Fighting Imperialism? Or joining the Imperialists?

R.W. JOHNSON / Russia’s war on Ukraine has been openly supported by South African Communists (and the ANC and EFF) on the grounds that they are thereby fighting “Western imperialism”. In this bizarre interpretation Russia’s security was threatened by the adhesion to NATO of various East European states and the consequent expansion of NATO towards Russia’s borders. And, of course, NATO is viewed as synonymous with “Western imperialism” although it is a purely defensive alliance. Even in the case of Ukraine, NATO powers go to elaborate lengths to provide only defensive support and veto any attack on Russian territory.

When the USSR dominated Eastern Europe all the Soviet bloc countries were dragooned to join the Warsaw Pact – something they could hardly refuse given the presence in their midst of large contingents of the Red Army. That was a classic extension of imperial power. Joining NATO, by contrast, is something which individual states have had to decide for themselves and there were no NATO troops in their midst to help persuade them. (Now, at their request, there are token NATO detachments on their soil.)

Look at the new applicants for NATO membership, Finland and Sweden. No one believes that they are being pushed to join by other Western countries, let alone by NATO troops. They are simply very alarmed by Russian imperialist aggression in Ukraine and want to be protected from it.

Finland, in particular, is still very conscious that Finnish territory was annexed by Russia thanks to the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the subsequent Russian invasion of Finland – gains which Russia still holds. For fifty years Russia denied that their pact with Hitler had clauses about territorial gains. Only in 1989 did they finally admit the truth. Even then they pretended that the Baltic states had joined the USSR of their own accord. It’s all of a piece with Putin swearing that Russia had no intention of invading Ukraine until the day they did. It is little wonder that East Europeans do not trust Russia.

In terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the USA and the UK), after all, the signatories promised to guarantee the sovereign independence of Ukraine if Ukraine gave up all its nuclear weapons. Yet Russia has brazenly ignored that commitment and now insists that Ukraine has no right to exist as an independent state.

Standing history on its head

This denial of Ukrainian sovereignty reverses a commitment which is far older than the Budapest Memorandum. In 1945, after all, Stalin persuaded Churchill and Roosevelt to accept Belarus and Ukraine as UN members separate from the USSR on the grounds that these really were sovereign independent states. Putin’s reversal of all that and his claim that Ukraine is “an artificial state” which really belongs to Russia is simply and straightforwardly Russian imperialism.

The unhappy truth is that the SACP and ANC were slavishly pro-Soviet throughout the Cold War and, during the Sino-Soviet conflict, they were also anti-Chinese. Loyalty to whoever is in charge in Moscow is simply their Pavlovian response and in the name of that they are willing to deny any amount of reality.

This was, actually, visible throughout the South African struggle. For over thirty years SACP and ANC activists criss-crossed the Soviet bloc, happily accepting the “People’s Democracies” at face value. They all regarded themselves as revolutionaries, first and foremost, yet the irony was that they didn’t recognise for one moment that they were living in not one but multiple revolutionary situations.

The “People’s Democracies” end their nightmare

For the truth was that everywhere in the People’s Democracies a majority of the population longed to overthrow the regimes that ruled them. Several of them – in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – actually attempted such revolts but were fiercely suppressed. Finally, in 1989-90 the oppressed peoples got their chance and every one of them took it. There was no NATO intervention, nor any need for it. Everywhere popular majorities simply overthrew their Communist rulers.

Nobody now denies that all the elections ever held in the People’s Democracies were rigged and that had free choice been allowed to prevail, there would never have been such dystopian nightmares as these states, ruled by the secret police and Soviet imperial emissaries like Vladimir Putin.

Similarly, no one denies that all these states are now fully independent democracies. They joined NATO because they wanted to. No one made them do it. There was no NATO plan to expand into Eastern Europe: instead NATO was besieged by newly democratic states wanting to join. They wanted to join because anyone living close to the Russian border has every reason from history to believe in the reality of the Russian imperial threat.

Imperial states

The point that needs to be grasped is that both Russia and China are imperial states. Instead of colonising overseas empires like the British or French, they extended their rule over vast adjacent areas. (The USA did the same but installed a robust democracy throughout its continent – while, crucially, China and Russia remained autocracies.). This meant that their huge imperial extent also became a key component of their national identity, which in turn makes it difficult for Russia or China to decolonise in the way that West Europeans did. Hence the historian’s saying that “Britain once had an empire but Russia is an empire”.

