Putin’s war

Putin’s war on Ukraine has led to thousands of deaths, upended the world order, and intensified the global energy crisis. At home in Britain, it has led to an outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees – if not for black and brown people fleeing war and persecution – and provided cover for Keir Starmer to further crack down on the Left of Labour, from socialist MPs to Young Labour. Momentum spoke to international relations scholar David Wearing to understand the geopolitical interests at stake, the reactions of Western states, especially the UK, and how the Left in Britain can meaningfully engage in anti-imperialist struggle today. This interview forms part of Momentum’s series The Educator, a regular political education bulletin for the Left in Britain and beyond.

The views expressed within belong solely to the author and should not be taken to be representative of Momentum. Our full statement on the Ukraine war can be found here.

An interview

Momentum: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused untold devastation and loss of life. Evidence of fresh atrocities seem to emerge almost daily. Why has Vladimir Putin’s regime launched this war of aggression, in your opinion?

David Wearing: There’s a standard imperialist mentality at work. Moscow evidently regards Ukraine with a strong sense of entitlement; part of its sphere of influence in the same way that the United States has historically treated Latin America as its ‘backyard’ under the so-called ‘Monroe Doctrine‘, and sought to dominate the Middle East more recently. Reasserting substantive control over Russia’s near abroad has been an overriding strategic priority for Moscow since the mid-1990s at least.

Indeed, the guiding principle across two decades of Putin’s presidency has essentially been ‘Make Russia Great Again‘. His revanchist, authoritarian nationalism is a product of the 1990s, when Moscow lost its grip on many of its former Tsarist and Soviet possessions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and when the Russian economy imploded under neoliberal shock therapy. The ugly machismo of Putin’s rule is a backlash against all of this.

Then we get into the specifics of Ukraine, a huge strategic asset for both the Tsars and the Soviets when it was under their imperial yoke, before independence in 1991. It boasts some key industrial centres, an enormous agricultural capacity, and the naval port in Sevastopol allows Moscow to project military power through the Black Sea and beyond. Take all that into account, and any prospect of Ukraine leaving the Russian orbit to join the EU and NATO will clearly constitute a massive geopolitical loss as far as the Kremlin is concerned.

So the imperial logic is obvious, but it hardly adds up to a justification for war. Certainly not one you can sell to the Russian public as good reason to sacrifice their sons and daughters on the battlefield. Hence the various pretexts for the invasion that Putin has offered in terms of defending the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. We don’t need to detain ourselves with any of that. Every imperial aggressor throughout history has claimed to be acting on some noble, virtuous principle.

Aside from geopolitical motives, there’s been a palpable sense of hubris from Putin following previous military victories in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Syria. But this war has proved a major miscalculation, and the danger now is that — like the US in Vietnam and Afghanistan – he digs in for the long term rather than suffer the humiliation of accepting defeat. Given the sheer viciousness of the Russian campaign so far, this is not something that the people of Ukraine can afford.

M: In some senses, this war inaugurs a new multipolar world, with a US-led West, a rising China and, to a lesser extent, a revanchist Russia competing for power. Does the traditional anti-imperialist maxim ‘the main enemy is at home’ still hold?

DW: The imperial power we’re best placed to challenge effectively is, of course, the one on our own doorstep. So generally speaking, it makes practical sense to focus most of our activist efforts at home, as we have done in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, or in terms of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This doesn’t preclude us from recognising other imperial powers and their crimes, such as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Or from offering solidarity and support to those suffering at the hands of those other powers. All this flows naturally from the same anti-imperialist principles.

What do we mean by ‘imperialism’? Imperialism refers to the systematic violation, or overriding, of a people’s sovereignty, by an external power. Prior to the mid-twentieth century this was mostly synonymous with colonialism, i.e. direct rule from the imperial centre. Since then, imperial power has exerted itself more indirectly, through the cultivation of client elites, and through economic, diplomatic and military coercion. Direct military aggression is increasingly treated as a last resort. But since violence is inherent to imperialism, such criminal acts are never far away.

