Earlier this month we republished an article by Australian socialist Tom Bramble exploring the reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In this reply, Gareth Dale questions and extends some of the arguments put forward by Bramble.

Photo: Steve Eason

In Russian imperialism under Putin, Tom Bramble has offered a persuasive and insightful account of the war in Ukraine. It begins, as all such analysis should, with the immediate reality: this is a war of imperialist aggression. From this flows the imperative of solidarity with Ukrainian resisters and refugees, and with Russian mutineers and anti-war protestors. It then recognises, as all analyses should, that the war intersects with inter-imperialist rivalries. Its theoretical framework is rigorous, and it avoids any flag-waving for imperialist camps, whether Russia or Nato.

In this essay I explore several points that Bramble raises, attempting to develop them further. I’ll reflect on one passage in particular. Russia, Bramble proposes, ‘is a relatively weak power among the dominant imperialist nations. Its weakness makes it more aggressive because lower-order imperialists can enhance their status only by disrupting the status quo.’ Weaker states that are excluded from, and seek to challenge, the core club of liberal powers can’t rely on the tools of economic and legal domination that have enabled its members to amass so much of the world’s wealth; they may resort instead to uglier forms of competition, normally around their borders or nearby.

Elsewhere, Bramble develops the point by drawing an analogy between Russia and China in the early twenty-first century and Germany a century earlier. The thesis, in brief: in the context of uneven capitalist development and a hierarchical world order, revisionist states—powerful but weaker polities that have been elbowed aside by the dominant status-quo powers—are more likely to resort to external violence to punch their way into contention. Germany, he writes, ‘was the more aggressive power in Europe because German capitalism sought to rectify the difference between its productive might and its limited sphere of territorial control, meaning precarious access to key resources like oil. It had to strike out or else be suffocated by the old empires.’

In response to this position I make three arguments. (i) While concurring with Bramble’s account of Russia’s relative weakness, I suggest that this largely invalidates the analogy with Germany. (ii) While agreeing with Bramble that China is likely to follow a more belligerent path, I observe that, as of now, it has not. (iii) Certainly there may be a more aggressive quality to the behaviour of powers such as China and Russia, very obvious today and for the reasons Bramble gives, but, when we consider the world as a whole, and whether assessed over the last two or four or six decades, the greatest warmonger has been not a ‘lower-order’ autocracy but liberal-democratic America.

More guns than butter

I’ll begin with Russia’s imperialism and relative weakness. Although in theory a federation of equal republics, the USSR was converted into a vehicle of Russian empire. When the USSR fragmented it was not into equally sovereign states. Only one nation inherited the USSR’s imperial mantle, the others were born (or reborn) as lesser polities.

In ensuring this outcome, the western powers played an active part, notably through pressing for the removal of nuclear weaponry from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Ever since Hiroshima, nuclear capability has been the geopolitical trump card. Even for states with otherwise weak hands, it deters imperialist intervention. Russia, the USA and Britain were determined to prevent proliferation—ostensibly for pacific ends, in reality for imperialist ones. The fledgling Ukrainian government acquiesced.

Today, Russia’s imperialist status is based on its nuclear arsenal, its conventional forces and other military factors (arms sales etc), plus its permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Economically, by contrast, it sank. In the 1960s the USSR was the world’s #2 economy; by 2021 Russia had slipped to eleventh or lower. Between 1987 and 1993, its GDP fell by 40%—a slump considerably deeper than 1930s America. Life expectancy, having soared after WW2 and levelled off from the 1970s, now sank sharply. A nadir was reached in the late 1990s when Russia’s output (population 148m) was lower than London’s (population 7m). Despite the subsequent revival, its GDP, as of last year, was below Texas and on a par with such ‘sub-imperialist’ states as Brazil.

This was also a story of ‘reprimarisation’. In Romanov times, Russia exported primary goods (mostly organic produce: seeds, wheat, fats, timber and furs). In the mid-twentieth century it exported manufactures: machines, armaments, etc. Since 1970 the proportion of organic materials (mainly hydrocarbons) in the export basket has surged, reaching two-thirds of all goods exported in 2021 — and, of the remainder, other raw materials take a hefty slice.

