Tuesday 1 March 2022

A Case Study in Decrepitude

In many ways, contemporary Russia is the culmination of trends present in Britain and the United States. Whereas a balance of constitutionalism, long-established (but strictly limited) democratic norms, and the combustible potential of civil society has dragged on the long-dominant programme of marketisation and privatisation, that hasn't happened in Russia. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the old economy has been sold off and looted by a fast emergent plutocracy. Institutions of state get by on a shoestring, and not even oil and gas money can shift the stubborn miasma of decay. If that wasn't bad enough, the authoritarian bent of our governments show a Russian-flavoured vision of a possible political future: an increasingly isolated and insulated autocrat cut off from the world, while the inefficiencies of their tyranny is content to leave what passes for civil society alone, as long as its movements don't mount direct political challenges against the creaking state. With economic power concentrated in few hands and political power held by even fewer, how much is this state of decomp responsible for the military debacle unfolding in Ukraine?

The poor performance of the Russian army has become the surprise consensus of Western war punditry, and while there's plenty of propaganda doing the rounds the use of social media triangulated with multiple reports paints a concerning picture - for the Kremlin. The viral footage of farmers towing away military hardware, of Russian soldiers complaining about being out of gas, and of armoured columns apparently shot up by Ukrainian drones. A Putin propaganda master stroke to lure his opponents and the West into a false sense of security about the quality of Russian arms, or what it immediately appears to be: an incredible display of ineptitude? Perhaps using up a load of fuel and provisions on manoeuvres in the freezing mud of Belarus in the weeks prior to the invasion wasn't the best of ideas.

As Ukraine has proved, no tragedy is without its moments of farce, but even if Putin's forces weren't experiencing the stubborn resistance we're seeing, from the conventional armed sort to human chains blocking convoys on Ukraine's highways to singing the national anthem at bemused Russian troops, that Putin would meet opposition was forecast by everyone with eyes and an internet connection. Putin, who was the world leader Nigel Farage previously most admired because of his acumen and feel for the international scene, grossly underestimated not just Ukraine but the diplomatic wall the West has quickly erected against him.

Hubris is one charge laid at Putin. As Ben Judah rightly points out, in recent years the top of the Russian state has undergone significant degeneration. From a mafia council to one boss ruling alone, Putin's closest lieutenants are his creatures bought by office holding and gas money. The oligarchy that supported the regime for so long are at arms length, literally distanced in the case of those domiciled in London or sailing the seven seas on their super yachts, or are either out of sorts or have fallen out with their former champion. Just like political parties in the West who erode as they become cut off from their planks of support and fall prey to their mythologies, it appears Putin has arrived at this destination through a simple process of social distancing, in the non-Covid sense, from his base. This does not mean that Putin lives inside an illusion pushing around imaginary battallions on a map, but it does mean it is distorted. And this helps explain his decision making.

On the Western powers, unfortunately there is a grain of truth in the oft-made warhawk claim about Syria. When Putin threw his support behind Bashar Al-Assad's regime the absence of effective action against the Syrian government precisely because Russia was now involved was obviously noted. The same was probably true of the Salisbury poisonings too. This summer the Anglo-American alliance abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban and famine, having seemingly lost their resolve to defend their client government. And since 2003, Western publics have grown more wary of military entanglements. Add to this the shocks that have rippled through the body politic over the last decade - Brexit and its bad tempered negotiations, Trump, Corbynism, the collapse of the centre left in Europe, so-called culture wars, divisive referenda, and the fall out from Covid all, from the end of Putin's overlong table it looks like his traditional opponents are in a state of disarray. And then there are Russia's recent military adventures. The ghost of the first Chechen war was put to rest by the shock and awe brutality of the second. Then there was the short, sharp police action against Georgia which set up puppet regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and then the swift annexation of Crimea which was relatively hassle-free. The relatively low level war in Ukraine's eastern breakaway republics notwithstanding, this run of operational luck can inflate the perception of a military in the eyes of its commander-in-chief. Faced with an apparently divided West and a Ukraine that didn't put up much resistance to the bites Putin took out of it in 2014, living in splendid isolation with yes men spinning the military intelligence reports, we get some way along the road to understanding the conditions of Putin's thinking, and the grounds of his miscalculation.

