We are at a turning point in world politics. Two nuclear-armed camps confront each other on the Eurasian landmass for the first time since the Berlin blockade at the start of the Cold War. The war in Ukraine is not a passing episode; its roots lie in a conflict between the great powers that reaches far beyond Ukraine, in a global rivalry that began to take shape after the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.1
The Russian invasion bears the hallmarks of all imperialist wars: war crimes, cities shelled to ruin, thousands of dead. Over 12 million are now refugees or internally displaced. The United States and the NATO alliance, fresh from their own disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, are pouring massive supplies of arms and weapons systems into Ukraine and the Eastern European states bordering Russia. NATO troop levels in Eastern Europe have increased ten-fold; Europe’s dominant economic power, Germany, has announced a 100 billion euro increase in its military budget.2 US president Joe Biden has provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine. This compares to the $3 billion supplied to Israel annually. As the Financial Times observes:
Today, eastern Europe is more militarised than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Once again, nuclear superpowers face off across the wide expanse between the Baltic and Black Seas.3
Finland and Sweden have declared their intention to abandon their historic “non-alignment” and join NATO, thus doubling the length of NATO’s frontier with Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, declared Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO would mean “no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic”.4 On a tour to Finland, prime minister Boris Johnson flagged the return of nuclear missiles to the British mainland.
The confrontation reaches across Eurasia. At the May “Quad Summit” with Japan, Australia and India, Biden referred to the war in Ukraine as a “dark hour” in the powers’ shared history and unveiled a new 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework aimed at containing China. Furthermore, Biden broke decades of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan, pledging to defend it militarily against China; meanwhile, US officials encouraged Taiwan to draw lessons from the “Ukraine playbook”.5
US strategists and Western military and diplomatic specialists hardly pen a research report or article on Ukraine without pivoting to Asia.6 A typical lead article in the Economist declared, “China sees Russia as a partner in dismantling the liberal world order.” It goes onto insist that “Western resolve to make Mr Putin pay for his crimes” would be the most effective curb on Chinese ambitions.7
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in considerable confusion on the left. A marginal minority cling to an illusion that Russia is simply responding to US and NATO expansionism and should be shielded from criticism. However, the majority response of the Western left has been to deny significance to NATO’s role and support NATO weapons as the only defence on offer to Ukraine.8 Each of these positions concede, in their own way, to one or other imperialist camp.
The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) in Britain has taken a different position, insisting the war has an increasingly inter-imperialist character. STWC opposes the Russian invasion, calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops and support for Russian anti-war activists. However, the coalition also insists that the anti-war movement must oppose NATO’s expansion and its escalation of the war.9 This journal, and the broader International Socialist tradition from which it originates, share this position.10
Those who criticise NATO have been subject to bitter assault. Left-wing Labour MPs have withdrawn support for STWC and constituency parties have fallen silent under the dictates of Starmer and the leadership. Only four unions adopted initial positions critical of NATO, and these remain contested. The anti-war movement has suffered vehement attacks by some on the left. Yet, in society at large there is clearly an audience fearful of escalation and war, cynical of the hypocrisy of the US and European powers, and open to anti-war arguments.
This article aims to examine the re-emergence of imperialist rivalry between Russia and the West after the end of the Cold War. The fall of the so-called Iron Curtain has given way to a new faultline, stretching in a vast arc from the Balkans in the west, to central Asia and China in the east. Along this Eurasian faultline the world’s three nuclear armed camps meet: the Atlantic alliance, Russia and China. Two rising sub-imperialisms, Turkey and Iran, as well as other regional powers, vie for their own economic and geopolitical interests in a region of huge economic, geostrategic and geopolitical significance.
Imperialism, Russia and its rivals
The first edition of State Capitalism in Russia by Tony Cliff, Marxist theorist and founder of the International Socialists (IS) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP), appeared in duplicated form in 1947. Cliff’s theory was premised on a Marxist analysis of the relationship between imperialism, Stalin’s counter-revolution and the class character of Russia.11 Anti-imperialism was inscribed into the heart of the analysis and the political tradition that Cliff founded. In an early essay on the Korean War in 1950, Cliff coined an important slogan for which the IS and SWP became known:
In their mad rush for profit, for wealth, the two gigantic imperialist powers are threatening the existence of world civilisation, are threatening humanity with the terrible suffering of atomic war. The interests of the working class, of humanity, demand that neither of the imperialist world powers be supported, but that both be struggled against. The battle-cry of the real, genuine socialists today must be: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism”.12
Cliff built on the analysis of imperialism developed by the Russian Marxists Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin during the First World War. In the previous issue of this journal, Joseph Choonara outlined the fundamental features of a Marxist approach to this phenomenon.13 First, imperialism is a global system that draws capitalist states into conflict. Second, imperialism reflects a stage of capitalist development in which the process of production expands beyond national boundaries, so that state and capital become increasingly interdependent. Firms rely on states to project political, economic and military power and protect capital against its rivals, while states in turn depend on the level of economic and technological development of capital to project their power.
The dominant tendency on the left tends to view the war in Ukraine solely in the context of the Russian invasion. The motives attributed to Russia’s launching of the war range from Vladimir Putin’s own Russian chauvinism to the autocratic traditions and subservient mentality ascribed to Russian society as well as a history of imperialist ambitions dating back to Stalin and the Tsars. It is striking that these views differ little from standard liberal narratives, with strong echoes of Cold War historiography. Some who solely focus on Russia’s invasion do concede that inter-imperialist rivalry between Russia and the West is important in general, but they view it as tangential to Ukraine’s war for self-determination.14
To argue for a broader understanding of the drive to war in Ukraine and to point to the role of NATO and US imperialism is to invoke accusations of “whataboutery”—or worse. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be understood in isolation. A concrete analysis is required to uncover the roots of the war, the broader imperialist rivalries that have developed across the Eurasian faultline, and Russia’s position within the imperialist world order. There are a number of preliminary points that we can make here about such an analysis.
First, it is important to note features of imperialist rivalry that have a crucial bearing on the specific characteristics of imperialist conflict between Russia and the West. By definition, imperialism is a dynamic system of competition between states, whose economic, military and geopolitical power wax and wane. Conflict often escalates precisely when a balance of power shifts. At its most extreme, this erupts into military confrontation.
Figure 1: The Eurasian faultline—NATO members, members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and countries that Russia considers part of its strategically important “near abroad”
Second, states do not face each other as equals; their economic and military resources are rarely symmetric. A state’s ability to project power is related to its economic strength, but is not simply reducible to it.
Third, the overall economic or military disadvantage of a weaker imperialism does not preclude the use of military force against stronger rivals. A less significant imperialist power can deploy specific geopolitical and military advantages against a stronger imperialist power. Japan’s surprise attack on the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, from which Japan emerged as victor, is an example. The First World War was preceded by an attempt by Germany to outstrip British naval power in order to challenge British colonial dominance over global trade. When this attempt failed, Germany initiated hostilities on the European mainland.15 During the Second World War, Japan attacked the US South Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour to prevent US interference in Japan’s planned seizure of territories in South East Asia. In 1952, Russia and China encouraged an invasion of South Korea by North Korea in order to counter US influence in Asia; beginning as a proxy war between Korean forces, it drew the US and China into a confrontation that ended in bloody stalemate. All imperialisms claim that their armies, their alliances and their wars are “defensive”, whether or not they “fire the first shot”. However, from the point of view of the working class and the oppressed, every imperialism is an aggressor, oppressing and exploiting subject nations and peoples in their wars to seize resources and markets.
