Anti-imperialism today and the war in Ukraine–a reply to Stathis Kouvelakis

Issue: 174

Gilbert Achcar

To my memorandum of only 930 words, Stathis Kouvelakis has published a “response” of 8,135 words – or, rather, a criticism, since my text had nothing to do with his positions, which I did not know about, unless he wished to pose as a spokesperson for my neo-campist detractors. In his response, Kouvelakis pushes against a lot of wide-open doors. The questioning of the decision to enlarge NATO is now expressed everywhere, including in the main bourgeois and imperialist media. It was really not worth devoting such a long communication to this topic if it was a question of “responding” to me, especially since Kouvelakis knows well that I have denounced this decision and its disastrous consequences for a very long time, especially in my book The New Cold War: The World After Kosovo, published in 2000 (a second, greatly expanded edition is being prepared), which he even quotes more than once.

Kouvelakis ought to have realized that my “memorandum” was intended to urgently define a concise position on the issues most directly related to the Russian invasion, and not to summarize long-held positions. If he had taken the trouble to listen to the interview I gave on 2 March to Julien Salingue for France’s New Anticapitalist Party, he would have realised that I am hardly the one who needs convincing of the need to demand the dissolution of NATO. That said, let us still look at Kouvelakis’s arguments. I will only comment on what I think is problematic in what he says, not the things I can only agree with–most of which I have said many times before. I apologise for the length of this text, although it is less than half that of Kouvelakis’s, but I had to quote entire passages of his “response”, as well as of my memorandum, in order to restore the arguments.

Let’s start with the background that Kouvelakis sets up before deploying his argument. He believes he detects a “North-South divide” in the fact, as he describes it:

In the countries of the Global South, in Latin America, in Africa, in the Arab-Muslim world and in much of Asia, support for Russia, or at least a form of benevolence towards it, is much more widespread both in public opinion and in certain sectors of the left.

This is a trend, he says, that “is also reflected in the positions of a significant number of governments, 35 of which abstained at the United Nation during the vote on the resolution condemning the Russian invasion–among them China, India, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia”.

Let’s look at the facts first. In the part of the world from which I come, the Arabic-speaking space, the only “left” parties to have supported the Russian invasion are those linked to the bloodthirsty regime of Bashar al-Assad, under Russian protectorate. The two main Communist Parties in the region, those of Iraq and Sudan, unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion, while also denouncing (as they should) the policy of US imperialism. In its statement, the Sudanese Communist Parties , after denouncing the conflicts between imperialist forces, “condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from this country while condemning the continuation by the US-led imperialist alliance’s policy of stirring up tensions and war, and threatening world peace and security”. The Sudanese Communists are well placed to know the truth of Russian imperialism, the only one of the great powers that openly supports the putschists in their country.

In the UN General Assembly vote on condemning the Russian invasion, 35 countries abstained, as Kouvelakis says. Yes, they are all located in the global South, for the good reason that the countries of the Global North either voted for (all Western and allied countries) or against (Russia itself and Belarus). However, it does not take much insight to realise that among the 141 countries that voted for the resolution, there were far more than 35 countries from the same Global South. Is it therefore a “North-South divide”, as Kouvelakis claims, or a break between friends and/or clients of Western imperialism, on the one hand, and friends and/or clients of Russian imperialism, on the other? Since most of the latter are also friends and/or clients of Western imperialisms, they preferred to abstain rather than add their votes to those of the five states that voted against the resolution (which are, in addition to the two already noted, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea).

Kouvelakis comments on “the ‘campist’ way in which Putin’s Russia, a secondary and regressive imperialist power, is perceived on the world stage”, explaining that “it is indeed this distorted perception, an effect derived from the overwhelming domination of the United States, which, by a kind of optical illusion, attributes to it some of the characteristics of the Soviet Union of yesteryear” and which makes states “among the countries of the South that intend to play their own card (let us understand: with a few exceptions, they are also capitalist countries such as China or India), perceive it with (more or less) benevolence, as a spoiler in the face of the US hyper-power”. (Note in passing that Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, not the second largest as Kouvelakis claims in his text. It even has, on its own, more nuclear warheads than the three NATO nuclear powers combined–the US, France, and Britain).

We would be in an even more terrible world than it already is if “the countries of the South that intend to play their own card” were all to be of the same ilk as China–itself the subject of debate as to its imperialist nature, which shows how simplistic the North-South scheme is in politics–or as the India of the fascist Narendra Modi. However, why would Modi’s India intend to “play its own card”, and not, for example, AMLO’s Mexico, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Bolsonaro’s Brazil (strill Putin’s admirer), the generals’ Myanmar (covered by Beijing), or Duterte’s Philippines, all of which voted for the UN resolution? In reality, Kouvelakis’s biased presentation of the facts only serves his overall approach to the subject, and reveals it.