So in the modern era, we find imperialism in the US-led invasion of Iraq, but also in the West’s active support for regimes crushing popular demands for freedom, from Egypt to Bahrain and Palestine. We find it in the IMF forcing distressed economies to open themselves up to Western investors on deeply exploitative terms. We find it too in Moscow’s propping up of the Assad regime in Syria, and in its bloody subjugation of Chechnya back when Putin enjoyed the West’s fulsome support. We should also be wary of an incipient imperialism growing out of Beijing. It’s unlikely that China will be any less willing than the Western powers before it to deploy imperial violence in pursuit of its international economic ambitions.

Now if all this sounds daunting, remember that imperialism is far from invulnerable. The late twentieth century saw a string of huge reversals for the imperial powers, including humiliating defeats for the Americans, the Soviets, the British and the French. Compare a political map of the world in the mid-twentieth century to one at the end of the century, and you’ll see the scale of what was achieved.

So anti-imperialism is a global project. And while the precise way we pursue it depends on the country we live in, we need to think more as a left about how we develop mutually enabling ties with people involved in that struggle elsewhere in the world, including in Eastern Europe. We also need to think positively about what sort of international system we want instead of, or after, imperialism. What specifically should these systems of violence and exploitation be replaced with? And what are the concrete strategies and practical steps that will take us from here to there? I offered some initial thoughts on what a socialist UK foreign policy might look like in a 2016 article for Soundings. And there were some really strong elements in the foreign policy section of Labour’s 2019 manifesto. But we need a sustained, collective effort to develop this further and build support for it.

M: Over the last couple of months, the question of NATO’s role in the lead-up to the war has been a major source of contention in the Labour Party and the wider British left, with Keir Starmer exploiting his power to make critiques of NATO a disciplinary offence, and silencing his critics on the left accordingly. Clearly, responsibility for this heinous violence lies first and foremost with Putin and the Russian state. But it’s also worth asking what role, in the long-term, has NATO played in getting us to this point? And how should we relate to it going forward?

DW: There’s been a debate within the US foreign policy establishment about the wisdom of expanding NATO going back over a quarter of a century . One side (the old conservatives and Cold War veterans) argued that expanding the alliance too far into Russia’s former sphere of influence would raise tensions between Washington and Moscow to a dangerous degree. The other side (the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives of the post-Cold War era) argued that Washington’s interests lay in opening the alliance up to any state that wanted to join. At least initially, it was the latter group that got their way.

This is a debate among imperialists about the best policy for Washington to adopt versus Moscow in its own imperial interests. So it’s been a little odd to see the anti-expansionist position in that debate being portrayed in recent weeks as ‘pro-Moscow’. Take the US diplomat George Kennan, who argued in 1997 that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era”, which would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion [and] restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations”. Back in the 1940s, Kennan had been one of the key intellectual architects of Washington’s entire Cold War strategy toward the USSR. It’s a sign of the depths to which the current debate has degenerated that even the sort of analysis offered by people like him is now routinely denounced as apologia for Putin.

For myself, I can see some logic in the arguments made by these old conservatives of the US foreign policy establishment. Clearly they are attempting to explain, rather than excuse, their imperial adversary’s response to the expansion of NATO. And clearly some of their predictions have come true. However, as socialist anti-imperialists we have our own language and frames of reference which are much more analytically useful than some of the shoddy euphemisms of the grand strategists. For example, we should dispense with talk of Russia’s ‘security concerns’ as a ‘great power’, and instead refer more frankly and accurately to Russia’s imperial ambitions in places like Ukraine. The term ‘security’ is one that mostly has an obfuscatory effect in political discourse. Imperialists may see control over neighbouring countries as a matter of security, even ‘defence ‘, but the rest of us don’t have to indulge that.

We also need to think beyond how imperial powers should best manage competition over their respective spheres of interest. A better question for us might be, how can West, Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia, be made into a common home rather than a geopolitical battleground? This is likely a question for a post-Putin world, but we should start thinking about it now. If we’re lucky enough at some point in the future to enjoy another historical moment of détente between the West and Russia, and another interlocutor in Moscow like Mikhail Gorbachev, then we should seize that moment to build a durable peace, rather than squander it a second time.