Fourth, inter-imperialist wars rarely simply involve two rivals. A conflict in one part of the global system has consequences for states elsewhere. Alliances are forged, and each camp looks to exploit tensions and sow divisions amongst its competitors.
Finally, the global system exerts a compulsion upon states to constantly seek advantage, gain hegemony and strive for supremacy over their own “sphere of influence”, encroaching on their rivals’ own sphere. This rivalry is ultimately a “zero sum” game. In the drive for capital accumulation, no part of the global system can be left outside the sphere of competing states. As David Harvey notes:
They cannot all succeed in the long run. Either the weakest succumb and fall into crises of local devaluation or geopolitical struggles arise between regions…with the ever-present danger of military confrontations (of the sort that gave us two world wars between capitalist powers in the 20th century) lurking in the background.16
In taking account of these points, we cannot reduce imperialist conflicts to simple “economic” or “geopolitical”—let alone ideological—causes. As Alex Callinicos has argued, geopolitical and economic competition are interwoven in complex forms of imperialist conflict that cannot be reduced to one another. Nor is it sufficient to model one specific inter-imperialist conflict against another; imperialist wars do not simply replicate one another. The importance of Marxist theory lies in a method of analysing each conflict beyond its immediate battle lines by placing it into the context of a global system.17
The Russian crisis, economy and the state: 1991–1999
In October 1991, Boris Yeltsin addressed Russia’s Congress of People’s Deputies:
A one-time changeover to market prices is a difficult and forced measure but a necessary one. For approximately six months, things will be worse for everyone, but then prices will fall, the consumer market will be filled with goods and, by the autumn of 1992, there will be economic stabilisation and a gradual improvement in people’s lives.18
The speech by Yeltsin, who had recently become president, heralded the era of economic “shock therapy” in Russia and a decade of unprecedented crisis for the state and society. This “difficult but forced measure” consisted of three core elements: price liberalisation, slashing of social provision and privatisation of state assets. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Russian liberal “reformers” and Western governments vowed that, after a relatively short period of economic pain, Russia would begin reaping the benefits of integration into the world economy.
In the event, Russia suffered an unprecedented economic collapse as a consequence of what analyst Anatol Lieven characterised as “poltergeist economics”.19 Workers suffered months of unpaid wages, social provision was decimated, and life savings and pensions evaporated. In 1992, inflation soared to 1,354 percent, and the real incomes of working Russians fell by 46 percent. Some 32 percent of children were classified as hungry, with millions of families relying on vegetables and fruit produced on small private plots.20 Between 1991 and 1994, male life expectancy fell to 57.4 years, a six-year decline over just three years. Suicide rates were the highest in the world in the early 1990s. Alcohol consumption soared.21
The destruction of Russian industry reached a scale exceeding that of the Great Depression in the US, and there was a loss of industrial capacity greater than during the Second World War. GDP declined by 43.3 percent and industrial production by 56 percent. Between 1991 and 1995, capital investment dipped by 78 percent, with investment in high technology suffering the sharpest falls.22
The impact of “shock therapy” was felt beyond the economy. Six decades of state capitalist development meant that the merger between state and industrial structures was far greater in the Soviet Union than other parts of the world.23 As the old command structure broke down, industrial managers and party and security agency officials used their administrative power to seize control of privatised enterprises and maximise revenues, regardless of the disruption to supply chains and production.24 Meanwhile, regional governors established power bases in opposition to Moscow. Private interests often became hard to distinguish from organised crime; state attempts to collect tax revenue were circumvented and billions of dollars drained away into money laundering in tax havens. Russian studies scholar Stephen Cohen described “a zealous struggle over vast property and power formerly controlled by the Soviet state: factories, banks, land, shops, television networks, publishing houses, transportation and, of course, military property…from the capitals to the provinces”.25
Though layers of the old nomenklatura and new entrepreneurs made massive profits, collapse and economic chaos did not serve the interests of the Russian state and Russian capital as a whole. The difficulty for the Russian ruling class was how to resolve the crisis. There was no return possible to old methods, and yet the path to reconstruction of the economy was blocked.
Despite its horrendous cost to Russian workers and the peasantry, the state capitalist form of capital accumulation had proved extraordinarily dynamic in the early decades of industrialisation and development in the Soviet Union. However, as its rivals’ production became increasingly global in scale, Russia fell behind in every sphere of the economy, including advanced technology and arms manufacture.26 As Callinicos explains:
The Soviet Union…a closed economy whose command system has served to insulate it from the market, has been unable to realise the increases in productivity that derive from participation in the international division of labour. The mode of organisation that allowed the nomenklatura to mobilise the resources needed to transform the Soviet Union into a military-industrial superpower became an obstacle to further development in the era of multinational capitalism.27
In the 1930s, Stalin’s sworn aim was to “catch up and overtake” the West; in a speech to industrial managers, he declared, “Those who fall behind get beaten”.28 That premise still haunted Russia’s ruling class. The aim of “shock therapy” was not simply to force economic and technological development for its own sake, but rather to raise Russia’s economic and state power to a level that could compete with others. To this day, the disaster of the 1990s hangs like a nightmare over Russia’s rulers and capitalists.
The Yeltsin era came to an end with the Russian crash of 1998. Amidst the turmoil, Putin, previously an unknown former KGB official, was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin in 1999, taking up the presidency at the end of the year. Putin attempted to execute a change of course, aiming to revive the Russian economy and restore the power and authority of the state.
Russia, projection of power and the West: 1991-9
Francis Fukuyama famously heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “end of history”.29 Fukuyama argued that the era of great ideological clashes between rival systems had ended. Residual obstacles and challenges, such as Islamic fundamentalism, remained, but these hangovers would not impede the universal progress of liberal democracy. However preposterous Fukuyama’s thesis may now seem, after the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a widespread view that a new era of peace and partnership between nations was possible, if only governments had the foresight and courage to grasp the opportunity. In Europe such hopes were perhaps highest of all. So, how did we get from there to here?
The premise that the Cold War was driven by a clash of ideologies was always false. The division of the globe between the superpowers was a clash of two rival imperialisms—one based on state capitalist foundations, and the other on globalised production and the world market. Even though the Cold War era came to an end in 1991, the era of imperialist rivalry did not.
The drive to competition is a permanent, inherent feature of the global system. As one period of imperialist conflict comes to an end, another emerges, leading inexorably to new, potentially more intense, imperialist rivalries. The First World War, the Second World War and Cold War all arrived at their own destructive “resolution”. Yet, each “resolution” set the terrain for the next period of imperialist conflict.
Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet empire with its economic, state and military infrastructure severely weakened; however, it was far from powerless. Russia inherited the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal and commanded the largest conventional force in the region. Most of the newly independent former Soviet states were heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies and on the industrial and economic infrastructure built over decades of Soviet power. Compared to the US and its allies, Russia’s power was limited, but that made those limits all the more vital to defend.
As Russia entered into a new phase of crisis, regions that had been closed off during the Cold War were now accessible to US imperialism and its European partners. As the Iron Curtain fell, a vast territory opened out between Western Europe and the borders of Russia. Two questions remained hanging over all the speeches, warm words and summits between Russian and Western leaders. On one hand, how far and how fast would an emboldened Atlantic alliance advance? On the other, how far and how fast would Russia seek to reassert its own power?
Despite the crisis, Russia sought to reassert dominance over its Eurasian borderlands, hardly taking a pause for breath. Russia wanted to restore a buffer zone with European powers to the West, and with China, Turkey and Iran to the south. In March 1993, Yeltsin announced, “The moment has come when the respective international organs should grant Russia special powers as the guarantor of peace and stability in the territory of the former Soviet Union”. Six months later, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev restated the demand at the United Nations.30 As early as 1992, even radical democrats who had backed Yeltsin were calling for a Russian “Monroe Doctrine” to give Russia hegemony over all former Soviet territory.31
Russia’s attempt to integrate into the global economy, its energy strategy and its assertion of hegemony were intimately linked. By 1993, exports of raw materials had become the lifeline of the Russian economy. Raw materials, above all oil and gas, accounted for 65 percent of total exports. By 1995, just ten raw material commodities accounted for 70 percent of Russian exports.32 By 2021, Russia was the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, the second-largest exporter of crude oil and condensates, and third-largest exporter of coal. The European market accounted for 74 percent of Russia’s gas exports, 49 percent of oil and 32 percent of coal.33 By February 2022, half of Russia’s federal budget came from oil and gas revenues.34 The pipelines and transit routes across the Eurasian faultline were a vital concern of the Russian state.
Russia displayed a strategic use of imperialist power, exploiting national and ethnic divisions to the point of open conflict and war. Under the guise of “peacekeeping”, Russia intervened in conflicts across its borders, seeking to enforce conditions on neighbouring states that tied them to Russia’s sphere of influence and leaving the threat of “frozen conflicts” hanging over them should they seek to move too far outside the Russian orbit. Moscow played a brutal role in a series of invasions, civil wars and secessionist conflicts: the Georgian Civil War in 1991-93; the secessionist war between South Ossetia and Georgia in 1991-92; the ethnic conflict between Ossetian and Ingush groups in 1992; the Transnistrian secessionist conflict in Moldova in 1992; the secessionist war between Abkhazia and Georgia in 1992-93; the civil war in Tajikistan in 1992-97; the civil war in Chechnya in 1993-94; the First Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1988-94; and the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994-96. Dave Crouch describes Russian tactics:
Russian troops constituted the bulk of the peacekeeping forces. They were brought in only after the main fighting had taken place and had little positive influence on the severity of bloodshed; they showed a clear preference for one of the conflicting sides (or supplied both sides with weapons so as to exhaust their economies and force them towards Moscow). They often relied on local unofficial armed gangs, and everywhere they have left untouched the underlying problems originally provoking conflict.35
The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia claimed up to 20,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees. The Georgian, Ossetian and Abkhazian wars created up to 50,000 deaths and produced half a million refugees, and estimates for the civil war in Tajikistan range as high as 100,000 killed and 1.2 million displaced. The first Chechen war claimed up to 80,000 civilian lives and resulted in the displacement of 500,000 people.
While Russia was reasserting dominance over its “near abroad”, the US was extending its own imperialist reach. In January 1991, the US launched the first Gulf War over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, inflicting a devastating and bloody defeat on Saddam Hussein and beginning a decade of sanctions. In 1995, the US led a UN intervention in the Somali Civil War. Here, however, in a portent of things to come, US and UN forces suffered a humiliating debacle at the so-called Battle of Mogadishu and eventually withdrew in 1995 with significant losses.
In 1991-92, a newly unified Germany, in defiance of US wishes, fomented the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, fuelling ethnic divisions and mutual rounds of ethnic cleansing. In 1995, the US took command of intervention in the Bosnian War; nearly 300 aircraft from eight NATO countries flew more than 3,500 sorties over roughly two weeks.36 Then, in 1999, NATO launched a war on Serbia again, this time over Kosovo, in what was to prove a turning point in the confrontation between the West and Russia.
However, for the first half of the decade, it could appear that the areas of intervention on the part of both Russia and the West were taking place in tandem rather than in direct confrontation. By the end of 1994, Moscow had, for the time being, secured sufficient hegemony across its borderlands, with just two exceptions—the tiny republic of Chechnya in the North Caucasus and Ukraine.
Figure 2: Map of the Caucasus including constituent parts of the Russian Federation and disputed territories in Azerbaijan and Georgia
The Caucasus (literally “the mountains”) were the central focus of Russian intervention in the 1990s. The states that make up the Caucasus were forged on the anvil of Russian imperialism in the days of the Tsars. To the west lies the Black Sea, the path to the Mediterranean and home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet; to the east, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia, with their vast energy resources; to the south, the border with Turkey and Iran. Loss of influence over the Caucasus posed an immediate strategic threat to Russian imperialism.
Chechnya is an oil-rich Caucasian republic, smaller than Wales, that was to prove a litmus test of Russian power in the 1990s. Chechnya lies in the North Caucasus, where the Tsars had waged brutal wars, slaughter, scorched earth policies and ethnic cleansing against revolts to Tsarist rule; later, under Stalin, entire Caucasian populations, including the Chechens, were deported in 1944. In October 1991, Dhokar Dudayev, a former “model Soviet officer” and ex-Soviet air force general, was elected president of Chechnya on 85 percent of the vote. The next month, Dudayev declared Chechnya an independent republic.37
Although the Chechen capital, Grozny, was a major regional oil hub, Chechnya’s strategic importance went beyond the question of energy. Unlike the newly independent states, Chechnya was not a “union” republic, but rather subsumed into the Russian Federation. Chechnya’s declaration of independence thus threatened the integrity of the Russian state and put Russian strategy for dominance in Eurasia in jeopardy.
Just weeks after Dudayev declared independence, Moscow sent detachments of the notorious interior ministry police with armoured vehicles into Grozny. Hundreds of thousands turned out to demonstrate, forcing Moscow to pull its forces back.
This was a temporary respite. By the end of 1994, Yeltsin believed the Chechen leadership to have been weakened by corruption and internal divisions. In December 1994, after weeks of heavy artillery bombardment, tanks and armoured cars filled with untrained conscripts advanced into the ruins of Grozny. It ended in catastrophe for Russia. The armoured columns were ambushed and set alight. Chechen forces outmanoeuvred the Russians in weeks of bitter urban warfare. Only after a three-month battle, in which 2,000 Russian soldiers were killed, did the Russians finally secure Grozny.
