Imperial Delusions

Issue: 142

Alex Callinicos

Once upon a time, after the end of the Cold War, a fairy tale came to prevail, especially in Europe: economic globalisation was washing away national antagonisms and drawing states into a benign system of “global governance” under which the peoples of the world would share freedom and prosperity. Peter Hain, when he was a Blairite Foreign Office minister at the turn of the millennium, even predicted “the end of foreign policy” as governments increasingly pursued “the new global imperative” of cooperating to address issues such as HIV/Aids and “terrorism”.1 The crisis in Ukraine, demonstrating as it does persisting geopolitical conflicts among the Great Powers, should deliver the coup de grace to this ideology.

Ideologies, however fantastic, can still have real effects. One important function of this one has been to provide the European Union with its self-image as a “normative power” uniquely embodying the virtues of globalisation and free of the militaristic bullying that disfigures the global policy of the United States.2 There was always much bad faith here: as the neoconservative Robert Kagan pointed out just before the Iraq War, the EU was only able to specialise in the soft power of diplomacy and trade because it could rely on American hard military power to keep the world safe for Western liberal capitalism.3

But the EU’s vainglorious conception of itself has survived even the eurozone debacle. It informed the casual arrogance with which Brussels offered the cash-strapped Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych participation in its “Eastern Partnership” on a take it or leave it basis, merely promising to refer Kiev to the tender mercies of the International Monetary Fund. This gave Vladimir Putin the option he seized last November of offering hard cash to draw Ukraine into his own projected “Eurasian Union”. But when Yanukovych took the bait, this sparked off a popular movement which took the EU’s promise of prosperity and human rights at face value. As Marx pointed out, “theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses”.4

Why have the ensuing revolt and Yanukovych’s eviction from the presidency precipitated perhaps the most serious confrontation between Washington and Moscow in Europe since the 1961 Berlin crisis during one of the hottest phases of the Cold War? The answer lies in Ukraine’s strategic importance to Russia. As Tim Garton Ash put it, “with Ukraine, Russia is still an empire”.5 Wrested by the Romanovs from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th century and expanded by later conquests, eastern Ukraine provided successive regimes with strategic depth, grain and raw materials. Crimea, casually attached to Ukraine by the Communist Party first secretary Nikita Krushchev in 1954, has, since Catherine the Great destroyed the Crimean Tatar Khanate in 1783, allowed Moscow to project naval power across the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean.

Ukrainian independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 was therefore a blow to the power of the rump Russian Federation, mitigated only by the agreements that have allowed its Black Sea Fleet still to use the base at Sevastopol. But the project of expanding the EU and NATO through Eastern and Central Europe and into the former USSR, pursued relentlessly by Bill Clinton and George W Bush, posed an even more serious threat. As George Friedman puts it:

Ukraine is about 300 miles from Moscow at its closest point. Were Belarus and Ukraine both admitted to NATO, the city of Smolensk, which had been deep inside the Soviet Union, would have become a border town. Russia has historically protected itself with its depth. It moved its borders as far west as possible, and that depth deterred adventurers—or, as it did with Hitler and Napoleon, destroyed them. The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States.6

For subscribers to the ideology of globalisation, such fears are archaic. But Putin is not one of them. In this he is typical of the ruling classes of the major “emerging market” economies with which Russia is often grouped, for example through the BRICS. The Russian model of capitalism over which Putin has presided is often described as “authoritarian”. This doesn’t mean it refuses integration into the world market. On the contrary, Russia has a niche as a major supplier of oil and gas, which account for 75 percent of all exports, while 45 percent of consumer goods are imported.7 Notoriously, Russian billionaires love London, as much for the access to financial markets and wealth management services offered by the City as for their Mayfair mansions.

But—like the rulers of China, India and Brazil—Putin wants globalisation on his terms, ones that allow a greater assertion of national power and a weakening of US hegemony. He has worked hard to rebuild Russian imperial power in its ex-Soviet “near abroad”. And he is determined to keep NATO away from Russia’s borders. He fought a brief war with Georgia in August 2008 to make the point.

Putin skilfully exploited the Syrian war to increase Moscow’s global leverage and denounce US global ambitions. In words that have an ironic ring now, he used the New York Times as a pulpit from which to oppose Barack Obama’s abortive threat last autumn to attack Bashar al-Assad’s regime with cruise missiles: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilised diplomatic and political settlement”.8

So it was inevitable that if Ukraine tilted westwards, Russia would react, as Putin did, first by trying to block the partnership deal with the EU, and then, after Yanukovych’s fall, by seizing Crimea. But this is a continuation of a much longer history. Ukraine since independence has been fractured by the inter-imperialist rivalries that traverse it. These fractures, however, go further into the past. Ukraine in the first half of the 20th century was like a microcosm of what Eric Hobsbawm called the “Age of Extremes”.

