A convenient enemy
Hillel Ticktin delves beneath the propaganda to reveal what is really driving the friction between Russia and the west
To understand the current relations with Russia we have to understand the present global situation. The poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury in March 2018 was attributed, by the government and the media, to Vladimir Putin. From the way the newspapers reported it, you might conclude he ordered it personally. But it is quite clear that nobody in Britain really knows who actually did the ordering.
Putin was shown on TV calling Sergei Skripal, the former KGB officer, a “padonok”, which seemed to support the view that he had no regrets. The Russian word implies that he was the lowest of the low, the dregs. Perhaps Putin did order his assassination, but other Russians were killed in the UK earlier, like former secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko, and there was not the same scandal. Policy had changed in the UK, as well as in Russia.
However, in the Skripal case, although the government could not possibly know exactly who was responsible, it took a very strong anti-Russia stand. So the real issue is: why was Britain driven into a semi-warlike state with Russia at the time? The answer is connected to the global political economy - or, to put it another way, the political economy of the American empire. That is to say, the reason for the semi-warlike state was to establish what amounts to a means of stability within the global American hegemonic form. It did, in part, achieve that stability.
What is clear is that since the end of the Soviet Union the break-up of its territories left Russia in a state where it has a GDP less than that of Italy. If you look at other figures - numbers in the army, weapons and so forth - it is a fraction of what the Soviet Union was. The one thing that it does have is atomic weapons, and it is worth commenting on their role.
It is possible for a country like the United States, Russia, Britain or China to eliminate an enemy, provided they can actually get to them. But the number of countries with ballistic missiles is limited - the US and Russia have most of them - so it really amounts to those two countries. Russia does not have the economy to support the constant updating and improving of these ballistic missiles, but I do not think that really makes much difference: after all, it can destroy the world anyway, as things stand.
Of course, the idea of despatching an atomic weapon to another country is not a straightforward one - even for the various nutcases who have been in the White House. Not just because it would not look good, but because once either side starts doing that, they not only destroy their enemy, but very quickly destroy the entire world. Consequently there probably never was a situation in the cold war where either side would actually have launched a nuclear bomb - in spite of the fact that the propaganda always said that they would. If you look at the discussion over Cuba, for instance, Nikita Khrushchev had supposedly given orders to send over an atomic bomb if such and such had happened. But that does not ring very true - the United States could then have dispatched ballistic missiles which would have wiped out the Soviet Union very quickly, so it does not make much sense. (Unless Khrushchev had decided to give such an order, knowing it would not be carried out. But that is something else.)
The point of all this is that, although America and Russia have most of the ballistic missiles and atomic bombs in the world, they are highly unlikely to use them. The fact that the two sides are now discussing low-key atomic weapons supports this idea. In other words, they are discussing developing atomic weapons which don’t destroy too much - a crazy scenario, but that is what is happening. So, although an atomic war is possible, it is very unlikely - even the use of low-level weapons is somewhat unlikely. The fact that Russia has atomic weapons is likely to ensure that no such weapons will be dropped on it, and it is unlikely to drop them on anyone else.
That is not really the issue. We have to look at what Russia really is, for Russia is not the Soviet Union. Putin, it seems, has a mystical advisor - his chaplain, who lives next door. He is, apparently, a Christian, who also believes in some sort of mad mysticism. But Putin is hardly a great enemy of capitalism. After all, what exists in Russia today is a form of capitalism - Russia is very much part of a transitional world. If you read International Monetary Fund reports, they seem to begin and end with advice to Russia to privatise everything, otherwise it cannot be efficient. You would, of course, expect them to say that.
The state plays a considerable role in the Russian economy, both directly and through state-influenced or state-controlled enterprises and sectors. When Putin was elected he renationalised some sectors. I say all this to give some understanding of why Russia may be an enemy, according to western governments, but it is in fact a very weak enemy (and may not really be an enemy at all). Or it may be that they need to have an enemy - or perhaps Russia itself likes being regarded in that way. But in reality what kind of an enemy is it?
Russia’s economy was effectively ruined in the 1990s and has never picked up. That is not just true of Russia, but of eastern Europe too. Privatisation resulted in attempts by various individuals to establish themselves in an environment where they could be as rich as possible. And, of course, there are in Russia various so-called oligarchs. I think it was an IMF report which pointed out that something like half of its GDP comes from outside Russia. In other words, the ‘oligarchs’, by various devious and what otherwise would be illegal means, have acquired wealth that has been exported to the west and is now in various havens. A very considerable portion of Russian GDP has been exported and continues to be exported. In fact it is easy for people to take their money out of Russia - it is a very peculiar state in that respect.
Britain is a particular haven for Russian wealth. Various governments have decided that is a good idea for the ‘prosperity of Britain’. And, of course, it worked: the balance of payments did improve somewhat as a result. But the media have made quite a thing of it and the present government is now ‘checking up’ on these guys, we are told.
And, of course, the United States is targeting a group of people of this kind on the grounds that they are the people who really run Russia. Now it is true that it is impossible to believe Russia is run just by Putin - which is the way it is put. Whenever you read anything about what is happening in Russia, it begins with Putin, with something that he says. His biography, written by Masha Gessen,1 is useful in one respect: it makes it rather clear that Putin is hardly highly educated or skilled and certainly not some kind of genius able to run Russia all by himself.
It looks like he came to power with the aid of a section of the former KGB - that is what is implied in Gessen’s book and elsewhere. Apparently they decided that enough was enough, that the mess that had been created by Boris Yeltsin had to be dealt with. So a group of influential figures backed Putin for president.
The point being that Russia is a country very much controlled by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor. The Economist has claimed that for the last two years or so all state departments have been run by the FSB - the whole state is run by the secret police. Presumably they are put in charge because they are regarded as less corruptible and more subject to orders than other people.
So this is a very peculiar state. Quite clearly it cannot last very long in its current form. Apart from the various election farces, there is the fact that Russia is ruled by a group of people whom we don’t really know. One person who did try to make something of it was Mikhail Khodorkovsky.2 He said there was a circle of something like 100 people around Putin who were basically in charge of everything, which is probably true. Obviously the secret police plays a crucial role.
In the 1990s the Russian economy was virtually destroyed. In principle it could have been reconstructed through the oligarchs taking over and then expanding and developing the economy as a capitalist entity in competition with other states. But the United States would not allow it - they did not want Russian businessmen to buy out various firms in the west.
With China there is some accommodation: the US will not allow China to buy up certain firms in certain countries, but elsewhere it has done so: a deal was struck in 2000. In the case of Russia this was not permitted and so Russia could not actually develop. The US was not in favour of helping it develop. It wanted Russia to become a subordinate power: ie, effectively part of the US empire.
Of course, the term ‘empire’ is not usually used in relation to the United States, but it correctly describes the way the world exists today. It is very clear that if any other country, or firms from any other country, want to break into the world market they effectively have to have permission to do so. If the US does not like it, well, that’s the end of it. The world market is dominated by the United States and a small number of associate countries, which Donald Trump is doing his best to destroy - which gives an indication of why Trump will not last very long.
The essential point is that the way the oligarchs made their money was by gaining access to state assets - and then running them down to a point where today the crucial assets are merely raw materials. In terms of industry Russia is not even a second-rate power. It is extremely weak in economic terms. That is what the IMF says - and then goes on to complain that in Russia there is too much state control. But it is not state control that has done the damage. However, without changing the mode of production to full capitalism - or alternatively to a socialist mode - Russia is simply not going to develop.
There remains within the workforce an attitude that lingers on from the Soviet Union. In the USSR no-one wanted to work, as everybody knows, and the level of productivity was very low. And it is still very low - Russia is totally uncompetitive in the world market. That could be changed if there was a process of integration with the assistance of developed capitalism, but developed capitalism does not want it. It wants Russia to remain part of its market as a subordinate power.
It is that relationship which is causing the friction. What Russia is trying to do is hold on to what it has. So, if you look at eastern Ukraine, it was based on the industrial structure of the Soviet Union and is closely related to Russia itself. And it remains integrated with Russia today. It is not an accident therefore that there was an uprising in eastern Ukraine (although Ukrainian is the national language, everyone also speaks Russian and a significant minority are primarily Russian-speaking).
So it is hardly surprising that, given the nature of the Russian form of capitalism, Ukraine was seen as being targeted for a takeover by the west. It was even proposing to join the European Union. The Russian hierarchy knew that such a development would leave them in a considerably worse position - and that has turned out to be the case, even though they fought against it as hard as they could.
Although, of course, one has to uphold the independence of Ukraine against Russian intervention, it is very hard to support any government in the Ukraine, given that today it honours Stepan Andriyovych Bandera, who collaborated with Nazi Germany. Of course, it is not surprising that such developments occurred in the former Soviet Union, but the left can hardly support them.
This relates to the chaos we see in all the countries of the former Soviet Union. And, of course, today Russia has various relationships to those other territories. In Tajikistan the Russians fought against the Islamists and still have troops there. There is a close relationship between the two states. Russian space rockets are launched from Tajikistan. It is part of the Russian sphere of influence which the United States is trying to squeeze.
