UK/NATO: stay out of Russia’s territorial waters!
Neutrality equals ‘conscious or unconscious’ support for imperialists
BT at ‘People’s Assembly’ demonstration in London, 26 June
On 22 June the British destroyer HMS Defender carried out a deliberate provocation when it sailed into Russian territorial waters off the Crimean peninsula. No one took seriously Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s talk about “innocent passage” nor the claim that Britain was simply “exercis[ing] its right to freedom of navigation.”
Russia responded by firing a few salvos and dropping a few warning bombs at a safe distance from the Royal Navy vessel. The Defender got the message and left Russian waters rather than risk being sunk. Various bourgeois analysts viewed the episode as a dangerous and unnecessary display of arrogant shortsightedness. The Economist described it as “bold, but risky,” while the libertarian Ron Paul Institute in the U.S. more accurately branded it as a “shockingly provocative move.”
The Kremlin has indicated that future forays may not be met with the same degree of tactical restraint. Marxists recognize the inalienable right of Russia (as well as Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other non-imperialist countries being bullied by the UK/US or other NATO imperialists) to vigorous self-defense against military threats from land, sea or air.
The operation was clearly carried out in cooperation with, if not at the direction of, the American hegemon with the support of its allies and vassals in the imperialist NATO alliance. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s beleaguered Tory government is no doubt hoping that military participation in the US project of encircling and goading Russia will improve Britain’s chances for nailing down some sort of trade deal to help arrest the country’s spiraling descent into post-Brexit economic and social instability. Johnson probably also thought that if he was lucky, a confrontation with Moscow might provide a patriotic distraction from media coverage of his government’s endless corruption scandals and the ongoing bungling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ukraine and Crimea
The conflict over Crimea originated in 2014 when a U.S.-organized coup overthrew Viktor Yanukovych after he opted to accept $15 billion bailout from Moscow rather than turn Ukraine over to the tender mercies of the IMF and Western finance capital. The Kremlin responded by organizing a popular referendum in Crimea which produced a massive majority in favour of rejoining Russia from which it had been severed in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned it over to Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula has enormous geostrategic importance because it is home to Russia’s Sebastopol naval base. In an article in Foreign Affairs (September 2014) John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago explained:
“For [Vladimir] Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president – which he rightly labeled a ‘coup’ – was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.”
—“Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault”
Brown University’s Stephen Kinzer sketched some of the background to the 2014 Crimean crisis in a 3 March 2014 article published by the Boston Globe:
“From the moment the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States has relentlessly pursued a strategy of encircling Russia, just as it has with other perceived enemies like China and Iran. It has brought 12 countries in central Europe, all of them formerly allied with Moscow, into the NATO alliance. US military power is now directly on Russia’s borders…. This crisis is in part the result of a zero-sum calculation that has shaped US policy toward Moscow since the Cold War: Any loss for Russia is an American victory, and anything positive that happens to, for, or in Russia is bad for the United States. This is an approach that intensifies confrontation, rather than soothing it.”
—cited in “Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia Tectonic Shifts in Global Politics,” 1917 No. 37
The myth of Russian imperialism
The many ostensibly revolutionary organisations that hailed the 2014 U.S.-engineered coup as a popular uprising, and opposed the accession of Crimea to Russia despite the overwhelming endorsement of the affected population, did so on the grounds that Russia is “imperialist.” Yet unlike actual imperialist powers, whose predatory relationships with colonies or semi-colonial countries centre on pumping value out of them, Russia’s weak capitalist class have not invested in establishing factories, mines or plantations; nor have they undertaken to build the transportation infrastructure—railway, ports, canals etc.—necessary to exploit such assets. In fact, rather than economically exploiting its dependents and allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (all former Soviet republics), the Kremlin has been subsidizing their economies by supplying energy at prices substantially discounted from current world market rates.
To our knowledge, none of the assorted impressionists and “Marxist” muddleheads who so glibly proclaim Russia to be “imperialist” have made any serious attempt by explain exactly how this is supposed to work. The economic inputs/subsidies are certainly no secret. In 2014 (13 March), a few weeks after the U.S.-engineered coup which brought down Yanukovych, the Washington Post reported:
“Consider also that Russia’s ‘friends’ have proved expensive. Moscow’s closest ally, Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, gets about $7 billion a year in fuel subsidies and as much as $2 billion a year in Russian loans and grants. The two tiny client states that Russia took from Georgia after the August 2008 war, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have received more than $1.8 billion in Russian direct investment and $800 million in ‘private’ investment from Russian state-controlled companies. Add in eastern Ukrainian provinces and allied Central Asian states, and Russia could be on the hook for $12 billion in annual subsidies.”
