with the USA.
(27) See https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/25/why-are-russia-and-china-strengthening-ties
(31) See http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-10-19/ice-breaker-imperialism
(36) Quoted in https://amp.theatlantic.com/amp/article/619130/
(37) For a more detailed analysis of what is going on around Taiwan see https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2022-01-12/the-crisis-in-the-taiwan-strait
(39) Also quoted at https://amp.theatlantic.com/amp/article/619130/
(43) Of which the rapid use of Russian and Belarusian troops to save the government in Kazakhstan from a “popular uprising” is another example.