Return of the Gendarme

In this guest post, KIRILL BUKETOV of the Global Labour Institute in Geneva comments on the nature of Russian imperialism. (Note: a gendarmerie is a military force that carries out police duties among civilian populations.)

Stalinists of all hues and colours are falling over themselves to praise Russia’s course of action in Ukraine as an attempt to restore the Soviet Union, or create an altogether new

The gendarme’s logic at work: “Punish, and let others beware”. This was the motto of the 19th century Russian emperors when they sent punitive troops to Europe

The gendarme’s logic at work: “Punish, and let others beware”. This was the motto of the 19th century Russian emperors when they sent punitive troops to Europe

entity capable of opposing the might of the USA and the imperialism of western Europe. Their arguments smack of nothing but sheer stupidity.

What Vladimir Putin has done in south eastern Ukraine simply put Russia back some 200 years and restored the country’s status as the “gendarme of Europe” – which the Russian Empire achieved back in the 19th century after sending a 140,000-strong punitive corps to crush the democratic revolution of 1848-1849 in Hungary.

The ruling elites of the West and the East try to use the conflict to their benefit. While western imperialism is quite pragmatic, motivated by the desire to secure its control over resources, the rationale of Russian imperialism is fundamentally different. Russia does not need control over somebody else’s resources – it is quite content with those it has internally. But in order to be able to go on controlling them and disposing of them as it pleases, the Russian oligarchical elite requires a strictly authoritarian rule. Anything that threatens to undermine the regime is, therefore, suppressed, quickly and ruthlessly – be it the freedom of the press, a movement for fair elections, or the right of NGOs to operate freely. And emergence in the immediate geographical proximity of alternative systems – states whose governance is based on democracy – undermines Putin’s regime, for they can sustain and inspire the dissident movement and popular unrest inside the country.

This is why Russia provides huge loans to Aleksandr Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime in Belarus, and severely punishes those countries where it suspects the beginnings of democratic rule. Thus, in its time, Moldova was punished with the secession of Transdniester. Then, more recently, Georgia paid with the annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and now the Ukrainian Maidan has been punished with the loss of Crimea.

At the same time, Russia does not have much use for those territories. It has more than its fair share of economically depressed areas of its own. It is the gendarme’s logic at work: “Punish, and let others beware!” … and weaken – so that without the annexed territories the democratic state would be unable to build a sustainable economy, so that – heavens forbid – no uncorrupt, free, and democratic state could appear at the borders of dirty-faced Russia.

That is the logic followed by Russian emperors of the 19th century when they sent punitive troops to Europe. Their Stalinist successors followed the same logic when they suppressed people’s uprisings in eastern and central Europe in the 20th century – although the USSR, at least in its rhetoric, tried to picture itself as a non-capitalist society. Today’s Russia can in no way be seen as an alternative to the capitalist system. It is different from the major capitalist powers only in the monstrous levels of workers’ superexploitation supported by the blatantly repressive system of labour relations.

First published in Russian on the Ukrainian web site Left Opposition


10 Responses to Return of the Gendarme

  1. Keith says:

    I see that this is a translation of a Russian Left Opposition article. What it doesn’t do of course is say what Ukrainian workers should do about the Nationalist coalition that has seized power in Kiev and its violent military repression against opposition in east Ukraine. The assumption us made that they want Russia to come in to support them, but that us a minority view. Most want to stay in Ukraine, but be rid of the nationalist cabal dividing their country.. Oppose war, certainly, but what about solidarity with the workers of the Donbass region in their struggle against the nationalists?

  2. Gabriel Levy says:

    Thanks Keith. Just to clarify, the article was written in Russian, by a Russian, on the Left Opposition web site that is run by Ukrainian socialists in Kyiv. As for workers in the Donbass region, I tried to write about some of their reactions to the issues in previous articles, such as this one
    And another point: it’s true that there is “military repression against opposition in east Ukraine”, but that “opposition” is a very heterogenous phenomenon – workers such as those you mention on one hand, heavily-armed men in camouflage gear on the other hand. There has been a huge amount of material in the Russian and Ukrainian press about the way that the Russian state and nationalist groups are supporting and financing this latter group of people. It’s difficult to know the details from where I’m standing, but you’d have to be even more gullible than me to think there wasn’t a strong degree of Russian state involvement, in line with the statements of Russian politicians from Putin downwards.

  3. Keith says:

    The US state department and Kiev Intelligence chief (Parubiy, founder of the National Socialist Party of Ukraine) have yet to come up with any credible proof of their allegations that the eastern Ukrainian opposition is controlled and manipulated by Putin etc, perhaps you can enlighten us as to your sources.