Both Russia and China achieved their gigantic extent as autocracies and as explicit empires, governed by the Tsar or the Emperor respectively. When these countries were taken over by Communists the new rulers merely preserved these empires – and added to them if they could. They remain empires.

And today they also remain autocracies, with Putin unembarrassedly likening himself to Peter the Great. Like Peter, he has built himself a great palace and like Peter, he treats the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church as his loyal servant. He now even sings the praises of Ivan the Terrible. And of course Stalin is back in fashion for the empire reached its greatest extent under him, stretching all the way to Berlin. Xi Jinping is even more clearly the new Mao-cum-Chinese Emperor.

However, Russia and China are on very different paths. When the USSR collapsed the whole Soviet empire fell apart. Eastern Europe – what the historian Stephen Kotkin called “the outer empire” – emancipated itself, as did the former Soviet republics.

The last time this had happened was in 1918 when the (equally autocratic) German and Austro-Hungarian empires fell apart amidst their defeat in World War I. This, together with the consequent Versailles Treaty, was experienced by both these states as a huge national humiliation, visited upon them by the Western powers. This ignited a furious nationalist reaction, intent on reversing Versailles and restoring German greatness. Hitler rode this reaction to power and reunited Austria with Germany to found the “Thousand Year Reich”.

What is happening in Russia is much the same. The fall of the USSR – which Putin regards as the “world’s greatest tragedy” – was experienced as a huge national humiliation, inflicted by the Western powers. Putin has done exactly what Hitler did, seizing upon the grievances of Russian-speakers outside Russia, just as Hitler did with German minorities outside Germany. In both cases the motive was to attempt to reconstitute as much as possible of the old, lost empire.

It is hardly a coincidence that Putin is a devotee of Ilin, an admirer of fascism, and Dugin, a Russian philosopher with Nazi tendencies. His castigation of the Ukrainians as Nazis is simply laughable. Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew, emerged as the Ukrainian President from a free, multi-party election.

Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, used irregular forces to invade Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and simultaneously did the same in Crimea. He frequently menaces the Baltic states and Moldova and has bullied Belarus back into a subservient role. And in 2022 he attempted to recolonise the whole of the Ukraine, insisting that Ukraine was an artificial state and had no right to exist as an independent country.

Oddly, Putin is happy to work in Africa with many states that are far more recent and artificial than Ukraine, with its more than thousand year history. Indeed, the Central African Republic, now wholly run by the Wagner group, is the first African state to be completely recolonized. This ought to be a major landmark for African anti-imperialists.

Russia in decline

However, Russia is a steeply declining power. Its population is steadily falling. Its GDP, at only $1.48 trillion, means that it is some way behind even tiny South Korea ($1.63 trillion) and it is fast being caught by Brazil, Spain, Australia and Indonesia. In fact Russia’s GDP is exactly the same as that of New York state. Its economy is simply based on the export of oil and gas. Nowhere in the world are Russian manufactured goods competitive – except its arms. Next year its economy is predicted to shrink by more than 5%. The war with Ukraine has caused the flight of around a million well-educated Russians, a large and damaging brain drain.

There seems little doubt that Russian decline will continue and as that happens there will be a strong tendency for the empire to further fragment. Already the war in Ukraine has greatly weakened Russia’s position: Ukraine has been firmly pushed into the Western camp, NATO has been further strengthened thanks to the proposed Finnish and Swedish accession and Putin’s aggression has triggered a large programme of Western re-armament. Russia has lost its crucial Western markets for oil and gas. Its struggle to recolonise Ukraine greatly resembles the French attempt to hang on to Algeria. We know how that ended.

China, the rising imperial power

China’s position is quite the opposite. Thanks to its high economic growth it is an expanding power and has been forcefully re-imposing itself on outlying (and virtually independent) parts of its empire – Tibet, Xinjiang and soon, it hopes, Taiwan. It has also been pushing on its borders with India and has frontier disputes with many other states. In addition, of course, it has been conducting a huge imperial expansion into the South China Sea, quite brutally imposing its power on neighbouring states.

So when Xi Jinping looks ahead he can look forward to China becoming the world’s largest economy and possibly its greatest power. He talks of fulfilling “the Chinese dream” and is quite confident that this century will belong to China.