It began the century scattered among different states, above all Tsarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Russian Revolution unleashed a vicious struggle between revolutionaries (above all the Bolsheviks based among the miners of the Donbass in the east), Ukrainian and Polish nationalists, and Red and White armies. The outcome left Ukraine partitioned, the east a Soviet republic, while the west (Galicia and western Volhynia) was incorporated into Poland. Soviet Ukraine was one of the chief victims of the Stalinist collectivisation of agriculture, suffering in 1932-3 a terrible famine that Ukrainian nationalists controversially claim was a deliberately engineered act of genocide.9

The Second World War ushered in a new chapter of horrors. The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 carved up Poland. Moscow seized western Ukraine, but lost it along with the rest of the country when Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941. Ukraine became a charnel house. The Nazis murdered 4 million people there, while the nationalist UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) led by Stepan Bandera allied itself with them in the hope of winning independence. As the Red Army advanced westwards in 1944-5 this hope died, but Soviet forces waged a counter-insurgency war against the UPA in western Ukraine till the early 1950s. Meanwhile, once Crimea had been recaptured in 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of the Crimean Tatars to central Asia for alleged collaboration with the Germans. These deportations and subsequent immigration created an ethnic Russian majority in Crimea, which gives the lie to Putin’s claim that “Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia”.10

Selective readings of this panorama of suffering and atrocity were reactivated with the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91. Notoriously, western Ukraine, Uniate Catholic and Ukrainian speaking, orients culturally, politically and economically towards the EU, the south and the east, Orthodox and Russian-speaking, towards Russia. In the west Bandera (assassinated by the KGB in 1959) is a hero, in the east a fascist. The Tatars who returned to Crimea after 1989 form an economically marginalised Muslim Turkic minority fiercely opposed to the peninsula’s reincorporation into Russia.

Ukraine’s past created merely the potential for conflict: history isn’t destiny. Anatol Lieven argues that the elements of a common Ukrainian national identity were forged in the Soviet period, when Ukraine was for the first time unified: “Russians in Ukraine can best be understood as people left behind by the Soviet Union, very unsure of their own identity, but more closely linked to their Ukrainian home than to their Russian homeland”.11

What made conflict actual in Ukraine were the overdetermining inter-imperialist rivalries involving the US, EU and Russia, and the country’s disastrous transition from state to market capitalism. As in Russia, Ukraine’s productive resources were sold off cheap to politically connected business oligarchs who made themselves billionaires by looting the economy. In both countries this led to a phase of gang warfare, in which a weak and corrupt state allowed rival “businessmen” to settle accounts violently. But in Russia in the 2000s Putin reimposed political order on this economic anarchy, for example, taking back the bulk of the energy industry into state control. In Ukraine, however, the gangsters run the country. In the early 2000s President Leonid Kuchma was accused of complicity in the beheading of a campaigning journalist.12 In December 2012 a judge and three members of his family were found beheaded in Kharkiv.13

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy suffered an ever more severe collapse than Russia’s during the era of neoliberal “shock therapy” in the 1990s, and did not experience a recovery comparable to that under Putin. Nominal per capita income in 2012 was $3,877, lower than that of Jamaica, Tunisia, or Paraguay (Russia’s is $14,302).14 Cheap credit and high commodity prices during the 2000s masked the underlying problems, but the global economic and financial crisis cut exports, slashed output by 15 percent in 2009, and pushed the hryvnia down in the currency markets. Foreign exchange reserves fell from $40 billion in 2011 to $12 billion today. According to the Economist, “Ukraine needs to find about $25 billion this year to finance its large current-account deficit and to meet foreign creditors”.15 Yanukovych’s vacillations between the EU and Russia and the ensuing upheaval were among the political effects of the global crisis.

Politics in Ukraine is the continuation of gangsterism by other means. Political power has seesawed between two rival gangs of oligarchs, each with their own regional bases. The 2004-5 “Orange Revolution” marked a victory for the western gang, headed by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych, the loser in that contest, beat Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election, only to provoke the occupation of Independence Square in Kiev (“Euromaidan”) in November 2013 in protest against his rejection of the EU partnership deal.

