Following the 7.8 Richter earthquake of February 6, no disaster relief reached the people of northwest Syria, in the region under opposition control, from the United Nations or any country, in the crucial first week, meaning thousands died under the rubble. This was the part of Syria most heavily impacted by the quake. These people, who had already experienced the full brunt of years of horrific bombing by the Assad dictatorship and Imperial Russia with the full connivance of the “international community”, were yet again condemned to genocide by the world.
In the context of the quake, the Assad regime renewed its push for the lifting of US and EU economic sanctions on Syria. As I will argue in the second part of this series, there are good reasons to lift, or at least radically overhaul, these sanctions in their current form because, regardless of their intention and exemptions, they overwhelmingly impact the civilian population while the blood-drenched regime has consolidated. However, this has nothing to do with the current crisis over earthquake disaster relief.
It is very important that the genocidal regime – which has imposed the equivalent of hundreds of February 6 earthquakes on the people of Syria via its bombing of much of the country into a moonscape over the last decade, and which even bombed northwest Syria within hours after the earthquake, and has reportedly continued to do so since and even bombed Idlib on February 26-27 as the Egyptian foreign minister was meeting Assad – does not benefit from this disgraceful and hypocritical propaganda war. Because while 214 planeloads of disaster aid had arrived in regime-held Syria, via Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia airports, or via Beirut, as of February 24, from dozens of countries – completely unencumbered by sanctions which do not prevent such humanitarian aid – it is the much more heavily impacted northwest, outside regime control, that has been betrayed by the world, received very little, and initially left to die.
As UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths noted, “The first 72 hrs after a disaster are critical” because this is when people buried under rubble may still be found alive, so the absence of aid in the first week cannot be fixed by (a little) more arriving the second week; as Jasmine Gani explained on February 9, “as a result of the slow international response and lack of aid, residents in Idlib have reported that most of the victims who are still alive and might have been saved are still trapped under the rubble after four days. Tragically, the sounds of people calling for help under the debris are slowly giving way to silence.”
That was obviously not due to sanctions on the regime, but on the contrary, to the regime’s sanctions on sending some of the enormous aid it did receive to the northwest; to the Russian veto in the UN on most cross-border aid crossings from Turkey into northern Syria to “protect Syria’s sovereignty”; and above all the decision by the UN, the US, the EU and others to “respect” this argument about Assadist “sovereignty” or UN “legality” by not sending aid direct to the region – or else back-handedly justifying their lack of aid with these arguments. The regime’s propaganda is so despicable that images of destruction in non-regime Idlib are shown with slogans against sanctions; most people have heard that little aid has reached the victims in northern Syria and hence the disgraceful lie that this is due to sanctions on the genocidal regime often sounds persuasive to those not in the know.
Background: The liberated northwest and years of Assadist terror-bombing
The Assad regime and Russia bombed the people here – as with elsewhere in Syria – for a decade with every conceivable form of “conventional” and unconventional WMD except nuclear, destroying entire cities and towns, turning much of the country into a moonscape, bombing hundreds of hospitals, but the people refused to submit. While the regime, with Russian and Iranian support and US connivance, reconquered most of the regions held by the anti-Assad revolution, two regions remain outside its control – the northwest (much of Idlib and Aleppo provinces), under the control of a range of rebel groups, and partially controlled by Turkish forces in an uneasy alliance with them, and the northeast, under the control of the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Yes, the rebel leaderships in the northwest became heavily co-opted either by Turkey, or by the jihadist militia HTS, in the last few years, inevitable considering their desperation to not be overrun by the genocidal Assad regime, and the lack of support from the West; yet even over the last few months we’ve seen mass popular demonstrations both against Turkey and against HTS at different times, suggesting that, while militarily defeated, the revolutionary masses still believe they have something to fight for and remain committed to the ideals which they rose up for in 2011.
Indeed, while some of the demonstrations against HTS were simply against its attempt to impose its rule over areas it does not control, or against its repressive actions, others were against HTS attempting to open a trade connection with the regime; and similarly, the demonstrations against Turkey were against the growing convergence between Erdogan and Assad as they move to ‘bury the hatchet’, just as Erdogan has also recently moved to patch things up with his former enemies in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel (and just as the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and increasingly Saudi Arabia have re-aligned with both the Assad regime and Israel in an axis of counterrevolution). But the 5 million people in the liberated northwest – including almost 3 million refugees from elsewhere in Syria – are both the main reason for Turkey maintaining some level of commitment to the anti-Assad cause when abandoned by everyone else – because, with 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey already, Erdogan does not want Assad to reconquer the region and send millions more across the border – but therefore also the main obstacle to full Erdogan-Assad rapprochement, and the main potential victims of such a deal. If one were cynical one would suggest the earthquake was too good “an opportunity” for the regional oppressors via the sheer level of death, destruction and demoralisation meted out to the stubbornly resistant people of the region.
Left: demonstration against HTS trying to open trade links with regime; right, demonstration against Turkey trying to reconcile with regime
The impact: Turkey and the two parts of northwest Syria
Let’s clarify what is going on with the earthquake and its victims. Turkey suffered by far the biggest disaster, with over 44,000 killed and 345,000 apartments destroyed (some 160,000 buildings containing 520,000 apartments were either destroyed or severely damaged). Of these, the Syrian Network for Human Rights had already documented 3841 Syrian refugees in Turkey among the dead as of February 15, but at that point overall numbers were much lower so the real figure now may be much higher. The situation is unimaginable. But while no amount of disaster aid is enough, at least it has been arriving on a large-scale, and Turkey has a functioning government dealing with the situation, whatever one’s views on that government.
In Syria, despite relatively smaller numbers, the situation is even more drastic due to the lack of such a government and the politics of aid. Regions both under regime control, and under opposition control, in northwest Syria were heavily impacted by the earthquake; victims on both sides deserve all the aid they can get. But there are two differences: firstly, the level of devastation is far worse in the opposition-controlled regions (4300 dead, 7600 injured, 1700 buildings completely destroyed) than inside the Assad-ruled part (still tragic, 1408 deaths, 2301 injuries, dozens of destroyed buildings), as the opposition-controlled region is closer to the epicentre of the quake in Turkey; and second, thousands of tons of disaster relief have poured into Damascus since the earthquake struck, into the hands of the regime or of humanitarian organisations in regime territory, from dozens of countries from the very first days, whereas hardly anything arrived in the opposition-controlled northwest in the crucial first week after the quake when survivors may still have been found, and only a fraction of what the regime received has arrived since. To this we can add that the opposition region has been destroyed by years of Assadist and Russian bombing already, which not only killed and destroyed on a far vaster scale than the earthquake while also weakening the foundations of its buildings which have now collapsed, and meted out an incomprehensible level of destruction of its hospitals and health infrastructure which were ruthlessly and deliberately targeted; and the conditions the refugees were living in was already dire, before the earthquake hit: 1.7 million are living in refugee camps, while 4.1 million of the region’s population already rely on humanitarian aid.
How can aid get to northwest Syria: its two “borders” and regime sanction on cross-border aid
So, how can aid get into liberated northwest Syria? Well, it has two borders. To the south is regime-controlled Syria. So while all the disaster aid going into Syria is a good thing, it is largely irrelevant to northwest Syria, because the Assad regime does not allow supplies to cross the boundary; “this area is an open-air prison that is disconnected from everywhere else,” according to Zaher Sahloul, the president of the aid organization MedGlobal, which works in the region and in Gaziantep in southern Turkey, home to thousands of Syrian refugees. The regime has also cut off electricity to the region, so search-and-rescue and medical services run on generators. Even within the region of Syria it does control, the regime has a well-documented history of directing aid to politically preferred regions. Nothing crossed the boundary in the first week, indeed, the Syrian Foreign Minister initially declared that no aid should get to what it called “the terrorists in the north,” ie, regions controlled by the rebels. On February 10, four days after the quake hit, the regime finally announced that it would let aid cross (called “cross-line” aid to distinguish it from the cross-border aid from Turkey), clearly timed to allow most under the rubble to die first, and then try to look good afterwards. In any case, only a trickle at most has been sent since the announcement, while even attempts by Syrian citizens to collect and send aid to the northwest, from various parts of Syria, have reportedly been thwarted.
The other border is to the north, the border with Turkey. Turkey has been the main provider to this region, but also, international organisations have accessed this region via Turkey. Turkey itself has 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the world’s largest refugee population, and most live in the region of Turkey just destroyed by the earthquake there. There were long two major routes from Turkey into this region of Syria for humanitarian relief (as well as smaller routes), plus a route from Iraq and one from Jordan. However, since 2020, Russia has blocked the routes from Jordan and Iraq and all but one of the routes from Turkey, via its UN veto. This “resulted in a lack of essential items, building materials and specialist equipment making it impossible to rebuild the region which was devastated by war and bombed by Syrian and Russian forces.” Even the one crossing Russia reluctantly allowed the stay open, the Bab al-Hawa crossing, has to be renewed every 6 months. However, this route was itself badly damaged by the earthquake, and for over a week after the quake, the Syrian regime insisted that all aid must flow through Damascus, even that to the region outside its control, and therefore refused to budge on the question of “allowing” other crossings from Turkey. And the UN did not use the other routes to get in urgent aid, due to this Russian UN veto and respect for this alleged “Syrian sovereignty”, despite the fact that several months ago, before the earthquake struck, a range of international legal experts had already declared that no UN or regime “permission” is needed to send urgent humanitarian aid across borders.
The first crucial week: Massive aid to Assad’s Syria, nothing for the northwest
Now, of course, the main villain here is Putin’s imperialist Russian regime blocking humanitarian corridors on behalf of the alleged “sovereignty” of its satrap in Damascus, and that satrap; however, given the scale of the disaster, the UN could simply have used the other crossings, and put saving lives ahead of such spurious “sovereignty” arguments, as these experts argued.
Meanwhile, the damage at the one legal opening did not prevent trucks crossing to bring back bodies of Syrian refugees from Turkey killed in the earthquake there – so why couldn’t relief get in as well as bodies? Some 22 trucks did cross the border on February 9, three days after the earthquake, but that was only to deliver goods ordered before the earthquake, namely backlog supplies of food, water and cleaning materials, hardly what was most pressing at the time. By the end of the first week, northwest Syria had only received five truck convoys, a mere 52 trucks, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This compared with 84 planes and 12 truck convoys that arrived in regime-held Syria by that same point, clearly unimpeded by sanctions. And what about airdrops – couldn’t the UN or US or EU have carried out airdrops of supplies? As Jasmine Gani points out, “in 2016, due to the extent of damage to the roads, the UN was able to airdrop hundreds of supplies to the regime-held area of Deir Ezzor, multiple times; but the UN must first seek approval from the regime, and with a lack of permission, no such airdrops have been made in the North-west of Syria.” So the UN simply capitulated to the regime and continued to send all its aid to regime areas. And couldn’t the US or EU have somewhat pressured the UN on this issue if they really wanted to get aid in, or made airdrops themselves – after all, the US has an airbase just across the border in Turkey. Indeed, Idrees Ahmad shows, both made fancy statements about sending aid to the disaster-hit zone in the first week, but nothing arrived. The fact that they didn’t, and that the UN, US and EU all preferred to send aid via the regime-controlled region, makes extra mockery of the idea that sanctions were preventing aid, as no sanctions prevented them sending aid via Turkey to the north.
Of the 84 planeloads of aid and 12 truck convoys that were sent to regime-held Syria in the first week, the absolute majority, 71, came from Arab countries. Of these by far the largest contribution came from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which sent 22 planes and one truck convoy, while Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Tunisia all sent planes. In addition, another 15 planes came from a range of other countries, including the European Union and Italy. The story spread on some “anti-imperialist” sites that only “anti-imperialist” states sent aid was nothing but the laughable fiction we’ve come to expect from such quarters: depending on what this vague and hollow term is taken to mean, the 11 planes sent at this stage by Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela was relative peanuts. Russia, of course, had no trouble sending hundreds of warplanes to bomb Syria to bits for years, but only 3 planes for disaster relief. For many of the reactionary Arab states who sent the great bulk, especially the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Oman, and partially Saudi Arabia, this massive aid has gone hand in hand with dramatically increasing their political rapprochement with the Assad regime (including top state visitsto Assad and by Assad) which these states have been leading in the Arab world for years now; it is no coincidence that they are the same states which have led rapprochement with Israel in the same period. Only Qatar (which rejects rapprochement with either Assad or Israel) and Kuwait have focused their aid on the northwest.
Actually, 120 trucks of aid collected by Syrians in Deir Ezzor, under the control of the SDF in northeast Syria (the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, AANES), which was sent to the northwest on February 14, exceeded the amount of aid sent by the United Nations at that point by two and a half times! The aid was transferred by AANES to the opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG) which controls much of the northwest, despite their otherwise poor relations. Unfortunately, a second convoy of 30 tanks of fuel and 20 trucks of aid sent by AANES to the northwest was apparently blocked by the SIG, possibly due to Turkish pressure.
By February 18
By February 24
84 planes + hundreds of trucks
167 planes + hundreds of trucks
214 planes + hundreds of trucks
Disaster aid arriving in two parts of Syria, first few weeks after earthquake
So, what about the sanctions on the Assad regime?
Given all the above, it appears deeply ironic that the Assad regime is attempting to use this disaster to press for the end of US (and EU) sanctions on the regime, which were imposed in their current harsh form in 2019 after the US had facilitated Assad’s military victory over the armed opposition. This will be elaborated on in the second article of this series, focused on the sanctions.
The key point here is that, while there are good reasons to demand the end, or at least the radical overhaul, of the sanctions in their current form, this question has nothing to do with the current disaster relief issue. Therefore, raising that argument in the midst of the disaster played into the hands of the genocidal regime and its lies. It is abundantly clear from all the above data that the sanctions were not preventing any aid from getting into Assad’s Syria: on the contrary, as massive aid poured in, it was opposition-controlled Syria that was both most devasted, and receiving very little aid, where avoidable mass death took place. And part of the reason for this was the effective ‘sanctions’ imposed by the Assad regime on aid to the northwest, the UN veto imposed by its Russia paymaster on cross-border aid to the northwest, and above all the loyalty of the UN system to these legal fictions of Assadist “sovereignty” and Putinite “legality”, trumping the survival of thousands of Syrians under the rubble.
Therefore, given this combination of facts – the massive disaster relief sent to regime Syria unimpeded by sanctions, the corresponding catastrophic lack of disaster relief being sent to the rebel-held northwest which had borne the main brunt of the disaster, the fact that regime ‘sanctions’ on aid to the northwest and Russian UN veto on cross-border aid corridors worsened the situation of the northwest, the ongoing bombing of the earthquake-hit northwest by the regime, the regime’s theft and manipulation of aid, and the fact that this regime had bombed its country to ruins far, far exceeding what any earthquake could do – the opportunist campaign to use the disaster to call for the end of sanctions on the genocidal regime was deeply flawed and hypocritical, based on lies, and aimed at the regime’s rehabilitation rather than aiding earthquake victims.
But as long as we separate this issue from the current disaster, there are nevertheless good reasons to take a hard look at this question of US and EU sanctions on the regime in their current form. The assessment now that 3-4 years have elapsed appears to be: on the one hand, the ordinary Syrian people feel the major impact of sanctions, because, despite their exemptions, they impact humanitarian relief in countless indirect ways, especially in relation to the banking system, and sanctions on entire sections of the economy (eg energy) inevitably batter the poor regardless of intentions; on the other, the regime appears firmly entrenched in power and its oligarchic circles have always been in the best position to evade, or even profit from, sanctions. This however comes up against the question of, if not sanctions, what can be done with a regime that has destroyed its country, killed hundreds of thousands, still holds tens of thousands of political prisoners in horrific conditions involving systematic torture, while a quarter of the population have fled the country and will not return while Assad remains in power, and more than half of Syria’s pre-war population are outside regime control. This will be discussed in the second part of this series.
Time and time again, we have been told that ‘the Global South’ – ie, the developing world consisting largely of former colonies – does not support Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s barbaric colonial invasion, or is even supportive of Russia. According to this rendition of reality, support for Ukraine is entirely a project of the imperial West, and this very fact is all the more reason that former colonies of western imperialist states do not want to be on the side of their former colonial masters.