Is this trajectory, in meaningful ways, analogous to that of Germany? Its ‘1991’ arrived in 1918, with abrupt ceding of territory and geopolitical sway. Nationalists in both cases burned with the humiliation. Western forces were influential in both. In Weimar Germany this centred on Versailles, reparations, and the ‘Carthaginian peace’ (against which Keynes famously inveighed).

In Russia it was along two vectors. One was the ‘structural adjustment’ programme that pitched Russia (and Ukraine) into a precipitous depression, ensuring that the disposal of state industries took the form of fire-sale privatisations, enriching a tiny layer of former bureaucrats beyond their wildest dreams while shrinking the economy and plunging the masses into penury. This was driven by local actors but Western economists and institutions were deeply complicit.

The other was Western encroachment into parts of Russia’s former empire, for instance with the US securing bases and mineral concessions across Central Asia. Accordingly, in post-1918 Germany and post-1991 Russia, nationalist ideology included a strongly anti-Western slant. But there is a decisive difference. In its productive power Germany ascended during the late nineteenth century and the Weimar period, leapfrogging Britain to become the world’s second economy (after the USA), and a highly sophisticated one at that. On this crucial axis, Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany took the opposite trajectory to post-1991 Russia.

Parenthetically I’d add one remark. Some suppose that to show awareness of Russia’s relative weakness and/or decline is to understate its imperialism. This is a non sequitur, as anti-imperialists in Britain well know. We who have protested Britain’s wars and interventions in this century are every bit as adamant as was, say, my grandmother, an activist in The Movement for Colonial Freedom back when London governed much of the world. A small crocodile dismembering a human is no prettier than its bigger brother doing the same.

Incremental revisionism

The analogy with Germany is more likely to fit China, given its economic rise. Bramble rightly points to the expansion of its blue-water navy, its encroachments among the Spratly and Paracel islands, and its escalating threats against Taiwan. With the sea lanes in its vicinity dominated by the US and allies, it will seek at some point to impose itself more forcefully.

In decades to come, these predictions may well be confirmed. As a capitalist (indeed in some respects an ultra-capitalist) state in an imperialist world the leading powers of which are anathematising it, we can predict that it will turn externally violent at some point, with a growing likelihood of proxy wars with the USA, or skirmishes, or worse. But the fact is, China has not been involved in a significant war since 1979 and has never exported its violence to other continents. It annexed Tibet and is enacting unspeakable horrors in Xinjiang but its preferred revisionist strategy, so far, has been incremental and not ‘revolutionary.’

Western power and Russia’s revisionist turn

Over the last half century China has not engaged in many major wars but Russia and the USA have—albeit usually under sanitised euphemisms (humanitarian intervention, surgical intervention, special military operation). During the Cold War, the USA was far and away the more belligerent of the pair. From 1945-65, it intervened militarily in Third World countries at least 168 times, against ten times by the USSR. The discrepancy continued into the following period, dominated by America’s war in Vietnam.

After that, it narrowed. The USSR/Russia waged wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria and now Ukraine, while the USA did likewise in Panama, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and various other ‘war on terror’ theatres.

Clearly, the USSR/Russia has been extremely bellicose, but within a limited range—even Syria is within a few hundred miles. In its overall level of bloodletting, with the world its stage and drawing dozens of allies into its adventures, the USA knows no rival—even though the balance has shifted markedly since the USSR, usually a ‘status quo’ power, imploded and birthed the much smaller but increasingly revisionist Russia.

Given that Russia showed no major signs of revisionism in the 1990s, we need to ask: what accounts for the turn? One set of factors is domestic. Having inherited the USSR’s imperial capabilities, norms and expectations, its ruling class chafed at its stunted condition. In a context of low social-movement activity and a straightjacketed democracy, a virulent nationalism thrived—both in officially engineered deflection from the 1990s social collapse and then in connection with the economic and military revival of the 2000s.