The protest movement seems to have been motivated by a mixture of opposition to Yanukovych, illusions in “Europe”, hatred of all the oligarchs and their political cronies, and the Western version of Ukrainian nationalism, which gave an important opening to the extreme right.16 The influence of the far-right, and their presence in the new government, dangerous though it is, does not mean Yanokovych was the victim of a “fascist coup”, as not simply Russian nationalists but many on the Western left claim. He fell because oligarchs—notably Rinat Akhmetov and Dmitry Firtash—who had been key backers of his Party of the Regions reacted to the popular mobilisation by withdrawing their support and instructing the deputies they controlled to vote for his removal by the Ukrainian parliament.17 Some oligarchs have been rewarded by the new government by being appointed governors of eastern provinces.

So, despite “Euromaidan”, this last “colour revolution” was merely the latest twist in Ukraine’s corrupt game of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But it was a twist too far for Putin. Probably his preferred solution would be to keep Ukraine whole but weak and fractured, thereby providing a buffer against NATO. Annexing Crimea in some ways undermines this objective by removing a bloc of pro-Russian voters from Ukrainian politics.

After the 16 March Crimean referendum, Russia proposed keeping the peninsula in a federalised Ukraine and Ukraine out of NATO, but this was dismissed out of hand by the West. Even now Putin has annexed Crimea and Sevastopol separately, perhaps with future negotiations in mind (a first tentative move towards serious talks came in a meeting between the US and Russian foreign ministers in Paris at the end of March). His move in any case puts the squeeze on, not just Ukraine, but all the ex-Soviet republics—including the EU member states on the Baltic—that have Russian minorities (pro-Moscow enclaves already exist in Moldova and Georgia).

The Western response has been limited. Everyone sane ruled out military action. This is, in a sense, a continuation of the Cold War policy that tolerated the use of Soviet military power to maintain the satellite status of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But Putin would be the first to point out that the boundaries of Moscow’s sphere of influence have moved a long way eastwards. And the clamour by the pro-Western wing of the Ukrainian oligarchy for NATO membership continues, even though two ex-US national security advisers, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, have called for Ukraine to be “Finlandised”—ie economically integrated into the West, but kept geopolitically neutral. Both men have plenty of blood on their hands, but they recognise that incorporating Ukraine into NATO would commit the US to going to war to defend it.

So far Putin’s punishment is taking the form of targeted sanctions against his cronies and threats of more severe measures. The problem is that globalisation cuts both ways. Russia’s integration into the world market means that its capitalists will be hurt by sanctions, but so will the European capitalists who do a lot of business with them. Germany, the swing state in the EU, relies on Russia for 38 percent of its energy imports and did $80 billion worth of trade with Russia in 2012 (compared to a mere $19 billion for the US).18 These links explain why German chancellor Angela Merkel was instrumental in blocking sanctions against Russia after the 2008 Georgian war.

But the centrality of the US to the global financial system can be used to hurt Russian economic interests. “The US banks are a phone call away from the White House and the Senate,” one prominent Western banker told the Financial Times.19 A Russian official has predicted capital outflows of $65 to 70 billion in the first three months of 2014.20 With much less at stake economically and preoccupied with China, the Obama administration can up the ante rhetorically, and leave the EU to pick up the bill for sanctions and take most of the flak if they fail. But if it were not to respond to further Russian moves—say, in eastern Ukraine, or against the Baltic republics—then it will face the perennial problem of American hegemony: how to prevent its “credibility” draining away among allies and clients.

Meanwhile the EU must confront secretary of state Colin Powell’s warning to George Bush over invading Iraq: “If you break it, you own it.” Ukraine’s tilt westwards creates expectations of a European economic rescue. But the imposition of austerity on the eurozone “periphery” makes it politically impossible for Brussels to be generous to Ukraine. The IMF is fast-tracking a loan whose main conditions—devaluation of the hryvnia and sharp increases in consumer energy prices, rejected by Yanukovych—were accepted with puppy-like alacrity by interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Domestic gas prices will rise by more than 50 percent on 1 May.

The reaction of the Western left to this enormous crisis has been, to put it mildly, confused. Far too many (including some who should know better) have been willing to cast a blind eye at or find excuses for Russia’s military intervention. The reasons for this attitude are, in ascending order of respectability, Stalinist nostalgia, exaggeration of the role of the extreme right in the anti-Yanukovych movement, and the search for some counterweight to American power. The net result is a revival of what used to be called campism in the days of the Cold War—seeing states in conflict with the US and its allies (then the USSR, now usually Russia and China) as in some sense progressive allies of the left.