Russia’s military then pounded the Chechen forces back to the southern mountains. Yet, the body count rose inexorably, and Russia’s desertion-ridden, conscript army never recovered. In the summer of 1996, the Chechens retook the capital, sweeping a despairing, unpaid, ill-equipped military force—once the pride of the world’s second superpower—to what seemed its final humiliation. The limits of Russian military power were brutally exposed.38
During the 1990s, Russia’s interventions in the Caucasus attracted high public attention. However, it was the tensions between Russia and Ukraine that represented the greatest potential threat to Russia’s future hegemony and its relationship to European powers and the US.
Ukraine’s former Soviet naval base of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula was home to the Black Sea fleet, and the country’s southern coastline and ports were of vital economic and strategic significance. Ukraine inherited a third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, making the new state the world’s third largest nuclear power.
Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe after Russia by area and, at 52 million, had the largest population in Eastern and Central Europe at the time of independence. Ukraine’s industrial base had composed a vital element of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and its “black soil” region had served as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, 90 percent of Russia’s total gas exports transited through Ukraine. The industry and coalfields in the east of Ukraine had been a centre of industrialisation under the Tsars and then under Stalin. The industrial bosses and oligarchs in the east were largely integrated into trade and supply infrastructures with Russia as well as into Russian markets. The fertile “black soil” regions, bordering Poland, held the promise of lucrative exports to European and world markets. The east and south of Ukraine were predominantly ethnic Russian and Russian speaking, and many residents there had links to Russia. The west, predominantly Ukrainian, had strong Ukrainian nationalist currents and looked to Europe. However, most of the country was bilingual, and Ukrainians inter-married, working and living alongside each other regardless of linguistic background. In the 1991 referendum, the vote in favour of independence was above 84 percent in every region except Crimea, and even there a majority voted for independence.39
Ukraine was the hardest hit of all post-Soviet states by the crisis of the 1990s. In 1993-4, inflation in Ukraine reached 100 percent a month, and the country was the poorest state in Europe. GDP collapsed by almost half between 1990 to 1994 and declined for the rest of the decade.
Ukraine, literally “borderlands”, has long formed the terrain across which imperialist armies have waged war and carved out territory. Around the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey meet. Ukraine’s size, geography, strategic location between Russia and eastern Europe, and command over the Black Sea made it the “keystone in the arch” of Russia’s near abroad.40 Ukraine acts as a pivot on which Russia’s economic reach into Europe and its military defensive capability rest. Russia with Ukraine in its orbit is an extended power spanning Europe, the Black Sea and Asia. With the “keystone” of Ukraine removed, Russia becomes besieged and isolated.
The battle over Ukrainian alignment was intense from the outset. In 1994, analysts Fiona Hill and Pamela Jewett noted:
Since the emergence of Ukraine as an independent nuclear state and a potentially major player in European politics in 1991, the Ukrainian-Russian relationship has become the most volatile in the post-Soviet space… The manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres of the two states have pushed them to the brink of conflict.41
With the issues of Crimea, control over the Black Sea fleet and the transfer of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal left unresolved, Russia under Yeltsin made clear that Ukraine’s territorial integrity was contingent on Ukraine remaining within Russia’s sphere. This had been implied in the wording of the accords signed between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine in December 1991, which created the Commonwealth of Independent States. After Ukraine’s initial declaration of independence in August 1991, prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin’s press spokesman announced that Russia “reserved the right to review borders” with Ukraine if it left the Soviet Union.42
The brinkmanship and manoeuvres between Russia and Ukraine continued through the 1990s. Agreements were signed and then repeatedly broken over the nuclear arsenal, division of the Black Sea fleet, the status of Crimea and energy supplies. In 1993, an agreement by Yeltsin and Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk to divide the fleet was met by a mutiny of Russian naval officers who demanded the fleet be placed under sole Russian jurisdiction. The Russian Supreme Soviet declared Sevastopol belonged to Russia. Kravchuk then reversed approval of nuclear non-proliferation treaties and backed retention of some of the 1,800 nuclear missiles on Ukrainian soil. In August 1993, Russia cut energy supplies to Ukraine during the harvest season, leaving crops rotting in fields and jeopardising Ukraine’s agricultural exports.43
In eastern Ukraine’s mining and industrial regions, workers’ enthusiasm for independence waned as the crisis in the economy deepened and economic warfare between the Ukrainian and Russian governments hit production. Oligarchs and politicians began to foment reactionary ethnic and nationalist divisions in both the east and west. In July 1993, 122 mine directors of the Donbass region called a “directors’ strike” that brought miners from all over the Donbass to the square of the regional capital in Donetsk. Workers from the artillery plant joined the strike, which spread north to the Kharkiv region.44
Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, was bitterly divided. In September 1993, under economic pressure and threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Kravchuk sought an accommodation with Yeltsin. The presidents concluded a series of agreements in Crimea under which Ukraine would sell its share of the Black Sea fleet, Russia would lease Sevastopol and Ukraine would agree to the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons. Kravchuk argued that, if he had continued to insist on Ukraine’s claim to the fleet, “We could well have lost both the fleet and Crimea”.45
The Rada, however, refused to ratify the agreements. The partition of the fleet was finally agreed only in 1997, giving 82 percent of the vessels to Russia as well as a lease of Crimea for 20 years.46 This was no permanent solution and, as an interim compromise, it depended on the orientation of the regime in Kiev.47 In 2010, Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych agreed the Kharkiv accords, extending the lease of Crimea to 2042. The accords led to riots in the Rada, and the opposition deemed the vote on ratification unconstitutional.48 In 2021, the Ukrainian state security service opened pre-trial criminal proceedings against the deputies who had voted to ratify the accords.
The question of Crimea and dominance over the Black Sea was a red line for Russia from the first days of the Yeltsin presidency, and the threat of unilateral action by Russia hung constantly over Kiev. The crisis of 2014 and the annexation of Crimea was not simply driven by an aggressive policy on the part of Putin. Control of the Black Sea Fleet, the naval base of Sevastopol and a secure strategic presence on the Black Sea coast were essential conditions of Russia’s ability to project power across the region and the Eurasian faultline, and hence were crucial to its status as a global power.49
Russia and the West: 1991-1999
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution, the European Union and the Atlantic alliance faced decisions on strategic expansion eastwards and relations with Russia. Decisions on principles came early.
In 1990, as German reunification loomed, intense negotiations took place on the withdrawal of Russian troops stationed in East Germany as part of the agreements by the allies at the end of the Second World War. Historian Mary Elise Sarotte describes the tensions between German leaders aiming to secure rapid reunification and the hardliners in the US administration who were adamantly opposed to giving Russia any assurances on NATO expansion.50 US secretary of state James Baker gave a verbal pledge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, invoked by the Russian leadership ever since, that NATO would advance “not one inch” eastwards.51 Baker’s commitment was never committed to paper and his undertaking was essentially a tactical one to secure German reunification and the withdrawal of Russian troops. When president George H W Bush was faced with the issue of restraining NATO expansion, his response was, “To hell with that!”52
From the beginning of his presidency in 1993, Bill Clinton also believed NATO’s strategic importance rested on enlargement. US policy was a classic “containment” strategy intended to stop Russia attaining a position from which it could challenge the hegemony of the US and its allies. US national security adviser William Lake was explicit: “The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement”.53 Yeltsin, in response, warned of Europe plunging into a “cold peace”.54
NATO’s significance was no longer confined to Europe, expanding its remit to “out of area operations”. After British and French forces participated in the Second Gulf War in 1991, NATO’s secretary general, Manfred Wöerner, claimed the alliance was “the backbone of the West’s ability to deal collectively with the multiplying threats and instabilities of this new era.” A report by the Rand Corporation, a US military think-tank, concluded that NATO’s future lay “out of area or out of business”.55
NATO was also key in maintaining US leadership over European powers. The European Union had emerged as a powerful global economic bloc, and it was important to the US that Europe did not develop an independent strategic relationship with Russia that would conflict with US interests.
