‘The Russian empire is failing in its own way’

A conversation between Simon Pirani and Anthony McIntyre about the Russian war on Ukraine. Reposted, with thanks, from The Pensive Quill

Anthony McIntyre: You have a long-time immersion in Left politics. We know each other almost forty years. On my first trip to London in 1995 you and I visited the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. I have always held to the descriptive potency of Marxism while finding it prescriptively impotent. I distrust the doctrinaire. Whatever about any differences that may exist in our respective outlooks, we continue to view the world broadly through a Marxian lens, which should help anchor the following exchange in Leftist ground. 

Kharkiv, after the Russian assault. Photo from Ukrainska Pravda

You have been writing and commenting a lot about Russia’s war on Ukraine. TPQ runs two or three pieces weekly from People And Nature in the hope of informing the debate and I suppose to some extent shaping it. We would both agree that the Russian offensive war is the supreme international crime. Yet, we have some on the Left – we expect it from the Right – claiming neutrality, adopting the Kissingerian posture during the Iran-Iraq war that it is a pity both sides can’t lose. I suspect in many cases that is a form of cover for their real sympathies probably lying with the Kremlin. They tend to be old tankies who subscribed to the Brezhnev Doctrine and for whatever convoluted reason think this is the same doctrine served up in a modern dish.

Eric Draitser describes much of this as the “fraudulent narratives of the Kremlin disinformation army on the Left.” How do you feel upon observing people on the Left opting out of supporting Ukrainian society in its struggle to essentially survive in face of a military onslaught from a right-wing capitalist authoritarian state?

Simon Pirani: I used to think that the western political establishment blamed the “Kremlin disinformation army” for things that were really its own fault. For example, it blamed Russian cyberwarfare for Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 US election to a quasi-fascist clown – whereas that was largely the result of decades of class warfare by the Democratic Party against working-class people, and blacks in particular, in the US, which eroded what electoral support it had from them. The war in Ukraine has made me rethink this, partly because this “disinformation army” is much closer at hand for me.

At the beginning of April I posted a piece on my blog written by my friend Anatoly Dubovik, a historian of anarchism who lives in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine. I have known him for nearly as long as I have known you! I first visited his home when I travelled to Dnipro (then called Dnepropetrovsk) in 1991, with some socialist friends of mine from Moscow. In his article, Anatoly addressed the issue of the massacres by the Russian army in Bucha, Irpin and other towns near Kyiv. He wanted to explain how Russian soldiers could do these things. He gave the example of a woman he had spoken to himself, from Melitopol, a town in south-eastern Ukraine that has been under Russian occupation for a month. She saw two Russian soldiers get out of their vehicle and shoot dead, without warning or explanation, a family of four, who were her neighbours. Anatoly explained the circumstances, and showed how there was no question of this family being a threat to these soldiers, being armed, or anything else. But they were executed in cold blood.

The piece appeared on my blog with a note at the end saying that Anatoly is “an anarchist since 1989”. A comrade of mine in the UK circulated the piece on his social media. I was pretty shocked to see the comments this provoked, from working class people who no doubt think of themselves as “Leftists”. Some suggested that Anatoly – a long-standing, publicly visible anti-fascist in a country where that is no easy existence – is some sort of friend of fascists. Others questioned whether the massacres in Bucha and Irpin had been carried out by the Russian army at all. As you know, they were, and there is 100% watertight proof of that. But the “disinformation army” has done its work. The effect is to invoke an inhuman, even dehumanised response, to the reality being lived by Anatoly and the working-class community of which he is part, and to undermine the most basic solidarity between working-class people, which should be the bedrock of any socialist opposition to the war. Clearly, this response is out of line with the predominant response of most ordinary people in most European countries, which is of sympathy with their fellow human beings in Ukraine. Any so called “Left” that fosters such inhumanity is anathema to me.

AM: You have met one of my union colleagues before while in Dublin. He, myself and a number of other members of the local branch turned up at the Russian Embassy on Dublin’s appropriately named Orwell Road in protest against the war. Along with a younger member of the union I held the union’s banner, and the photo of us doing so was put on social media by my wife. Nobody in the union got hot under the collar about it although there may be a few who hold different views on the war. The Laptop Liberation Army then stuck a blow for freedom by suggesting we supported the Nazis, NATO or both. Just telling you this has brought the first smile of the day! I am so used to running the gauntlet lined by keyboard commandos that it is water off a duck, but I felt some concern for my young colleague who might not have experienced that type of hate-smear tactic before. 