Attempts by the new pro-NATO regime to wean Ukraine off Russian energy came at a high price for Ukrainian consumers:
“But as Ukraine works to reduce its gas dependence on Russia the specter of ‘electricity dependence’ is now emerging. Due to aging energy infrastructure and rising demand, the Zelensky Administration actually resorted to importing cheap electricity from Russia back in October 2019. In May 2020, the Ukrainian Government appears to have realized the political and economic consequences of this decision. Ukraine’s closest allies in Europe—Poland and the Baltics—also firmly oppose Ukraine’s imports of Russian and Belarus electricity. As a result, the electricity import policy was abandoned—much like its imports of Russian natural gas was halted five years ago.
* * *
“However, the obstacle to the introduction of this methodology, as well as many other reforms in Ukraine’s energy sector, is that electricity in Ukraine is still treated not as a commodity produced under free market conditions but rather as a ‘basic public good’—a misguided legacy of the USSR. The RAB [Regulatory Asset Base] approach to tariff entails a secure payback and return on investment that is sufficient to service loans and generate profits for power generating and distributing companies.
“Financially stimulated by the RAB tariff, companies are then encouraged to maintain and modernize the power grid, ultimately providing private and corporate consumers with reliable, reasonably priced supply of electricity. RAB tariffs were an integral part of the energy market reforms carried out in other post-Soviet countries….
“This tariff, as witnessed in Western and Central Europe, is the key to unlocking foreign direct investment into the domestic grid. It’s true that end users like households and industry may see modest, short term rise in electricity prices as inefficient subsidies are phased out, but a more competitive grid will ultimately push prices down in the long run, and more importantly increase grid reliability and attract foreign investment.”
—Forbes.com, 26 June 2020
There is clearly no advantage for most Ukrainians to see electricity lose its “misguided” status as a “basic public good” in order to sell off their country’s energy grid to benefit foreign hedge fund owners. For ordinary Ukrainians, giving up “inefficient” Russian subsidies means having to pay more for electricity and heat.
Down with imperialist aggression!
While many groups which impressionistically brand Russia as “imperialist” have not commented on the recent provocation off the shores of Crimea, the Socialist Workers Party said the incident displayed “the dangers of the Tories’ aggressive nationalism—and how imperialist rivalries constantly threaten war,” adding that the UK/US axis represents “a new level of military alliance that if [sic] designed to fit a world of sharp imperialist rivalries with China and Russia.”
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) one of the most completely politically degenerated pseudo-Trotskyist groups on the planet, apparently supports NATO’s aggressive stance toward Russia and the Chinese deformed workers’ state. They recently published Ukraine Solidarity Campaign activist Chris Ford’s interview with Peter Duncan of University College London who bizarrely describes imperialist sanctions against Russia and China as a way to promote “world peace”:
“Socialists should call for sanctions against the Kremlin, particularly against those responsible for the actions against Ukraine and for repressive internal policies. It is not easy for socialists to support the foreign policy actions of their own governments when they appear to be promoting international tension. But the threat to world peace now comes from China and Russia rather than from the liberal democracies, and some of these sanctions are aimed at removing the oppressors and warmakers”.
—workersliberty.org, 27 April 2021
Red Flag, the Labour Party entrist formation previously known as Workers Power (WP), have maintained a discreet silence on the UK’s recent provocation, but the comrades of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT) who split from WP’s Fifth International ten years ago, openly took a dual defeatist position on any conflict between NATO and either Russia or China:
“We characterize Britain (and the other Western G7 states) as well as Russia (and China) as imperialist Great Powers.  Hence, this is an inter-imperialist conflict in which all both states pursue reactionary goals. Consequently, we equally oppose both sides and their militarist foreign policy (sanctions, armament, military maneuvers, etc.). In case of a military confrontation, the RCIT advocates a defeatist position on both sides in such conflicts. None is the ‘lesser evil’ for the working class and the oppressed people.”
The RCIT pointed out that most of the left groups which share their position on Russian and Chinese “imperialism” have thus far avoided any public comment on the incident:
“most left-wing organizations imagine that they have a political right to remain silent of which they make an extensive use. So, they take no position – at least not in public – on the first shooting incident between a NATO state and Russia and hope that none will ask them on this issue.”