In 1994, as moves towards NATO enlargement advanced, the North Atlantic Council, the decision-making body of the organisation, issued invitations to non-NATO European states, including Russia, to join the so-called Partnership for Peace (PfP). By 1995, all of the Eastern European states and the independent post-Soviet states had signed up. Under the pretence of inclusion, PfP provided a flexible architecture for NATO expansion that avoided direct confrontation with Russia while providing a route to full membership for selected states.56 Already in 1994, Russian foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev had become convinced that PfP was a fraud designed solely to hide enlargement from Moscow.57
Until the mid-1990s, there were important constraints on both the US and Russia, mitigating against taking rising antagonisms too far, too quickly. First was the prospect of nuclear proliferation. The US was simply not prepared to accept three new independent nuclear states along the length of the Eurasian faultline. The US actively joined with Moscow to pressure Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to transfer the missiles on their territory to Russia or allow decommissioning under Russian supervision. The US opposed Ukraine’s threats to delay or resist transfer as a lever over the Black Sea fleet and Crimea. A US national security briefing insisted a nuclear Ukraine “would deal a potentially catastrophic blow to stability in the region and the entire arms control regime negotiated over the past 25 years”.58 Finally, in 1994, the US, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, which provided assurances (but not guarantees) on security in exchange for adhering to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In late 1996, the last missile left Ukrainian soil.
Second, the US and the EU were highly disturbed at the instability that erupted across the newly independent states in the early and mid-1990s, and particularly at the rise of Islamist movements in Chechnya and Central Asia. This encouraged a “hands off” policy in respect of Russian intervention.
Third, the US and its allies feared for the stability of the Yeltsin regime itself. The catastrophic collapse of the early 1990s saw challenges to Yeltsin from nationalist forces including the “red-browns” of Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s fascist (and deceptively named) Liberal Democratic Party. Clinton observed that Yeltsin was “up to his ass in alligators” and “needs friends abroad because he’s got so many enemies at home”.59
Throughout 1993, the presidency and the new Russian parliament, the Duma, were at a constitutional impasse. The Duma, dominated by Yeltsin’s opponents, refused to ratify key ministerial appointments, legislation and a new constitution. Finally, in December, Yeltsin ordered the shelling of the Russian Duma, raising fears in Western capitals for the stability of his regime. Although Yeltsin managed to force through his programme, his popularity fell close to zero. Six months before the 1996 presidential election, a mere six percent of voters planned to vote for the incumbent. Both Clinton and vice president Al Gore assured Yeltsin there would be no NATO expansion before the election. In March 1996, Clinton convinced the IMF to agree a $10 billion loan to pay off months of unpaid wages to millions of Russian workers and fund social programmes.60 In a remarkable turnaround, Yeltsin beat the Communist party challenger Zyuganov with 54 percent of the vote in the second round.61
Fourth, the US and its allies were themselves engaged elsewhere. In 1990, the US launched the first Gulf War in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, leading a coalition of 35 countries. A month after the war’s end in 1992, Germany helped ignite the Yugoslav Wars, leading to the first NATO “out of area” bombing campaign in 1995.
Finally, accession to NATO was not a paper exercise; costs were estimated at billions of dollars. As Sarotte explains:
NATO was a military alliance that required members to standardise equipment, train troops and contribute to one another’s security. Giving unprepared new members Article 5 coverage too soon would weaken the transatlantic alliance—something the Pentagon understandably wanted to avoid.62
Russia faced its own constraints. In order to overcome the economic crisis and obstacles to economic development, Russia required relations with Western-led institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, as well as Western governments and multinationals. The debacle of the 1994-6 invasion of Chechnya had also exposed the limits of Russian military power. Finally, the pro-Western liberals, who Yeltsin had relied on to drive through economic policy and establish relationships with international institutions, sought to avoid confrontation with the West.
Nevertheless, though the constraints on both Russia and the West were real enough, the underlying conflicts were intensifying, and it was only a matter of time before they broke through.
By the end of 1996, the last nuclear missiles were removed from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Any immediate prospect of Yeltsin’s ouster had passed. Yeltsin had secured a ceasefire in Chechnya and the intensity of conflicts on Russia’s borders had reduced. It was at this point that the Atlantic alliance took decisive steps to extend its hegemony across Europe.
The Kosovo War of 1999 marked the end of what political scientist Richard Sakwa has termed the era of “soft cold peace”.63 The US-led war coincided with the ratification of NATO membership for Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. The US dominance in Europe that had been established during the Cold War now extended to the Balkans and eastwards to Russia’s border with Poland.64 The Kosovo War legitimised “out of area” operations on the part of the enlarging alliance under the banner of “humanitarian intervention”, without sanction from the UN, and regardless of any direct threat to the US and its NATO allies. The message and the lessons were not lost on Moscow. A military analyst and leading figure of the Russian defence establishment, Alexei Arbatov, declared, “NATO’s military action was the final humiliation and a ‘spit in the face’ for Russia, more than ever demonstrating the Western arrogance of power and willingness to ignore Russian interests.” Arbatov argued that the Kosovo War had ended the “post-Cold War phase” of international affairs.65
Russia had long insisted on the significance of a “multi-polar world”. Behind this terminology lay a strategic approach of securing the interests of Russian imperialism in the context of a mutual recognition by the world’s major imperialisms of one another’s own regional hegemony and global interests, articulated through “security partnerships” and military cooperation. For Russia, the Kosovo War represented US determination to act as the sole world superpower and impose its interests in defiance of a “multi-polar world”. That conviction was to be reinforced by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and by subsequent military interventions in the Middle East.
The accession to NATO of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland was followed by further waves of enlargement. By 2020, 14 new countries had joined the Atlantic alliance, pressing upon Russia’s former Soviet era border. The Kosovo War and the enlargement of NATO demonstrated to the Russians that the US strategy of “containment through enlargement” was now irrevocable.
The path to confrontation and war: 2000-2022
Putin had, in the early 1990s, served as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St Petersburg and a leading reformer. He then moved to Moscow to serve in the Yeltsin administration, working as director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and head of the Security Council during the Kosovo War. Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in August 1999 at the start of the second war on Chechnya. Putin became acting president when Yeltsin resigned in December 1999, before standing for election and winning the presidency in March 2000.