What Putin got wrong was, obviously, Ukraine's resolve. With a better equipped and a larger army than eight years ago, plus a motivated population determined to push out an invader, it should have been obvious to everyone, especially someone historically as savvy as Putin, that the force assembled was not up to the task of subduing a large country. The second is his misreading of the West. While he was right NATO and the EU would not commit troops to fight in Ukraine, he miscalculated its appetite for sanctions, even if they caused the West some inconvenience. And he got this wrong because it directly confronted the common foreign policy interests of Europe and the United States. The West was and is divided over what to do in the Middle East, but not when it comes to containing Putin's revanchism on its eastern frontier. Putin is forcibly trying to remove an EU-NATO client state from the West's orbit for a Russia-friendly, dismembered buffer state. He is therefore confronting Western interests directly, and they will not countenance it. And given their collective economic and soft power clout, the other major world powers - India and China - are observing something of a Trappist silence with Xi, apparently, very displeased with Putin's adventure. They have used their influence to diplomatically isolate Russa like no big power has been since the Second World War. It didn't take genius insight to read where the tensions are and where there is unity among the Western alliance, but this is exactly what the Kremlin has failed to do.

The grey beards liked to talk about the materialism of historical processes, how social being conditions consciousness. To put it crudely, ideas don't drive history. Rather it is history that gives rise to thought. In Vladimir Putin, we see this play out like simple chemistry experiments in a laboratory. The decay of post-Soviet Russia was exacerbated by the class he championed and the state he contructed. The looting of his country's wealth and its disappearance into certain jurisdictions has left Russian infrastructure in a state of advanced disrepair, and the rot has spread throughout the political body, from the corruption of the state to the decrepitude of the military. This decomposition he and his cronies have overseen and profited from has boomeranged back, conditioning the thinking behind what is an egregious miscalculation. Putin has made a serious mistake that could cut short his time at the top, and one ensuring a river of blood lies between now and the consequences of his actions catching up with him.


Graham said...

All correct except the phrase "EU-NATO client state".

Ukraine is an independent nation and the principle job of the left is to assert the right of nations to self determination and to oppose imperialism.

Ukraine is nor more a EU-NATO client state than France or Germany. They have the same right to join, or not, any trading bloc they want as does Italy or Poland.

"EU-NATO client state" is the sort of word play coming out of the Stop The War group and those that want to vacillate over opposition to Putin.

Anonymous said...

A partially excellent analysis by Phil here , at least of the utterly corrupt, Mafioso state that is now the Russian bit of the dismembered old Soviet Union dictatorship. What is totally missing though is an analysis of what the Ukraine itself now is as a state (alongside all the other oligarch-infested, post Soviet Union empire component states). The Liberal Left, totally in step with the dominant Western MSM 'narrative' on the Ukraine as a state (and the poster , 'Graham' above), choose to completely ignore the easily demonstrable fact that the Ukraine , just as with Russia and all the other component territories of the collapsed old Soviet Union, experienced the same epic robber banditry privatisation of previously state-owned key productive assets, by a new , often ex Soviet bureaucracy, and criminal gangster clans, new private bourgeois capitalist oligarchy . Although the Ukraine has a strange ex comic actor, Jewish, populist president nowadays (reprising in real life his popular role as a populist president in his previous actor role on Ukranian TV !) , the entire economic base of the Ukraine is still owned by the same post-Soviet collapse robber oligarchs , and the Ukrainian military and institutions of the Ukranian state really are widely infiltrated by open neo Nazis , who have put up statues to their WW2 'heroes' like Stepan Banderas who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in Ukranian SS battalions , to massacre many hundreds of thousands of Ukranian ethnic Poles and the Ukranian's large Pre War large Jewish population (Babi Yar for these nutters is a key holocaust site to celebrate , not condemn ! ).

Yet the likes of poster 'Graham' still choose to consider the Ukraine as a state with some sort of genuine Liberal Democracy, and, alongside Phil, in his otherwise good analysis. lets the undoubted empire-building aggressive expansionary role of both the EU and NATO off the hook as a causal factor in this terrible conflict.

Let us also not forget that the Russian-Speaking , ethnic Russian (implanted mainly by Stalin as a 'loyal' population infusion ) population of the industrial heartland Donbas region really ARE an oppressed minority. The Right Wing coup of the Maidan uprising led immediately to the Ukranian Parliament robbing Russian of its place as the second language of Ukraine, as crude Ukrainian nationalism took hold . It was the total failure of the Ukrainian government to implement their required key part of the two Minsk Agreements - to implement the promise to fully recognise the Donbas separatist region semi autonomous status which has led to years of ongoing trench warfare, NOT Russian intransigence. Only the Ukrainian government could implement this key part of the Minsk Agreements - but they didn't - and supported instead the Nazi militias who have attacked the Donbas separatist region ever since. .