I come to the “new cold war” which, according to my analysis of more than twenty years ago, began at the turn of the century, with the Kosovo war in 1999. This precipitated a situation that was in the making throughout the first post-Soviet decade. Kouvelakis did not read well what I wrote in my memorandum:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the second defining moment of the New Cold War in which the world has been plunged since the turn of the century as a result of the US decision to expand NATO. The first defining moment was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

This simply means that, in this new Cold War that began “at the turn of the century”, there have been two defining moments so far: the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and that of Ukraine today. I certainly did not change my mind about when it started, despite what Kouvelakis may believe.

The tone of his “response” rises as he continues. I wrote in my memorandum that, after its crushing defeat in Iraq, “the propensity of US imperialism to invade other countries has been greatly reduced, as confirmed by the recent withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan”. Then I added:

The fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression. If it fails in turn, the effect on all global and regional powers will be one of powerful deterrence. If it succeeds, that is if Russia manages to “pacify” Ukraine under Russian boots, the effect will be a major slide of the global situation toward unrestrained law of the jungle, emboldening US imperialism itself and its allies to resume their own aggressive stances.

“This reasoning is doubly unsustainable”, Kouvelakis writes. “First of all”, he continues, “the parallel between the invasion of Ukraine and that of Iraq is largely misleading. Admittedly, in both cases, these are acts of aggression and violation of the sovereignty and integrity of a state. But the comparison stops here. Iraq is thousands of miles away from the US and there was no question of it joining a military alliance hostile to Washington… Ukraine is currently supported militarily, economically and diplomatically at a very high level by the entire Western camp, led by the US, while Iraq was supported by no one and the Taliban by Pakistan alone.”

Apart from the fact that I have already pointed out these differences, including on the very site to which Kouvelakis contributes, how would Iraq’s distance and the fact that it was not supported by anyone make the fate of the Russian invasion of Ukraine not determine “the propensity of all other countries for aggression”? This is a mystery. Kouvelakis continues:

If, thanks to massive Western support, Ukraine wins militarily, which would be fair to the extent that it defends the integrity of its territory in the face of an invader, it is the entire Western bloc that will celebrate this victory as its own. Thanks precisely to this victory, it will be able to erase the disastrous images of Kabul and Baghdad – which is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the warmongering hysteria that is currently sweeping through Western capitals and media. By erasing his images of defeat, it will be emboldened to continue its march eastward and carry on imposing its law on a global level, even in less expensive forms than expeditions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, according to Kouvelakis, a victory for Ukraine would be “just”, but also disastrous in terms of its consequences. One wonders whether, by the same logic, justice should not be sacrificed to the supreme battle against the “Western bloc”, as some argue in neo-campist, pseudo-left circles. For my part, I wrote that a Russian success–a hypothesis that remains the most likely in the immediate future–”would embolden US imperialism itself and its allies to continue their own aggressive behaviour”. Kouvelakis returns the same term to me to say that a Russian failure would do the same. I disagree: the US has already benefited enormously from Putin’s action. It should be warmly grateful to the Russian autocrat.

A successful Russian takeover of Ukraine would encourage the United States to return to the path of conquering the world by force in a context of exacerbation of the new colonial division of the world and worsening of global antagonisms. A Russian failure–in addition to the US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan–would reinforce what is called in Washington the “Vietnam syndrome”. Moreover, it seems quite obvious to me that a Russian victory would considerably strengthen warmongering and the push towards increased military spending in NATO countries, while a Russian defeat would offer much better conditions for our battle for general disarmament and the dissolution of NATO.

Kouvelakis’s following words do not fit well with the editorial note that serves as the preamble to his article, which claims not to compromise on “the respectful framework that is ours”. I quote:

As a result…the “radical anti-imperialist position” that Achcar defends amounts to pleading not for peace but for a military victory for Ukraine, which Western logistical support must make possible. This position assumes its warmongering, hence its claim of “radicalism”, which it adorns with an “anti-imperialist” dimension, since it is a question of defeating Russian imperialism–except that, on this account, it is Joe Biden who becomes the true champion of anti-imperialism.