Another set of factors is international. In the 1990s, Russian leaders and diplomats explored forms of cooperation with the West. They followed western economic recipes to the letter, but the US and its allies instead pressed home their advantage, expanding Nato into former Soviet states, breaking promises galore along the way, and piling up more conflict kindling. The chorus of voices that, in echo of Keynes, warned that a ‘punitive post-Soviet Versailles settlement‘ might encourage a revanchist Russian nationalism were ignored.

Why didn’t the US and its allies offer fraternal inclusion to Russia? In defeat, Russia had rolled over, abandoning ‘communism’, embracing the IMF and the Washington Consensus—did all this not merit reward? Toward Russia’s ruling class rewards were given. They were ‘invited in’. But not the Russian state. That would have blurred imperialist lines. It would have thwarted the project of reinventing Nato after its putative purpose, defence against the Soviet Union, had disappeared. Instead, the perceived need, under the Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies, was to continue to push against Russia, with, as a crucial spin-off, the tethering of Europe within the US orbit and expanding positions through which to counter Chinese influence.

Back to the multipolar future?

Global imperialism, in Bramble’s analysis, has shifted from a multipolar order (early twentieth century) to bipolarity (Cold War) then unipolarity (1990s) and now back to multipolarity. As poles he lists ‘Russia, the US, China, India and the EU, each with its sphere of influence’. Each seeks ‘to grab a bigger share of world markets and power, arising from the competitive, dog-eat-dog dynamic of capitalism’. These poles are not equal in size or form. The US stands out in its hegemonic role. Its economic supremacy and ‘soft power’ afford it an array of non-military weapons to bring opponents and rivals into line.

This is I think an accurate depiction, not least regarding the uniqueness of the US ‘pole’. Of the world’s ten biggest economies, only China and India are not US allies. The EU is only a ‘pole’ economically; in security terms it’s a US ally. The US, in its role as a global rule setter, prevails through its domination of world money, finance, and international legal norms and practices. Through Nato and its various sister organisations, and through bilateral treaties, its alliances extend worldwide on a hub-and-spokes pattern.

When it invaded Iraq, a war just as evil and bloody and utterly unjustifiable as Russia’s in Ukraine, Washington could mobilise four dozen countries to take part. (Contrast with Russia’s sole ally in Belarus!) In the current economic war on Russia, the US has succeeded in orchestrating the world’s central banks, financial institutions and transnational corporations.

In the short-term the US has received a boost, thanks to the military headwinds confronting Russia, the legitimacy fillip for Nato, the EU’s resubordination, and the world’s tilt toward greater levels of militarisation — the domain in which the US excels. Germany is rearming with F-35s (and possibly jeopardising the independent EU alternative). Europe is turning to the US for its hydrocarbon supplies. Merkelism is dead.

In the medium term some of these processes could flip, with Germany’s militarisation contributing to an enhanced EU security identity, and Russia’s weakening pushing it into alliance with China. If the latter occurred without the former, the outcome would be a bipolar world. Either way, we can safely predict that, given continuing US hegemonic decline and global socio-economic polarisation, not to mention climate chaos, turbulent and war-wracked waters lie ahead.

Of the monsters that are feeding from war I’m particularly struck by the ubiquity of Orwellian doublethink. The Guardian has rightly condemned Russia’s censored media, commenting: ‘This is pure Orwell.’ Yet it later reported Gordon Brown’s call for Putin to be hauled before an international tribunal, oblivious to the glaring irony. Brown co-led Britain’s war on Iraq; he too should be arraigned and, unlike Putin, we can actually arrest him: he is freely walking our streets.

In Orwell’s 1984, doublethink derives from government brainwashing and popular conformism. Today’s versions draw their sustenance from nationalism (‘Gordon is on our team’), from racism (‘Arab/Muslim lives don’t matter’), and from jingoism (‘Only the Russians are war criminals’). In face of such doublethink on sections of the left, and, albeit smaller in scale, apologia for Russia’s invasion, Bramble’s contribution has provided a welcome stimulus to thinking through how to combine solidarity with Ukraine with building movements and coalitions to oppose imperialism and militarism in all its forms.

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