Photo: Rhododendrites/cc
Photo: Rhododendrites/cc

Tony Saunois, secretary, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

The world has been plunged into another catastrophe. On top of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Putin regime’s murderous invasion of the Ukraine has brought with it carnage and human suffering not experienced in Europe since the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

This conflict reflects the new era which global capitalism has now entered. While the Covid pandemic acted as a great accelerator of all of the underlying contradictions of capitalism, this war has crystallised some of them – in particular the sharpening of geopolitical relations between the capitalist powers.

What in a previous period seemed unthinkable has now become possible in this protracted death-agony of global capitalism.

The Russian invasion of the Ukraine reveals the era of the decline of US imperialism and the absence of a unipolar world, in which one imperial power was often able to impose its will internationally.

Putin undertook the invasion, driven by Great Russian chauvinism and a desire to establish an expanded Russian sphere of influence, with compliant regimes in countries on Russia’s border. He wants to obliterate Ukraine as an independent state and its right to exist.

Putin has taken up once again the ideology of ‘Novorossiya’ – ‘New Russia’ – establishing an expanded area of Russian language, culture and the assimilation of states or statelets into such an amalgam. This follows three decades of provocative eastwards expansion by Nato (the US-led western military alliance), and the rearming of Russia’s armed forces.

Right of self-determination

Putin claims he has taken up the cause of recognising the ‘Independent People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk with mainly ethnic Russians. But he is not concerned with defending their rights. Nor are the US-led western imperialist countries prepared to accept the rights of the peoples of the area to democratically decide their future.

Western imperialism has championed the right of self-determination for Ukraine. Yet the US and its allies have trampled over the democratic rights of many peoples: for example, the Palestinians who are denied their right to self-determination, or the Kurdish people.

The CWI is opposed to the invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s aim of obliterating or dismembering it as an independent state. However, there can be no trust in western imperialism to defend the rights of the Ukrainian people.

The working class and people of Ukraine need to establish their own non-sectarian, armed, democratically controlled defence force. What is needed in the face of an invasion is both self-defence and a political programme and organisation of the working class.

The ‘Independent Peoples Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk are ruled by ruthless right-wing nationalist forces compliant with Putin’s regime. The peoples of Donetsk and Luhansk also have the right to decide if they wish to be independent, remain in the Ukraine or become a part of Russia.

However, this cannot be decided under the rule of Russian bayonets. A democratic solution to the national and cultural rights of all can only be achieved by the working class and the peoples of the area by stopping the war and linking together the Ukrainian and Russian working class.

The absence of powerful independent workers’ organisations and parties in the Ukraine and Russia with a socialist programme to overthrow capitalism is a key obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to defend the democratic and cultural rights of all the peoples of the area.

Asia, Africa and Latin America

The outcome of any war is not predetermined. However, it will not be possible for Putin’s regime to occupy the whole of the Ukraine and suppress its entire population for a prolonged period, even if he manages to seize key cities.

With a land mass the combined size of Germany and France, and a population of 40 million, he would face a protracted struggle of armed resistance. Although there are many differences, Ukraine, in such a scenario, would become Putin’s ‘Afghanistan’.

The consequences of the war have been profound for the western imperialist powers.

In the short term it has appeared to unify them and strengthen Nato and the European Union (EU). In the western capitalist countries many people, although not all, at this stage are looking upon Nato more favourably as a force that could stop the fighting or at least prevent it spreading.

The pro-Nato, pro-EU mood among Ukrainians, which is powerful at this stage, reflects a desperate desire to save their lives and homes and to improve their situation and win more ‘democratic’ rights.

However, this can turn into its opposite, flowing from a feeling that ‘your words of support failed to provide real support’. This sentiment is already beginning to be expressed by a layer that feels ‘the west has abandoned us’.

This more favourable view of Nato is not echoed in many countries of the neocolonial world – especially Asia and Africa. This was reflected in the United Nations general assembly vote to condemn Russia’s invasion, where 35 countries abstained – all from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In some countries, a more sympathetic attitude towards Russia exists among sections of the population. This reflects a reaction to the astounding hypocrisy of the western imperialist powers, which have an equally brutal record of intervention.

Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and other interventions by western imperialism are ingrained in the consciousness of millions in these countries. In the main western capitalist countries, however, the overwhelming mood is against the war and opposition to Russia.

China’s response

Some of the countries which have lent more support to Russia have been increasingly tied to China economically. For its part, China has adopted a position akin to ‘pro-Russian neutrality’.

While not explicitly supporting the Russian invasion, president Xi Jinping’s regime is pursuing a careful policy aiming at defending its own interests.

For this reason it wants an end to the conflict. It is intervening in discussions with the Ukrainian regime with the hope of attempting to broker some deal – which will not be easy – and strengthen its global position as a result.

A major crisis in the global economy would not be in the interests of Chinese state capitalism. In March 2022, China set its lowest growth target in 30 years following the country’s economic slowdown in 2021.

Significantly, in response to Nato’s ‘strengthened’ position, and the attempt of US imperialism to defend the ‘old order’, China has forcefully responded with a warning to US imperialism.

Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, speaking at the National People’s Congress, stated that: “Russia and China jointly oppose attempts to revive the cold war mindset.” He denounced the US for wanting to establish an Indo-Pacific Nato, and then warned that: “Taiwan is not Ukraine”.

Putin is looking towards increased economic ties with China to offset the effect of sanctions and the isolation that the west is imposing on Russia economically, although some Chinese companies have cut back on Russian investments.