This stoops so low that it does not deserve comment. Let’s continue reading:

Ignoring the inter-imperialist character of the current conflict, this position misunderstands the consequences–however perfectly predictable–of a victory obtained under these conditions, namely a vassalised Ukraine, organically integrated into NATO, a Russia surrounded on all sides by a military alliance that treats it as a target, Atlanticism triumphing undivided over Europe and beyond.

If Ukraine were to succeed in rejecting the Russian yoke, it would be vassalized, Kouvelakis argues–this is more than likely, indeed. However, what he fails to say is that, if it fails to do so, it will be enserfed to Russia, and you don’t have to be a qualified medievalist to know that the condition of vassal is incomparably preferable to that of serf. Kouvelakis, despite his efforts, cannot hide that what he wants is somehow a draw, rather than a Russian defeat. He writes:

This grim possibility does not make Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion any less legitimate, but it is important to be lucid about the implications of the current configuration and not to tell ourselves stories. The fundamental difficulty facing the anti-war left at the moment is that, as in any inter-imperialist conflict, the victory of one side or another has devastating consequences, the worst of which is undoubtedly a generalized conflagration in Europe.

His problem is that it is illusory to wish for a draw in the event of an invasion of one country by another. A halt to fighting with the unconditional withdrawal of the invader to the pre-24 February borders would be a victory for Ukraine. A cessation of fighting with the occupation of a large part of Ukrainian territory, if not the enserfment of all Ukraine, would be a victory for Russia. An outcome that falls in between would be a mixed success for Moscow.

Let us now turn to the question of arming the Ukrainian resistance. I wrote:

We are in favour of the delivery of defensive weapons to the victims of aggression with no strings attached–in this case to the Ukrainian state fighting the Russian invasion of its territory. No responsible anti-imperialist called for the Soviet Union or China to enter the war in Vietnam against the US invasion, but all radical anti-imperialists were in favour of increased arms deliveries by Moscow and Beijing to the Vietnamese resistance. To give those who are fighting a just war the means to fight against a much more powerful aggressor is an elementary internationalist duty. Blank opposition to such deliveries is contradictory with basic solidarity with the victims.

Kouvelakis comments:

This parallel with Vietnam appears, to say the least, in bad taste. Zelensky is certainly not the “Nazi” Putin is talking about, but he is not Ho Chi Minh either…. The Ukrainian government is a bourgeois government, serving the interests of a class of capitalist oligarchs, in every way comparable to that which dominates in Russia and the other republics of the former Soviet Union, and which intends to anchor the country to the Western camp without worrying about the foreseeable consequences of such an option. Though the victim of an unacceptable aggression, it does not represent any broader progressive cause, and it would be completely aberrant for left forces worthy of the name to plead the cause of its armament.

According to this logic, therefore, one can only support a people that resists against an better-armed imperialist invasion if its resistance is led by communists and not by a bourgeois government. This is a very old ultra-left position on the national question, which Lenin attacked in his time. A just struggle against national oppression, let alone foreign occupation, must be supported regardless of the nature of its leadership; if this fight is just, it implies that the population concerned actively participates in it and deserves support, regardless of the nature of its leadership.

It is certainly not the “capitalist oligarchs” who are mobilising en masse with the Ukrainian armed forces in the form of an improvised national guard and new-style “pétroleuses”, but rather the working people of Ukraine. And in their fight against Great Russian imperialism, led by an autocratic and oligarchic ultra-reactionary government presiding over the destinies of one of the most unequal countries on the planet, the Ukrainian people deserve our full support, which does not imply a lack of criticism of their government.

Kouvelakis’s central problem is that he is wrong about what an inter-imperialist war is. If it were enough for it to be a war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side. An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo-)colonial domain of the other, as was very clearly the case with the First World War. It is a “war of rapine” on both sides, as Lenin liked to call it.

To describe the ongoing conflict in Ukraine–in which the latter country has no ambition, let alone intention, of seizing Russian territory, and in which Russia has the stated intention of subjugating Ukraine and seizing much of its territory–as inter-imperialist, rather than as an imperialist war of invasion, is an extreme distortion of reality.

“Today”, Kouvelakis adds, “given the nature of the forces involved, the delivery of weapons to Ukraine can have only one purpose, to ensure its future vassalisation and its transformation into a NATO outpost on Russia’s eastern flank.” This is not true. The sole purpose of the supply of arms to Ukraine is to help it oppose its enserfment, even if, on the other hand, it wishes for its own vassalisation in the belief that it is the only guarantee of its freedom. We must, of course, also oppose its vassalisation, but for the time being, the most urgent need must be addressed.