Quite apart from the problematic mathematics involved – 140 countries voted to condemn the Russian invasion, the vast majority of which are in the Global South, and only 5 voted against – there is a more significant problem here: the conflation of ruling classes, governments and often dictatorships with the people of these countries, as if people being gunned down by some regime of exploiters would automatically have the same opinions as their oppressors, because they’re all ‘Global Southerners’. While such a boringly pedestrian assumption is normal in mainstream mass media and bourgeois political discourse, it ought to be second nature to anyone proclaiming some kind of socialist or even vaguely left or progressive ideology that such discourse is inconceivable nonsense.
“Only white nations are supporting Ukraine, the black and brown peoples of the world refuse to support ‘NATO’s war’ against Russia” I have been informed by western leftists, assuming to be speaking on behalf of several billion people in several continents, when in fact only speaking on behalf of their torturers.
This essay will first look at the facts of who voted what and why, and will note the largely sub-imperial nature of major states which either abstained on voting to condemn Russia, or formally voted to condemn but were in other respects pro-Russian in practice; and then will compare this to the overwhelmingly anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian views of their populations, belying the claims that these abstentions were “reflective” of alleged “anti-colonial” views among the peoples of the South. This will be done via examining a variety of surveys of popular opinion. While it is difficult to vouch for the validity and reliability of these surveys without much deeper research, nevertheless their variety itself, together with the largely similar results, suggests somewhat tentative conclusions can be drawn.
First, the facts
Before we look at what people actually think, let’s first establish the facts regarding the votes of these countries and the views of the governments and ruling elites, because the assertions are not even borne out on this level.
Like most myths, these assertions are based on bits and pieces of truths and half-truths. Both the UN General Assembly vote to condemn the Russian invasion in March, and the more recent one to condemn Russia’s outright theft of a fifth of Ukraine, were supported by over 140 countries and opposed by 5, while some 35 countries in each case abstained. Since nearly all the 30 or so ‘white’ nations of the Global North (European countries, North America, Australasia) voted to condemn, it means all of those who abstained were from the Global South – even if they were vastly outnumbered by the overwhelming majority of South countries who voted to condemn. Of the 5 who voted against both times, two were ‘white’ Global North countries – Russia and Belarus, of course – while 3 were from the South: Assad’s genocide-regime in Syria, which relies on Putin for its existence, the grotesque ‘Juche’ regime in North Korea, and, the first time, the extremely repressive dictatorship in Eritrea, and second time, Ortega’s turncoat regime in Nicaragua.
In other words, even just on this basis, we can say that, within the Global South, over 100 nations condemned the invasion and annexations, while three supported them.
However, it is also more complicated than that, because the reasons that countries vote in favour or abstain can have many dimensions; while, as we will see, some of those which abstained, such as Modi’s regime in India, did so because they actually sympathise with Moscow, many others may have had no such sympathy, but for diplomatic or economic reasons – associated with being relatively poor – felt they could not openly vote to condemn Russia, often due to some important economic relationship with Russia, or with China.
Meanwhile, the other core of truth is that it has only been western countries that have sent arms to Ukraine, and have activated economic sanctions on Russia, despite the overwhelming votes to condemn Russia’s invasion. However, this is hardly surprising for many reasons: the major arms suppliers (and producers) in any conflict are richer countries (western countries and Russia), and are wealthy enough to provide large quantities. It is also only countries of the Global North who can afford the pain to themselves of sanctions on a large country such as Russia, whereas in the South imposing sanctions would often mean impossible pain, especially given the importance of Russia in the global food, fertiliser and energy markets; while also endangering economic links and projects which they have built up with Russia, just as they have with the US and western countries; finally, the Ukraine war is in Europe, so it is logical that European nations have more of a direct stake than others, in the same way that African nations all opposed the Apartheid regime in South Africa and all Arab states give official support to Palestine.
The ambivalent sub-imperialist belt
While, as we will see, some abstaining countries are simple Russian neo-colonies under forms of violent occupation (eg, Mali, Central African Republic), there is a bloc of relatively powerful states that either abstained on all votes (China, India, Iran, South Africa), abstained on some votes (Brazil, United Arab Emirates, both in Security Council votes), or officially voted to condemn to satisfy their Washington connections, but in practice have acted in every possible way to demonstrate the importance they place upon their ties with Moscow and lack of commitment to their votes (Israel, Saudi Arabia and to some extent Turkey).
With the exception of Turkey, which has supplied Bakhtiar drones to Ukraine, none of the other “US allies” in the Middle East (Israel, UAE, Saudis) have either helped supply Ukraine with arms, or imposed sanctions on Russia. After the West imposed oil sanctions on Russia, driving the price of oil through the roof, the US aimed to get its Saudi and Gulf allies to increase oil supply to stabilise prices; at the time, Saudi and Emirati leaders reportedly “declined U.S. requests to speak to Mr. Biden.” Following Biden’s low-key July visit to Saudi Arabia in the hope of getting the Saudis on board, they responded in October by leading OPEC into cutting oil production by 2m barrels a day, keeping prices high to their own, and Russia’s, benefit. To double the insult, the Saudis rounded out the year with the lavish welcome to China’s Xi Jinping in December, signing a “strategic partnership.” As for Turkey, “not joining sanctions to keep diplomacy open” apparently includes agreeing to Russia’s plan to turn Turkey into a Russian gas hub, while blocking the NATO membership applications of Sweden and Finland.
These are not countries that have the excuse of being poor and hence having little bargaining power – Israel is an unquestionably ‘Northern’ economy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are oil superpowers, and Turkey is a member of the OECD, and, for that matter, of NATO. Their actions are clearly choices: does this mean Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey are an ‘anti-colonial’ vanguard? Alongside, within Europe itself, the far-right regime of Orban in Hungary, Putin’s best friend in NATO, which almost alone in Europe stands against sanctions on Russia and arms to Ukraine? And when we add other countries ruled by far-right reactionaries like Modi in India and Bolsonaro in Brazil, who are allied both to the US and to Putin’s Russia, we further see the problem with the alleged ‘anti-imperialist’ explanation for going soft on Russia.
We often hear that, despite the numbers in the UN votes, “the majority of the world” abstained and hence refused to condemn Moscow, because between them, China and India, make up two fifths of the world, so when we add other large abstaining countries such as Iran and Pakistan, as well as Brazil which, despite voting to condemn, has rejected sanctions while Bolsonaro declared his “deep solidarity” with Russia in Moscow on the eve of the invasion, we are covering more than half the world’s population.
But that’s where the nonsense peaks: as the mullah regime in Iran guns down hundreds of women and young people demonstrating against tyranny in the streets every day, we are asked to assume that those being shot, tortured, brutally oppressed, have the same opinion on Ukraine as the regime killing them. That Iranian Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and other oppressed minorities have the same view as their oppressors. That the Muslim population of Gujarat must have the same view as Modi’s Hindu-chauvinist regime, where Modi himself was involved in the huge pogrom in that state back in 2002. That oppressed Indian women, Dalits and minorities all agree with the BJP’s votes in the UN, alongside the world’s largest population living in absolute poverty – yes, of course, they all must agree with the Indian petty-bourgeoisie aggressively proclaiming its pro-Moscow views on the Internet. That the millions in Xinjiang suffering under China’s regime of forced assimilation and cultural genocide must all agree with the regime imposing this upon them, alongside the hundreds of millions of China’s insecure ‘floating population’ of exploited workers, they of course must agree with their exploiters.
The sheer idiocy of such assumptions should stare anyone in the face. That such class-free analysis could ever be considered by anyone claiming left-wing or socialist politics simply underlines the ideological bankruptcy of much of the Old Left (ie, the degeneration of what was once the ‘New Left’).
Rather, what these countries and governments have in common – China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel – is their sub-imperialist (or in some cases arguably imperialist) nature. Far from their positions on the war reflecting any “anti-colonial” consciousness of their people (or reflecting their oppressed and exploited peoples at all), they rather reflect the geopolitical positioning, their global bargaining position, between US, European, Russian and Chinese imperialism, taking advantage of the war to assert their own sub-imperial interests, regional influence and conquests, and oppressive rule over internal and local colonies.
Yes: there is western hypocrisy! Yes, the world’s peoples remember colonialism!
OK, but are not some of the points being made valid in themselves? Of course, it is true that the western imperialist powers supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russian occupation are hypocritical. None have the same view regarding Israel’s decades-long brutal and illegal occupation of Palestine, and the Golan, and its massive violation of the most elementary human rights of the Palestinians. While some European governments might offer more criticism compared to the unconditional and uncritical support for Israel by the US, there is never a hint of sanctions or breaking ties. We can name any number of other examples, such as Saudi Arabia’s monstrous bombing of Yemen, where western reactions can similarly range from condemnation to support, but even in the cases most condemned, there are no penalties.
The same goes for Russia’s previous actions: neither Putin’s slaughter of the Chechens, the horrific bombing of hospitals, schools, markets in Syria on behalf of Assad’s genocide regime, nor the 2014 annexation of Crimea, evoked the kind of reaction we see now in Ukraine.
Then there are conflicts in which huge numbers of people are killed, such as the two-year genocidal assault on Tigray by Ethiopia and Eritrea, killing 600,000 people, which both western governments and media treat with complete indifference. Not surprisingly, many Africans would have been offended when French minister of state, Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, demanded “solidarity from Africa” because of Russia’s “existential threat” to Europe.
And of course, there is the vastly different treatment of millions of Ukrainian refugees in Europe compared to that of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.
In this sense we can say the Ukrainians are ‘lucky’ (if such a term can be used for a people being invaded and bombed) compared to others in terms of western support. Western powers act based on their own interests, just as Russia does, and this may rarely coincide with the interests of justice. It is not the fault of Ukrainian men, women and children getting bombed and killed in apartment blocks that the West is more supportive of them than of other struggles. They have a right to resist and to get aid from wherever its offered, as do all peoples fighting liberation and resistance wars.
But the argument that rejection of western hypocrisy is the reason for the ambivalent stance of many governments in the Global South is very problematic. Many of these ambivalent governments are violently oppressive, and don’t really care less about western hypocrisy or alleged ‘principles’; they are often leaders in hypocrisy themselves. In fact, often it is the very beneficiaries of western hypocrisy – such as those just mentioned above, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia – which either abstained, rejected western sanctions or otherwise carried out actions that benefited Russia in practice; they have good relations with both imperialist blocs. As for the contention that their stance is a reflection of ‘anti-imperialist’ views among the people they oppress, there is little or no correspondence with popular opinion as will be demonstrated below.
A similar contention is that the ambivalent views of some South governments reflect anti-colonial sentiment: the western governments now supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russian colonialism were previously the colonialists ruling over the peoples of the South. In itself, this could lead to sympathy for Ukrainians fighting the same anti-colonial fight they once did; but since Russian colonialism expanded across northern Eurasia, not in Africa, southern Asia or Latin America where other colonial rulers were, it may not be so obvious the southern peoples. But again, the idea that many of these reactionary, violent and pro-imperialist regimes are expressing anti-colonial principles is laughable.
What about the people of the South?
The idea that the views and UN votes of the collection of thuggish reactionary regimes listed above represent the views of the people they oppress is unlikely by definition, at least for anyone who understands the concept of class analysis. What is the evidence of any correspondence between the policies of this minority of southern governments and the alleged “anti-colonial” views of their people, which are allegedly expressed via supporting Russia’s colonial invasion of Ukraine?
An interesting place to start may be Brazil; since both the outgoing, far-right Bolsonaro regime, and the incoming, soft-left, Lula administration, have been very partial to Putin and Russia’s viewpoint. Bolsonaro was always strongly allied to Putin (and to Trump), seeing both an ideological ally and an important trading partner. On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Bolsonaro turned up in Moscow to declare his “deep solidarity” with Russia! While his government went through the motions of voting to condemn the invasion in the General Assembly, Bolsonaro himself blasted that stand, and claimed Ukrainians “trusted a comedian with the fate of a nation.” Later, Brazil abstained in the UN Security Council vote in September to condemn the annexations. Meanwhile, as the West sanctioned Russia, Brazil-Russia trade ballooned. As for Lula, he criticised Russia’s invasion but claimed Ukraine was “as responsible” as Russia and had not tried enough to negotiate with the aggressor.
Yet, according to ‘Morning Consult’, “the share of Brazilian adults with a favorable view of Russia has plunged from 38% to 13% since the day before its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, while the share with an unfavorable view has surged from 28% to 59%.” Meanwhile, 62 percent of Brazilians say they side with Ukraine, compared to only 6 percent who side with Russia. What this suggests is quite the opposite of “pressure from the masses” – both Bolsonaro and Lula, with differing ideological emphases, represent the views of the sub-imperialist BRICS ruling elite and the way it positions itself in the world, not at all the views of the Brazilian masses.
From Brazil, we may jump to another BRICS stalwart which has abstained on the UN resolutions condemning Russia, namely South Africa. In explaining South Africa’s vote, almost every media article in the world has pointed to the “traditional ties” between the African National Congress, which led the fight against Apartheid, and the Soviet Union, pointing to Soviet support for the struggle. Perhaps the government’s vote reflects this popular love for Moscow due to this historic struggle? As if Putin’s Russia were the Soviet Union; Putin doesn’t think so. Ukraine, of course, was also in the Soviet Union.
But here’s the thing: according to a Gallup survey of Africans in 24 countries on their attitude to Russia conducted in 2021 (before the invasion), only 30 percent of South Africans had a positive view of Russia, the second lowest on the continent (the lowest was in Zambia). Even more interesting is the fact that the countries where people recorded lower support for the Russian leadership were mostly in the southern African region, eg, Tanzania (32%), Zimbabwe (39%), Namibia (40%), Mozambique (41%) – ie all countries which abstained, and are ruled by regimes associated with the Soviet-backed anti-colonial struggles in the 1970s and 1980s, connected to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Hence, where we may expect to see the highest support for Russia based on this ‘anti-colonial’ discourse, we see the lowest – by way of contrast, support for the Russian leadership in 2021 was largely between 50-70% throughout west Africa.
Bear in mind that all these figures, high and low, were from 2021; drastic drops in support for Russia have been recorded in every part of the world since February 2022. Keep this in mind if 30 percent still sounds high. Also worth keeping in mind is that while approval of the Russian government was on average higher in Africa (42%) than globally (33%), this was nevertheless “lower than the approval ratings of the leadership of the U.S. (60%), China (52%) and Germany (49%)” – not sure how we fit the square “anti-imperialist” peg into this round hole! Also notable is that even the 42% average approval for Russia in 2021 was drastically down from 57% in 2011, in the decade since Russia’s global imperialist adventures have become more pronounced; we can be certain that 2022 has not helped.
This data also means that, despite the higher African average, the 30 percent approval in South Africa is below the 33 percent global average.
Therefore, we would probably need to draw the same conclusion about South Africa as about Brazil: far from representing the “anti-colonial” and “anti-apartheid” memories of the masses, the ANC government’s vote represents, once again, the views of the sub-imperialist BRICS ruling elite and the way it positions itself in the world. The working classes and the poor in all these countries where the regimes are now close to Russia – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique etc – are brutally exploited by the capitalist classes that arose out of the ANC, ZANU-PF, Frelimo, SWAPO, the MPLA etc. They apparently share little in terms of views with the sub-imperialist South African or the other neo-colonial regimes tied to South African, Russian, Chinese – and western – imperialism.
Western and northern Africa
What about the higher approval of the Russian leadership in western Africa? According to Eric Draitser, Russia gained support in parts of West Africa by moving in the last few years and ousting French imperialism from its dominant role there. This may well be true. According to the Gallup survey, 84 percent of people in Mali had confidence in Russia in 2021; while popular surveys under military dictatorships are highly suspect, it is quite possible that the figure was in fact at the higher end, perhaps like the more realistic 50-70 percent area (as in Guinea, Cameroon, Congo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso etc). Did Mali’s abstention, and those of the Central African Republic (CAR), and of a couple of other west African states (Guinea, Togo), represent the vanguard of anti-colonialism and this great surge of support for Russia replacing France?
The problem with one imperialist country replacing another is that initial welcome can easily become its opposite when the new power acts the same or worse. In the case of Mali and Central African Republic (CAR) in particular, the fact that this survey was before 2022 not only concerns the global crash in support for Russia following its invasion; it also concerns the Russian-backed dictatorships showing their horrifically brutal fangs in 2022.
Last November, the ‘All Eyes on Wagner’ group linked the Russian Wagner paramilitary force operating in Mali to at least 23 incidents of human rights abuse since the 2020 coup, but the biggest massacres took place in March 2022, when the Malian military, backed by Wagner, executed some 300 civilians in small groups over several days in the town of Moura.
Wagner began operating in Africa in 2017, invited initially by Sudanese tyrant Omar al-Bashir, who told Putin that Sudan was Russia’s “key to Africa”. In Sudan, Wagner secured gold mining concessions, and this lucrative business then spread to other countries of the region. This led to fierce competition with French imperialism in west Africa, but Russia’s need for gold greatly increased following its invasion of Ukraine and imposition of western sanctions, a likely factor in the upturn on violent repression.
One wonders what the slaughtered villagers and gold-miners would think of the assertions floating around the western left that the abstention votes in the UN by their ruling Russian-backed dictators in Mali, CAR and Sudan represented their “anti-colonial” views, or simply the views of these dictators ruling Russian neo-colonies via the Nazi-linked Wagner plunderers and killers?
Meanwhile, another government which has twice abstained on these UN votes is that of Ethiopia, which has been waging a genocidal war against the people of Tigray for two years, killing some 600,000 people, a horrific crime ignored by the world. If its abstention also signifies a pro-Russian orientation, is it really the voice of anti-colonial liberation? When the regime also has “seemingly unconditional American praise and support”? Did someone ask if its victims got a vote on their killers’ UN vote? And its ally, the Eritrean dictatorship, which the Ethiopian regime invited into its country help it kill its own Tigrayan citizens because it knew it would do so with a vengeance, is the only African state to actually vote against the UN resolution in February; hardly surprising that the only country declaring itself 100 percent in the Russian camp is widely regarded as one of the world’s worst dictatorships, a one-man dictatorship of President Isaias Afewerki, “subjecting its population to widespread forced labor and conscription … with no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary,” where elections have never been held since independence in 1993.
In fact, while it may be drawing a slightly long bow, the claim in this Conversation article – that the minority of African states that abstained from condemning the Russian invasion or annexations are largely dictatorships (with the exception of South Africa), ie, the regimes most removed from any popular pressure, and vice versa – is not so far from the truth. Certainly there are exceptions – Egypt’s bloody al-Sisi dictatorship voted with the majority, but in fact it falls into the same camp as its Saudi and Emirati allies, ie, making the “correct” vote by Washington while doing everything to maintain its ties to Moscow; indeed, the long-planned construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant by Russia got underway in July.
As we know, Modi’s India, which has close ties to both Putin’s Russia and to the US – seeing its main rival to be China – abstained on the UN resolutions and has maintained strong ties with Russia. For Modi, this is not only about traditional Russia-India ties, playing Russia against China and, once again, the global positioning of a BRICS sub-imperialist bourgeoisie, but also – as with Bolsonaro in Brazil – deeply ideological, Modi’s Hindu-supremacist BJP being strongly aligned with Putin’s far-right international.
This ideological commitment to Russia is more entrenched the further to the right one goes. Shortly after the invasion was launched, members of extreme-right Hindu Sena demontsrated in support of Putin and the invasion. Demonstrators held signs reading “Russia, you fight, we are with you” and some called for an “undivided Russia.” Hindu Sena president Vishnu Gupta even advocated that India put “boots on the ground” to support Russia. Indeed, the concept of ‘Akhand Bharat’, “which envisions the entire Indian subcontinent, stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar, as belonging to a single, “undivided” nation with India at its core,” is supported by many on the Hindu-chauvinist far-right, strongly reminiscent of the Putinite and Duginite views that former parts of the Russian Empire all belong to Russia.
As the head of a Hindu-supremacist regime that has engaged in open violence against Indian Muslims, and of a deeply socially-chauvinist regime in a country where billionaires today grow on trees while India boasts the greatest number of absolute poor in the world, it is surely extraordinary that many “leftists” and even “socialists” would claim that Modi’s pro-Putin politics is somehow representative of the anti-colonial traditions of Modi’s brutally oppressed and impoverished subjects. “Most of the world” abstained, we hear, not just from common clueless liberals, but from those professing a class analysis, because between them India and China already make up two-fifths of the world!
It is somewhat difficult to discern Indian views on the conflict, and in such a large and diverse country the likelihood of polls capturing much of value is small. From what we have though, an Ipsos poll conducted in May found that, on the one hand, 6 in 10 Indians supported India maintaining relations with Russia and opposed India imposing economic sanctions, yet the same poll found that 77% of Indians believed that the economic sanctions imposed by others were “an effective tactic for stopping the war” and 7 in 10 believe “doing nothing in Ukraine will embolden Russia to take the war to the rest of Europe and Asia.” In a Blackbox Research survey in March, only four per cent of Indian respondents said they had a positive image of Moscow (and only eight per cent in China), and 91 percent in India said they supported or sympathised with Ukraine (compared to an also surprisingly high 71 percent in China). Some 60 percent of Indians blamed Russia for the conflict, though only 10 percent in China did.
While difficult to know what all these polls prove, at face value they suggest that, despite some ambivalence, overall Indian people are more critical of Russia and sympathetic to Ukraine than the Modi regime. Where support for Russia and the government’s position seems apparently strong is on social media, probably representing largely upper middle class Indian views. It is interesting to see what their views are based on; but from this analysis, “anti-colonialist consciousness” does not even get a mention. Rather, it is all about the “historic ties” between India and Russia (ie, blatant geopolitics), the fact that Russia is India’s major arms supplier, and in order to stop Russia from bending too far towards China, which India sees as its chief sub-imperial rival, despite both being part of the ‘BRICS’ framework. And all those masses of advanced weaponry that India buys from Russia are not aimed at fighting … British colonialism, but China, Pakistan, the occupied Kashmiris and so on.
How ironic that India’s pro-Russian position on the war could be considered part of an “anti-colonial” or “anti-imperialist” position when the Russian weaponry, if aimed at China, is done so within the framework of India’s anti-China ‘Quad’ alliance with the US, Australia and Japan.
As noted above, “between them India and China already make up two-fifths of the world” is a hipster-leftist meme that implies the abstentions of the BJP and CCP regimes represent their entire exploited and oppressed populations.
As with India, we don’t want to put too much store in surveys of relatively small numbers of people in a country of 1.4 billion; and in the case of China, discerning popular views is made more difficult by the almost total monopoly on media – including social media – by the regime; aside from North Korea, few countries in the world are as effective at suppressing independent social media as is China.
The Blackbox survey cited above for India also contains some alleged views from China. The survey found that a mere 8 percent of respondents had a positive image of Moscow, and a surprisingly high 71 percent in China said they supported or sympathised with Ukraine; on the other hand, only 10 percent of Chinese respondents blamed Russia for the conflict, dramatically lower than in India. What to make of this contradiction is unclear, especially given the context noted above, but we can make some general points.
Firstly, would it be logical to assume that the colonised Tibetan masses, or the largely Muslim, Turkic Uyghur, population of Xin Jiang, where a million people are subject to internment in forced assimilation facilities are likely to hold similar views to the Han-chauvinist regime? In a country which now boasts 1185 billionaires, more than the US, where “the net worth of the 153 members of China’s Parliament and its advisory body that it deems ‘super rich’ amounts to $650 billion,” how likely is it that the brutally exploited, permanently insecure, floating population of rural-to-urban-to-rural migrant workers – one fifth of China’s population upon whose backs China’s “miracle” has been built – would tend to agree with their exploiters? Or that the CCP bureaucracy would “reflect” their views?
Secondly, does anyone really believe that China’s policy – on one hand, abstaining in UN votes and blaming ‘NATO’, on the other, continually sending pointed signals that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, must be respected” – “reflects” anything other than the policy of an assertive new imperialist power? In his first trip abroad after the pandemic, to Kazakistan – a former Soviet republic with a large Russian minority – Chinese leader Xi Jinping offered “strong support to Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Despite the Russian ‘alliance’, Russia is inevitably also an imperialist rival, and China prefers Russia in the position of vassal rather than equal, a position Putin has offered up on a plate with his disastrous Ukraine invasion. Kazakistan and the other central Asian states now see China, rather than Russia, as their key security guarantor. Xi’s major coup, the lavish state visit to Saudi Arabia in December, during which the two countries signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” and Chinese and Saudi firms signed 34 investment deals, represented a major move into traditional American and more recently Russian territory; China was confident enough to declare itself in support of mainstream Gulf Arab positions as against both Israeli and Iranian positions, while expecting no issues with its strong relations with both those states as well. Xi declared the visit a “defining event in the history of Chinese-Arab relations.” Meanwhile, with Putin’s invasion leading to the rupture of the enormous Russian-German economic relationship and the collapse of Nordstream, Germany opened the way for a major Chinese shipping group to buy a large stake in the strategic port of Hamburg.
It would be foolhardy to confuse the clear and assertive policy choices of a rising imperialist power with some kind of ‘anti-colonial’ consciousness of ‘a fifth of the world’s population’.
The mullah regime in Iran has, like China, consistently abstained on UN resolutions condemning Russia, while at the same time holding back from support for the invasion, which goes against Iran’s dogma of allegedly being against invasions (after its experience of being invaded by Iraq), especially when involving “great powers”, due to its own experience of being sanctioned by the US. We can leave aside the obvious hypocrisy here – ie, Iran’s massive interventions in Iraq and especially Syria, bolstering Assad’s genocide regime – because that is “explained” as “defending Syria,” whereas a blatant invasion cannot be explained away like that.
Unlike China, however, Iran has become more directly involved on Russia’s side in killing Ukrainian civilians with its supply of killer-drones to Russia.
Can Iran’s position be explained as a reflection of the “anti-imperialist consciousness” of the Iranian masses, due to decades of US bullying? In other words, does the position of the blood-drenched mullocracy “reflect” the views of ordinary Iranian people, such as the youth and women who have been out in the streets for months protesting the reactionary dictatorship, and who the regime has been gunning down and hanging? How likely is such an idea, at least to anyone with an inkling of class analysis?
Not much, it seems. According to a poll of 1014 people in June-July by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and IranPoll, since the onset of Russia’s invasion, favourable views of Russia have dropped from a slight majority of 56% to a minority of 40%, while unfavouable views of Russia have surged from 42% to 57%, including 32% who now hold “a very unfavorable view.” This should not be seen as contradicting the fact that the vast majority still hold a highly unfavourable view of the US. While 28% chose an overriding statement that Russia had acted in legitimate self-defence, double that number, a clear majority of 55%, chose a statement that Russia is violating the principle that no country should invade another. Specifically on who was to blame for the war, Russia and the West came out about equally, while very few blamed Ukraine.
Iran’s intervention via killer-drones thus goes against the mass of Iranian opinion, and has even led to high-level criticism, with thirty-five former Iranian diplomats issuing a call for Iran to declare neutrality, and strongly criticising this intervention. Iran itself claims the drones Russia is using were sent before the war began, and claims it has sent no new drones since – whatever the truth, it indicates how embarrassing Iran’s actual position is.
Far from representing “popular anti-imperialist opinion,” Iran’s pro-Russia intervention is a high-risk strategy adopted by a sub-imperial power. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia and Argentina, Iran is a BRICS candidate state, and it operates within this framework of sub-imperial rivalry. Iran hopes to swing Russia to its side in its shadow war with Israel in Syria; for years now, Russia, which operates Assad’s anti-aircraft system, has allowed Israel to bomb Iranian and Hezbollah positions as long as it avoids hitting the Syrian regime. Russia, for its part, in accepting Iranian drones, risks moving Israel to a pro-Ukrainian position.
Whatever the case with this interesting sub-imperial geopolitical positioning, it is clearly unrelated to the views of the Iranian regimes enemies, ie, its people, those being gunned down in the streets.
One country where we might expect the pervasive hypocrisy of western governments to be so overwhelming that a majority may adopt a pro-Russian position simply out of somewhat justified spite would be Palestine. While such a position would not be justified, it would be somewhat understandable and difficult for most of the world to criticise without further engaging in rank hypocrisy. It would be even more understandable given Ukrainian president Zelensky’s sickening pro-Israeli statements, which look all the more pathetic given Israel’s steadfast refusal to lend Ukraine a hand.
So when we read that in a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in April, the high figure of 32.3 percent of Palestinians believed Russia had a right to invade, we are perhaps not surprised. However, the problem is that a greater number – 40.2% – believed that “Russia is waging an unjust war against its neighbour.” The poll of 1014 people was conducted with Palestinians living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip. In other words, although the western governments backing Ukraine with a host of advanced weaponry to resist the illegal and barbaric Russian invasion prefer to condemn every act of justified Palestinian resistance to the illegal and barbaric Israeli occupation and instead arm Israel to the teeth and give diplomatic cover to even its most flagrant violations, still the humanity of Palestine’s anti-colonial struggle shines through strongly enough for the largest part of the population to identify with another victim of a similar war of colonial dispossession and extermination. Western leftists need to remember that Palestinians are people, not just their ‘project’; they are just as capable as other people of weighing complex issues.
After all, Putin’s white nationalist regime is not exactly any great friend of the Palestinians, with Putin famously declaring “I support the struggle of Israel” during Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge blitzkrieg against Gaza, which killed over 2,300 Palestinians while some 11,000 were wounded, including 3,374 children, of whom over 1,000 were left permanently disabled. From the time Russia began terror-bombing Syrian civilians to save Assad in 2015, Putin and Israeli prime minister and Likud leader, Zionist extremist Benjamin Netanyahu, never stopped having high level meetings – Netanyahu met with Putin more than with any other world leader. In 2018, Netanyahu was one of only two world leaders standing next to Putin in Red Square commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, alongside Serbia’s Alexander Vucic. Netanyahu even produced a massive billboard showing himself with Putin for the 2019 elections.
While Ireland may not be conventionally seen as part of the ‘Global South’, it is after all a former colony, for hundreds of years, of Britain – indeed the ongoing British control of Ulster can be likened to the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘republics’ carved out of Ukraine by its former colonial master.
Sinn-Fein, Ireland’s largest party, with its history of resistance to British colonialism, has declared its unequivocal support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian colonialism at its Ard Fheis (congress) on November 5, 2022, declaring that “The Ard Fheis unequivocally condemns any form of imperialism or colonial aggression; we oppose the denial of national self-determination and all violations of national sovereignty throughout the world, without exception; ee affirm that the rule of international law must be emphasized and reinforced, respectful of the exercise of national self-determination, sovereignty and democracy in all nations.” Sinn Fein therefore demands:
The total cessation of the war in Ukraine;
The complete restoration of the national sovereignty of Ukraine;
The immediate withdrawal of all Russian armed forces;
The maintenance of all political or economic sanctions until these objectives are achieved.
Sinn Fein’s democratic vote would seem to be more representative of the views of a formerly colonised people than abstentions by Modi’s violently chauvinist regime in India, its rival Pakistan, China’s one-party state carrying out forced assimilation against a million people in its internal colony Xinjiang, the bloody Iranian mullahs currently gunning down the women-led uprising, the brutal Wagner-backed dictatorships in Mali and CAR and the like. Also worth noting that “The Ard Fheis’s keynote speaker was Omar Bargouthi, a founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which Sinn Fein supports,” in other words, Sinn Fein are consistent in their approach.
The above relies on a somewhat eclectic variety of national or supranational surveys and it is difficult to vouch for the degree of validity and reliability without significantly deeper research. However, it is difficult to find any better tentative data, and certainly none at all that suggests any groundswell of support for Russia and its invasion, in the Global South of anywhere else. Despite their significant differences, every survey indicates that majorities around the world condemn the Russian invasion, are sympathetic to Ukraine and have a rather low opinion of Russia; they also all indicate quite strongly that, whatever the situation before 2022, approval of Russia and Putin has crashed everywhere in the world since the invasion.
This is also backed up by global surveys. For example, an Open Society survey carried out in 22 countries in July and August, covering 21,000 people, two thirds of whom live in the Global South, found “strong and widespread support” for the view that peace requires Russia to “withdraw from all parts of Ukrainian territory it currently controls.” Majorities in nearly all countries held this view, the exceptions being Senegal (46 percent), India (44 percent), Indonesia (30 percent), and Serbia (12 percent). Among the countries with the strongest support for this view were Kenya (81%), Nigeria (71%), Brazil (68%), Columbia (67%) – all higher than in the US, Japan, France and Germany – and South Africa (59%). Any difference between populations of the North and South were comprehensively absent.
