The Russians are here

Russia’s war with Ukraine has inaugurated the new Cold War most feared, and some wanted. Which side are you on?

Photo by Alice Kotlyarenko on Unsplash.

A week into Russia’s war with Ukraine, the global, geopolitical fissures are starting to crystallize. Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced that it would stage an “anti-fascist” conference in August; with the list of planned invitees so far including China, the UAE, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. One wonders whether other African countries will follow Abiy Ahmed’s increasingly despotic regime is joining this coalition of “anti-fascist” (read anti-liberal) states (Africa’s voting patterns on UN General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1: one against, 17 abstentions, and eight absentees, is an early indicator). Indeed, Russia’s aggression is now being cast—after obligatory mention of the Ukrainians—as a challenge to the liberal international order.

These are the terms on which this war is now framed. The great confrontation of the 20th century was between capitalism and communism, the one before us, so we are being told, is between liberalism and illiberalism. Receding into the background are the Ukrainians themselves, and further still, the fact that both the West and Russia bear responsibility for this situation. As Jacobin staff writer, Branko Marcetic summarized: “The latest escalation in the Ukraine crisis requires us to hold two ideas at the same time: that Vladimir Putin bears much responsibility for the immediate crisis, and that the long-standing US refusal to accept limits to NATO expansion helped bring it about.” Anatol Lieven made the same point in an interview with Prospect Magazine.

This nuance evades most mainstream coverage and commentary. American liberals—the most powerful of that orientation globally—are now warmongers. They want a deathmatch with Putin, who, to be sure, is deplorable. But for them, this is about reinforcing a great power status as Russia, and especially China, threaten to bring about a properly multi-polar world. It remains that there is no reason for NATO to exist, no reason for it to expand either. Still, at the encouragement of mainly the US and UK, Ukraine was encouraged to join NATO, even though there had never been sincere intention to mobilize NATO’s defensive capacities to aid Ukraine were it to come under attack. As a matter of political realism, top foreign policy thinkers have been warning for years about how such posturing would end. The deafening silence to Zelensky’s pleas for more Western support is the surest proof of its hollowness as a dream sold to Ukraine by the West. Anatol Lieven again:

We never had the slightest intention of defending Ukraine, not the slightest. Even though Britain and America and the NATO secretariat to the Bucharest Conference in 2008 came out for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia (the NATO HQ was completely behind it on American orders), no contingency plans were drawn up, not the most remote or contingent ones, for how NATO could defend Ukraine and Georgia. There was no intention of ever doing that at all.

While sharply criticizing the West’s role for creating the conditions for conflict is one thing, it is another to exonerate Russia completely and claim its posture is defensive. So goes the bizarre line being peddled by tankies and Russophiles eager to construe Russia’s aggression as an anti-imperialist advance. In this thinking, America is the one true evil and anyone standing up to Uncle Sam, a hero. Nationalists (and nationalists parading as leftists) in Africa justify solidarity for Putin’s invasion by referencing the close ties between the Soviet Union (of which, lest we forget, Ukraine was a part) and various anti-colonial movements during the Cold War. This is true, but assuming ideological continuity between the former Soviet Union and Putin’s regime betrays both ahistorical fantasy and willful stupidity. Putin himself attributes Russia’s seemingly inferior position in world politics to the communists of yesteryear while being viciously anti-communist today.

It’s no surprise then, that upon further scrutiny, those pro-Russia types are the same characters prone to glorify authoritarianism elsewhere—be it Paul Kagame in Rwanda or Narendra Modi in India. For them—like those populist sympathizers of former South African president, Jacob Zuma—the Bonapartism embodied by Putin makes for a seductive model of governance. As resonant is Putin’s anti-West, supposedly nationalist, worldview, which dovetails with the ambitions of Zuma’s “radical economic transformation” and sets the standard for state capture. Tom Parfitt’s 2014  interview of ex-Kremlin adviser Geb Pavlovsky in The New Left Review explains as much:

[Putin’s] thinking was that in the Soviet Union, we were idiots; we had tried to build a fair society when we should have been making money. If we had made more money than the western capitalists, we could have just bought them up, or we could have created a weapon which they didn’t have. That’s all there is to it. It was a game and we lost, because we didn’t do several simple things: we didn’t create our own class of capitalists, we didn’t give the capitalist predators on our side a chance to develop and devour the capitalist predators on theirs.

Putin and his apologists are anti-West simply because they long to be in its commanding place. Not against schoolyard bullies, but irritated they aren’t the biggest ones. Nationalism, as authors like Adom Getachew carefully show, was a positive force in the 20th century. Anti-colonial nationalists sought not only independence for themselves, but also the reconstruction of the international state system along egalitarian lines. Now, nationalism is a spent force, made redundant by irreversible globalization. Putin’s to-do about Russia’s glorious past and his role in preserving it serves mostly to legitimize the billionaire class that his regime spurred. And, like nationalisms elsewhere, it mystifies class cleavages in society and the economic stagnation wrought by it. Often overlooked in the analysis of the crisis is its political economy, as a clash motivated less by national feeling of the many, but monied avarice of the few. Sam Greene pointed out before the invasion (and before Russia would find out that invasion would prove a grave, economic miscalculation):

The expansion of EU influence puts insurmountable pressure on the Russian political economy to move from a rent-based, patronal model of wealth creation and power relations, to a system of institutionalized competition. Having satellite states that are governed in the same patronalist mode as Russia gives Moscow geo-economic breathing space, adding years or decades to the system’s viability. Losing those satellites removes those years and decades.