At the same time there are others on the Left who I am very friendly with but for whom the Nazi and NATO aspect is not a smear but a genuinely held belief. They don’t accuse people protesting the war of supporting Nazis or NATO but do feel that the role of both has been airbrushed out of the dominant narrative. 

For now, I would like to tease out the NATO element a little. While the supreme international crime of aggressive war is unpardonable, how Russia eventually came to inflict it on Ukraine merits some exploration. It needs stated that NATO is not attacking Ukraine, Russia is. I am currently reading a work by authors who are neither Tankies nor Leftoids and who therefore cannot be easily dismissed in the manner that Young Earth Creationists can be shooed away –Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia by Samuel Charap and Timothy J. Colton. Read in conjunction with Keith Gessen’s Guardian Long Read piece (Mentioning the Guardian reminds of arriving at the office of the paper one Sunday evening on my return from Oxford to meet you there after what was for you a long shift) Was it inevitable? A short history of Russia’s war on Ukraine, we can see the emergence of a compelling case for Russia having genuine concerns that it long protested about in dialectical tensions with a White House-driven contempt for Kremlin misgivings. Basically, the West did what it wanted, built a security architecture not to mention a political and economic one, that excluded and isolated Russia.

At times the one solid conclusion to arrive at is that Russia was humiliated by Western arrogance and insensitivity, even if not by design. John Stoessinger from the Realist school held that a nation’s power may depend in considerable measure on what other nations think it is, even on what it thinks other nations think it is. And if a state’s leaders are humiliated this is seen as an erosion of its power. So, in that sense I wonder if insufficient emphasis is given to that power differential.

I have read your views of the NATO dimension. You don’t dismiss Western perfidy but feel it falls far short of a plausible explanation for the war on Ukraine. You emphasise a combination of the strong state and the resurgence of the Russian imperial project. Implicit in your analysis is that NATO expansionism is an excuse rather than a reason and that it is as bogus describing the war as a special military operation.

SP: First, we have to discount the effect of the Kremlin’s propaganda. Its purpose is to justify the invasion not only to people in Russia – where it is now going from difficult to impossible to access alternative sources of news – but also to select audiences in the West. These audiences include not only the populist Right, who love Putin, but also people in the global south, and in the so-called “Left” in Europe, who rightly despise and distrust the western powers, on account of their criminal activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and with respect to Palestine, and are rightly suspicious of our own governments’ arguments. When I say “propaganda” I mean not only the blatant lies, e.g. that Russian soldiers did not perpetrate the massacres at Bucha, Irpin and Mariupol, but also the constant drip-feed of misrepresentation about the causes of the war, which started not this year but in 2014.

One misrepresentation is that NATO intended to use Ukraine as an attack dog against Russia. A few minutes’ serious thought on this shows that it is nonsense. NATO has avoided, or failed, to offer Ukraine a Membership Action Plan. The thing the western powers could have given Ukraine, that it really wanted, to ensure its loyalty, was EU membership – but NATO countries including France and Germany used their political power in the EU to make sure that never happened. Another misrepresentation is that NATO armed Ukraine to the teeth. It is doing its best to do so now. But before the invasion in February it made very sure that Ukraine had no offensive weapons with which to attack Russia.

Once you take away these misrepresentations, and look at the NATO-Russia relationship as a whole, it becomes clear that over the last two decades and more – despite their own claims to the contrary – the Western powers have essentially allowed Russia to act as a gendarme for capital in its sphere of influence. In 2000-02, the Western powers welcomed the murderous Russian war on Chechnya that cemented Putin’s position as president. In 2008, they hinted to Georgia that they would support it against Russia, but went missing when Georgia started military action. This showed that they wanted to allow Russia some space, but to limit that.

After the annexation of Crimea and support for the Donbass separatists in 2014, sanctions were imposed – but only with regard to Crimea, because annexing other countries’ territory was at the edges of what NATO powers were prepared to allow Putin to do. But the mountain of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, committed by and supported by Russia in 2015-16, went unchallenged by NATO powers. So NATO was using Russia – on terms the Kremlin disliked, no doubt. But that’s what is was doing. And it wasn’t expanding much: in the 18 years since 2004, NATO has only brought in four small Balkan countries.