None of this has much to do with the revolutionary Marxist tradition. The fate of Ukraine preoccupied Trotsky during the last year of his life in 1939-40, as Europe rolled into the Second World War. Distilling the results of prolonged debates among Russian Marxists (which continued after October 1917) in which Lenin consistently insisted on the necessity of defending the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, Trotsky defended “the independence of a United Ukraine” (ie incorporating Polish Galicia and Volhynia) even if that meant “the separation of Soviet Ukraine from the USSR”—and this, remember, at a time when he was vehemently arguing that the Soviet Union was still a “degenerated workers’ state” that revolutionaries should defend against Western imperialism.21

Quoting Trotsky can be a religious exercise, but his views are worth bearing in mind when considering supposed Marxists who dismiss the idea of Russian imperialism as an “abstraction” or even advocate the partition of Ukraine. Putin’s apologists on the Western left must explain how their stance squares with the right to national self-determination. If they defend Crimea’s (extremely dubious) claim to separate from Ukraine, where do they stand on the long-standing Chechen struggle for independence from Russia, brutally crushed by Putin? And what will they say if Russian forces move into eastern Ukraine and become mired in crushing the nationalist insurgency that this would almost certainly provoke?

Of course, the US remains the dominant imperialist power on a world scale. And of course, it is thoroughly hypocritical for Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry to denounce Putin’s seizure of Crimea, forgetting Washington’s interventions in its own backyard such as the October 1962 naval blockade of Cuba or the December 1989 invasion of Panama (a state, incidentally, carved out of Colombia at Teddy Roosevelt’s behest at the beginning of the 20th century).

But from a Marxist perspective, imperialism is about more than American power. The classical theory of imperialism is, more than anything else, a theory of intra-capitalist competition. Imperialism is a system, the form taken by capitalism when the concentration and centralisation of capital bring about the fusion of economic competition among capitals and geopolitical competition among states.22 Putin’s actions express exactly this imperialist logic, combining geopolitical preoccupations (above all, blocking NATO expansion) with economic motivations (fear that Russian firms will be squeezed out of the Ukrainian market by European rivals).

The confused left response to the Ukrainian crisis is in part the result of an optical illusion created by the so called “unipolar moment” of apparent US global dominance after the end of the Cold War. Particularly in the light of Afghanistan and Iraq, American power has seemed so overwhelming and so malign that everything must be subordinated to resisting it. But this was always precisely an illusion. US hegemony has always been contested, reflecting the fact that imperialism involves a hierarchical distribution of power among competing capitalist states. This fact is becoming more important now.

The relative decline of US power that has become evident since Iraq and the crash is opening up a period of more fluid competition, in which the weaker imperialist states begin to assert themselves. Putin’s strategy has reflected this for some time. Potentially a much more important conflict is developing in Asia, as China’s economic rise encourages its ruling class to flex their muscles geopolitically, in particular by building up the military capabilities to exclude the US Navy from the “Near Seas” along their coasts. The clashes between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are harbingers of more to come.23

In this era of growing inter-imperialist rivalries political clarity among revolutionary Marxists is vital.24 In New York, London and Moscow the main enemy is at home (a slogan Karl Liebknecht coined in response to a great inter-imperialist war whose centenary we will soon be remembering). But acknowledging this is no reason to apologise for our own rulers’ rivals. Imperialism is a hydra-headed beast. It needs to be killed, not merely one of its manifestations.


1: Hain, 2001, p7.

2: See Anderson, 2007, for a devastating dissection of the EU’s narcissism.

3: Kagan, 2003.

4: Marx, 1975, p250.

5: Ash, 2014.

6: Friedman, 2014.

7: Economist, 2014a.

8: Putin, 2013.

9: For different perspectives on the famine, see Conquest, 1986, and Getty, 1987.

10: On Crimea, see the brilliant historical portrait in Ascherson, 1996, pp12-33.

11: Lieven, 1999, p49.

12: Koshiw, 2002.

13: Wrenn, 2012.

14: 15: Economist, 2014b.

16: See the interesting interview with a Ukrainian revolutionary syndicalist,

17: Neef, 2014.

18: McGregor and Wagstyl, 2014.

19: Farchy, Hille and Weaver, 2014.

20: Hille and McGregor, 2014.

21: Trotsky, 1974, p305.

22: Callinicos, 2009.

23: See Kim, 2013, and Dyer, 2014.

24: For an expression of this clarity at the height of the second Cold War, see Harman, 1981 (thanks to Rob Ferguson for excavating this).


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