The anti-imperialist stance is not on the side of the West, nor with Russia (and by extension, China). It is refusing to pick a side in an elite-serving great power conflict using Ukraine as its proxy. The anti-imperialist position is non-alignment from below and encourages our states to follow such a foreign policy. The African proverb that history’s great purveyor of non-alignment, Kwame Nkrumah, was often wont to recite goes: “When the bull and elephant fight, the grass is trampled down.” Non-alignment, then, does not mean indifference—it means solidarity with those who stand to suffer from war most, and against war because it causes suffering for most. Therefore, we must be unequivocally anti-war, and unconditionally in solidarity (not unlike that which was afforded to the plight of Black Americans last summer) with ordinary Ukrainians, and ordinary Russians, who did not sanction this war and will endure greater repression as they take to the streets to oppose it. The best advice is from Gregory Afinogenov, an assistant professor of Russian history at Georgetown University, in Dissent Magazine:

Those in the West who sympathize with the plight of Ukraine have no choice but to trust in Ukrainian and Russian resistance to Putin’s war. Thousands of Russians have already been arrested for protesting against the war, a number that is sure to grow significantly as the war expands. Millions of Ukrainians don’t want to die in bombings, live under imperial rule, or be forced into emigration; millions of Russians don’t want to be immiserated by sanctions or be conscripted into an invasion that gains them nothing. In our response to the war, we should be careful not to simply echo Russia’s nationalist elites—they think blaming NATO will shift attention away from their increasingly repressive, kleptocratic, and militarist rule at home. Our loyalties must lie with the people of both Ukraine and Russia, and with the cause of peace.

The well-documented racism and xenophobia against Africans fleeing Ukraine, whether by Ukrainian border guards or their Polish counterparts or by ordinary Poles, has made some Africans tune out or be ambivalent. But why are we surprised?  Once again, we must resist the instinct to see the unfolding catastrophe through the prism of culture war. We can admit both the horrendous treatment of Africans, while standing with the Ukrainian people and Russians bravely opposing Putin’s war from within. Nor should the occurrence of the latter be license to spitefully side with the Russian state—as if Russia is an anti-racist paradise! Some corners of what is dubbed “Black Twitter” online, mainly influenced by American cultural and race politics, have done so over the last few days.

More dangerous, is to treat the war as if it had no bearing on Africa. Immediate concerns surround the dependence of some African countries on Ukrainian and Russian imports, and given Russia’s ramped-up presence on the continent, the implications beyond the short-term will be profound. In itself, the financial war playing out will have reverberations beyond Europe and North America, and if the possibility of nuclear escalation becomes less remote, well, the global fallout from that should be clear.

There is truth to the Western prognosis that Russia’s aggression is a challenge to the post-Cold War, liberal international order. The deeper truth is that it has been crumbling for longer than they cared to realize. The hypocrisy being called out now, on the West’s actions in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Kashmir the Sahel, and especially Palestine, tell us that the “rules-based” international system was a fiction from the start, in place to consolidate Western dominance. Putin is not the first to fight a hugely unpopular war. Furthermore, although the West will inflict as much economic pain on Russia as it can, it will preserve its material interests, and will not go as far as prohibiting the trade of Russian oil and natural gas on which its economies are dependent. We must  take advantage of this moment. Call the West on its double standards. Why are Ukrainians “freedom fighters” when they pick up arms, but a young Palestinian throwing a stone at an Israeli tank is a “terrorist”?

Outside of the media, the space where we have seen Western double standards on full display the most, is sports. In the last week, FIFA and UEFA, which control global and continental football in Europe respectively, went from hedging about the war (Russia’s national team could still play fixtures but sans national colors, anthems, and flags) to an outright suspension of all Russian national and club teams from its competitions. Similarly, some of Europe’s top clubs funded by Russian money, most notably Chelsea, Everton, Schalke, and UEFA itself, have cut ties with Russia’s oligarchs. Anyone familiar with FIFA, or any of the other global sports bodies known for their reticence to punish Russia, was thrown for a surprise. Just last month, the IOC, which organizes the Olympics, allowed Russia to compete despite its national teams openly using banned substances to increase their chances of winning. Also, with the exception of the sports boycott against Apartheid South Africa, FIFA has rarely acted against rogue states, especially ones who illegally occupy and oppress others: Saudi-Arabia in Yemen, the US and its various invasions and occupations in the past, Morocco in Western Sahara, India in Kashmir, and Israel over the Palestinians, just to name a few. Israel’s case is one that hits closer to home for European football: Israel is a member of UEFA.

Perhaps, after Russia and Ukraine inevitably sit around a table to negotiate a new relationship, another consequence may be ushered in—one in which global hypocrisy and obfuscation, whether by the world’s governments, media, or publics, about the suffering of others that don’t look like “us,” have to face up to their own light. And then imagine, together, another kind of world, underlined not by great power competition, but solidarity binding ordinary people across borders. As Nkrumah put it, facing neither East nor West, but forward.

Probably not. Still, we dream.

Further Reading