You mention Russia being humiliated by Western arrogance and insensitivity. No doubt there have been bucket-loads of that. When I worked as a financial journalist covering Russian business, in the early 2000s, I often had to deal with Western bankers and businessmen who oozed contempt for their Russian counterparts. But that surely can’t explain what goes on between states. Heads of state who hate each other’s guts have always managed to make deals.

You say the West built a security architecture that excluded Russia, and that’s absolutely true. And if anyone thought the Western multilateral institutions were designed to bring about peace and happiness, they would see this as a missed opportunity. I just don’t think that’s the way capitalism works. I think that in the 1990s Russia was integrated into the world economy as a secondary power, a supplier of raw materials. Putin has tried to compensate for that fundamental economic weakness with military strength. The Western powers bought the raw materials, welcomed the oligarchs into their financial systems, and after 2014 warned Russia not to overstep the mark. Now it has overstepped the mark, and there is a serious conflict. The relationship has changed. But the people who are getting killed are citizens of Russia’s oldest colony, targets of unprovoked aggression. Their involvement in the 2014 overthrow of Yanukovych, whatever its pros and cons, scared the Kremlin, just like revolts in Ireland always scared the Brits. It looks like a monstrous, one-sided imperialist invasion, because that’s what it is.

AM: In ways that is a firm rebuttal of the PR reasons given for the Russian invasion. What do you think is the real reason behind the invasion? I know you make the point above that somewhere in the mix is a need to compensate with military power in a bid to act as a counter balance to the economic asymmetry. But I am not sure that Russia can actually assert that power through invasion when its real military power lies in its nuclear arsenal, the use of which is heavily circumscribed despite Putin huffing and puffing. Militarily, the Russians have been left badly exposed as not being as efficient as previously thought.

Elsewhere, you have suggested that the invasion is a form of imperialist expansionism. I think the problem the Left might have with that is that while it is expansionism it does not seem to be imperialism in the sense traditionally viewed by the Left: Might the Mao concept of hegemonism not fit better than imperialism? It seeks to explain that a country can try to dominate other countries, even turning them into vassal states, without having an identifiable imperialist objective at least in the sense that Marxists have traditionally defined imperialism Hegemonism would not make Russia any less malign. it merely explains the cause differently rather than more benignly.

Jim Larkin: sought the defeat of British imperialism

SP: Well, before I say any more, please let’s tell your readers that I am no theorist of imperialism! Having said that, I’ll say that imperialism as traditionally understood by the Left probably doesn’t exist anywhere any more. If there is a “traditional” understanding, I suppose it’s the one formed in the revolutionary upsurge at the end of the first world war. There was a deep split in the socialist movement between those who had supported their “own” ruling classes in the war – in particular, the German Social Democrats, who at that time had the biggest and best-organised working class political party in the world – and those who, like the Bolsheviks in Russia, hoped for the defeat of their “own” imperialism, in order to hasten the prospect of revolution.

This latter group, which of course included James Connolly and Jim Larkin in Ireland, and John Maclean in Scotland, shared a belief in revolutionary action against empire, and in the potentially revolutionary character of national liberation struggles. This view was inherited by many socialists in the late twentieth century. There were many cases where the idea that national liberation struggles had revolutionary potential was exaggerated to the point where socialists became blinded to the way in which the bourgeois classes in small nations were bound into the global financial and economic system. Think of South Africa, for example.

While my generation of socialists were doing our best to understand, and support, those national liberation struggles, the nature of imperialism was changing. After the second world war, the old empires based on colonial rule were falling apart, and the most powerful empire of all, the US one, grew by combining economic and financial dominance with military interventions. The other empires have adapted, or failed to adapt, to this model. I’d say the British empire has largely failed, to the point where our ridiculous flag-waving British prime minister, by fluffing up the Brexit negotiations, has done a great deal to undo Britain’s control over its oldest colony, Ireland.

The Russian empire is failing in its own way. I’d say that the Soviet Union, while suppressing key economic features of capitalism, politically pulled most of the Russian empire back together again, after a brief hiatus caused by the revolution. By the late 1920s Russia’s oldest colony, Ukraine – along with Russia’s Caucasian and central Asian colonies – was back in what socialists had called the “prisonhouse of nations”, reconfigured. Finland escaped. So did the Baltic states – only to be incorporated into the Soviet Union thanks to a deal between its leaders and Nazi Germany in 1939.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalism returned – unobstructed, unregulated, and in Russia’s case, in a very parasitic form. So Putin’s imperialism is not about economic dominance of its neighbours. He has actually shown little interest in that. Central Asia is now much more dependent on China, and to a lesser extent the US; Ukraine and the Baltics are increasingly dependent on Europe economically. In my view, Putin’s imperialism is about three things: military strength, including the nukes that you mention; social control, both in Russia and the neighbouring territories; and ideology. The ideology is about the “Russian world”, as reflected both in Putin’s speeches about Ukraine not being a country, and the stuff about hunting down internal enemies. It’s lurching towards something that in my view increasingly resembles fascism.