The Liberal Left, as ever, has utterly capitulated to the skewed, self-serving, narrative of the MSM , without using socialist analysis to understand that there are no pristine 'good guys' here, , plenty of innocent civilian casualties of course, but at core, rival capitalist blocs on each side , with their competitive oligarchs (and the increasing facade democracy status of Western states does really unveil the Western capitalist class as just another group of oligarchs), coming to blows in a way highly reminiscent of the path to global war in 1914. And, as in 1914, the supposed 'Left' are mainly lining up behind their own capitalist class, and buying into the skewed, misleading, narrative 'our' capitalist class are weaving every day. One slip,(trying to set up a 'No Fly Zone' for instance, as our crazy Tory Right Wingers want) and we will end up in a full-on nuclear exchange with that unstable gangster state, Putin's Russia. .

Jim Denham said...

In reply to all Putin-apologists and useful idiots (eg 'Anonymous', above):

It's true that Ukrainian governments since the Maidan protests of 2014 been right-wing nationalistic, and neo-liberal, though the present regime of Zalensky has been making some efforts to deal with the oligarchy and corruption.

But that does not distinguish them from most other governments in the world. And Putin’s rule in Russia is arguably far worse: authoritarian, autocratic, corrupt, imperialist, and an ally and financier of far-right parties throughout Europe.

But, just as the Maidan protests were not a “fascist coup”, so too none of the post-Maidan governments have been a “fascist junta”. “Right-wing” is not the same as ‘fascist”.

The narrative of “fascism in power in Ukraine” was concocted by Moscow in 2014 as a way of galvanising and justifying (in the name of “anti-fascism”) the separatist movements which it created as a cloak for pursuing its own political agenda.

In any case, in a debate about the Russian invasion of Ukraine the question is irrelevant. No-one on the left argues, for example, that Palestinians are not entitled to national self-determination until they end the reactionary and corrupt rule of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas.

1729torus said...

Besides the damage to China's reputation, I think one reason Chinese President Xi is so angry is that Putin has wrecked the entire "New Silk Road" initiative, which basically entailed China building railway lines across Eurasia to Europe.

The idea was that the railway lines would bring economic development to the poor interior of China, and help insulate China against the possibility of an naval blockade in the Pacific. No doubt China was hoping that if they ever invaded Taiwan, Europe would stay neutral and so they could continue to trade with them over land even if shipping goods by sea was impossible (the US would be in no condition to start a trade war with the EU if it was caught in a war with China at the same time).

Russia has now driven Europe into the arms of America and reinvigorated the Transatlantic Alliance. The odds of Europe being neutral if Taiwan were invaded are basically zero now. America will just ask the EU to shut down the railways, and Europe will happily oblige (with the implicit understanding that America will likewise help sanction Russia in turn if they get aggressive). So the New Silk Road isn't of as much use during wartime as it used to be.

What about right now? Well the US and EU have made it clear they'll happily sponsor Ukraine's fight for freedom for as long as Kyiv wants to keep the war going. China is faced with the nightmare of a perpetual trade war and insurgency that wrecks economies across Central Asia and makes the Silk Road impassible. You can see how each day they become more and more desperate to get the violence to stop.

Anonymous said...

The wannabe AWL 'toy revolutionary, Left Liberal , Jim Denham, opts for liberal moralism rather than socialist (never mind Marxist), analysis , as usual. The 'EuroMaidan' coup certainly was a regime change coup - from one , pro Russian, set of ruling Ukrainian oligarchs - to a rival set of Ukranian pro EU, oligarchs - aided by significant on the streets key physical force input from the organised ASOV, and other, neo Nazi and ultra nationalist, and openly Nazi, Far Right .

That doesn't make the current regime a 'fascist junta' of course, as the pro EU oligarch installed by the EuroMaidan coup was replaced by the bizarre phenomena of a Jewish actor/comic as President by a huge majority vote! This was the downside for the pro EU/pro NATO oligarchs - in that the EU and US (which were meddling heavily behind the scenes as the coup happened), had to support continuing , open, democratic elections - and the Ukranians in huge numbers preferred an actor/comic with nil political experience, to yet another robber oligarch , of any faction. The current President, however, has little actual power, being outside the ruling, competitive, circles of Ukranian oligarchs , who now own, via faked post Soviet Union era 'auctions' of state assets, all of Ukraine's productive wealth, and is hence forced to constantly tack to the wishes of the pro EU/NATO winning post Maidan coup faction, and their significant Far Right Nazi street army.

There are THREE or even four sets of competing oligarchs at play in the current crisis - ie, the allied Russian and pro Russian Ukranian gangster oligarchs, the pro EU/NATO Ukranian gangster oligarchs , and their allies, the ruling (behind the Liberal Democratic facade) oligarchs of the Western capitalist classes, represented by the neoliberal EU and NATO . None of these competing factions 'winning' will restore the productive wealth stolen by the various Ukranian oligarchs to public ownership, and end the endless robbery of the Ukranian population by these gangsters. So the very issue of 'national self-determination' so glibly vomited out by Denham and other Left Liberals, is a complete fantasy . Only a socialist revolution in the Ukraine (and of course Russia and all the old Soviet republics too), will ever restore the productive wealth to public ownership, and end the kleptocracy of the oligarchs - and produce genuine 'national self determination' .