Putin, if he is at all realistic (an open question), can look ahead only to further Russian decline. This seems to have triggered a willingness to embrace Gotterdammerung visions of the future, including the possibility of nuclear war with the West. Putin knows that throughout Russian history defeat in war has always led to the actual or attempted overthrow of Russian regimes. If he loses in Ukraine he will not survive and will, indeed, go down in disgrace and ignominy. In his present very strange state of mind the idea of going out in a nuclear holocaust may even have some appeal.

Putin now leans heavily on his alliance with China, an alliance in which he is very much the dependant – a humiliation of its own given that throughout the Soviet period China was much the weaker partner in that relationship.

However, a key moment came with the visit to Beijing in November 2022 of the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. Scholz, having re-oriented the whole German economy away from Russia, was keen to retain the vital trade relationship with China. This he seems to have achieved. In addition, he and Xi Jinping discussed world affairs and the Chinese leader firmly ruled out any possibility of a nuclear war, saying this must be avoided at all costs. A nuclear war, after all, would be the only way to stop China from fulfilling its “manifest destiny”.

This was a crucial statement for it means that Putin cannot risk using nuclear weapons if he is to keep his Chinese ally – which, by the way, has not been providing him with arms. The Russians, now facing often superior Western weaponry, are desperately scavenging arms from Iran and North Korea. Not China.

The Chinese threat

The drama is even greater when one realises that the declining Russian empire greatly fears being cannibalized by other powers. China is the greatest of these. For many years now illegal Chinese immigration into sparsely populated Siberia has been a worrying factor in many Russian minds.

Siberia is immensely rich in natural resources and even if China’s population has ceased to grow, there are still 1.4 billion Chinese. Russia’s population is 146 million but there are only 105 million ethnic Russians – 5.5 million less than there were in 2010. For Russians these are alarming facts. Only one fifth of Russians live in Siberia’s 13.1 million square kilometres so it is pretty much empty, an enormously tempting target for Chinese penetration.

Already China is displacing Russia as the dominant power in the Muslim  Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan. China actually has territorial claims on all these states but it is much preoccupied by its suppression of the Uighurs in its Xingjiang province and is desperate to avoid the rise of any pan-Islamic or pan-Turkic movements in these neighbouring states. So it has opted for a smothering neo-colonial penetration instead. For now, at least, that’s enough.

By far the most important of these states is Kazakhstan – the world’s 9th biggest country with a population of only 19 million. Chinese oil companies have invested over $20 billion in oil and gas here – in 2005 the China National Petroleum Company bought outright Petrokazakhstan, the largest independent oil company in the ex-USSR. In 2010 China lent the Kazakhs $10 billion while also taking a stake in MangistautMunalGas, the largest gas company.

After 9/11 the US (which had taken the lead role in dismantling Kazakhstan’s strategic nuclear weapons) leaned heavily on Kazakh help for its forces in Afghanistan and actually proposed setting up US bases in Kazakhstan. This elicited a furious reaction from both Russia and China and the US backed off, though it remains the second biggest foreign investor in Kazakhstan with Chevron oil company to the fore. The US also had a transit air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan but handed it back to the Kyrgyz government in 2014.

Naturally, China’s Belt and Road programme has been extremely active in all of these republics and there has also been an alarming (to the locals) increase in Chinese immigrants pouring in – already they completely control the import/export trader in Kyrgyzstan, for example – though the governments of these central Asian republics are too cowed to protest.

Similarly, none of them dares support their Uighur co-religionists – indeed, Uzbekistan even hands back Uighur refugees to the tender mercies of the Chinese. Tajikistan has, pathetically, written to the UN Human Rights Commission praising China’s policy towards the Uighurs for “its achievements in the field of human rights”.There are many Uighur refugees in Kazakhstan but they don’t feel safe there – for China’s oncoming imperial power is evident to all – and they flee on to other countries.

However, just to make the point in May 2020 the Chinese website, Tuotiao, revived China’s territorial claims to the whole of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan which, it says, were taken from it by an unequal treaty imposed by Imperial Russia in 1863. This produced frantic diplomatic protests but the point had been made. Similarly, when ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz erupted in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 China made it clear that it was considering military intervention.

The real question is whether these Central Asian republics will simply remain Chinese neo-colonies or whether China will one day re-assert its claims to absorb them altogether. Either way, they’re lost to Russia. This is quite a thought when one considers that Kazakhstan has been crucial to the Soviet/Russian space effort, that it was the centre of Khruschev’s “virgin lands” project and so on.