M: It’s often said that these debates about NATO expansion obscure the agency of the states that joined NATO after the Cold War ended. What do you make of that argument?

DW: I think it has some merit. Clearly the United States wasn’t the only party with agency here. Many states in Central and Eastern Europe actively sought NATO membership, and for obvious reasons given their history with Russia. But states do not have equal agency in the international system. That’s not a matter of disrespect, it’s a matter of fact. NATO didn’t expand simply because the new members wanted to join. It expanded ultimately because the US — as the most powerful state by an enormous margin – chose that policy in its own imperial interests. The policy was chosen not because policymakers in Washington were waking up in the middle of the night worrying about the security of Latvia. These are people who have shown total contempt for state sovereignty, human security, and the rule of international law whenever it has suited them.

NATO is an alliance of sovereign states, each with their own agency and interests. It is both understandable and legitimate that certain states will see life under the US umbrella as a desirable security guarantee against Moscow. But it is also a US-led alliance, not a partnership of equals. And its ultimate purpose, as such, is to project US power into Europe. We would do well not to kid ourselves about that.

M: For years NATO has been struggling for a sense of purpose. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has undergone something of a rejuvenation, with Western leaders seeing an opportunity regain moral authority. What should we make of these developments?

DW: We’re being told a couple of different stories in the mainstream discourse. Let’s take each of them in turn. The first says that an authoritarian power, Russia, has launched a war of aggression against a democratic state, Ukraine. That part is undoubtedly true. The second says that the NATO powers are now engaged in a principled struggle in defence of democracy and the ‘rules based international order’. This part is a fairytale.

Take one small example. At the end of March, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken posed for photos grinning and holding hands with his counterparts from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and the UAE. Let’s pick out a few of those. Bahrain is an absolute monarchy which violently crushed a mass pro-democracy movement in 2011. The Egyptian regime came to power in a military coup in 2013, when it massacred hundreds of its political opponents. Israel’s colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories is a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and its systematic racist oppression of the Palestinian people amounts to ‘apartheid’, a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

These are among the West’s closest allies, recipients of billions of dollars’ worth of arms from the US, the UK and others, not to mention decades of sustained diplomatic backing. We find a similar picture when we look at the alliances Western power has consistently cultivated elsewhere in the Global South. And this is before we get to the long record of direct aggression and wartime atrocities, from Vietnam to Iraq.

The NATO-Russia antagonism can only credibly be seen as an inter-imperialist rivalry – as it is widely regarded in the Global South – not a Manichean clash of good versus evil. No doubt Russian state violence is even more gratuitous than that perpetrated by the Western powers. Its domestic system is very different. And that authoritarianism allows for a level of violence abroad that the Western states would find harder to get away with politically. But it’s hardly the defining qualitative difference that NATO’s cheerleaders would like to imagine. Note the recent comments from the leading international lawyer, Philippe Sands, who advocates setting up a special international tribunal to prosecute Russia for launching a war of aggression against Ukraine. He identifies Western governments as a key potential obstacle to this, due to their “fear of precedent… fear of being hauled up before some [similar] tribunal” themselves in the future.

M: So that’s the Western meta-narrative around the confrontation with Russia. What about the West’s approach to the Ukraine war itself?

DW: The fact that the Western powers find themselves on the right side of the Ukraine war is a reflection of imperial interests and expediency not some high moral principle. They perceive a clear geopolitical advantage to be gained either from a Ukrainian victory or at least a Russian military failure. Support comes in the form of arms supplies to Ukraine and sanctions against Moscow, but a no-fly zone or some other direct intervention has thankfully been ruled out so far, due to the entirely rational fear that this would trigger World War Three.

There’s been no groundswell of opposition to this from the left, and rightly so. Ukraine has no option but to defend itself militarily, it has the right to do so, and it has the right to seek the means of self-defence from the only sources credibly able to provide it, namely Russia’s Western adversaries. None of this is complicated and most of us understand it.