I am not sure whether this fits with the idea of “hegemonism” you mentioned. I think it’s best to first understand what’s going on, and then see if the terms fit.

If anyone wants to know my view in more detail, I tried to develop it in these articles: Ukraine: the sources of danger of a wider war, and Solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance: six questions.

AM: While being wary of the manner in which fascist is used as a label to smear opponents, I find the authoritarian tendencies within the Russian state so pronounced that if we employ a continuum, as a society it seems much closer to fascism than Ukraine is. It is further along the spectrum. I also take your point that much of the support, sympathy, sneaking regard – whatever we choose to call it – in the West for the Russian war on Ukraine seems to come from the Regressive Left and the Reactionary Right. Cheeks of the same authoritarian derriere, I suppose. People wearing T-Shirts proclaiming Stalin Didn’t Kill Enough, are hardly going to be repelled by the Kremlin massacring Ukrainians by the thousand. 

I have noticed that one of the favourite smear tactics is to label people supporting Ukraine’s right not to be subject to what Chomsky using the language of Nuremburg, termed the supreme international crime, is to claim that they are supporting Nazis, something I referred to above. This seems both an intellectually impoverished and implausible position to articulate. It leaves its proponents sounding like a secular version of those deranged Christians who scream sinner at people who don’t share their views. Even when the Chinese Capitalist Party in true Orwellian fashion calls itself the Chinese Communist Party, there are those who profess for some inexplicable reason to believe it. 

I have had this type of exchange with a long time Communist friend, and I have made the point – which he vigorously disputes – that it is the authoritarianism rather than the ideological tenets that draws them like moths to the flame. While I no more listen to old incorrigible Tankies venting about international relations than I listen to old celibate priests pontificating about sex, I am tuned into the progressive Left’s concern about the institutionalising of Nazi culture, symbolism, and the incorporation of the Nazi regiment into the state armed forces. Azov sends a shudder through me and for some on the Left this is a red line they will not cross.

I don’t believe Putin is serious about denazifying Ukraine. If you listen to the comments made on the state controlled media and in the Duma advocating nuclear war, it sort of lets you know where the Nazis are. The Nazis get a shot in the arm each time the Kremlin interferes or encourages a crackdown. There is a far right problem in Ukraine that Western media has given insufficient emphasis to. At the same time there is a far right inb Russia which  Michael Colborne of Bellingcat has homed in on. Ironically, I think the one person in the world most interested in seeing Azov grow because of the war is Vladimir Putin himself. I know my Communist friend mentioned above has a genuine rather than a contrived fear of Nazism and has spent his entire adult life battling it in both the ideational ground and on the streets. The Kremlin narrative has exaggerated the problem but is it wrong to feel that many of the Kremlin critics have vastly understated the problem?

SP: Of course the rise of fascist organisations is a danger in Ukraine. They already presented a problem to the Ukrainian Left, and to migrants and others, in 2014 during the Maidan uprising, in which they played a significant part. Then came the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, which was spearheaded extreme nationalist and fascist volunteers on the Russian side. The Azov battalion was then set up on the initiative of Ukrainian extreme nationalists and fascists. It soon won a reputation for being very capable militarily, at a time when the Ukrainian army was not doing well. Azov was brought under the command of the Ukrainian armed forces, but retained a degree of independence. In the years since 2014, while the Azov battalion has been active militarily, there has also been a fair amount of fascist activity on the streets. There were a particularly frightful series of attacks on the Roma community. Leftist organisations, and e.g. gay pride marches, often struggled to defend themselves from street violence. So none of the Ukrainian socialists I know would for a moment downplay the dangers from the fascists. At the same time, most socialists argue that this danger should not be overstated.

Demonstrators in occupied Kherson

For one thing, the Azov battalion has changed over time. Many people who feel patriotic but are nothing to do with fascist organisations, and don’t want anything to do with them, have joined it. My understanding is that it is now larger than it was, but the fascists don’t dominate it in the way that they did. Remember, too, that Azov is only one of many volunteer military formations. Others are politically heterogenous; some are dominated by socialists and anarchists.