A partial contrast was provided by an Ipsos survey of 19,000 people in 27 countries in March and April, but this focused not so much on attitudes but on what action should be taken, with questions related to sanctions, ‘getting involved militarily’, taking some kind of unspecified ‘action’, taking Ukrainian refugees and so on. In this case, it is not surprising that the higher levels of support for some kind of action were in Europe, and to a lesser extent the US. The Ukraine war is, after all, in Europe; and western countries can obviously better afford both military support, and withstanding the impact of sanctions, than can poorer countries. However, what confuse the ‘anti-imperialist’ argument in this case was that the countries where the largest numbers were against any kind of ‘action’ or ‘interference’ included Hungary, the European state led by the intensely far-right Orban government, Israel, widely considered an extreme outpost of western imperialism, the Saudi monarchy, often considered (somewhat incorrectly) as an unreconstructed US-client regime, and Turkey, a NATO member. Indeed, the assertion that “doing nothing in Ukraine will encourage Russia to take further military action” received the lowest support among the 27 countries in Israel and Hungary, the only countries voting below 50 percent for this view (compared to 71 percent in India, for example). Reality can be rather difficult for campist “thinking.”
I wrote above, in relation to the relatively powerful states leading the abstention or otherwise ambivalent party on Russia’s horrific imperialist war of conquest against Ukraine:
“Rather, what these countries and governments have in common – China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel – is their sub-imperialist (or in some cases arguably imperialist) nature. Far from their positions on the war reflecting any “anti-colonial” consciousness of their people (or reflecting their oppressed and exploited peoples at all), they rather reflect the geopolitical positioning, their global bargaining position, between US, European, Russian and Chinese imperialism, taking advantage of the war to assert their own sub-imperial interests, regional influence and conquests, and oppressive rule over internal and local colonies.”
Patrick Bond , Ana Garcia , Miguel Borba describe “sub-imperial” powers as “featuring the super-exploitation of their working classes, predatory relations regarding their hinterlands, and collaboration (although tensioned) with imperialism, especially as intermediaries in the transfer of both surplus labor values and “free gifts of nature” (unequal ecological exchange) from South to North.” Bond cites John Smith that “dependent economies like Brazil seek to compensate for the drain of wealth to the imperialist centres by developing their own exploitative relationships with even more underdeveloped and peripheral neighbouring economies,” and David Harvey who notes that “each developing centre of capital accumulation sought out systematic spatio-temporal fixes for its own surplus capital by defining territorial spheres of influence.”
But by attempting to carve out such “territorial spheres of influence,” their collaboration with global imperialist powers will also be punctuated by bouts of competition, as their minor exploitative aspirations sometimes come into conflict with the exploitative needs of larger global powers. This “tensioned collaboration” with imperialism was called by leading dependency theorist Ruy Mauro Marini “antagonistic cooperation.” According to Harvey, as the opening of the global market “created openings” for new large regional states “to insert themselves into the global economy.” But “they then became competitors on the world stage.” Importantly, though, becoming (partial) competitors does not make them in any sense “anti-imperialist,” but, on the contrary, these larger centers of economic and military power within the Global South have “aspirations to follow Western expansionary precedents, using instruments of (corporate-oriented) multilateral power.”
It is not surprising that a moment of global crisis such as that ushered in by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is precisely a perfect moment for a large string of sub-imperial powers to assert themselves, to position, to use the crisis to improve their bargaining position in relation to US and European imperialism – even those often most often considered “western allies” – and, at the same time, with now decrepit Russian, and also globally ascendant Chinese, imperialism; a moment when all are under pressure to do some kind of deal to get them onside.
While this is not the final word on the causes of the abstention and/or effective neutrality or even pro-Russian orientation of a large number of powerful ruling classes in the Global South, it is a far better explanation than the one which tries to claim the vast billions of people of the Global South as their “anti-colonial” project, alleging they are a multi-billion mass of group-think. In this alternative scenario, their ruling elites – those responsible for the “super-exploitation” of these working classes, and of the peoples in the “even more underdeveloped and peripheral neighbouring economies,” are merely reflecting this allegedly “anti-colonial” consciousness of those they oppress and exploit, who in turn naturally support this global stance of their oppressors and exploiters. As we have seen, this is not only inherently illogical, and in conflict with even the most basic concept of class analysis, but also at odds with most of the empirical evidence of popular opinion in the South.
On October 13, I read two news items next to each other:
“Iran’s resilient protest movement. Nearly a month after Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police, demonstrations have continued to shake nearly 20 cities, even as the government cracks down on protesters and stifles internet access. Human rights organizations estimate that the crackdowns have left nearly 190 people dead—28 of whom were children—while thousands more have been detained or wounded.”
“Palestinian strikes. Israeli forces killed an 18-year-old Palestinian teenager named Osama Adawi in the West Bank on Wednesday. Adawi’s death is the latest in a spate of clashes between Israeli forces executing raids and Palestinian protesters; so far, over 100 Palestinians living in the West Bank have been killed this year. On Wednesday, Palestinian businesses in east Jerusalem went on strike to protest against the raids.”
This was October 13, but it could have been literally any other day.
We read every day that Israel and Iran are arch-enemies, and, sure enough, they aren’t friends. Israel continually threatens – for decades – to bomb Iran, it regularly hits Iranian and Hezbollah military assets in neighbouring Syria, and its leaders fiercely campaign against any US attempt to revive the JCPOA or ‘Iran nuclear deal’, signed by Obama in 2015 but scrapped by Trump in 2018. For its part, Iranian leaders regularly make fiery denunciations of the Zionist regime, predictions of its immanent collapse, and somewhat laughable threats to help bring this about.
Yet both are monstrous regimes that deserve to be utterly condemned by anyone with a progressive bone in their body.
For the US and other western imperialist states, Israel’s crimes against humanity, massive violations of human rights, flagrant violation, for many decades, of the most basic rules of international law, its apartheid, its ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, are met with mild rebuke at best, full-scale encouragement at worst, but whatever the case, ongoing economic, diplomatic and military support and the absence of any kind of sanction; yet for the same powers, Iran’s crimes against humanity, massive violations of human rights, gender apartheid and the like deserve condemnation, economic sanctions and so on.
Unfortunately, this has led a certain section of the western left, especially among those who have a hollow and class-free conception of “anti-imperialism,” to simply reverse the hypocrisy of western leaders, by vigorously denouncing Israel (sometimes to the point of placing the Israel issue at the centre of world politics, in a dangerous tendency), while providing every kind of rationale for the actions of the Iranian theocratic despots, in some cases hailing the mullahs as “anti-imperialist,” and quite often appearing to be sucked in by the hollow support for Palestine expressed by the regime. Many of these people denounce today’s glorious uprising of long-oppressed Iranian women, daily confronted by the bloody regime’s bullets, as a CIA-orchestrated ‘regime-change’ operation or ‘colour revolution’, two of the counterrevolutionary tropes these “leftists” have adopted over the last two decades to condemn people fighting against oppressive and fascist regimes.
Internationalism, by contrast, demands 100 percent support and solidarity at all times to the popular masses fighting for their liberation against all oppressive regimes.
The fact that both are monstrous regimes yet are engaged in hostility is no contradiction: there is no law that says “good” governments like each other, “bad” governments like each other, and conflict only occurs between “good” and “bad” ones, even if one were naïve enough to believe in such terms; while US president Biden recently claimed that the Ukraine conflict was part of a global conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, no serious person believes such fairy tales (and in any case, how would Biden, who wrongly sees Israel as a democracy, explain its steadfast refusal to provide Ukraine with any of its advanced missile defence equipment?). The world is not in some Manichean conflict between good and bad, and the very concept of good and bad governments is, for the most part, absurd.
Even if we use Biden’s “democracy versus authoritarianism” meme to distinguish between governments which currently are some kind of democracy and do not systematically repress, jail or kill political opponents and those that do (and ignore everything else, such as poor people dying in the US due to lack of health insurance, or state violence against the Black Lives Matter uprising), this would tell us nothing about alliances throughout the world: during the Cold War decades of 1945-1990, the ‘democratic’ US installed, financed, backed and armed dozens of brutal dictatorships throughout Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even southern Europe. US support today to brutal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, to the Israeli apartheid regime, to military coups in Honduras, Bolivia and elsewhere, tell us that ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ are not exports of like from a mother country.
Comic-book explanations of the conflict
In other words, there is nothing unusual about two brutal regimes being enemies. But why Iran and Israel? One may well ask, since both Israel and Iran have a policy of uprooting and “cleansing” millions of Arabs (in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria) as they strive to dominate the region, and since they are effectively separated from each other by the mass of largely Sunni Arab humanity that they both see as Untermenschen, why can they not be allies rather than competitors in this?
Hostility can have many causes; let’s first knock on the head the comic-book explanations. Some wide-eyed “anti-imperialists” believe that Iran, despite its class nature as a brutal capitalist tyranny, is somehow motivated by genuinely emancipatory, anti-imperialist intentions, and via Hezbollah aims to liberate Jerusalem and the Palestinian people. Others who are less sure about such motivations nevertheless believe this alleged Iranian quest to “liberate Palestine” is a remaining impact, via osmosis, of “the Iranian revolution” some half a century ago, somehow pressuring the mullah-fascists from below to engage in regional “liberation” moves. And the reactionaries and racists running Israel pretend to be in full agreement with these starry-eyed leftist admirers of reactionary mullahs, except rather than term it liberation of Palestine, they tell the world that the mullahs are, for reasons unknown, determined to “destroy Israel” and drive them into the sea.
Of course, all this is the purest of fantasy. The mullahs couldn’t care less if the Palestinians were exterminated, and all the bluster about Palestine is done from a safe distance. So unless any serious observer believes that the Iranian regime is either so emancipatory that it wants to liberate Palestine (while oppressing everywhere else it occupies), or so irrationally imperialistic that it aims, come what may, to conquer Israel through several countries in between and annex it to an Iranian empire, then we can now move beyond the realm of fantasy.
The most common explanation for hostility between various capitalist powers is simply ‘rivalry’. Capitalism is built on competition; national capitalist classes rival each other; their state machines reflect this rivalry with policy. It is never as simple as that, but it is a good basis from which to start. However, state regimes also have to maintain support of their own populations, or at least consensus to rule; and this is achieved through hegemonic ideologies which can be based on ‘nation’, ‘race’, religion or other ideologies, which can take on a life of their own and not always correspond neatly to economic interests abroad. Let’s explore these concepts.
If we look at Israel and Iran and decide their conflict is based on ‘rivalry’ for domination of the Mideast region, there are some problems with a simplistic understanding of this.
If we begin by way of contrast, the region-wide conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would appear to have a firm basis in ‘rivalry’; both are medium-sized capitalist states in the same region (as is Turkey, which likewise rivals both); both claim to be ‘Islamic’ governments representing the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the region; and therefore, there is a logic to their rivalry, because a larger sphere of influence within the region for one or the other means more trade, more investment, more goods sold, more economic deals and links, more profit. We can say they are engaged in ‘sub-imperialist’ rivalry, which has taken on quite an active form in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen in particular. The fact that one is led by a monarchy allied to the Sunni religious hierarchy and the other is run by the Shia religious hierarchy by no means determines who all their allies are; on the contrary, both act out of ‘national interests’, and countless examples can be given for this. However, it does give them a mobilizational arm when necessary, so a degree of sectarianism can be used when necessary to bolster support in some region or another against their competitor in their geopolitical rivalry.
But can we say the same of Israel and Iran? Israel as a colonial-settler state and mini-imperialist power is in the unusual position of being the absolutely leading economic power of the region (the only indisputably ‘First World’ economy), yet not being able to directly “rival” neighbouring capitalist classes in the region itself, because it is effectively locked out of it. High-tech Israeli capitalism is spread far and wide throughout the rest of the world instead. Unless Israel were ever to allow a just peace settlement with the Palestinians – something which essentially defies the very nature of Zionism – then Israeli trade and investment in the region will remain at its current absolutely negligible and in most cases non-existent level. It can therefore not be engaged in ‘rivalry’ with Iran (or Saudi Arabia or Turkey) at least in this common understanding of the term.
For example, despite having relations with Egypt, alone within the Arab world, for over four decades, Israeli exports to Egypt were under $100 million in 2016–2017 (0.1 per cent of total Israeli exports), and Israeli imports from Egypt were around $50 million a year at that time, a similar percentage; likewise, Israel’s share in Egypt’s total exports of goods in 2016 was 0.3 per cent, and its share in Egypt’s imports of goods was 0.1 per cent. Egypt is 39th in the world in value of Israeli trade ties. This is despite Egypt being a very large country directly bordering Israel. While trade has increased and there is potential for better economic relations via Mediterranean gas politics, none of this could be considered to be part of “rivalry” with Iran, or anyone else in the region; while Egypt and Iran have trade relations, they are geographically distant, trade is small-scale, and as a solidly Sunni country, not a potential part of any Iranian-dominated region. All the same points could be made about Jordan, Israel’s immediate neighbour, which established diplomatic relations with it in 1994: Israeli exports to Jordan around 2017 stood at some $50–100 million per year, about 0.1–0.2 per cent of total Israeli exports to the world, Jordan being Israel’s 51st largest trading partner!
Of course, Israel would like the opening provided by the UAE to extend to the major prize, the Saudi market, but currently the value of underhanded Saudi-Israeli trade is around $11,000 per year, basically a grain of sand on a beach in terms of economic value. And in any case, being the main actual rival to Iran in the region, Saudi Arabia’s negligible trade with Israel is hardly due to Iranian rivalry! Rather, while Saudi trade with Iran is valued at some fifty times the value of its trade with Israel, it is still only in the hundreds of thousands; in opposite fashion to the UAE, Saudi Arabia maintains only the most minimal relations, trade or otherwise, with both Israel and Iran (the decade-long daily excitable claims that Israel and the Saudis are forever on the verge of establishing relations notwithstanding).
Rather, the essence of the ‘conflict’ – largely a ‘phoney war’ as will be discussed below – is rooted in hegemonic mobilisation: the Zionist and Iranian ethno-theocratic projects both need the “great enemy” of each other to justify themselves. The Iranian “threat” to Israel – whether the “liberatory” or the expansionist-genocidal – is an entirely manufactured threat, but the need for such a major “threat” is crucial to the ideological foundations of the late Zionist state, as it is likewise to the ‘Islamic Republic’ state.
Israel felt so unthreatened by Iran during Iran’s much more “revolutionary” era of the 1980s, just fresh from the revolution and with the firebrand Khomeini still in power, that it armed Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and openly advocated Iranian victory, as is extremely well-documented. But following the US destruction of Iraq in 1991, Israel began to vocally declare Iran to be its worst enemy.
According to the article ‘The Forever Threat: The Imminent Attack on Iran That Will Never Happen’, Israel has been making noises about launching an imminent attack on Iran, often “within weeks,” since 1994. For example, on December 9, 1997, “The Times of London headline screamed, ‘Israel steps up plans for air attacks on Iran’. The article, written by Christopher Walker, reported on the myriad “options” Israel had in confronting what it deemed ‘Iran’s Russian-backed missile and nuclear weapon programme’.” The Forever Threat shows dozens of similar headlines from the past quarter century about Israel being ready to attack Iran any day now. When an Israeli attack on Iran is not just generally a possibility but is “imminent” in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2015 and onwards, we start to get what the title of the article means: it will (likely) never happen because there is no Iranian threat to Israel to require it.
This continually repeated “imminent” threat, the permanent call on Israelis and the whole region to be on tenterhooks expecting Armageddon any time, the permanency of a state of advanced paranoia, xenophobia and existential “threat” to Israel and the Jews, serves a purpose: Israel may never attack, but the daily threats that it is always around the corner are their own goal.
For many years now, Zionist ideology has been in crisis. The success of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the growing questioning of Israel’s savage treatment of the Palestinians; the obvious contradiction between being a “Jewish state” and democracy; support around the world for Palestinian statehood; are all manifestations of this.
But if Israel and “the Jews” are under existential threat, then Israel and its allies have something with which to homogenise Israeli and Jewish opinion about the need for a Jewish homeland. As the alleged “threat” of another Final Solution coming from the oppressed and terrorised Palestinian “terrorists” looks more and more ridiculous to rational people, what can rescue this charade better than a powerful regional state, with a regime that similarly relies heavily on bloated “anti-Zionist” rhetoric, allegedly developing a nuclear bomb with which to wipe out Israel? Israel had found itself the necessary “new Hitler.”
As for Iran, for how many decades has the “road to Jerusalem” gone through either Baghdad, or Damascus or some other unfortunate Arab capital over the bodies of tens of thousands of Arabs? Iran and its proxy forces can slaughter Arabs in Baghdad, in Ramadi, in Mosul, in Aleppo, in Homs, in Damascus, in Qaysar, and claim to be fighting the great battle for Jerusalem! [and an either ethically corrupt or criminally ignorant section of the western “left” can help spread this literally other-worldly propaganda]. The reactionary ‘Islamic Republic’ regime has also been in a long-term crisis of legitimacy, demonstrated by repeated popular upsurges over the last decade and a half, in every case met with bloody repression. The ideological clap-trap about allegedly being a ‘rejectionist’ state in relation to Palestine is key to the regime’s propaganda arsenal throughout the region, and among a section of its own people.
The Iranian regime of Ahmedinejad was particularly adept at pushing rhetoric to the limits and playing into the hands of Likudnik hawks and neo-con nutjobs. While it is true that his statement that Israel will “disappear from the hand of time” was deliberately mistranslated by Zionist and imperialist hacks to Israel will “be wiped off the face of the Earth,” this mistranslation was made more believable by other vile Ahmedinejad noises and actions: Israel could hardly believe its luck when he organised a Holocaust-denial conference and invited, among others, David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Perfect for Zionist homogenisation: a “holocaust denying regime wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and is building nuclear weapons to do it with!”
In reality, the geographic distance between Iran and Israel is precisely what makes this propaganda game safe for both. This was also the case for past reactionary Arab dictatorships claiming the ‘rejectionist’ mantle, namely Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the further away, the louder you can bark. This has also been the case with Erdogan’s Turkey for much of the period since 2009.
It was only the actual contiguity of a Lebanese Shiite population under brutal Zionist occupation in southern Lebanon for over two decades that led to the growth of Hezbollah and thus actual confrontation between Israel and an Iranian-backed force; this was a genuine national liberation struggle, where Iran just happened to be in the right place to be able to gain political credit from afar. But Israel was evicted from Lebanon in 2000 – 22 years ago – and as such Hezbollah has not the slightest interest (let alone ability) in using its position to “liberate Jerusalem” or even to fire a rocket; apart from the 2006 flare-up, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been particularly quiet.
However, the phoney “war” atmosphere requires Israeli strikes when Hezbollah or Iranian-backed forces inside Syria get within striking distance of the occupied Golan. Not because these forces want to use this position to “target Israel” – on the contrary, their presence has only ever been used to kill Syrian people – but because the entire Zionist case that Iran is out to destroy it would go up in smoke if Israel let them be when in “its vicinity” and nothing happened. The fact of the matter is that while Israel has struck Iranian assets in Syria hundreds of times (in open cooperation with Putin’s Russia, which controls Syria’s air defence system and allows all this …), neither Iran nor Hezbollah has ever initiated an attack on the occupied Golan, and possibly only twice have ever even returned fire.
It would certainly be difficult to see Israel’s bombing of Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria as “rivalry” with Iran for influence – economic or otherwise – within Syria. On the contrary, while Israel and Iran agree on one thing – the preservation ofthe Assad regime, and the crushing of the anti-Assad decade-long uprising – Israel knows well it can never gain any support among the Syrian population – pro- or anti-Assad – as long as it occupies the Syrian Golan Heights. Despite bombing Iranian forces – Assad’s allies – Israel never attempted to aid the anti-Assad forces; there was not a singular instance where Israel bombed Assadist or even Iranian or Hezbollah forces while in active conflict with the opposition. And it is no coincidence that Israeli strikes on pro-Iranian forces have increased precisely as the threat to the regime from the largely defeated rebels has receded; as then Israeli Defence Minister, far-rightist Naftali Bennet put it, “Iran used to be an asset for the Syrians [ie, as long as it was useful in crushing the rebellion] … but now it’s a burden.” Similarly, the opposition has always emphasised the need to recover the stolen Golan and expressed its solidarity with Palestine. Rather, Israel’s key alliance within Syria has always been Assad’s most strategic backer, Putin’s Russia, the main actual rival of Iran for domination over the recovered Assadist state and its resources.
Strategic positioning and competition
Nevertheless, there may have been an element of quiet “rivalry” involved in bombing Hezbollah when looked at closely: for many years, Israel and Lebanon (with Hezbollah in the Lebanese government) have been engaged in hard bargaining over demarcating the gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea (and, ironically perhaps, Assad’s Syrian regime also has a demarcation dispute with Lebanon over the gas in the sea in Lebanon’s north).
Therefore, with the just-signed historic US-negotiated Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement – with a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah, and led by Hezbollah-allied president Aoun – enabling demarcation of drilling rights in the gas fields of the Mediterranean Sea – there is reason to believe that Israel-Hezbollah “tensions” may relax; indeed, notably, the most recent Hezbollah threat of sabotage action was related directly to pressure on Israel’s position during the bargaining over this treaty. It may be too early to say, but it is notable that, while Israel struck Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria at an unprecedented rate throughout 2022, as of late October there have been no more such attacks since September 17 – some six weeks – the maritime agreement, signed on October 11 and welcomed by Hezbollah and Syria as well as the two signing countries being a possible explanation.
At a larger level, the ideological positioning, while driven by the requirements of internal hegemonic mobilisation, has also gained a life of its own as a strategic tool for Israel in the region, in Israel’s drive to open up more of the Arab market via avenues such as the Abraham Accords signed between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, further bolstering relations Israel already has with Egypt, Jordan and Oman, and attempting to drive open the Saudi and further Gulf markets. In particular, by drumming up the Iranian “threat,” Israel’s major military and “security” industries aim to profit via cooperation with the military and repressive forces of these regimes.
Ironically, however, that does not necessarily mean most of these regimes do feel “threatened” by Iran – only Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, with a large Shiite minority in the east, and Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy rules over a disenfranchised Shiite majority, have an Iran problem, and while Bahrain has been in the forefront of rapprochement with Israel, the Saudis, as we have seen, are very much the rearguard, at most, of this move.
Rather, for the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, what they share with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Assad regime is seeing the regional Muslim Brotherhood (sponsored by Qatar and the Erdogan regime in Turkey) as a strategic enemy: a movement which attempts to combine Islam and democracy, no matter how precariously or dishonestly, which was active throughout the Arab Spring, including in Syria and Egypt, and in Palestine takes the form of Hamas, is considered anathema. Military and security cooperation with Israel serve the purposes of internal and regional counterrevolution (something they have in common with Iran in fact), not just against the MB but against democratic upsurge more generally. But the bogey of a large and powerful state like Iran with a very loud mouth, large armed forces and a supposed nuclear threat makes much better propaganda for bolstering “security” cooperation and profiteering than the threat from below. So Israel needs to continually pose as a regional “anti-Iran” leader, the regional First World military hegemon that can offer “security.”
Indeed, it is hardly surprising that all the Arab regimes that have cozied up to Israel the last few years are identical to those who have cozied up to the Assad regime, re-established relations with both, or always had them: Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco, with the Saudis more quietly supporting from behind but refusing to openly budge on either. This fact renders all discussion of Middle East “camps” the nonsense they are, leftover ashes of what was perhaps a partial reality some half a century ago that many still live in: the regional counterrevolution is largely the same camp, with bumps at the edges.
Longer term, it could be projected that Israel’s ideology of the phoney “Iran threat” could be related to a kind of future strategic competition between Israel and Iran: competition for this very position of regional cop as recognised by world imperialist powers. There is little doubt that Iran’s role in crushing the Syrian revolution, while the US looked on and did deals, and its role in defeating ISIS in Iraq in cooperation with the US, was widely appreciated, but the stripes gained were looked upon with apprehension by Israel. Of course, most readers would say this is far-fetched, which it is, for now: the mantle of regional cop, especially for US imperialism, clearly belongs to Israel. But the emergence of a powerful, relatively ‘modernised’, non-Arab state of 70 million people from imperialist sanctioned isolation to imperialist-blessed prominence, via the nuclear accord and its possible revival, cannot but be seen as a threat to its position by Israel in the longer term.
In this sense, Israeli leaders are not wrong that US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, and the possibility of a new deal, are an existential threat to Israel, but in a very different way to what they claim. If western imperialism’s need to bring Iranian capitalism more fully back into the world capitalist system leads to a deal that allows Iran to peacefully develop nuclear energy, then 30 years of Zionist bluster is out the window and finding a new “threat” of that magnitude will not be an easy task.
Dedicating an article to a particular US politician may seem overkill, but there are few American politicians that the ‘alt-left’ have lauded as much as reactionary, alt-rightist Tulsi Gabbard, former Democrat representative from Hawaii. For example, here is professional campist and apologist for mass murder, “journalist” Ben Norton, singing her praises back in 2019:
“Yeh I’ve been really impressed by Tulsi Gabbard … she’s really been hitting hard at the regime change war problem … Tulsi [her admirers are all on first name basis with Gabbard] is great because she has made this the key part of her platform.”
This is just one of hundreds, or thousands, of similar examples from the last decade or so. So no doubt they were impressed that Gabbard recently quit the Democratic Party, especially as she began by claiming they were led by an “elitist cabal of warmongers.” However, most of them quoting this – and many did – would have stopped there, embarrassed by what came after (though in many cases still not embarrassed enough to not cite her!). Let’s have a look at more of Gabbard’s resignation speech:
Gabbard resigns from “woke,” “anti-white,” “anti-God” Democratic Party
“I can no longer remain in today’s Democratic Party that is now under the complete control of an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness, who divide us by racializing every issue & stoke anti-white racism, actively work to undermine our God-given freedoms, are… hostile to people of faith & spirituality, demonize the police & protect criminals at the expense of law-abiding Americans, believe in open borders, weaponize the national security state to go after political opponents, and above all, dragging us ever closer to nuclear war.”
Have you ever seen a bigger right-wing dog-whistle while still making vague signals to the left? So, Gabbard, the ruling class Democratic party is a hotbed of “anti-white racism”! Hostile to “people of faith”! “Undermines the police”! Believes in “open borders”! Yes, the alt-left, the campist-tankie left, can have her. Of course, none of this is new – anyone who looked knew that Tulsi Gabbard has been an out and out reactionary for years, well, always.
Unlike many, this was too much even for Norton, who now declares her “a right-wing sheepdog [who] cynically tries to lure anti-war people into the GOP.” Yeh, Ben, that’s what we said when you were singing her praises. Norton recently quit the red-brown propaganda-for-tyrants site, Grayzone, apparently because he felt his co-thinker, Max Blumenthal, was taking conspiracist thinking a little far with his conversion to Covidiocy. Will be interesting to see how Grayzone explains their idol’s talk about the dangers of “anti-white racism” and the like.
It’s rather obvious from her resignation which direction she is heading after the Democrats. Earlier this year, Gabbard was invited and spoke to the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where she spoke alongside Glenn Beck at the Ronald Reagan memorial dinner. She declared, not wrongly, that she finally found where she belonged, which helps us understand where her new “home” will be (where in reality it always was).
Gabbard: Apologist for genocidal Assad regime
Gabbard was good at hoodwinking the red-brown, tankie, campist “leftists” because they are not only easily fooled by definition, but also tend to be consciously and defiantly ignorant. One of the issues that really endeared them to Gabbard was her apologism for genocidal mass-murdering Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, who she personally visited in 2017. Her explanation for this was that she was for peace, and therefore it was necessary to talk to everyone involved, including Assad. This was a very thin smokescreen, however, as she propagated almost all Assadist talking points.
She declared herself against an (actually non-existent) “US regime-change war” against Assad, leading tankies to see her as one of them, deciding she was “anti-war”, as in Norton’s quotes about “regime change” above. In reality of course, the only US bombing war in Syria since 2014 has been the air war against ISIS (which destroyed ISIS in Syria), which also hit anti-ISIS Islamist rebels, especially, from the first day, Jabhat-al-Nusra, this US intervention welcomed by the Assad regime. Far from being anti-war, Gabbard accused the US of not bombing them enough. She welcomed the onset of Russia’s terror bombing of Syria on behalf of Assad in 2015, claiming, falsely, that the “US has not been bombing al-Qaeda/al-Nusra in Syria” (the US bombed Nusra targets hundreds of times, killing large numbers of civilians in the process, and often enough, even mainstream anti-Assad rebels), and proceeding to state “but it’s mind-boggling that we protest Russia’s bombing of these terrorists,” despite the fact that the vast majority of Russia’s bombs, and Assad’s bombs, hit mainstream rebels, not “al-Qaeda.”
Returning from her trip to Assad’s palace, Gabbard made videos calling for an end to the imaginary “US regime change war,” which showed vast footage of the massive, unending destruction of entire regions as far as they eye can see that Assad’s bombing had wrought, implicitly blaming it on the US, or on the anti-Assad rebels, who only had small arms: the cataclysmic destruction in the footage is clearly the work of an airforce and advanced missiles, possessed only the regime and Russia.
But of course tankies, campists and red-browns think someone is progressive and anti-war when they support a genocidal tyrant who has killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed entire towns and cities throughout his country. Well, each to their own I suppose, so for argument’s sake, let’s go with that.
With exceptions, most of these same tankies and campists and even many red-browns pretend to be very pro-Palestine. It is their one alleged point of honour. If you point out massive repression by an Assad, Putin or Khameini, they can “what about Israel” you in response? “Why doesn’t the US stop Israel?” Since every genuine leftist has supported the Palestinian struggle their entire political lives, and has never stopped condemning the unconditional US support for the regime of occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing, this whataboutism is irrelevant and stupid, of course, but it gives them something to say. So, OK, let’s again go with that.
Gabbard: Hard Zionist
It therefore takes a very, very deliberate kind of ignorance to not know that Gabbard is also a hard Zionist (and of course there is zero contradiction between being a Zionist and an Assadist – virtually the entire global far-right achieve that, not just Gabbard). So then why do they extol someone who should be their enemy? Because she’s pro-Putin? Yeh well, so is Netanyahu! The bottom line is, her support for the Assad regime and Putin are far bigger priorities for the alt-left than their symbolic pro-Palestine views. Indeed, given Assad’s murder of thousands of Palestinians in Syria and his destruction of their camps, their support for Palestine while shilling for Assad is not only hypocritical, but also anti-Palestinian.
But let’s look at Gabbard’s well-known Zionism. Here is Gabbard at the Christians United for Israel convention, alongside John Hagee, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and every other kind of hard US reactionary. Here she is in the far-right Breitbart, exclaiming “Put yourself in Israel’s shoes”, as she defends staying for Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, where he was invited by the Republican Party rather than by the Obama US government, when nearly 60 Democrat reps boycotted. Gabbard stated that the US-Israel relationship “must rise above the political fray, as America continues to stand with Israel as her strongest ally.” During Israel’s genocidal Operation Protective Edge, Gabbard co-sponsored a congressional resolution that said that Israel exclusively “focused on terrorist targets” and that Israel “goes to extraordinary lengths to target only terrorist actors”!
Not surprisingly, she got a “Champion of Freedom” award at the Jewish Values Gala, held by the World Values Network, founded by Trump supporter Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Here is a photo showing Gabbard with Shmuley and Miriam Adelson, the wife of Sheldon Adelson, another big Trump supporter who believes Palestinians are “a made-up people”.
In 2017, Gabbard co-sponsored H.Res.23, which supports the U.S. policy of vetoing “any one-sided or anti-Israel UN Security Council Resolutions that seek to impose a negotiated settlement on Israel and Palestine.” It also condemns boycott and divestment campaigns and sanctions that target Israel. Then in 2019, Gabbard voted for an AIPAC bill condemning Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Gabbard: Islamophobe extraordinaire and “hawk” on the “war on terror”
One thing Gabbard’s pro-Assad and pro-Israel stances have in common is that they both accord with the very Islamophobic and “war on terror” basis of her politics. Both the Assad regime and Israel leaders, when they mercilessly bomb civilian infrastructure, medical facilities, schools, refugee camps, anything really, and murder with impunity on a daily basis, claim they are targeting “radical Islamic terrorists.” The US and Russia claim the same in their imperialist wars.
Therefore, among other things, for Gabbard this also includes:
Being a hard-line supporter of Modi, the BJP and Hindutva chauvinism; Modi had been personally implicated in the murderous anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, which killed around 1000 people. Due to this, for about a decade, the US had refused to give Modi a visa. For Gabbard, this was a “great blunder,” claiming “there was a lot of misinformation that surrounded the event in 2002.”
Loving bloody Egyptian tyrant al-Sisi (given that Sisi is allied to both Assad and Israel, this works well), who she visited in 2015, and declared “President el-Sisi has shown great courage and leadership in taking on this extreme Islamist ideology”
While opposing non-existent US “regime change” war, on the “war on terror” Gabbard declares “I’m a hawk.”
The rest of her politics isn’t much different, even if she now claims to no longer be a homophobe, and one wonders how long that phase will last given the territory she is openly moving into. Her right-wing baiting about the danger of “anti-white racism” reveals a more reactionary Gabbard than even many of those aware of her real politics realised. For example, Gabbard claimed US could not possibly be a racist country, since Ahmaud Arbery’s killers were found guilty. That was certainly be news to the hundreds of African-Americans murdered by cops and vigilantes where the killers have gone free; apparently, Black Lives Matter was all about nothing.
Several years ago Gabbard refused to sign letter by 169 Democrats opposing far-rightist Steve Bannon being appointed appointed as Trump’s advisor; little wonder she has received praise fromBannon who claimed she “would fit perfectly [in the Trump administration] … She gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.” As well as praise from Nazis and white supremacists David Duke and Richard Spencer, from the leading right-wing economic/defence/security think-tank the American Enterprise Institute, from Fox News heavy-weight far-rightist Tucker Carlson, whose show Gabbard regularly appears on, really you name it, from almost anyone on the right.
So if tankie and campist leftists want to keep citing Gabbard of all people as an “anti-war” voice in support of Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine or Assad’s genocidal reign of terror in Syria, please go for it: she suits you.
Interesting that in a 37-minute speech to justify Russia’s brazen annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Putin didn’t mention “Nazis” or “de-Nazification” once, these silly tropes that some gullible western lefties believed. Instead, it was all about the glories of 1000 years Imperial Russia, while appealing to the most reactionary segments of western society with a lot of mystical, religious, traditionalist nonsense like the following:
“They [ie, the western globalists] have already moved on to the radical denial of moral, religious, and family values. Let’s answer some very simple questions for ourselves. Now I would like to return to what I said and want to address also all citizens of the country – not just the colleagues that are in the hall – but all citizens of Russia: do we want to have here, in our country, in Russia, “parent number one, parent number two and parent number three” (they have completely lost it!) instead of mother and father? Do we want our schools to impose on our children, from their earliest days in school, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery? Is that what we want for our country and our children? This is all unacceptable to us. We have a different future of our own. … This complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble a “religion in reverse” – pure Satanism. Exposing false messiahs, Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” These poisonous fruits are already obvious to people, and not only in our country but also in all countries, including many people in the West itself.”
Indeed, the West is guilty of ‘Satanism’ and all these crimes against traditional religion and morality, and therefore … Russia should annex 15 percent of Ukraine! Because these regions are allegedly populated by Russians (well, most of the population are not ethnic Russians, but the majority of the population have been violently expelled or massacred) and it is the great historic mission of the glorious Russian Nation to lead the Crusade against this moral degeneracy of western society. If Putin thus sounds like any typical far-right US Christian fundamentalist or Trumpist or 21st century European fascist it is no accident, nor is it anything new for anyone watching: Putin has positioned his regime as head of the global far-right for many years now. Not just all this ‘moral’ bullshit, but also on the question of race, nation and ‘civilisation’; for many years he has espoused a version of ‘Great Replacement’ theory, warning the white race and European and Christian culture that it was in danger of disappearing due to immigration of lots of non-Europeans into the European heartland. No wonder he dropped the crap about fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine; while it might have fooled some lefties, his main audience were and are the western far-right, who probably found it a little confusing, especially all those Nazis everywhere in the world who have been waving the Putin flag for years.
If Putin’s hard authoritarian but ‘parliamentary’ state is still far from fascist in its rule inside Russia (as opposed to its murderous colonial rule in Donbas), Putinism is, nevertheless, fascist ideologically. That’s why it’s no surprise that Putin here quotes a genuine historical Russian fascist, Ivan Ilyin, who Putin calls a “true patriot,” with a lot of mysticism about “the spiritual strength of the Russian people.” That’s why today’s leading Russian fascist high priest, Alexander Dugin, praised Putin’s speech to the sky, proclaiming “This is a manifesto of Tradition. I can’t imagine how profound the consequences are. It was an eschatological, religious speech”
This goes together well with the glorification of The Russian Nation and Empire, the centrepiece of his speech he continually returned to. “The battlefield to which destiny and history have called us is a battlefield for our people, for the great historical Russia. (Applause.) For the great historical Russia, for future generations, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We must protect them against enslavement and monstrous experiments that are designed to cripple their minds and souls.”
While we sometimes hear that Putin wants to restore the USSR, he made it abundantly clear he wanted nothing of the sort. After denouncing the ‘elites’ who dissolved it, he explained “But it doesn’t matter now. … Actually, Russia no longer needs it today; this isn’t our ambition. But there is nothing stronger than the determination of millions of people who, by their culture, religion, traditions, and language, consider themselves part of Russia, whose ancestors lived in a single country for centuries.” Of course, Putin liked the size and shape of the USSR, because it was a very large country where countless other nations and ethnicities were dominated by The Russian Nation; but that had already existed for centuries before the USSR as the Tsarist Russian Empire, Putin’s ideal, his speech full of glorification of Tsars like Catherine the Great, talk of ‘Novorossiya’, the Tsarist Empire’s name for its colonisation of Ukrainian lands, and so on. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, still contained the fiction of an equal union of republics, of peoples, in its name, and that is what Putin hates, has been railing against for years, the original sin of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in recognising the right of self-determination of Ukraine and the other subject peoples of the old Russian Empire, as Putin here denounces “the [Bolshevik] government quietly demarcated the borders of Soviet republics, acting behind the scenes after the 1917 revolution.”
It’s true that this hard right and medievalist ideological rant was peppered with nods to the western left and the former colonial world with his denunciations of western imperialism. Putin quite rightly denounces the West for “the worldwide slave trade, the genocide of Indian tribes in America, the plunder of India and Africa, the wars of England and France against China,” for the “exterminat[ion of] entire ethnic groups for the sake of grabbing land and resources” and so on. Yet he somehow manages to omit the fact that Tsarist Russia was in every sense a key participant in these centuries of colonial expansion, plunder and extermination; the fact that Russian colonialism expanded by land, subjugating nations and ethnicities from the Black Sea to the Caucasus, central Asia and Siberia, rather than by sea, is irrelevant. Indeed, in the 19th century Marx and Engels considered the Russian Empire to be at the very centre of reaction in Europe. Putin does complete somersaults with reality by imagining a centuries-old ‘Russophobia’ by some imaginary collective ‘West’ (for most of these centuries Britain and France were mainly at war with each other, and with other Western states, at least one of which was always aligned with Tsarist Russia) that allegedly wanted to make Russia one of its colonies, but Russia resisted this “by creating a strong centralised state,” ie that of the Tsars.
Indeed it is only due to this Russian colonialism, carried out by this “strong centralised state,” that Ukraine (’Novorossya’) came to be under Russian control (aided in the 20th century by Stalin’s Holodomor in the 1930s, when 4 million Ukrainians were starved to death while its borders were sealed to prevent the starving escaping); and it was only due to Russian colonisation of Crimea and dispossession of its Indigenous Tatar population, finalised once again by Stalin’s genocidal expulsion of the entire Tatar population in the 1940s, that Putin was even able to conduct the previous fake “referendum” under military occupation there in 2014.
Somehow, Putin thinks a good way to fight centuries of imperialism is to be ultra-imperialist, to invade a country and conquer great chunks of it; from the start, this war had nothing to do with NATO, with “Nazis” or any other such nonsense, but has been entirely a war of pure and simple imperialist conquest, of the Black Sea coastline with its vast natural resources and strategic position.
These new “referendums” again take place under brutal military occupation, where those who “vote” essentially have guns to their heads; when the majority of the population of Donbas have fled or been driven out and hence get no “vote” (indeed half the population was already in exile before February, having fled during Russia’s occupation of parts of Donbas in 2014-22); after the Russian military have savagely bombed the Donbas populations for months; where there was not a single instance of Donbas crowds welcoming the Russian invaders as “liberators”; where no polls over the last 8 years have ever shown significant support for joining Russia; where ethnic Russians were just over a third of the population in two of the regions, and considerably less in the other two; and and even then, there is no way of knowing what the actual votes were, even given these entirely manipulated and violent conditions – they are almost certainly pure concoctions, as are all “votes” in “referendums” and “elections” throughout the world under dictatorship, terror and occupation.
Yet some people who should know better have been giving this murderous farce and blatant land theft the benefit of the doubt. We are expected to believe that those that Russia has been bombing into oblivion for months just voted to join their torturer. No doubt, as per Putin, out of fear of the West’s Satanism and gender-bending practices.
We’ve all heard it time and time again. Whether it is an argument in support of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, or just as often, opposed to it but claiming both sides are equally at fault, we hear that that “the Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”
Here’s just one example among thousands of examples regurgitated, with never a simple fact-check, all over the left and right media: According to pro-Putin writer Max Parry, “For what the late Edward S. Herman called the ‘cruise missile Left,’ the 14,000 ethnic Russians killed in Donbass by the Ukrainian army since 2014 are ‘unworthy victims,’ as Herman and Noam Chomsky defined the notion in Manufacturing Consent.”
The purpose of this claim is to argue that, while Putin may have over-reacted by going all the way to invading, it was the Ukrainian army most at fault before the invasion. Even if it is admitted that Putin’s invasion is criminal and may have imperialist goals and is only using the plight of the Donbas Russians as an excuse, the claim is that this excuse is genuine.
Therefore, even many of those who oppose the Russian invasion equally oppose the Ukrainian resistance, and in particular its receipt of arms, because if Ukraine gets the upper hand, it will just continue to do to the “ethnic Russians” what it was previously doing, the same as what Russia is now doing to “the Ukrainians.”
While not quite as colourful as Putin’s claim that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against the ethnic Russians in Donbas, these claims are nevertheless serious and merit clear examination.
Let’s look at the claim again:
“The Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”
Is any of this true?
Yes – the 14,000 figure. Yes, 14,000 were killed in the conflict in Donbas between 2014 and 2022. That’s a terrible figure, and of course many times that number were wounded, the entire region is a dead zone covered by landmines, and some 3.3 million people fled the region (ie before the millions who have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion). But what of the rest?
“The Ukrainian army killed.”
Wrong – two sides were involved in the armed conflict – the Ukrainian army, alongside various irregular Ukrainian militia (often composed of people uprooted from their homes) on one side, and the Russia-backed and armed separatist militia of the two self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in eastern Donbas on the other, backed by Russian troops and mercenaries. Both sides shoot; both sides kill.
For example, according to a January 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, “On January 24, unguided rockets, probably launched from rebel-controlled territory, killed 29 civilians and 1 soldier in Mariupol and wounded more than 90 civilians. One rocket struck the courtyard of a school. On January 13, unguided rockets, also probably launched from rebel-controlled territory, killed 12 civilians and wounded 18 at a checkpoint near Volnovakha.” Don’t these 41 civilian lives count? What of the fact that, following the first Minsk Accord in September 2014, the ‘separatist’ militia immediately violated it by launching a 6-month battle, with hundreds of deaths, to seize the Donetsk airport from the government? How was that the Ukrainian army’s fault? What of the 298 people killed when the ‘separatists’ shot down a civilian airline in July 2014?
Ethnic Russians are a minority of around 38-39 percent of the population in Donbas, so it is unlikely that all or most killed are “ethnic Russians,” but that is not the point of this part of the assertion. The reason this fiction is inserted is to imply that people were killed “by the Ukrainian army” simply for being ethnic Russians, in a war of targeted ethnic extermination, rather than being victims of the cross-fire between the two sides shooting at each other.
So, let’s be clear: we are talking about 3,404 civilians, killed by both sides, over 2014-2021.
However, what about the last part:
“between 2014 and 2022.”
Well, yes, if we make the small change to 2014-2021, then this is correct in the abstract.
But the implication here is that there was a continual, ongoing bloody conflict (allegedly all caused by the Ukrainian army incessantly “shelling ethnic Russians”) right up to the Russian invasion. The invasion, in a sense, is simply the continuation of the ongoing bloodshed, at a perhaps slightly higher level; a reaction to it, even if perhaps an overreaction.
In reality, almost all the 14,000 deaths, including almost all the 3,404 civilians, were killed when the open conflict was raging from 2014 till the ceasefire in mid-2015 – that is, during a time when no-one seriously denies the direct involvement (ie, invasion) by the Russian army. Let’s just look at the OSCE Status Reports from 2016-2022.
Of these 16 fatalities in 2021, 11 were from the first half of 2021: according to the OSCE Status Report as of 14 June 2021, “Over the past two weeks, the SMM corroborated four civilian casualties, all injuries due to explosive objects. This brings the total number of civilian casualties that occurred since the beginning of 2021 to 37 (11 fatalities and 26 injuries). Again, the majority of the casualties (27) were due to mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosive objects.”
Meanwhile, the weekly OSCE Status Report as of 6 September 2021 reported “a fatality, bringing the total number of confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of 2021 to 62 (15 fatalities and 47 injuries).” Hence, of the 5 fatalities in the second half of the year, 4 were before September.
From these three 2021 reports, we see a continual decline in fatalities in Donbas: 11 in January-June, 4 in June-September, 1 in September-December.
This trend continued into 2022. The OSCE Status Report as of 7 February 2022 reports “The Mission corroborated reports of a civilian casualty: a 56-year-old man suffering a leg injury as a result of small-arms fire on 29 January 2022 in the western part of non-government-controlled Oleksandrivka, Donetsk region. This is the first civilian casualty corroborated by the Mission in 2022.” In other words, to 7 February 2022, 2 weeks before the Russian invasion, there had been zero fatalities in Donbas in 2022.
Therefore, this is the trend in what Putin calls the “genocide” of the ethnic Russians in Donbas, even taking into account that the Russian-owned armed forces shoot and shell as much as do the Ukrainians, and that perhaps half if not the majority of deaths were due to landmines and unexploded ordinance, laid by both sides:
2016 – 88 deaths
2017 – 87 deaths
2018 – 43 deaths
2019 – 19 deaths
2020 – 23 deaths
2021 – 16 deaths, including:
– 11 deaths (Jan-June)
– 4 deaths (June-Sep)
– 1 death (Sep-Dec)
2022 – 0 deaths (before Russian invasion).
As we can see, the rate of death has continually declined until it reached zero. The Russian invasion, which resulted in thousands of deaths and untold injuries, destruction and dispossession, was “in response” (allegedly) to the zero deaths in Donbas in 2022.
The total number of civilian fatalities from 2016-2022 was therefore 276, about half due to landmines. Of course any number of deaths is far too many, and neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russia-owned side should be excused for violations and war crimes that resulted in civilian deaths.
But as there were 3,404 civilians killed from 2014 to 2022 before the Russian invasion, that means that 3128 of these (92%) occurred in 2014-15, when no serious observer denies the direct intervention of the Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weapons in the conflict.
The aim of this is not to let the Ukrainian government and army off the hook. Both the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatist militia have committed war crimes (mostly in 2014-15), all of which should be condemned.
There is also room for criticism of the post-2014 Ukrainian government’s virulent Ukrainian nationalism, as a major factor leading to opposition among parts of the Russian-speaking population in the east; the fact that the Maidan was confronted by an anti-Maidan in the east was in itself an entirely valid expression of democratic protest. What was not valid was the almost immediate militarisation of the anti-Maidan by Russian-backed militia, armed by Russia, involving the direct intervention of Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weaponry, arbitrarily seizing control of town halls and chunks of eastern Ukraine.
Simon Pirani argues that neither the Maidan nor the anti-Maidan should be stereotyped as reactionary as they often are by different people, and in fact the “social aspirations” of the two “were very close,” but “it was right-wing militia from Russia, and the Russian army, that militarised the conflict and suppressed the anti-Maidan’s social content.”
It is important to understand that the Donbas is ethnically mixed; according to the 2001 census, ethnic Ukrainians form 58% of the population of Luhansk and 56.9% of Donetsk; the ethnic Russian minority accounts for 39% and 38.2% of the two regions respectively. How ironic that Putin supporters justify the flagrant Russian annexation of Crimea by pointing to the 58% ethnic Russian majority there, when Ukrainians are the same size majority in Donbas! The ethnic Ukrainian population is then evenly divided between primary Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, but language does not equal ethnicity, and neither language nor ethnicity equal political opinion.
Surveys carried out in 2016 and 2019 by the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin found that in the Russian-controlled parts of Donbas, some 45% of the population were in favour of joining Russia, the majority against. Of the majority against, some 30% supported some kind of autonomy, while a quarter wanted no special status. But in the Ukraine government controlled two-thirds of Donbas, while the same percentage (around 30%) favoured some kind of autonomy within Ukraine, the two-thirds majority favoured just being in Ukraine with no special status (almost none supported joining Russia). Even this should not be read to mean that, therefore, the chunks seized by the separatists are the regions most in favour of autonomy or separation – given the dispossession of literally half the Donbas population, it more likely means a degree of subsequent relocation between the two zones.