But given the nature of Western power we are understandably wary. We are wary of sanctions having a devastating effect on the Russian population, and without seriously hurting the regime. We are wary of any escalation into a direct NATO-Russia war, which would be utterly catastrophic. And we are deeply concerned about a new age of militaristic rivalry between an Atlantic bloc and a Eurasian bloc, fueled by nationalistic chauvinism on both sides. We need to be ready to push back hard on all of these dangers.

Already in the past few weeks we’ve seen US President Biden announce huge additional spending on nuclear weapons. Experts have long warned that upgrading and renewing nuclear arsenals makes the world less, nor more safe. We can expect a serious rise in military spending in the UK, and in Germany as well, where decades of foreign policy have been torn up. It’s really important that we stand by our anti-militarist principles in this moment. That doesn’t mean an absolutist form of pacifism, but it does mean an insistence that people recognise that arms races inflame rather than guard against the danger of military conflict

Finally, in the prevailing atmosphere of machismo, we need to ensure people don’t forget the non-military, humanitarian dimension. That means demanding swift and safe paths to entry for Ukrainian refugees (as part of our wider demand for a complete change in UK border policy). It means aid for displaced Ukrainians wherever they might be. And it means any other economic measures that might help, such as cancelling Ukraine’s national debt to support its recovery whenever the war finally ends.

M: Boris Johnson recently visited Saudi Arabia to press for an increase in oil production. How does the West’s relationship with the Saudi regime fit into this wider picture?

DW: Saudi Arabia is a two-word refutation of the claim that the NATO powers are engaged in a principled defence of democracy and the ‘rules based international order’. The Saudi military campaign in Yemen since 2015 has been characterised by systematic violations of international law, repeated atrocities, and a blockade that has helped create one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. The US and UK have provided practical support throughout that has actively sustained this campaign, opening themselves up to war crimes charges.

It is deeply racist of people in the political mainstream to treat the lives and deaths of tens of thousands of Yemenis (and Iraqis, Egyptians, Palestinians and Vietnamese) as irrelevant to their assessment of the nature of Western power in the world. If we’re entering a new age of NATO-Russia confrontation then we need to have a serious, fact-based critique of both sides, not just one.

M: What gives you hope right now?

DW: Russian anti-war protestors and Ukrainian civilians resisting Russian occupation are both enormously inspiring. I’m reminded of the millions in the Middle East who took to the streets to confront the US and Russian backed regimes in the region back in 2011. The Ukrainian political economist Yuliya Yurchenko, currently in the west of the country, speaks of being heartened by a palpable sense of “nationwide solidarity and mobilization [in] an all-out popular resistance”. Human beings have a phenomenal capacity for bravery, empathy and resolve in the face of injustice. We shouldn’t allow the cruelties of war to obscure that.

David Wearing is an expert on UK foreign relations, and the author of ‘AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain‘. He is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London, and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton.

READING RECOMMENDATIONS

Momentum NCG statement on the Russian invasion.

Interview with Dr. Yuliya Yurchenko, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Greenwich, and author of ‘Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketization to Armed Conflict’.

A Jacobin interview with a Ukrainian socialist on the crisis; and another on its global impacts

Professor of Peace Studies Paul Rogers for Novara Media on what it would take to end the war

Expert analysis on the dangers of military escalation, from International Crisis Group

Richard Seymour for the New Left Review on how the UK political and media classes are using the war to rehabilitate the ‘moral West’

Podcasts & Video

The Dig interview with Sophie Pinkham and Nick Mulder

Novara Media interview with Russia expert Anatol Lieven

Grace Blakeley interviews David Wearing for A World To Win, on the energy crisis caused by the war, and the wider implications for geopolitics and globalisation.

Thanks for reading everyone – and thanks again to David Wearing for talking with us.

Any feedback you have on the bulletin and ideas for how we can make it better are much appreciated. Email [email protected] with your thoughts.

In solidarity.

Casper, Momentum