Impotent Moscow

Moscow doubtless regards with dismay the way that Beijing has displaced it as the dominant imperial power throughout Central Asia but it is powerless to stop[ it. There is every reason to expect Chinese influence to grow and grow there – as it also doubtless will in Mongolia and Siberia. There are nervous Russian jokes about a future in which “all is quiet on the Chinese border with Finland”.

This is the context for Putin’s crazy war in Ukraine (“Ukrainians and Russians are the same people, so we’ll bomb and kill the Ukrainians”). One should remember that the French Empire first lost Morocco and Tunisia and was then humiliated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by the Vietnamese. It was because it felt its empire slipping away that it fought such a bitter, though pointless, war to keep Algeria. Russia is in much the same situation and its empire will end as certainly as the French one did.

The South African connection

What is one to say about South African Communists and the ANC and EFF activists who support Russia’s war against Ukraine in order to “oppose imperialism” ? In the larger scheme of things, they are hardly significant – though their influence doubtless explains why the ANC government is siding with Russia.

There are only two possibilities. The first is that the SACP has still not understood that China and Russia are imperial powers. This is quite possible. The Party seems not to understand imperialism and, indeed, to have lost touch with Marxism. Once the SACP included major Marxist intellectuals like Jack Simons. No more. There is no one of any theoretical stature left in the SACP or ANC and few educated people of any description. So they mouth old slogans and clutch their old romantic attachments. It is all they have left.

The second possibility is that the Party – and the ANC – have simply decided to side with what they hope will be the winning empires. Certainly there is no doubt that China’s economic and technological success has greatly excited them. They are, of course, only too willing to overlook China’s dark side. And they have almost certainly not grasped the extent of Russia’s decline, let alone China’s encroachment on the Russian empire.

It is genuinely difficult to know which of these things is true. Perhaps it is a mixture of them. The only clear underlying theme is a visceral anti-Westernism.

The real oddity, though, is that South Africa is, however imperfectly, still a democracy, with freedom of association, religion, speech and the press. The ordinary voters of the SACP, EFF and ANC would find it completely intolerable to live under either the Chinese or Russian autocracy where none of these freedoms exist. But the fact that SACP/ANC/EFF leaders are so willing to embrace Russia and China can only mean that they care little about democracy or, for all their protestations, simply regard it as unimportant.

Two key developments

The first is the article in Vzgliad – “Liberal Opposition as directed by the US is undermining friendship between Africa and Russia” (25 January 2023). Vzgliad is edited from inside the Russian presidency and must therefore be assumed to be Putin’s voice. It dwells happily on the way South Africa has sided with Russia over Ukraine but attacks the DA, which criticises that commitment, as the voice of American imperialism within South Africa.

This is important, particularly when one considers that the ANC government is doubtless receiving many less public Russian messages to the same effect. And many people within the ANC/SACP regard messages from Moscow as Holy Writ.

The implication of this is that the DA must on no account be allowed into government. A coalition with them is, on this view, a coalition with the CIA. If that means an ANC-EFF coalition, so be it. At least the EFF is also pro-Russian. Elsewhere in Africa Russia has used Wagner mercenaries and other extremely ruthless tactics to destroy the opposition to regimes it favours. But much more is at stake in South Africa whose support the Kremlin really welcomes.

The DA will be naive about this only at its peril. Russia is already quite expert at election interference. And FSB (ex-KGB) operatives have been working in South Africa for over twenty years now. Kompromat frame-ups of DA politicians are the least of their worries though those who are foolish enough to refer to their spouses as “road-kill” are tempting targets.

Secondly, the ANC is in a blind funk about power cuts. It is looking at opinion polls showing that the party could well get well under 40% in an election thanks to the monumental mess it has made of Eskom. Its instinct is to evade responsibility but this won’t work. Eskom has outlined its best plan which is for permanent but low level power cuts for the next two years while other measures are taken.

This is no use to the ANC which is certain that it cannot go into the 2024 election with power cuts still happening. So the ANC Command Council which will, under the State of Disaster, take control of the matter, has to come up with something else.

It will no doubt come up with a crazy and unworkable plan but it can’t change physics. And it is quite desperate. So it has appealed to its BRICS partners to help out. That means Russia and China. Russia will doubtless renew its offer to build nuclear power stations at a huge price. That’s no good: even if they could be afforded, they won’t arrive before 2024. It’s unclear what China can offer and anyway it lacks Russia’s urgent motive. Probably there’s nothing to be done to stop power cuts before the election. But dirty tricks against the Opposition are another matter.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap