One year on, the ‘Ukraine war’ – aka Russia’s illegal aggression amid a strategy of US/NATO expansionism, over a state that voluntarily relinquished its weapons of mass destruction and was moving closer to the EU and NATO – shows few if any signs of abating.
It has featured many crossed lines, incremental steps that render an all-out wider war or nuclear conflict more likely. The war is rooted in imperial power politics with three sets of elites reckless enough to risk total catastrophe. As ever, it is working people, not elites, who pay the price of bloodshed and taxes to pay for the war.
Yet, the war’s future probably lies more in the broad politics of power than it does on the military battlefields of Ukraine’s steppes. This politics is global, embedded in states’ policies in the Global North and South, as well as in the hands of ordinary working people not just across Russia, Europe and the United States, but the world more broadly. In our hyper-globalised and interpenetrated era, a regional war has become a global conflict, shining a harsh light on the changing contours of global politics and political economy.
One of its main lessons, up to now, is that the West’s perceived and actual relative decline vis-à-vis the rest of the world, in addition to its underlying domestic instabilities and disorders, are more visible than ever. Yet, to many ‘liberal’ Euro-American elites, there is a welcome ripple of muscular morality, unity of purpose, and concomitant resurgence of self-confidence. The Empire of Liberty is Back! But the “rest” are looking forward to seeing the back of it.
Conversely, the confidence, status and power of the Global South, including Western partners and foes, is visibly and palpably enhanced. The world is witnessing the release and increasing assertiveness of multiple forces at the level of the West, the global North and South, and at the level of the broad mass of working peoples. The re-emergence of a demand for a new New International Economic Order is symptomatic of the global disorder and crisis today.
This is not quite multipolarity, nor neatly ‘distributed hegemony’, nor mass democracy. It is a turbulent transition, a systemic series of dynamic crises, one atop another, in practically every domain, simultaneously. It is not a ‘polycrisis’ as some liberals proclaim – featuring shocks external to the system as a whole. It is an interregnum, an organic crisis, when the old is dying and the new is struggling to be born. As Farwa Sial argues, these are not a series of separate crises that are now converging and interacting, as it may appear, but sourced in the broader unipolar globalising system as a whole, and which has identifiable agents at its core.
It signals a return to Gramsci as well as the revenge of dialectics. It signals great danger for working people.
Where’s it all going?
There are simply too many interrelated moving parts to be able to predict where the conflict is headed. There are three sets of militaries and three sets of publics that are immediately impacted by the daily grind of attritional warfare, and its economic and financial effects. And there are elites around the globe and masses of people who cannot live ordinary lives, and are in motion against their own masters.
One year ago, Vladimir Putin’s Russia saw itself as a military behemoth that would roll over Ukraine. Was it not for this that NATO grew tall and spread its wings ever-eastward, far from the chilly waters of the North Atlantic? What were all those NATO defence expenditures for, especially at almost 20 times the size of Russia’s? The expensive deterrent failed to deter, despite spending so much on weapons of mass destruction and destitution. Yet deterrence as doctrine – “to preserve peace, prepare for war” – marches blindly on. And the bills are piling up on the financially narrow shoulders of working people.
Then we thought that Russia was being “cancelled”, turned off – cut off from the world, sanctioned, closed down, blockaded, excluded, boycotted. The West struck back with self-righteous fury. The hallowed Rules-Based Order was under attack. Blond-haired and blue-eyed Europeans were being attacked and must be rescued. Solemn scholars – the secular priesthood of the Order of the Rules-Based faith – wrote eulogies. It was great while it lasted. February 24, 2022: a date which will live in infamy. RIP, but prepare for war.
Don’t mention Iraq, 2003. Nor Libya, 2011. Or many others. That’s ‘whataboutism’ or ‘westsplaining’. Focus on the present. Live in the moment. History has just ended after all. Bow your heads, and listen to the masters. The masters of mendacity, manufacturers of consent, and militarism.
Americans in, Germans down, Russians out?
Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, famously quipped that the purpose of NATO was to keep the “Americans in, Germans down, and Russians out”. Two out of three aims remain. The third – i.e. the role of the Germans – has spluttered since the latter’s rearmament and entry to NATO in the 1950s. But now it seems the Germans have been dragged up by their own bootstraps.
We have seen red lines being crossed as US and NATO missiles, artillery, tanks and ammunition flow into Ukraine to the tune of over $100 billion. German tanks – last seen that far east in the Second World War – are set to join the fray. Germany has tolerated in deferential silence and obedience US destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines, as claimed by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Originally, and loudly, it was blamed on Russia. Unsurprisingly, the megaphone media of the free world stays silent on this grave violation of the rule of law. Europeans are paying for the privilege of American muscularity – as US LNG replaces Russian and costs several times more. What’s good for America is good for Germany and the EU.
Ukraine openly says that it’s a de facto NATO member now. The US and NATO, hastily extricated from Afghanistan, with Saigon-like dignity, to concentrate on the defence of Taiwan or, rather, the containment of China. They are now in it to the (Ukrainians’) death in a proxy war in Europe. US forces encircle China while shooting down dangerous Chinese weather balloons and other UFOs. Always money available for military solutions.
We are told to await the Russian “spring offensive”, and the effects of the next round of arms and weapons system transfers to Kyiv, to be able to forecast the fate of the contending parties. Russia is preparing hundreds of thousands of newly-trained soldiers – cannon fodder – for the frontline. Putin, via vicious repression and nationalism, retains mass support for his war or, at least, for defeating Ukraine. No regime change in sight so far for the autocrat that the West claims has no public support or legitimacy.
Yet, the real battlefield may well be political rather than military. There is a propaganda war raging for the hearts and minds of all publics, all of whom are paying the price of war. Just check your energy bills, the share price of Lockheed Martin, and the profits of Shell. In the end, which publics get exhausted first might be the basis of peace moves. We have to wait and see. Thus far, the pain is largely focused on the beleaguered Ukrainians – 8 million people have fled their homes, many millions live in Russian-controlled territories, tens of thousands have paid the ultimate price for the delusions of Putin, the US and their own leaders. Tens of thousands of Russian troops – young, badly-equipped and badly-trained conscripts – have been killed in action. There is more death to come yet.
Great game, people’s lives
That’s because the Ukraine war is a symptom of the fundamental long-term struggle of great powers over the Eurasian landmass, including since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet bloc and expansion of NATO into former Soviet territories; reckless expansion and security threat to Russia. Russia attacked and didn’t win quick; Ukraine’s resistance held up; NATO was encouraged by this resistance and Russian weakness and intervened to uphold a ‘Rules-Based Order’. Russia fell into the RAND trap, 2019: goad an increasingly more assertive Russia to fight the US/NATO on terms more advantageous to the latter than the former. Ukraine is perfect for this game of great power chess. Except for all those lives to be lost. And the possibility of nuclear war.
Putin is no dupe. He can read. But maybe big power rivalry has its own inexorable logic – a new NATO member on its doorstep, another launchpad for military action. The US didn’t want Soviet missiles in Cuba. Would it like Chinese military bases in Mexico or Canada?
This is the Great Game of death that the powerful play and the weak suffer. Arms firms’ stocks and shares tell the story of this war’s victors. They are in the game, it has its own momentum. Ukraine cannot now stop; Russia won’t or cannot stop, or be stopped; the US and NATO are fully committed to weakening Russia strategy a la Rand, 2019. Zero sum game – I win you lose. Continuation of the dynamics of NATO strategy since 1991 and Russian pushback and desire for security and probably Great Power restoration. Ordinary people’s lives don’t matter very much in such calculations.
A very messy multipolarity
What has been the global effect? It seems quite simple. The West is relatively isolated; and the rest of the world – outside, or semi-detached from, the Church of the Rules-Based Order – disagrees. As a recent European CFR survey of global opinion, including Turkey, India, China and Russia shows, “people in those [strategic Global South] countries see themselves very differently: as emerging great powers that may side with the West on some issues but not on others. In contrast to the days of the cold war, today one’s major trade partners are not usually one’s security partners. Even when the emerging powers agree with the West, they will often maintain good relations with Russia and China. This is also what Brazil is currently doing: President Lula speaks in favour of preserving his country’s neutrality vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia, to avoid ‘any participation, even indirect,’ even as he accepts that Russia ‘was wrong’ to invade its neighbour.”
The peoples of the Global South are mostly inhabitants of the bloody killing fields where the West fought for freedom for which millions of Koreans, Algerians, Kenyans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans, and so many other children of a lesser God gave their last breath of life. They don’t think the Ukraine war has anything to do with them. They remember centuries of death, famine, opium wars, and humiliation. They remember Iraq and Libya. They always did, but now they have economic power, and the West isn’t the only game in town. There are other great powers to trade with, invest in, side with, balance with. The balance of forces has shifted to the East and South. Sanctions? They Just Said No.