So spare us your liberal garbage about 'national self-determination, Denham, such a thing simply isn't on offer in any possible current outcome to this crisis . The mass of Ukranians will continue to be robbed blind by one or other gang of oligarchs - either in the sphere of influence of the gangster state led by Putin, or the expansionist neoliberal enforcement machine of the EU - always seeking to expand eastwards - to access ever more cheap labour to keep wages down across the EU, and compete in labour costs with China, Vietnam, etc. This crisis is not one socialists should be picking sides on. Regardless of the current mass suffering of ordinary civilians, it is a battle between capitalist blocs and their rival oligarchs , not a battle for genuine 'national self-determination' as naive Left Liberals think.

McIntosh said...

I am not sure you are right about the poor performance of the Russian army. It may be wishful thinking on our part since we want it to do badly. It does seem to be on the outskirts of the cities it wants to be on the outskirts of. It does not seem to be in headlong retreat anywhere and it seems to be able to move its reserves at will.

Our sources for its poor performance seem to be people who never told us truthfully how well there armies did in their invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The statements of POWs about things may not be entirely reliable either.

Might be wise to wait another week and see what has been seized, then judge.

Richard said...

Wargaming says Russia is pretty much where it could and should be:


Jim Denham said...

Are, so you'd side with Luxemburg against Lenin on the national question, eh "Anonymous"? Fair enough. But of course Luxemburg was a brave and principled revolutionary who used her real name, not a preposterous keyboard poseur hiding behind anonymity.

Anonymous said...

So, Jim Denham, it's silly schoolyard abuse , not analysis for you as per usual then ? You obviously have no answers at all to my previous detailed analysis of the nature of the divided Ukranian oligarch class , and Ukranian state, and the multi capitalist oligarch (Russia/Ukraine, and the EU behind its increasingly thin 'democratic' veneer) competitive conflict behind the current crisis, just liberal Guardianista platitude soundbites, around that very slippery , multi-meaning , slogan of 'national self-determination' .

What about some actual socialist, class-based, analysis for a change. I think we could hope for better from the once sporadically quite analytically acute AWL grouplet. But that is yet another former Marxist grouplet that has dissolved its politics into Left Liberal moralistic mush to attract an entirely Left Liberal middle class membership. There can be no genuine 'self- determination' for any of the disparate recently created nation states of the old Soviet empire whilst all their productive resources are in the hands of the various robber baron oligarchs who stole their wealth as the Soviet Union collapsed. The populist ex comic actor president of the Ukraine certainly has no intention, or power, to renationalise the stolen wealth assets of the Ukraine's various oligarch factions, so 'national self determination' for the Ukranian working class is a cruel hoax until they recover their national wealth from their own oligarch capitalist class, THROUGH CLASS STRUGGLE, never mind fend of the rival ambitions of the rival power blocs of the EU or Russia. Without a class analysis wannabe 'socialists' just end up as liberal spewers of the false narratives of our own capitalist class and their mass media - as poor Jim Denham does, once again.

Jim Denham said...

I refer you to my previous answer, "Anonymous". And when you have the guts to use your real name I'll at least treat you with a modicum of respect.

Anonymous said...

I think Ukrainian self-determination and opposition to Russia's war are important to emphasise. But I think anonymous above raises important points about the character of the Ukrainian ruling class. I'm getting a bit tired of all the gung-ho uncritical support for the resistance. It's all posturing anyway, more for domestic consumption than making a real difference to Ukraine. Jim supported the Mujahidin against the Soviets but opposed the Taliban when they were fighting the US&allies. Politics is a game to these people.


Jim Denham said...

"Politics is a game to these people": really, Eric? Not like those who bleat about Nato's alleged "threat" to Putin as an excuse to avoid giving clear-cut support to Ukraine's right to national self determination and to clearly denounce Russian imperialism, without equivocation? Such useful idiots are not playing games?

JN said...

Obviously Putin's invasion is, first and foremost, a catastrophe for the people of Ukraine. It's doing a great deal of harm to Russians, from the soldiers getting killed to the anti-war activists getting arrested.

It's also strengthening militarism right across Europe. The delegitimisation and incipient witch-hunt of the anti-war movement we're seeing here in Britain is part of that, and it's very dangerous.

cathy said...

Interesting points, but Putin actually rescued Russia after the Yeltsin disintegration, hence his popularity until now among Russians. The US don't like Russia being economic partners with Europe, and this war will ensure this breaks down. See our editorial https://labouraffairs.com/2022/03/01/putins-dilemma-editorial/