Kouvelakis continues his charge:

If, in view of the incalculable risks it would entail, why should it be necessary, as Achcar argues, to oppose only “direct military intervention” in this conflict and not any form of military intervention? Is the undeniable nuclear risk a sufficient reason to limit restraint to “direct intervention”?

The answer is: yes, of course. This is certainly a sufficient condition, but it is not the only one: the most direct reason–the one which, unlike nuclear war, is not hypothetical (due to mutual deterrence), but certain–is that the direct entry into war of the other imperialist camp would transform the current conflict into a true inter-imperialist war, in the correct sense of the concept. This is a type of war to which we are categorically hostile.

“The line between direct and indirect intervention is less clear than some seem to think”, says Kouvelakis. We can return the remark: this border is clearer than he thinks. This is why NATO members are unanimous (and not only Emmanuel Macron, whose wisdom Kouvelakis praises) in declaring that they will not cross the red line of sending troops to fight the Russian armed forces on Ukrainian soil, or shooting down Russian planes in Ukrainian airspace – and this despite Volodymyr Zelensky’s exhortations. This is because they rightly fear a fatal spiral, sceptical, as they have become, about the rationality of Putin who did not hesitate to brandish the nuclear threat from the outset.

If the Ukrainians’ fight against the Russian invasion is right, as Kouvelakis reluctantly admits, then it is quite right to help them defend themselves against an enemy far superior in numbers and armament. That is why we are without hesitation in favour of the delivery of defensive weapons to the Ukrainian resistance. What does this mean? Again, Kouvelakis sees nothing but fire.

An example: we are certainly in favour of delivering anti-aircraft missiles, portable and otherwise, to the Ukrainian resistance. To oppose it would be to say that Ukrainians only have to choose between being massacred and seeing their cities destroyed by the Russian air force, without having the means they need to defend themselves, or fleeing their country. At the same time, however, we must not only oppose the irresponsible idea of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or part of its territory; we must also oppose the delivery of air fighters to Ukraine, as Joe Biden envisages. Fighters are not strictly defensive weaponry, and their supply to Ukraine would actually risk significantly aggravating Russian bombing.

In short, we are in favour of the supply to Ukraine of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, as well as all the armaments indispensable for the defence of a territory. To deny Ukraine these deliveries is simply to be guilty of failure to assist a people in danger. We have called for the delivery of such defensive weapons to the Syrian opposition. The US refused and even prevented its local allies from handing them over to the Syrians, in part because of the Israeli veto. We know what the consequences were.

Penultimate point: sanctions. I wrote:

Western powers have decided a whole set of new sanctions against the Russian state for its invasion of Ukraine. Some of these may indeed curtail the ability of Putin’s autocratic regime to fund its war machine; others may be harmful to the Russian population without much affecting the regime or its oligarchic cronies. Our opposition to the Russian aggression combined with our mistrust of Western imperialist governments means that we should neither support the latter’s sanctions, nor demand that they be lifted.

Another way to translate this is to say that we are in favour of sanctions that affect Russia’s ability to wage war as well as its oligarchs, but not those that affect its population. The latter formulation is correct in principle, but it would then have to be translated concretely. However, we do not have the means to examine the impact of the full range of sanctions already imposed by the Western powers on Russia.

As for Kouvelakis, he thinks: “The task of the left is to denounce the political function of this device and to show that it is above all an instrument for suffocating a country disturbing the world order shaped by US and Western supremacy, an instrument that, basically, differs little from an act of war.”

It is again the mark of a lack of dialectical perception not to see that different sanctions can play different roles. Contrary to Kouvelakis’s dogmatic positions, we define our positions in the light of “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation”, as a great critic of left-wing dogmatism so aptly put it. As for the characterization of Russian imperialism as “a country disturbing the world order shaped by US and Western supremacy”, it once again reveals the substance of Kouvelakis’s thought.

At the end of the journey, Kouvelakis points out a common ground: “We can, on the other hand, only agree with Achcar on the last point he mentions: the unconditional reception of Ukrainian refugees.” He hastens to add, however: “But it cannot be done without noting that the quasi-consensus that surrounds it is a blatant example of the double standards of the dominant cynical discourse.” In my very concise text, Kouvelakis seems not to have realised that I did this indirectly by demanding ” that all borders be opened to the Ukrainian refugees, as they should be for all refugees fleeing war and persecution from whichever part of the world they come“. This goes without saying for us, as does hostility to NATO.

Gilbert Achcar is a Professor at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of many books, including The People Want. A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (a new edition with a new preface is forthcoming). His next new book will be titled The New Cold War: Chronicle of a Confrontation Foretold.