  4. Gabriel Levy says:

    Keith, I don’t think we disagree about workers’ movements being part of the picture in eastern Ukraine, but I think you’re displaying a surprising naivete about Russian involvement. The Ukrainian government HAVE produced stuff which, if it is not completely invented, constitutes credible proof of Russian involvement, e.g. Russian citizens arrested, people who they (the Ukrainians) say are Russian agents arrested. Obviously I don’t know the truth of these stories and I’m well aware of the role of propaganda in military conflict. But there are other things that you and I can see on TV: the Russian foreign minister comparing the situation to South Ossetia; numerous statements by leaders of the armed separatists (who are distinct from the workers you refer to) about the support they are receiving from Russia; boasts by Russian nationalists about the material and financial support they are giving to the separatists. What do you think that’s all about? And by the way where do you think all the heavy weaponry comes from? I’m not saying this is nothing more than a Russian plot, or that there is no social basis for various complicated things – including worker protest – happening in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian media is not saying that either; the Ukrainian left is not saying that either. But people including me are saying that there is clearly Russian POLITICAL support for the armed separatists (as distinct from protesting workers) and that there is lots and lots of circumstantial evidence – and I agree with you, no absolutely 100% clear evidence, not that I know of anyway – of Russian MATERIAL support. Oh yes, and there is the annexation of Crimea and thousands of Russian troops sat on the Ukrainian border doing exercises. What do you think that’s all about? As for the character of the opposition in eastern Ukraine, I think it as complicated a mixture of right and left, nationalist and other stuff, as was the movement on Maidan square – although, as yet, it is nowhere near so deep a movement in social terms. But just read Jarko Koshiw’s article about the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (I linked to it from one of my other articles). Or look at Anton Shekhovtsev’s blog about the influence of Nazism in eastern Ukraine. This really isn’t two sided. Are we going to make a judgment about what Putin is playing at in eastern Ukraine based on what Parubiy says, or based on all the evidence put together and considered?

  5. Keith says:

    Heavy weaponry? Any more than the Right Sector has lifted from arms dumps etc? The police in most of these eastern towns have either stood aside or joined the self defenders. One policemen was killed in yesterday’s Kiev attack on road checks. I read that in Slaviansk the local self defenders were guarding the entrance of an old salt mine where no less than 3.5 m old weapons, going back to WW2, were stored, to prevent the Right Sector getting their hands on them. They also have of course 6 APCs surrendered to them last week. The acquiring of weapons is NOT proof they were supplied by Russia. There’s a lot of ‘mind reading’ going on that passes for political analysis. The nature of the would-be dictators in Kiev, their backers, their clear tactic to divide Ukrainians along nationalist lines and the policies they want to impose should be enough to understand the rebellion against them. Take a look at what is also happening in Venezuala, the same pattern of US destabilisation etc that we have seen, in one country after another. Do I have to list them?

  6. tompainesghost says:

    I think the statement reported today by a self-described “Russian colonel”, Igor Strelkov, clarifies the issue of Russian involvement. According to the Guardian, he “admitted that the pro-Russia military unit in the town was put together in Crimea. He claimed there were locals too, as well as volunteers from other parts of Ukraine. All had military experience, and were veterans of wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and elsewhere, he said.”
    There are local people taking part, on either side, but what they are involved in is a proxy conflict between the EU and US on one hand, and Russia on the other. Patrick Cockburn has an excellent article in the Independent making this very point, by analogy to the Middle East.
    There is also, I believe, a parallel to the intervention by billionaires in elections in the US. Look at Wisconsin, for example: it also was divided politically, and had been for many years, but became ideologically polarized over governor Walker’s assault on public-sector unions. There were local issues, but his legislative attack was encouraged and backed by right-wing national groups financed by the US plutocracy. The campaign to recall Walker then became a proxy for national political interests. Likewise the UAW attempt to unionize Volkswagen in Kentucky.
    The same sort of ideological polarization seems to be happening in the Ukraine, as Gabriel’s articles indicate, fueled by incessant propaganda from both sides. This is what socialists are up against there; in my view the important thing is to maintain a perspective on what is happening.

  7. tompainesghost says:

    Just to be clear: perspective is necessary in order to assert at every possible opportunity the political independence of the working class. And, sorry, I meant to say VW in Tennessee, not Kentucky.

  8. […] Il ruolo dell’élite russa è stato giustamente descritto come quello di un gendarme (si veda qui). Si tratta a mia opinione della definizione migliore per comprendere perché abbia perseguito la […]

  9. […] them) were somehow furthering “anti-fascist” or “anti-imperialist” ends. (For example here, here and here.) Some people who made such ludicrous claims were less interested in what was actually […]

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