Hence neither ethnic composition nor opinion shows the two Donbas provinces are “Russian” regions that favour separation or even necessarily autonomy; they are very mixed in all aspects. The borders of the bits that have been seized therefore (the fake ‘republics’) are entirely arbitrary – there was no basis for these seizures in terms of any “act of self-determination;” and since the armed conflict took off after these seizures, neither can the seizures and the militarisation be justified as necessary armed defence against some violent wave of government repression of the anti-Maidan which had not taken place.
The foreign-backed militarisation of the anti-Maidan on the one hand polarised views on the edges, while on the other driving away the middle, including a large part of the original anti-Maidan civilian population; and the more the far-right and fascist Russian-backed, or indeed actual Russian, political figures and militia came to dominate these ‘republics’, imposing essentially totalitarian control and massively violating the human rights of the local population, the less this had anything to do with any genuine expression of valid opposition to the Ukrainian government’s policies. Alienation from this reality, combined with the war itself, led to literally half the population fleeing Donbas – 3.3 million of the original population of 6.6 million – either to other parts of Ukraine (the majority), or to Russia or Belarus.
In this context, it was entirely expected that the Ukrainian armed forces would attempt to regain these regions conquered by separatist militia backed by a foreign power; and ‘valid’ in terms of international law, regardless of one’s views on how Ukraine conducted it. Of course, one may well criticise Ukraine’s reliance on purely military means to regain these regions with complex ethnic/regional issues, almost inevitable given that its virulent Ukrainian nationalist stance precluded a more political approach. But to lay the majority of blame on this military response rather than the foreign-backed military aggression it was responding to is hardly logical.
Whatever the case, and whatever one’s views on the relative responsibility of the two sides over these years, the continual and decisive reduction of fatalities, injuries and ceasefire violations between 2015 and 2022 – from 3128 civilian fatalities in 2014-2015 to 0 in early 2022 – puts the lie to not only Putin’s claim that his bloody invasion, with its countless thousands of deaths, millions uprooted and cataclysmic destruction, was in response to “genocide” of “ethnic Russians,” but also to the more subtle plague on both your houses case that the Ukrainian army was waging a relentless war against “ethnic Russians” in Donbas.
As Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s horrific aggression and attempt to conquer and annex the south and east of the country, the quantity of arms being supplied to Ukraine by the United States and other western countries has steadily increased. As the country and people suffering from this naked imperialist aggression, the Ukrainians have every right to receive weapons from whoever wants to send them, regardless of the aims of those countries doing so, or the extraordinary hypocrisy of these imperialist powers.
However, much leftist commentary has increasingly seen this supply of arms as evidence of the war becoming a “proxy” war in which Ukraine, rather than fighting for its very existence, is essentially just acting as cat’s paw for an alleged US imperialist aim of waging “war against Russia,” perhaps even aiming to “Balkanise” Russia. A quick review of some left media just the last couple of days brings up an article that labels the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “U.S. war against Russia” which “threatens world peace;” while even in Socialist Worker, which strongly condemns the Russian invasion and certainly cannot be accused of softness on Putinism, we can read that “today any element of a war of liberation against Russian imperialism is wholly subsumed by, and subordinated to, Nato’s war on Russia.”
An important part of this discourse is the claim that supplying arms goes against the importance of “negotiations,”, which allegedly the US and western states are vetoing, along with the assertion that the US aim is to “weaken” Russia rather than just help Ukraine. Some of this is based on a number of ‘gotcha’ moments when one or another representative of the US ruling class said something a little out of line. Yet a serious analysis will demonstrate that these assumptions and alleged dichotomies have no basis in reality, and the more serious US imperial analysts highlight interests and fears that not only show the ‘gotcha’ moments have little to do with western policy, but ultimately state very similar fears to many of these leftist analysts regarding the potential for a dangerously destabilised Russia resulting from a loss of Russian ‘credibility’, and therefore advocate rather similar limits to US support and stress on negotiations.
‘Negotiations’ versus war?
Writing in Counterpunch on April 29, Richard Rubenstein asks: “If Putin now offered a ceasefire in order to negotiate the status of the Donbass republics and to assert other Russian needs and interests, would the U.S. and Ukraine be justified in refusing to talk in order to punish or “weaken” him?” And answers: “Of course not!”
There is just so much unreality in all these discussions that begin with such statements. “Would the US and Ukraine be justified”? The US and Ukraine are two different countries. What the US does is one thing, but Ukraine is under invasion and occupation. Ukraine is fighting for its existence. If it decides it wants to fight on in order to get as much of its country back as it can and to thus have a stronger position at the bargaining table, that is up to Ukraine, not the US or western leftists. If Ukraine decides it cannot handle the superior Russian firepower any longer and is forced to sign a ceasefire with humiliating conditions, that is up to Ukraine, not up to the US or western leftists. Ukraine’s decisions, in other words, should not be subject to the approval of either western imperialism or the western imperial left. Either way, we should simply demand Russia get out.
Now the first assumption in these endless articles spouting the wisdom of “ceasefire and negotiations” and of Rubenstein’s question above is that Russia is dying to negotiate, and has “reasonable” concerns, or as Rubenstein puts it, “other Russian needs and interests,” which apparently exist inside another sovereign state. I wonder if Rubenstein would seek to justify the ongoing US occupation of part of Cuba’s sovereign territory as due to “US needs and interests.” The related assumption is either that Ukraine is opposed to negotiating, or that many in Ukraine, perhaps Zelensky, would be ready to negotiate, but the US is opposed to negotiations or to any concessions to Russia, and is “banning” Ukraine from negotiating or compromising, or by pumping in arms, it is “encouraging” Ukraine to fight and not negotiate.
This scenario, however, is entirely fictional. No-one making these endless statements has ever presented any evidence whatsoever. They just make it up, because it fits their schema that this is a “proxy war” being waged by US imperialism, which is apparently using Ukraine and Ukrainian lives for its (the US’s) “war on Russia,” as opposed to the actual war of conquest being waged by Russian imperialism against its former colony that stares anyone in the face who wants to look.
It is a remarkably western-centric view, even for the always western-centric Manichean “anti-imperialist” left, to imagine that the millions of Ukrainians who have risen up at the grass-roots level in an extraordinary mobilisation to defend Ukraine’s right to exist as a state and nation are not doing so in their own interests but are merely being fooled into being “proxies” for US imperialism’s schemes.
Ukraine has been either negotiating, or offering to re-start negotiations, more or less continually. It should not be obliged to; Ukraine would be in its full rights to simply say Russian troops need to leave Ukraine and there is nothing to negotiate except the pace and logistics of that withdrawal. But it negotiates anyway because of the position it is in. So when western leftists demand Ukraine do something it is already doing, what they really mean is that Ukraine should surrender to Russia’s “reasonable” demands.
So they should come clean – what do these wise western sages demand that Ukraine do to satisfy Russia so that it will allegedly agree to a ceasefire and negotiations? For the most part, they demand Ukraine accepts Russia’s full program of Ukrainian surrender.
Even on paper, Russia’s demands for Ukrainian surrender – no right to join a security alliance of its choice, demilitarisation, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and of Donbas – look remarkably like Israel’s “reasonable” demands for Palestinian surrender, including recognition of annexation by force and the whole package. In both cases, justification for calling such maximum demands “reasonable” derives easily from the view that “there is no such thing as Palestine/Ukraine.” Just as western imperialist leaders reject one and support the other, the western imperial left do exactly the same but merely reverse them. In contrast, the Russian and Israeli leaders of small-scale imperialist states engaged in old-style conquest-imperialism have long had a healthy respect for each other’s projects.
Ukraine’s negotiating proposal: No NATO, no military solutions to occupied regions
But are these “reasonable” Russian demands even what Russia is really waging this war for?
Let’s take the NATO demand. It is hard to understand why anyone can still think that Russia launched this war due to its alleged “security concerns” about “NATO enlargement.” NATO enlargement took place in 1999-2004, when 10 countries joined, including the only three “on Russia’s borders,” ie, the three tiny Baltic states. The four that have been allowed into NATO at different moments in the last 18 years were small Balkan states nowhere near Russia, often after long and difficult processes.
Ukraine applied to join in 2008, and the accusation that the US is pushing to “expand” into Ukraine is based on the fact that NATO did not say “no” that year, as its charter prevents it saying no to any European country. Yet 14 years later, Ukraine has still not even been given a Membership Action Plan (MAP), to allow it to begin attempting to meet the conditions of membership. No serious observer thinks Ukraine has any chance of being admitted for many years or decades.
But in any case, Zelensky made the major concession on NATO in negotiations just a few weeks into the war. It’s full elaboration as a written proposal was on March 30. The first few points of the 10-point plan are as follows:
Proposal 1:Ukraine proclaims itself a neutral state, promising to remain nonaligned with any blocs and refrain from developing nuclear weapons — in exchange for international legal guarantees. Possible guarantor states include Russia, Great Britain, China, the United States, France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, and Israel, and other states would also be welcome to join the treaty.
Proposal 2: These international security guarantees for Ukraine would not extend to Crimea, Sevastopol, or certain areas of the Donbas [ie, the areas currently controlled by Kremlin stooges]. The parties to the agreement would need to define the boundaries of these regions or agree that each party understands these boundaries differently.
Proposal 3:Ukraine vows not to join any military coalitions or host any foreign military bases or troop contingents. Any international military exercises would be possible only with the consent of the guarantor-states. For their part, these guarantors confirm their intention to promote Ukraine’s membership in the European Union.
Note the second point also touches on Russia’s other surrender conditions. One of them, the Crimea issue, is further elaborated on in point 8:
Proposal 8: The parties’ desire to resolve issues related to Crimea and Sevastopol shall be committed to bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and Russia for a period of 15 years. Ukraine and Russia also pledge not to resolve these issues by military means and to continue diplomatic resolution efforts.
If anybody can find any evidence of US “rejection” of Ukraine’s plan, any attempt to “ban” Ukraine from making these concessions, please provide sources. Such evidence will not be forthcoming. In late April, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, far-right Republican Senator Rand Paul accused the Biden administration of provoking the war by “beating the drums to admit Ukraine to NATO.” In his response, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the White House would be open to an agreement that resulted in Ukraine becoming “an unaligned, neutral nation.” “We, Senator, are not going to be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. These are decisions for them to make,” Blinken told Paul. “Our purpose is to make sure that they have within their hands the ability to repel the Russian aggression and indeed to strengthen their hand at an eventual negotiating table,” he added. While he saw no sign Putin was ready to negotiate, he said “If he is and if the Ukrainians engage, we’ll support that.”
That is not because Biden or Blinken are great peaceniks or not imperialists. It is simply that the “no negotiations” position imputed to them by many excitable leftists is simply not a position that interests the main body of US imperialism (the odd talking head or armchair warrior notwithstanding).
As opposed to the imaginary and evidence-free view that Ukraine may want to negotiate but the West will not allow it to, others claim (just as wrongly) that Ukraine refuses to negotiate, but the US and the West must negotiate anyway. This is a rather odd demand – since Russia is not invading the US or western Europe, and they are not invading Russia, what exactly is the US supposed to negotiate about?
The point being, of course, that these “anti-imperialists” here reveal themselves as super-imperialists: they are demanding that the US and the West negotiate “on behalf of” Ukraine! So presumably, if the US or France “negotiates” with Putin for Ukraine to cede Crimea and Donbas to Russia, Ukraine should happily accept being divided up by imperialist powers, and this Kissingerian chessboard ‘realist’ geopolitics is now supposedly the essence of an emancipatory leftist position!
Is there a new US aim to “weaken Russia”?
On a related track, the statement by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 25 that the US aims to “see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do these kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine” created great excitement. This is supposedly a declaration either of real, or new, US aims in this war. Now, even if interpreted this way, this would prove nothing about the war of resistance waged by the Ukrainian people against imperial Russia’s attempt to wipe them off the map. Obviously, US imperialism has its own reasons for aiding this resistance (indeed, providing large numbers of the very weapons that it not only did not provide to the anti-Assad Syrian rebellion, but actively blocked others from providing). But if the US aims to weaken Russia via supporting this Ukrainian resistance, that is not a choice made by Ukraine; Ukraine did not invade Russia to give the US an avenue to weaken Russia. Russia invaded Ukraine; if Ukraine’s resistance allows the US to weaken Russia by aiding it, Russia can thank Putin for that.
But in any case, the statement can mean virtually anything; Ukraine simply maintaining its right to existence, or to exist without suffering large territorial losses – a defeat of the aims of the Russian invasion – will weaken Russia. So anyone not advocating a Russian victory over Ukraine could also be considered to be in agreement with Austin. By providing any aid at all since Day 1, the US was helping “weaken Russia.”
Some proclaim that this was not the original US aim, but Austin’s statement heralded a “new” strategic turn in US policy. But if so, they need to explain what has changed in practice. Previously, they claim, the US was aiding the Ukrainian resistance with the aim of helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion – for its own reasons, of course, but within these confines. Now the US is doing the same thing, aiding the Ukrainian resistance, but with the aim of weakening Russia. Pardon me for being confused about what has changed in practice.
A common claim is that by supplying arms to Ukraine, the US aims to drag out the war, so as to bog down and wear out Russia, the weakening of Russia being paid for by Ukrainian death and suffering. Social media is full of western leftist wits proclaiming “the US will fight Russia to the last drop of Ukrainian blood.” Apparently, the reason millions of Ukrainians are resisting the Russian invasion is not because they don’t want to be overrun by a brutal imperialist power, but because they are unconsciously acting against their own interests, dying for a US aim of weakening Russia. If only they knew what these brave and smart western lefties knew, that their real interests lie in accepting colonial oppression, occupation, massacre and dispossession.
The obvious question arising from this assertion that the US wants to drag out the war to weaken Russia is ‘how can the war end more quickly?’ On the one hand, the assertion could mean that by allowing Ukrainians to better resist Russian conquest, these western arms prevent the rapid end of the war via total Russian victory, with its attendant massacres and war crimes, imposition of a fascistic regime of repression, and annexation of a large part of Ukraine. If these leftists advocate a rapid end of the war via this conclusion, so it is not “dragged out,” they should say so openly and stop beating around the bush.
But if they do not mean this, the only other way for the war to end more quickly and not bog Russia down would be for a dramatic increasein the quantity and quality of arms deliveries to Ukraine, so that it could convincingly and quickly evict Russia from its territory; while Russia would still be somewhat weakened by defeat, at least the war would not drag on, and hence the alleged aim of getting Russia stuck there and drained would not be fulfilled. In that case they should be denouncing the US for not supplying Ukraine arms of sufficient quantity and quality to do this, but only enough to fight on but not win. But it is unlikely they mean this either.
So if the idea is not a rapid end to the war via crushing Russian victory, nor via Ukraine swiftly driving out the invader, then the statement has no meaning, it is merely a piece of cheap rhetoric.
But of course, as tankies become pacifists, it is back to demanding “ceasefire and negotiations.” No rapid Russian victory, no total Ukrainian victory, but also no dragging out the war, because as we know, “negotiations” can end the war. That always works, and no-one ever thought of it before.
All Ukraine has to do is surrender to Russia’s “reasonable demands,” leading to a satisfied Russia calling a ceasefire; or if not, the US must negotiate this surrender “on Ukraine’s behalf.” Leaving aside how much this Imperial Left stance contradicts leftist stances in virtually every other struggle by a nation and people against imperialist aggression, occupation and conquest, how realistic is this ‘strategy’ on its own terms?
Russia engaged in a war of old-style conquest imperialism
To answer this, how has Russia responded to Ukraine’s proposals in March, discussed above, for no NATO, for neutrality with security guarantees, no joining any military blocs, a 15-year negotiation on Crimea with no military solutions? With what we have seen since – the complete destruction of Mariupol, the Bucha massacre, all the rest of the horror since. The last thing Russia wanted was for Ukraine to call its bluff.
The problem is that this “anti-imperialist” left do not understand the nature of imperialism; or by claiming that Russia is not an imperialist power, but rather just a large capitalist power with average expansionist tendencies, they imagine the same imperialist logic does not apply.