However, in the short term, it seems likely that stronger economic ties between China and Russia will develop, as they were prior to the Russian invasion. As a Financial Times headline put it: “Xi is unlikely to ditch his ‘best friend’ despite Ukraine pressure”. How long this ‘alliance’ is maintained is another question.

Russian workers and Putin

While it is possible that the economic ties with China can mitigate against the effects of western sanctions, they will not prevent the Russian economy being badly hit and a terrible price being paid for this by the Russian workers and people.

The effect of capitalist sanctions can work two ways. They can enrage a section of the population to oppose the war and Putin. However, in the short term they can also strengthen a ‘siege’ mentality of being under attack from the west, and reinforce Russian nationalistic sentiments.

In the short term, Putin is likely to maintain his regime in power, probably enjoying majority support at this stage, reinforced by brutal state repression of those opposed to the war.

The massive internal security machine may, again in the short term, act to delay the development of an opposition movement powerful enough to challenge the regime.

However, this situation can rapidly change depending on how the war itself develops. If Russia becomes bogged down in a protracted war and a collapsing economy, opposition could develop and provoke some sort of ‘palace coup’, although this seems unlikely in the short term.

The prestige of Putin’s regime and Russian capitalism are now on the line. At this stage the regime’s main players around Putin are all die-hard loyalists; with many, like Putin, originating in the former KGB (state security apparatus) of the ex-USSR.

Abrupt changes, worsening crisis

The war has also resulted in abrupt historic changes in policies in some countries. For the first time the EU as a body has officially agreed to fund weapons purchasing.

Germany, under the SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz, overnight changed its military policy and introduced a massive special armaments budget of €100 billion, an increase of ‘normal’ military spending to over 2% of Germany’s GDP (total output), and agreed to allow the profitable exports of German weapons to conflict zones.

The German government is aiming to build the largest military apparatus in Europe which is a massive change in the position that has existed since the end of the World War Two.

While the war at this stage has unified the western imperialist powers, behind this mask underlying tensions remain. The divisions within the EU and between the EU and US imperialism have not evaporated. They will resurface again, particularly as the effects of this crisis are increasingly felt in the world economy.

New rifts can also open up about how to respond to the crisis. It is one thing for the US and UK to ban the imports of Russian oil, gas and coal. It is entirely another to demand Germany and other countries, which are much more dependent on Russian fossil fuels, to do so.

The massive spike in oil and gas prices threatens to trigger a stagflationary shock (ie stagnant economic output combined with rising prices), especially in energy importing countries.

In the face of energy sanctions it cannot be excluded that Russia will cut the gas supply to Europe. This would have devastating consequences. EU countries import 40% of their gas from Russia. It also supplies 10% of the world’s crude oil. US imperialism and the western powers are desperately searching for alternative sources of oil and gas to reduce dependency on Russian supplies.

‘Needs must’ has led to the spectacle of US imperialism opening ‘cordial’ discussions with the Maduro regime in Venezuela which it has been trying to overthrow for years!

The war will lead to higher inflation and threatens to choke-off the ephemeral post-Covid economic ‘recovery’, possibly triggering stagflation.

Already the cutting off of supplies of parts from Ukraine has forced car manufacturers and other corporations to shut some European plants. It is leading to a sharp attack on living standards globally that in many countries will result in an explosive rise in poverty – including rising hunger, malnutrition and homelessness in the west.

The threat to the world food supply is potentially catastrophic especially for countries in the neocolonial world. The Ukraine and Russia account for 29% of global wheat exports, 19% of global corn and 80% of sunflower oil. The war can cut across the planting of this year’s crops. Lebanon, Bangladesh, Sudan, Libya, Pakistan and others receive over 50% of their wheat supply from Russia or Ukraine.

Already eight million people face starvation in Afghanistan, which is set to be the fate of millions more in other countries. Added to this is the fact that Russia and Belarus are major suppliers of fertilisers, which has also seen a massive spike in prices and will be disastrous for food production in the neocolonial world.

These developments are certain to provoke massive social and political explosions throughout the neocolonial world, and in the industrialised capitalist countries.

A world war?

The depth of this crisis has led to a fear that ‘World War Three’ and a nuclear holocaust could be unleashed. Putin’s reminder that he has nuclear weapons has certainly raised such fears.

Such worries, especially prevalent amongst young people, are understandable given the nature of the forces involved in the conflict. Wars can escalate and widen beyond what the contending forces intended. Accidental encounters can trigger wider conflicts.

It cannot be excluded that this conflict could lead to wider military exchanges and skirmishes taking place, especially on the Polish border or some other countries.

However, it is not in the interests of western imperialism or Putin to allow this conflict to develop into an all-out war between Nato forces and Russia and the threat of a nuclear exchange. This would not only result in the slaughter of millions, but would obliterate the capitalist economy and the rule of the oligarchs.

The establishment of direct lines of communication between the Russian military and Nato also illustrates that the ruling elites are putting in place safeguards to avert such a catastrophe.

The decision of the US and UK to ban import of Russian oil, gas and coal will not come into effect until later this year. This partly reflects the pressure to avoid a wider conflict spiralling out of control, and also the need for time to establish reliable alternative oil supplies.

This bloody conflict is not the first, nor will it be the last, to erupt in this era of capitalism. It highlights the urgency of building mass workers’ parties with a revolutionary socialist programme, including an independent policy for the working class, to combat war and the capitalist profit-system which breeds it.