Russia and China have moved closer in all sorts of ways. China’s post-pandemic economy is boosted by increased exports to Russia; it’s getting Russian energy more cheaply than before.
New international payment methods and currencies are in a dance of death with the Mighty Dollar. Alternative currencies developing – BRICS and the Five Rs (Rupee, Rouble, Renminbi, Real, Rand). Brazil and Argentina are discussing new common currency arrangements to reduce dollar reliance that would later include other regional economies. Russian oil sales no longer rely on the dollar, but the rouble pegged to the price of gold. Iran is looking to do the same, offering discounted oil prices to willing customers like India. Follow the money. Make no mistake, the Dollar is still the global reserve currency, its store of value. But the barbarians are at the gates. They have forgotten their place.
There’s a shifting and transitional global energy order. The US is a net exporter of energy. It was before the Ukraine war, even more so now. But it is not supreme. Messy multipolarity reigns in this domain too.
A new Russian Gas Union is emerging that may include Pakistan and India, alongside Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. A Russian pipeline through Turkey and into southern Europe may be on the cards. China’s Belt and Road Initiative marches on, drawing closer to Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Russia is part of OPEC+. Saudis won’t play ball with US President Joe Biden’s request for increased oil supplies.
As former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar argues, “The US will be uneasy about a ‘gas union’ betwixt Russia, Pakistan and India. But India has vital interests in safeguarding its energy security. The western hegemony in the world order is ending. Russia’s ‘gas union’ in Central Asia signals that the time has come for regional states in South Asia to respond with a unity of purpose.”
What’s next? Too hard to call
Most observers suggest that nothing much is likely to change in 2023. All sides are entrenched in a long war, none willing to give any quarter at this stage. There is no serious discussion of a ceasefire let alone peace talks.
Russian presidential elections are scheduled for spring 2024. Putin is hardly likely to miss that opportunity to regale Russia with his war to liberate and de-Nazify Ukraine. President Biden is readying himself and American public opinion to run for a second term in November 2024. Wave the flag for freedom. His ‘historic’ visit to Kyiv this week signals US ‘resolve’ to continue the war to the end. Biden stated that: “As the world prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, I am in Kyiv today to meet with President Zelenskiy and reaffirm our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the west was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong.”
The talk is all about spring offensives by Russia, further NATO reinforcements, the possibility of transfer of F-16 fighter jets, yet greater escalation of military violence. In addition, there is a war of words, and the lessons of Ukraine for Taiwan are being brandished. The Nord Stream pipelines’ destruction reminds us of the dangers of further provocations, perhaps in the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, secretary of state Anthony Blinken, at the annual Munich Security Conference, warns China not to send arms to Russia, with no hint of irony.
Gramsci’s return – in Munich
Our era is one of deep, prolonged, organic crisis, as Gramsci noted long ago, and as a Munich Security Conference report quoted in 2019. Under the subtitle “Managing the New Interregnum,” the 2019 Report argued: “In his Prison Notebooks, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ In a way, this is an apt description of world order today.”
But a crisis, for Gramsci, is not only characterised by decline and fall but also powerful elites’ attempts to repurpose and reconstruct the order, to lay the foundations of recovery and expansion. No great empire ever gave up its powers willingly – they go down fighting to the end, and therein lies the greatest danger.
Western unity of mass and elites over Ukraine is likely to be short-lived; it is founded on a vast propaganda effort, increases in military spending in the middle of broader and deeper crises of legitimacy, economic hardship and inequality, contradictions of class and power. Wars have ever been used to deflect from actual crises, popular resistance and movements for radical change. We are back in those times. The struggle of polarised opposites is intense and likely to intensify. Nothing lasts forever. Look at worldwide strike waves, demonstrations for economic rights, against war, and for an end to police violence.
The legitimacy and authority of elites, right in the heart of the Rules-Based Order, is shot to pieces. In the United States, one of its two main political parties does not even have a commitment to democracy or fair elections. Serious scholars are asking if the US is on the verge of civil war.
In this context, we should be clear. The “Ukraine must win” mantra is a call for the continuation of a deadly war and heralds the danger of its spreading and escalating to nuclear proportions. As Irish MEP Clare Daly noted in a speech to the European parliament a few days ago, “Shout ‘glory’ all you want; there is no glory in the grave….It is time for the silent majority to take to the streets and demand peace.”
That global majority is silent no more.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is an International Fellow at the ROADS Initiative think tank, Islamabad and author of several books including Foundations of the American Century.