So inevitably there is conflict. If the United States were not a predatory power, it would have incorporated Russia. But it does not attempt to do so. However, the US is in decline and today it is not able to incorporate states in the way that it previously incorporated Germany, Japan and South Korea.
Instead Russia is judged to be an enemy. Yes, the United States is an imperial power and Russia is an inferior state which is regarded as having been defeated. But logically it does not make sense. Here you have the US and Russia, both headed by ostensibly Christian presidents, so why can’t they just get together? Why are they fighting?
What we have is a declining American power which does not fully know its own interests and is unable to sort out what it could do in order to succeed in incorporating Russia. But, there again, if the US has an empire, doesn’t it actually need an enemy? The cold war was ideal for maintaining and building the American empire, even though the USSR even then was not really the enemy of the United States - a point made by many standard studies on the nature of the Soviet Union.
If you read the works of George Kennan, a US diplomat and historian who wrote extensively on the USSR, although he was writing from the point of view of a supporter of the market and US capitalism, he was well aware of the Soviet Union’s weaknesses. He knew it was hardly likely to ‘take over the world’. He argued that it was a ‘status quo power’ and the west should treat it in that way. Kennan was not in any sense leftwing, and his view became a kind of standard for many scholars in the field.
So, if the Soviet Union was a ‘status quo power’, why then the cold war? As an empire, the US needed an enemy who was out to destroy it, to frighten its own citizens into giving their support. So the USSR was portrayed in propaganda terms as being of that character.
In the time of Stalin that was perhaps understandable. After all, what Stalin did was so extreme that he will go down as probably the worst killer in history. But what succeeded him was not like that - Khrushchev did not organise massacres. His programme after 1956 was social democratic, so why was the USSR still portrayed as such an enemy?
Why did they need the cold war? The Soviet Union was unlikely to conquer anybody - in fact by this time the USSR was against communist parties taking power. The answer, of course, is that an empire - particularly in the present day - needs an enemy against which it can unite its different components. Therefore we have to build up our own army, we have to build up our defences, we have to maintain a form of censorship ... And, of course, it worked.
That is one of the main reasons why today the ‘Russian threat’ is still talked up. It is not that Russia is not ruled by a dictatorial regime, where if anyone steps out of line they risk severe repercussions. When I was in Russia under Putin several years ago, I was made aware of leftwing activists who had been arrested and killed by the secret police.
So there is no question that from our point of view the Russian regime is an opponent which we have to fight. But we should oppose the talk of it being an enemy of the United States. Such a regime is our enemy - just as the United States is too.
In other words, to understand why Russia has been turned into an enemy we have to understand the American empire. Firstly, the US needs an enemy and, secondly, the United States itself is in decline. I do not think there is any other way in which you can explain why Trump is promoting this particularly stupid attitude towards Russia.
That attitude is ideological - although that does not necessarily apply to eastern Europe too. Here there has also been deindustrialisation - which is why so many could not get a job at home and had to come to Britain to pick strawberries. That is the result of this process whereby, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, industry has been liquidated.
However, America is, of course, not the first empire which did not like it when it had competition and which ensured that its own companies remained on top by any means necessary. We have to understand that the world we are in today is one in which the United States is the global superpower. And the most potent global power is financial. When the United States abandoned the gold standard in the early 1970s, its replacement as the global standard was the dollar. Today the Chinese are finding it very difficult to promote their own currency internationally, precisely for that reason: because of their interaction with the United States. True, the IMF has made some sort of concession to them, but in general the world standard in money terms is most certainly the dollar. And that is one of the major features of US global control.
The problem with a gold standard is that gold does not automatically maintain the same value. Over the last 20 years it has increased from a few hundred dollars to $2,000. However, while speculators might buy gold in the hope it will appreciate, things may go the other way. That is why many regard it as more reliable to stock up in dollars, which is what in fact is happening. This gives the United States enormous power, and, of course, Russia is subject to that as well.
To conclude: the current relationship between the United States and Russia or between Britain and Russia has more to do with the global American empire than with, say, the attempted assassination of a former KGB operative - that is simply an excuse. They have invented an enemy, even though that enemy is against the working class and in favour of capitalism. The essential point is that although it is a seeming paradox, it makes quite a lot of sense in a world where we are given a series of false explanations and the real action is hidden from view.
1. M Gessen The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin New York 2012.↩
2. See Newsnight interview: https://youtu.be/EA8x_ozvtqo.↩