Putin rose to power at a watershed moment for the Russian state. As economic crisis swept in from Asia in 1998, the Russian financial collapse stripped away the pretence of economic recovery. By August 1998, total unpaid wages to Russian workers stood at $12.5 billion. Instead of profits flowing into re-investment, they flowed out of the country. Monthly interest payments ran at 40 percent higher than tax revenues.66
The fragmentation of the Russian state had deepened, with power shifting away from the centre to Russia’s 89 regions, which exercised considerable control over raw material and mineral resources as well as mining and metallurgical industries. Russia’s powerful oligarchs, who had amassed vast fortunes from privatisation and auction of state assets, pursued their own interests, often at the expense of the state and the national economy.67
The 1990s crisis had a devastating impact on military capability. Between 1989 and 1999, Russia’s defence budget decreased by a factor of nearly seven. Employment in research and development decreased from 1.9 million in 1990 to 872,000 in 1999. Between 1990 and 1997, funding for plants and equipment was cut by more than 75 percent.68
NATO’s campaign against Serbia exposed huge disparities in conventional military power. Its array of precision-guided weapons and penetrating munitions, long-range cruise missiles, “stealth” bombers, communications systems and space reconnaissance far outclassed anything the Russian military offered. Russia’s military analysts judged it would take between 15 and 20 years to close this gap.69 Meanwhile, the stalemate over the status of Chechnya was a continuing reminder of Russia’s humiliation in 1996.
Putin’s early rise is often attributed to his intelligence service connections and loyalty to the Yeltsin family. No doubt these served in Putin’s favour, but they are not a convincing explanation. As director of the FSB and national security adviser, Putin negotiated with US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott and the US National Security Council during the Kosovo War and was involved in an abortive Russian attempt to partition Kosovo and forestall NATO’s success.70 Putin was appointed prime minister two days after the Chechen incursion into Dagestan; his predecessor, Sergei Stepashin, had been reluctant to embark on a second war. However, after the humiliation of the first war, the leaderships of Russia’s military and security apparatus were determined to settle the impasse over Chechnya in order to assert Russian military strength in the wake of NATO’s sweeping victory in Kosovo. Within two weeks of Putin’s appointment, Russia mounted a massive aerial offensive. On 1 October, Putin announced a land war, driving Chechen forces back to the mountains amid massive, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and heavy artillery fire.71
At home, Putin began to reassert the authority of the state, in what he referred to as “the vertical of power”. Putin limited the powers of regional governors, appointing presidential envoys to seven newly established federal districts that covered the whole of Russia. In 2004, direct elections of governors were scrapped and regional leaders were appointed by central government, accompanied by a shift of influence away from Moscow to the industrial and resource rich regions.72
Primacy was given to Russia’s oil, gas and mineral extractive industries. These industries accounted for 70 percent of Russia’s export receipts and were critical to the stability of Russia’s industrial “monocities”—urban centres dominated by a single sector or corporation. For Putin these were vital industries of state. In his PhD these on the raw materials industries, written in 1996, Putin concluded that the raw materials complex “constitutes the basis for the country’s military might…an essential condition for modernising the military-industrial complex and…to develop needed strategic reserves and potential”.73
In July 2000, Putin met with Russia’s richest oligarchs; he informed them that the state would remain “equidistant” from business interests, while business leaders would cease any attempts to dictate policy to the state.74 Those who stuck to the “rules” kept their fortunes. Those who did not were ruthlessly stripped of their holdings; some were expelled from Russia and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s wealthiest tycoon, was sentenced to ten years in prison for tax fraud.
Here too the balance of influence shifted to those who commanded power in Russia’s strategic industries. In 1997, the top ten oligarchs reflected the influence of finance, banking and the media. By the early 2000s, almost all of the top ten owed their wealth to metals or mineral resources. By 2007, only seven of the top 40 oligarchs came from Moscow.75
Putin’s shift of focus took shape alongside a worldwide boom in oil prices. In 1998, Urals crude oil fetched $9 per barrel; by 2002, the price had more than doubled. By 2008, it had soared to $138 per barrel. GDP increased by an annual average of seven percent and tax revenues filled state coffers. Real incomes rose by more than 10 percent a year and poverty levels dropped from 30 percent in 2000 to just under 18 percent in 2004.76
Putin’s measures were in no sense a state attack on the interests of private capital, and there was no retreat from neoliberal policies. Business remained overwhelmingly in private hands; where the state had majority shareholdings, as with oil and gas giants Gazprom and Rosneft, it did not stop these firms acting as private companies. In 2017, only three of the largest ten non-financial, multinational enterprises were under 100 percent state control: Russian Railways, shipping giant Sovcomflot and the Rosatom nuclear power company.77
However, despite the recovery from the crisis of the 1990s, the fundamental weakness of Russia’s global position remained. Russia’s economy relied overwhelmingly on export of oil, gas and raw materials and its industry struggled to compete or match technological advances globally. This inability to develop its economy on a par with its global rivals had little to do with failures of economic policy and state intervention. Russia’s ageing industrial infrastructure had limited opportunities for profitable investment. Foreign direct investment (FDI) and domestic investment per capita were weak and overwhelmingly concentrated on the extractive industries. There was some significant investment in food and communications technology, but this was concentrated in Moscow.78 Russian FDI appears high for a “transitional” economy, but this is due to “round tripping”, whereby money is sent to offshore tax havens before being reinvested domestically, helping investors avoid tax. Indeed, the biggest outward destination of Russian FDI is Cyprus.79
A comparison with the growth of the Chinese economy highlights the Russian dilemma. As China industrialised and opened up to the world economy, it had key advantages. Starting from a lower industrial base, China was not as weighed down by an ageing, industrial infrastructure. While the Russian economy languished, China was able to attract sufficient investment to create new centres of accumulation on its seaboard, acting as a global hub for the production of goods. China also had huge reserves of labour to draw on, which Russia did not. In 1978, the rural population of Russia and China stood at 31 percent and 82 percent respectively; by 2020, these figures stood at 25 percent and 38.5 percent. Moreover, Russia’s population has remained static, but China’s population has increased by 50 percent.
In 1993, Russian and Chinese GDP were broadly similar at $435 billion and $444 billion respectively (with the US at $6.8 trillion). By 2020, Russian GDP stood at just under $1.5 trillion, with China almost ten times higher at $14.7 trillion. In 2020, Chinese outward FDI stood at $110 billion, while Russian outward FDI was just $6 billion.
Figure 3: US military expenditure (billions of current US$)
As Russia’s economy rode on a tide of rising energy revenues, living standards also rose, wages arrears were paid and funds poured into the state budget, enabling reform and modernisation of the military. Putin’s “vertical of power” went some way to restoring the direction and coherence to the national state apparatus, while democracy and political freedoms were suppressed. Putin’s own authority was reinforced by a wide section of Russia’s ruling class, particularly within the vitally important energy and raw materials sectors and among the vast network of industrial managers and regional and state bosses whose own power depended upon it.
Central Asia is a potent example of the interrelationship between Russia’s geopolitical dominance, the state and capital. In 2008, the European Commission proposed a “southern corridor” of energy pipelines from Azerbaijan, bypassing Russia. The aim was to open up supply routes from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Europe. However, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan lie beyond the Caspian, meaning Russia and Iran, which also have Caspian shores, could combine to veto pipeline construction, restricting the southern corridor to supplies from Azerbaijan. In 2019, gas supplies to Europe via the southern corridor were a mere 10 billion cubic metres compared to some 163 billion through Russian pipelines.80
Putin also secured the support of Russia’s military, initially for his role during the Kosovo War and in launching the brutal second war on Chechnya. However, his response to the aftermath of NATO’s war on Kosovo and the first wave of NATO expansion was more significant in the long term. Putin was closely involved in the drafting of Russia’s new military doctrine, which was signed in early 2000 in the wake of the Kosovo War. The doctrine reflected the strategic thinking of Russia’s military chiefs, now framing the West as a key external threat, with an emphasis on nuclear “deterrence” and “first use” of nuclear weapons as pillars of Russian security, including against conventional threats.81 A concept of “escalate to de-escalate” began to enter into Russian military strategy, the logic of which is to escalate to the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons on the battlefield in order to force superior conventional forces to stand down.
However, Russia’s energy and raw material base was still insufficient to overcome the vast disparity in economic and military power with NATO—as well as China. Russian GNP stood at around 3 percent of that of the US. Russia’s military expenditure was a fraction of that of the US and far behind China. This intensified the pressure on the Russian state to demarcate its regional hegemony, putting the question of the states along the Eurasian faultline at the fore of Russia’s concerns. Russia developed an implacable hostility to any form of “regime change” that could detach the post-Soviet states from Russian influence and lead to closer relations with the West and the Atlantic alliance.
Russia, NATO and the EU
The implications of NATO expansion and “containment” were not only geopolitical but also economic. Russia’s assertion of dominance over the post-Soviet states was not simply a matter of exercising hegemony for its own sake. Russia seeks to break out of the economic and military constraints on its development as an imperialist power.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia hoped for the development of a new alignment that would allow for a strengthening of economic bonds and relations between itself and Europe, even extending to a potential military alliance. It was in effect a Eurasian project, aimed at beginning to detach Europe from the US.82 However, there was a major problem with these aspirations—it would have meant a pivot away, or a breach, in the Atlantic alliance that neither the US nor Europe would contemplate and which Russia did not have the strength to influence.83
In 1994, on the anniversary of the Normandy landings, former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it like this:
Being a part of Europe and NATO is not compatible with pursuing a unique Eurasian destiny and seeking to operate as a global counterpart of the US. Unfortunately, this is not something that can be settled by a choice. The decisive fact is that Russia bulks too large, is too backward currently and too powerful potentially to be assimilated as simply yet another member of the European Union or NATO. It would dilute the Western character of the European community and the American preponderance within the alliance.84
Thus, the expansion of NATO both posed a potential threat to Russia’s borders and its regional hegemony and denied it the possibility of genuine economic partnership with Europe, consigning its position to that of a supplier of raw materials. Russia’s containment was thus both geopolitical and economic. The wave of NATO expansion in 2004, which included the Baltic states on Russia’s western flank, cemented the growing confrontation.
The crossing of the Rubicon came with George W Bush’s invitation for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO at the alliance’s Bucharest summit in 2008. This would take NATO into the heart of the Caucasus and extend it across the Eurasian faultline between the Caspian and the Black Seas. In 2007, Bush had already announced the stationing of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defence system in Romania. This highly advanced system threatened to provide the US with nuclear first strike capability. NATO claimed the system was placed to counter a nuclear threat from Iran, except Iran had neither nuclear weapons nor long-range ballistic missiles. Georgia, emboldened by apparent support from Bush and NATO, attempted to send troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia responded with massive backing of the South Ossetian forces and moved units into Georgia, inflicting a humiliating defeat on its government.
Rivalry intensified. A year after the war in Georgia, the European Union founded the Eastern Partnership (EaP), targeting six former Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. A leaked cable revealed the EaP aimed to “counter Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe” and “look for ways to enhance Western influence beyond NATO’s eastern borders”.85 The EaP was reinforced by bilateral relations, association agreements with individual countries and the establishment of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area”.86
As Sakwa points out:
The EaP represented a further qualitative change, introducing an explicit element of geopolitical contestation into relations. The high level of interaction, moreover, effectively precluded EaP members…from engaging in Eurasian integration projects.
The EaP also introduced military alliances through the backdoor; the 2009 Lisbon Treaty required signatories to association agreements to align their defence and security policies with the EU. The EaP and the association agreements therefore represented a qualitative shift in the confrontation between Russia and NATO. They served to contain and undermine Russia’s geopolitical dominance on its borders and its ability to develop economically. As Sakwa notes, the EU’s advance set back Putin’s “ambition” to “create a Russian-dominated sphere in Eurasia that would be able to hold its own in the global geopolitical struggle with America and China”.87
Through the 1990s and 2000s, Russia made a range of proposals for mutual Europe-wide and pan-Eurasian agreements. All were resolutely opposed by the US on the grounds that they would drive a wedge in the Atlantic alliance. Indeed, Russia hardly hid this as an objective, arguing that the time for NATO and “unipolar” dominance on the part of the US had passed.
Many of the writers of the “realist” school, such as John Mearsheimer, Anatol Lieven and Dmitri Trenin—as well as Sakwa and Sarotte—rightly highlight the relentless expansion of NATO, the failure to recognise the implications for Russia and the inevitability of a red line being drawn. This was given a powerful articulation in 1997 by the architect of the US Cold War policy of “containment”, US diplomat George Kennan, who described the expansion of NATO as “a fateful error”.88 However, the conclusion of these writers is that, if other diplomatic and political choices had been made, a great power confrontation in Europe could have been avoided.
The problem is that this assumes a kind of “rational choice” imperialism; if rival powers took care to understand each other’s perceived interests, conflicts could be negotiated and avoided. Yet, although there is a freedom of action and space within which different choices are made, inter-imperialist competition is systemic and cannot simply be negotiated away on the basis of some “realist” recognition of competing interests. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s attempts to assert dominance over the new independent states, and the enlargement of the EU and NATO, were inevitable consequences of continuing imperialist rivalry.
After 2000, Russia’s military budget grew by 20 percent over 9 years. Russia embarked on a further programme of military expenditure, reform and modernisation that accelerated after the war in Georgia in 2008.89 Military expenditure reached a record 5.4 percent of GDP in 2015, rising from $29 billion in 2010 to $91 billion, though it then fell by 30 percent under the impact of sanctions after 2014. However, by comparison, the US defence budget in 2016 was $573 billion, and China’s was $135 billion. Today, NATO’s 28 members are responsible for around 70 percent of the world’s $1.7 trillion annual military expenditure.
Figure 4: GDP (trillions of current US$)
The limitations on Russian military gross expenditure are telling. In 2019, in an analysis of Russian military fallibilities that now seems prescient, the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute noted that, although military reforms had improved the effectiveness and efficiency of the first echelon forces, the reduction in reserves left the Russian military with little depth and insufficient logistical and technological capability, even in the event of a regional conflict.90
On the other hand, the neoconservative dream of a “new American century”, reflecting US triumphalism and hubris after the Cold War, turned into the nightmare of defeat in Iraq and retreat from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the rise of China as a global economic power highlights the long-term decline in US dominance over world trade. This has left US now more determined to reassert its own global military power, as well as that of its allies in the Atlantic alliance and the Indo-Pacific region.
This is the context in which war has erupted on the Eurasian faultline amid the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US and NATO now openly seek to use the war there to assert regional and global dominance. The Ukrainian resistance has become subsumed by inter-imperialist war. We are entering a new era of imperialist conflict, potentially more dangerous than any the world has faced since the Second World War.
The Maidan revolt of 2014 caught the Yanukovych regime, Russia and the West by surprise. The brutal response of the regime and mass contempt for Ukraine’s corrupt elite fuelled explosive revolt. However, as Ukraine’s new rulers turned to the EU and NATO, Ukraine was torn apart by imperialist rivalries.
Russia seized Crimea and backed the separatists in the east of Ukraine with the aim of preventing Ukraine’s further orientation westwards. The Minsk Agreements, signed after 2014, froze the conflict. Russia’s aim was to reintegrate its proxies in the eastern separatist regions into Ukraine’s constitutional structure in a form that would enable a pro-Russian veto. Kiev was determined its own authority would be established in the east prior to reintegration. The real issue at stake was whether Ukraine would orient on NATO and the EU or on Russia. Ultimately, the contradictions enshrined in the Minsk Agreements could never be resolved by constitutional arrangements.91 The weak eastern regions remained in limbo; the Kiev government moved further into the Western orbit and loosened remaining ties with Russia. Despite little prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, the country was integrating with Europe economically and militarily. Ukraine’s military engaged in joint exercises and training with NATO, aligned its military equipment and forces to NATO standards, and adapted its procedures to become compatible with the alliance.92
In December 2021, CIA director William Burns met with Putin in Moscow. In an interview in the Financial Times Burns was asked why he thought after the meeting that Putin was going to invade. His response is instructive: “Strategically, his view seemed to be that his window was closing to shape Ukraine’s orientation, because from his point of view Russia can’t be a major power without a deferential Ukraine… He doesn’t believe he can afford to lose”.93
Putin’s toxic great Russian chauvinism, his ruthless repression of opposition and the climate of patriotism in Russia all feed the war fever and the brutality of the invasion. Yet, the war is not driven by one individual—nor is it the product of some authoritarian Russian character stretching back to the Tsars.
Neither Russia nor NATO wish to directly confront the other. That would risk destruction on a scale they still wish to avoid. Ukraine is paying the terrible price. Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion has been subsumed under what is fundamentally an inter-imperialist war. The political price of NATO weapons will be a territorial settlement made in Washington, Moscow, Berlin and Paris, not in Kiev. The interests of the US and NATO lie in a strategic long-term defeat for Russia, not self-determination for Ukraine. In achieving this goal the US also aims to send a warning to other states, particularly China. Driving Russia from eastern Ukraine entirely, let alone from Crimea, would risk a red line the US is unlikely to cross. Moscow is likely to escalate the conflict to avoid a strategic defeat on such a scale, potentially to the point of using tactical nuclear weapons. The European powers are showing signs of division, with Germany, France and Italy exploring a settlement that would limit the scale of confrontation and economic fallout of the war. Meanwhile, Poland and the Baltic States, backed by Britain, promote total Russian defeat.94
It is impossible to predict the proximate outcome of the war in Ukraine. Two things, however, are clear. First, any resolution will be determined by the interests of the rival imperialist powers, not Ukraine. Second, any temporary resolution will be precisely that. This is fundamentally an inter-imperialist war, and neither camp believes it can afford to withdraw and accept defeat. We have entered a new era of imperialist rivalry and an escalating, unpredictable and dangerous trajectory of confrontation between the world’s imperialist powers.
The answer to these perils lies with anti-war and class movements against imperialist war and against our rulers, and it is only these forces that can ultimately help achieve a free and independent Ukraine. The obstacles and challenges are great. Nonetheless, this makes it all the more vital and urgent that the international left throws all the weight it can behind the task.
Since the end of the 1980s, mass movements arose in Russia and the new independent states, fuelled by bitterness at the crisis and the corruption of the ruling class. Too often the rivalry between the imperialist camps has pulled such movements in one direction then another, as groups within the ruling class attempt to displace each other in the name of the masses. Nonetheless, the past two years have seen revolts in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It is these movements from below that the imperialists and ruling classes ultimately fear. If these movements develop independently of imperialist rivalry and of their rulers, they hold the power to bring down the regimes in their own interests.
That impetus for revolt can emerge with new force against the horrors of war, not only on the Eurasian faultline but in the heartlands of imperialism. The task of the international left is to foster that potential by building resistance to our own rulers and, at its heart, an internationalist anti-war movement—against the Russian invasion, against NATO and against the system that drives the world to war.
Rob Ferguson is an anti-war and anti-racist activist, a member of the Socialist Workers Party and sits on the national steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition. He has written on Ukraine and Russia for this journal and other publications. He has been involved in the campaign to protect free expression on Palestine and is the author of Antisemitism: The Far Right, Zionism and the Left (Bookmarks, 2018).
37 Ferguson, 2000.
56 Sherr, 2003, pp113-117.
57 Sarotte, 2021, p187.
58 Sarotte, 2021.
59 Sarotte, 2021, p152.
60 Sarotte, 2021, pp206-207; Sakwa, 2017, p79.
61 Treisman, 1996. Yeltsin’s vote was also helped by a ceasefire in Chechnya and the withdrawal of Russian troops.
62 See Sarotte, 2021, p75. Article 5 of NATO’s founding North Atlantic Treaty binds the alliance to consider an attack on any member state as an attack on all of them.
63 Sakwa, 2017, pp161-185.
64 Callinicos, 2002.
65 Arbatov, 2000.
66 Haynes, 1999.
67 Haynes, 2005; Wood, 2018, pp21-23; Diesen, 2018, pp592-593.
68 Schwartz, 2019, p189.
69 See Blank, 2019. Russia’s first “stealth” aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-57, only entered service in December 2020.
70 Norris, 2014; Seelye, 1999.
71 BBC News, 2000.
72 Wood, 2018, p23.
73 See the translation of Putin’s PhD dissertation in Balzer, 2006.
74 Wood, 2018, p22.
75 Wood, 2018, p23; Diesen, 2018, pp592-593.
76 Wood, 2018, p14.
77 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2019.
78 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2003.
79 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2020
80 European Commission, 2020.
81 Sinovets and Renz, 2015.
82 Karaganov, 2018.
83 Trenin, 2016, pp1-20.
84 Brzezinski, 1994.
85 Sakwa, 2017, p140.
86 Association agreements are bilateral treaties between the EU and a third country.
87 Sakwa, 2017, p140.
88 Kennan, 1997.
89 Blank, 2019, p267.
90 Gouré, 2019.
91 Allan, 2020.
92 Wezeman and Kuimova, 2018, p5.
93 Burns, 2022.
94 Such a settlement was also implicit in the responses of the US’s secretary of state for defence, Antony Blinken, in a live conversation with Foreign Affairs magazine on 1 June 2022.