Our former co-thinkers in the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) got all worked up about “Russian imperialism” in Crimea in March 2014, in tandem with the imperialist propaganda campaign then cranking up. At a time when there was a lot of speculation that Crimean secession from Ukraine could lead to an imminent military conflict, our former comrades drafted a 5 March 2014 statement declaring: “We demand the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol)”. In a recent exchange on the significance of this statement, we reminded the comrades that “there is a logic to politics”:
“You demanded ‘the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol)’ at a time when the ‘local puppets’ of Western imperialism, as you described them, were making belligerent noises about defending Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’ and taking possession of this strategically important military installation. You called for the expulsion of Russian forces from their Crimean base, while we solidarized with those who resisted any such attempt. It seems obvious that these counterposed positions put us on opposite sides of the hypothetical barricades. It is equally obvious that, in a military conflict, those who support a primary strategic objective of one side at the expense of the other can hardly claim to be ‘defeatist on both sides.’
“We are curious whether you still call for the expulsion of Russia from its Black Sea base. This is of course still advocated by NATO, the U.S. State Department, et al. We would be pleased to learn that you have reconsidered your position. We are also interested in any comments you may have on our criticisms re Iran and Venezuela.”
While the comrades have yet to respond as to their attitude to Russian backing for Iran and Venezuela they appear to have walked back their previously objectively pro-NATO call for expelling Russia from Sebastopol, even though they have not as yet openly acknowledged this change of position. An IBT statement issued shortly before the HMS Defender provocation, contains the following convoluted explanation as to why they do not recognize the right of the people of Crimea to reverse Khrushchev’s 1954 diktat and return to Russia:
“The annexation of Crimea followed a referendum in which a large majority of the population voted in favor of that option. Opinion polls today show that most Crimeans prefer being under the control of Moscow, which has invested $20 billion in the territory (Washington Post, 18 March 2020), though neither Russia nor the Western powers are motivated by the wishes of the people who live on the peninsula. For the imperialists, Crimea’s significance lies in the position of Sevastopol as a naval base on the Black Sea. Marxists are not opposed to reconfigurations of borders under capitalism that do not infringe on the democratic rights of nations, but we refuse to support either side in inter-imperialist wrangles over strategic territories.”
The default setting for Marxists is flat opposition to any attempt by imperialist powers to expand their territory at the expense of neo-colonies or dependent capitalist states. The IBT’s agnostic position on Crimea does not adhere to that protocol, which is perhaps an indirect acknowledgment that despite the nasty character of Russia’s capitalist ruling class and the Putin regime, the Kremlin’s foreign policy is guided by rather different considerations than those of the world’s actual imperialists. We outlined this critical distinction previously in relation to Russia’s role in supporting regimes being bullied by the US and its allies:
“The Chinese Stalinists and Putin’s bonapartist capitalist regime share an obvious interest (along with the Iranians, Cubans, North Koreans and others on Washington’s hit list) in impeding the U.S. drive for global ‘full spectrum dominance.’ Like the Iranians and Hezbollah, whose fighters actively defended Assad, when Beijing and Moscow provide material support to regimes threatened by U.S. imperialism they do so because they consider it to be in their own self-interest. But their motivations are not that of imperialist predators.”
As Leon Trotsky explained in 1937 in discussing the conflict between China and imperialist Japan, it is vital for revolutionaries to be able to correctly analyse social and political reality in order to intervene effectively:
“At the same time we must carefully distinguish between the imperialist countries and the backward countries, colonial and semi-colonial. The attitude of the working class organizations in and towards these two groupings cannot be the same. The present war between China and Japan is a classic example. It is absolutely indisputable that, on the part of Japan, it is a war of rapine and that, on the part of China, it is a war of national defense. Only conscious or unconscious agents of Japanese imperialism can put the two countries on the same plane.
“That is why we can only feel pity or hatred for those who, in the face of the Sino-Japanese war declare that they are opposed to all wars, to wars altogether. The war is already a fact. The working class movement cannot remain neutral in a struggle between those who wish to enslave and those who are enslaved. The working class movement in China, Japan and in the entire world must oppose with all its strength the Japanese imperialist bandits and support the people of China and their army.”
—”Pacifism and China“
Revolutionaries oppose the entire imperialist campaign of sanctions and provocations directed at Russia and recognize the Kremlin’s right to military action in defense of its territory, including the territorial waters around Crimea. Genuine Marxists unequivocally defend Russia against NATO/UK/US bullying and aggression, just as we do Iran, Venezuela and other potential targets. We of course offer no political support to the anti-working class regimes in those countries, while at the same time stating unequivocally that in the event that escalating hostilities turn into a hot conflict we stand for the defeat of the imperialist aggressors and the defense of their intended victims.