The problem with much of the discussion of this issue in Western Europe is that it is conducted by people who are not actually engaged with the issue of fascism in Ukraine, or in Russia. Rather, they are looking from the outside, and picking up on the Kremlin’s wholly false narrative about “denazification”, or points from it. This in turn points to a problem with the way the Western “Left” thinks about the world: instead of focusing on developing the forces for change in society, which is a long, difficult and sometimes frustrating task, they look out for “anti-imperialist” forces in states that are far away, that can be relied on to challenge the US, the UK and the other imperial hegemons. Vladimir Putin, like other leaders of non-hegemonic states, is more than happy to play to this gallery with the relevant phrases.

To my mind, all this is exacerbated by the debasing of discussions in social movements in the internet age. Where thirty or forty years ago, people would sit in rooms and argue with each other, now they sit at their computers and fling “facts” – that can often be exaggerated or completely false – that they have found on the internet at each other. “Facts” that “prove” that Russia is “denazifying” Ukraine are readily supplied by some “Leftist” web resources, as well as the Right wing populist ones. This got worse during the pandemic of course.

Obviously the internet is an incredibly powerful tool for communication – and whoever’s reading this is probably doing so on line – but it’s no substitute for a collective process of developing an understanding of how the world works. Such an understanding would include an appreciation of the Kremlin’s considerable interest in developing an anti-liberal populism in western countries. The “denazification” narrative is part of that. We don’t have to side with Western liberalism or the imperial centres of wealth and power that it defends in order to see that. But we do need to give more thought than many Western leftists do to the Kremlin’s own position in the world order dominated by those imperial centres.

The tragic irony is that, as Russian socialists are increasingly arguing, it is the Russian state that is now on a path towards a type of fascism. It has been for several years, with increasingly harsh repression of dissent within Russia – including, don’t forget, the arrest, torture and jailing for long periods of anti-fascist activists in the “network” case. This repression was accompanied by increasingly strident xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric, including Putin’s claims that Ukraine is not a real country. But since the invasion, things have become much, much worse. A law was passed under which circulating “false information” about the war – or even calling it a war, rather than a “special military operation” – is punishable with up to 15 years in jail. Together with increasingly manic policing, this has driven almost all forms of dissent underground. The entire Russian independent media now operates from outside the country. Anti-Putin activists, and many others who can find half an excuse, have left Russia in their tens of thousands. Official support is given to nationalist thugs who paint “Z” on the doors of anyone who so much as raises a question about the war. Opposition is expressed by unlawful activity such as sabotage and arson attacks on army recruitment centres.

At least as bad as Russia itself are the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian armed forces in 2014 – Crimea and the so called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk – and the small amount of territory Russia has taken this year. In Crimea, all civic activism, especially by the Tatar community, has been savagely punished. People are being sent to jail for many years for something they posted on line. The “republics” are ruled by lawless, quasi-state administrations. The list of human rights abuses – torture, illegal imprisonment, forced labour, terrorism against political opponents – is long. Most of the population of the “republics” left, years ago. Industry has collapsed. As for Kherson and other areas occupied this year, local government and civil society has been assaulted, opponents of Russian rule assassinated and kidnapped, and demonstrations broken up.

Putin forecast that Ukrainians would welcome his army with open arms; I literally do not know of one single example of that happening. If people are looking for explanations about Ukrainians’ heightened sense of nationalism, part of it may be in the horrendous conditions in the parts of their country occupied by Russia. Who would welcome being ruled by a bunch of cynical, lawless thugs?

AM: How do you think it will work out?

SP: I think that the war could go on for a long time and we will witness more suffering. But I also think that we can see all sorts of reasons to be hopeful. It is Ukrainian society as a whole, not just the army, that pushed back the initial Russian invasion and reminded the world that imperialist thugs can be beaten. European social movements, and the labour movement, have expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance. There is every reason to believe that such solidarity can be woven into movements around the cost-of-living crisis that now faces us all, the climate change disaster, and other issues, to present new and powerful challenges to all capital’s tyrannies of control.

Reposted, with thanks, from The Pensive Quill

Anthony McIntyre on twitter

2 Responses to ‘The Russian empire is failing in its own way’

  1. Thank you for the very open and thoughtful perspectives discussed here. Just shows the internet can provide a broader discussion than mainstream media.

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