Russia is engaged in a war of late 19th century style imperialist conquest. Obviously, it is not unique in the world as western media claims, we’ve had Israel, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey and others engage in wars of conquest and annexation in recent decades, greeted by either western indifference, or avid western and especially US support. Pointing out western hypocrisy is politically important as we confront the onslaught of self-serving and laughable propaganda about the world being divided between “democracy and autocracy,” about there allegedly being a “rules-based international order” that no-one ever violated before Putin did, and so on. But fighting hypocrisy does not inform analysis of a concrete situation. These other cases are all of relatively small countries; the largest, Indonesia, was eventually defeated in East Timor (with the aid of a change in imperialist policy, indeed imperialist intervention in defence of east Timor), though not in West Papua. Turkey held back from formal annexation of northern Cyprus which it still occupies; and although it never faced western sanctions, its puppet ‘republic’ is not recognised by any country in the world. Obviously Israel/Palestine is the most globally consequential of these cases.
But this is the first time a major global imperialist power has engaged in 19th century-style ‘direct conquest’ imperialism since 1945. This is not a morality contest here, obviously the US invasion of Iraq was extraordinarily brutal and criminal, but the aim was not conquest as such; and of course both the US and Russia and others have engaged in massive and brutal “interventions” after being “invited in,” but once again this has not been about conquest as such. We need to wrap our heads around this fact.
In late April, Rustam Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, stated that Russia planned to forge a land corridor between Crimea and Donbas in eastern Ukraine; this is rather obvious anyway – that is why Mariupol had to be conquered and destroyed, being right in the middle and a key port. These are of course Russian-speaking regions, where the ‘liberator of Russians’ slaughtered them. But he went on, noting that “control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transdniestria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed.”
In other words, the entire south of Ukraine, its entire Black Sea coast, is Russian imperialism’s aim. Not only linking Donbas to Crimea, but also seizing Odessa and linking Crimea to the Russian-controlled fake ‘republic’ of Transdniestria, which Russia seized from Moldova decades ago (how amazing that a region under effective Russian control is also “oppressing” Russians now!). And if we take the more extreme ‘Eurasianist’ views into account, Moldova – a neutral state, like Ukraine, outside NATO – should probably also be worrying about its existence.
Of course, the enormous mobilisation of Ukrainian resistance has probably put the brakes on the more extreme Russian geographic aims – at this stage it looks like Russia will consolidate the Donbas to Crimea link conquest and will not have the capacity to venture beyond to Odessa – but that doesn’t alter the fact that these are Russia’s aims. And even just consolidating this part of the conquest locks Ukraine out from most of the Black Sea.
The evidence that Russia aims to annex its new conquests can be seen wherein “Russian officials have already moved to introduce the ruble currency, install proxy politicians in local governments, impose new school curriculums, reroute internet servers through Russia and cut the population off from Ukrainian broadcasts” in these conquered regions. Marat Khusnullin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for infrastructure, also stated that Russia intends “to charge Ukraine for electricity generated by the Ukrainian nuclear plant that Russian forces commandeered in the early weeks of the invasion.”
The Black Sea, of course is full of hydrocarbons. Let’s not make things too complicated. Russian imperialism wants them. It certainly doesn’t want its former colony to share any of them, and by cutting it off from most of its sea coast, can effectively blockade it into submission.
Where to now for US policy?
The opinions on where US policy is heading in response to this situation range from ‘the US will continue to escalate until it leads to war with Russia’ to ‘the US will cut a deal with Russia and sell out Ukraine’. The scenario involving the US pressuring Ukraine into making a compromise that is not fully just once it feels Russia has been weakened enough, rather than pushing for full victory, is just as possible, if not more, than the projections of it drifting into war with Russia. Whatever the case, it is clear that the US and other imperialist powers are supporting Ukraine for their own reasons and their interests are not identical.
What then are the US interests involved? Obviously, US imperialism has already ‘won’ due to Putin’s invasion: US ‘security’ hegemony over Europe is now stronger than at any time since the end of the Cold War, NATO is now adding new members, the many years of the Russian-German gas pipeline development have suddenly come to nothing. Obviously, US and western imperialism more generally does not want a Russian conquest of the entire Black Sea; and allowing Russia conquer much beyond where it already held in Ukraine before the invasion would not be good for US or NATO “credibility.” But once that drive is defeated, there may be little appetite to keep backing Ukraine.
The simple fact is that US imperialism has not been in any “war drive” against Russia, and has no interest in one. There were no signs of any US build-up against Russia before the war, and while relations have been tense since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, they have been relatively normal, including a great deal of cooperation in places like Syria. While a certain amount of anti-Russian rhetoric may have characterised some US statements in comparison to the more accommodating Franco-German approach, this can be understood as part of keeping NATO – its tool for hegemony in Europe – “relevant”, in particular among some of the more anti-Russian eastern European ruling elites (and even this had been wearing thin before Putin saved NATO – just a few months ago, a string of east European right-wing populist rulers were increasingly close to Moscow).
But it is important to not confuse this symbolic US-Russia “rivalry” – related to credibility, the size of the countries, military power, Cold War hangovers – to actual inter-imperialist competition. Their economies are just too different in both character and size for the US to see Putin’s hydro-carbon-based economic fiefdom as a serious global competitor – that award goes to rising, hyper-dynamic Chinese imperialism. And getting bogged down in Ukraine is not conducive to the US ‘pivot to Asia’ where its Chinese rival is based, though for this very reason it may be very much in China’s interests.
Yes, massive quantities of arms have gone to Ukraine, but there have also been clear limits: the US blocking of Poland from delivering warplanes for instance; and a no-fly zone has been placed off-limits by the US and the West from the outset.
One problem with confusing some rhetorical flourishes with US imperialist policy is that each of these ‘gotcha’ moments has been walked back by other US government figures. After Austin mentioned weakening Russia, Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained this simply meant “our objective to prevent that [Russia taking over Ukraine] from happening … but, yes, we are also looking to prevent them from expanding their efforts and President Putin’s objectives beyond that, too.” When Biden said that Putin shouldn’t remain in power, this was immediately hosed down by others in the US government. And when Rep. Seth Moulton stated “We’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians. We’re fundamentally at war, although somewhat through a proxy, with Russia,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates responded “President Biden has been clear that U.S. forces are not and will not engage in a conflict with Russia. We are supporting the Ukrainian people as they defend their country.” Finally, in early May, the US government imposed new limits on the intelligence it shares with Ukraine.
Richard Haas, Thomas Friedman, Eliot Cohen: Voices from the US ruling class
Indeed, we can also find ‘gotcha’ moments of a different kind. On May 9, Biden expressed concern that Putin “doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that.”
This concern – to give Putin some “way out” to avoid the kind of destabilisation that could result from an outright defeat for Russia – is likely much closer to real US imperial interests that the imaginary spectre of the US aiming to “Balkanise Russia”, more likely the very thing everyone wants to avoid. Such concerns are consistent with those expressed in several pieces by leading US ruling class strategists in the serious media. While these strategists do not create US policy, the explanations they give for what US policy should be are not only logical, but also coincide with the very limits of Biden’s approach, and express a number of similar concerns.
The first of these is an article in Foreign Affairs by Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has served in various US governments since the late 1970s, including for Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Bush administration, as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department from 2001 to 2003 during the lead-up to the Iraq war. So no lightweight. Haas begins:
“In principle, success from the West’s perspective can be defined as ending the war sooner rather than later, and on terms that Ukraine’s democratic government is prepared to accept. But just what are those terms? Will Ukraine seek to recover all the territory it has lost in the past two months? Will it require that Russian forces withdraw completely from the Donbas and Crimea? Will it demand the right to join the EU and NATO? Will it insist that all this be set forth in a formal document signed by Russia?
“The United States, the EU, and NATO need to discuss such questions with one another and with Ukraine now. … To be sure, the Ukrainians have every right to define their war aims. But so do the United States and Europe. Although Western interests overlap with Ukraine’s, they are broader, including nuclear stability with Russia and the ability to influence the trajectory of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
“It is also essential to take into account that Russia gets a vote. Although Putin initiated this war of choice, it will take more than just him to end it. He and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will both have to consider what they require in the way of territory and terms to halt hostilities. They will also have to decide if they are prepared not only to order an end to the fighting but also to enter into and honor a peace agreement. Another complexity is that some aspects of any peace, such as the lifting of sanctions against Russia, would not be determined by Ukraine alone but would require the consent of others.”
Discussing several scenarios, Haas sees the scenario in which Ukrainian success reaches the point that it attempts to take back all territory seized since 2014, rather than only territory seized in 2022, as a destabilising outcome:
“… it is near impossible to imagine Putin accepting such an outcome, since it would surely threaten his political survival, and possibly even his physical survival. In desperation, he might try to widen the war through cyberattacks or attacks on one or more NATO countries. He might even resort to chemical or nuclear weapons. … Arguably, these aims are better left for a postconflict, or even a post-Putin, period in which the West could condition sanctions relief on Russia’s signing of a formal peace agreement. Such a pact might allow Ukraine to enjoy formal ties to the EU and security guarantees, even as it remained officially neutral and outside NATO. Russia, for its part, might agree to withdraw its forces from the entirety of the Donbas in exchange for international protections for the ethnic Russians living there. Crimea might gain some special status, with Moscow and Kyiv agreeing that its final status would be determined down the road.”
Discussing the lessons learned from the Cold War and the balance achieved which guaranteed peace (between the superpowers that is), Haas notes that these are consistent with the very limitations of Biden’s strategy:
“From the outset of the crisis, the United States made it clear that it would not place boots on the ground or establish a no-fly zone, since doing so could bring U.S. and Russian forces into direct contact and raise the risk of escalation. Instead, Washington and its NATO partners opted for an indirect strategy of providing arms, intelligence, and training to Ukraine while pressuring Russia with economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.”
From here on “ … success for now could consist of a winding down of hostilities, with Russia possessing no more territory than it held before the recent invasion and continuing to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction. Over time, the West could employ a mix of sanctions and diplomacy in an effort to achieve a full Russian military withdrawal from Ukraine. Such success would be far from perfect, just preferable to the alternatives.”
The second piece was by long-term imperial columnist Thomas L Friedman in the May 6 New York Times. Like Haas, Friedman is no stranger to being hawkish when he believes such a stance is in US interests, but takes a similar view to what actual US interests are in this case.
He also warned that certain US actions “could be creating an opening for Putin to respond in ways that could dangerously widen this conflict — and drag the U.S. in deeper than it wants to be,” which is all the more dangerous given Putin’s unpredictability, and the fact that “Putin is running out of options for some kind of face-saving success on the ground — or even a face-saving off ramp.”
Moreover, for Friedman, the problem is not only Russia, as “President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has been trying to do the same thing from the start — to make Ukraine an immediate member of NATO or get Washington to forge a bilateral security pact with Kyiv” something Friedman clearly sees as against US interests.
Like Haas, he ultimately thinks that Biden has the right balance:
But my sense is that the Biden team is walking much more of a tightrope with Zelensky than it would appear to the eye — wanting to do everything possible to make sure he wins this war but doing so in a way that still keeps some distance between us and Ukraine’s leadership. That’s so Kyiv is not calling the shots and so we’ll not be embarrassed by messy Ukrainian politics in the war’s aftermath. The view of Biden and his team, according to my reporting, is that America needs to help Ukraine restore its sovereignty and beat the Russians back — but not let Ukraine turn itself into an American protectorate on the border of Russia. We need to stay laser-focused on what is our national interest and not stray in ways that lead to exposures and risks we don’t want.”
While much of the western left sees the US making Ukraine its ‘protectorate’, Friedman sees this as an evil Ukrainian plot which the US must be, and is, on guard against. “But we are dealing with some incredibly unstable elements, particularly a politically wounded Putin. Boasting about killing his generals and sinking his ships, or falling in love with Ukraine in ways that will get us enmeshed there forever, is the height of folly.”
Before moving to the third, more hawkish, piece, it is worth noting that the editorial in the May 19 New York Times makes similar points to Haas and Friedman. While stating that the US goal to help Ukraine rebuff Russian aggression “cannot shift,” nevertheless “in the end, it is still not in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia, even if a negotiated peace may require Ukraine to make some hard decisions.” The editorial warns that “a decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Though Russia’s planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.” Therefore, “as the war continues, Mr. Biden should also make clear to President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people that there is a limit to how far the United States and NATO will confront Russia, and limits to the arms, money and political support they can muster.”
So, apart from the odd gaffe, it seems difficult to find serious US ruling class opinion saying what much of the left is claiming it is saying. Actually, they appear to saying remarkably similar things to each other! Perhaps we can find the evidence in a more serious hawk?
Cohen does not necessarily insist Ukraine must take back all territory lost, but he argues that Ukraine must define what its objectives are and that US policy should recognise “it will be up to Ukraine to decide what it wishes to accomplish.” Having borne “the burdens of blood and sacrifice on a scale not seen since World War II” and with a cause “indisputably just,” Ukraine “has every right to decide what it can and cannot accept and strive for.” This is combined with the fact that Russia “has acted with unspeakable barbarity” and these “moral facts” should therefore “modify or even outweigh coolly geopolitical calculations of the European balance of power.” And when the war ends, western objectives should include helping to put Ukraine “in a condition to defeat further Russian aggression.”
Cohen is an unalloyed partisan of US imperialism, but, from this, obviously hypocritical, perspective, we can at least say there appears to be more respect for Ukraine’s self-determination than the more geopolitically-oriented views of Haas and Friedman, with their insistence on distinguishing the US from the Ukrainian interest.
Therefore, it is here we may expect to see some evidence of the alleged US imperialist desire to wage war on, to humiliate, or even ‘Balkanise’ Russia.
In reality, Cohen warns precisely about the dangers involved in Russia’s defeat. He does not want Russia defeated in Ukraine in order to bring it to its knees and humiliate or ‘Balkanise’ it; on the contrary, he argues that while Ukrainian victory is necessary for other reasons, the negative side-effects of this are nevertheless very much against US and western interests.
“But all of this leaves the problem of Russia. … If it is convulsed from within, it is less likely to be dominated by liberals (many of whom have fled the country) than by disgruntled nationalists. Putin may go, but his replacements are likely to come from similar backgrounds in the secret police or, possibly, the military.” And it will be “more than usually difficult to bring it back into a Eurasian order that it, and no one else, has attempted to destroy” with its “utterly unjustified” attack on Ukraine with “its exceptional brutality, the shamelessness of Russia’s lies and threats, and the grotesqueness of its claims to hegemony in the former Soviet states.”
The result will be “the hardest task of American statecraft going forward: dealing with a Russia reeling from defeat and humiliation, weakened but still dangerous.” Indeed, the old Cold Warrior even sees the old Soviet Union as a more “rationalist” enemy, whereas a defeat for Putinist Russia “will be much more like dealing with a rabid, wounded beast that claws and bites at itself as much as it does at others, in the grip not of a millennial ideology but a bizarre combination of nationalism and nihilism.”
Far from wanting to make “war on Russia”, Cohen thinks that apart from strengthening states on Russia’s borders, all the West will be able to do is “hope against hope that the new “sick man of Europe” will, somehow and against the odds, recover something like moral sanity.”
All US and western imperialist wars since 1945 have been against countries in regions of the former colonial world that they aimed to maintain domination of – from Indochina to Iraq and Afghanistan to Panama and Grenada and Nicaragua, and the current drone wars – and the list goes on. Quite simply, there has been no US “war drive” against Russia, not because the US does not engage in war drives, but because post-Soviet Russia has neither been an ideological enemy – quite the opposite – nor powerful enough to be a genuine imperialist rival.
On the contrary, it is Putin’s sudden resort to primitive conquest-imperialism that has thrown the established imperialist modus vivendi between the US, Europe and Russia to the woods, and the western reaction has been crisis management on the run. While the US has, naturally enough, taken full advantage of what Putin has offered them up on a plate by restoring unchallenged US hegemony in Europe via a strengthened NATO, the point is that this is the US goal in itself; there is no US or western interest in massive destabilisation, a huge black hole, in a gigantic country like Russia which, just a few months ago, was plenty lucrative for western capital, and was an integral part of the world capitalist economy.
“The United States continues to receive more and more immigrants, and, as far as I understand, the white, Christian population is already outnumbered … White Christians have become a minority, less than 50 percent now. … Russia is a vast territory, from its western to eastern borders, it is a Eurasian space. But as regards culture, even language group and history, this all is undoubtedly a European space, as it is inhabited by people of this culture. … we have to preserve all this to remain a significant centre in the world.”
Putin’s appeal to “great replacement” theory, his dog-whistle to the “White Christian” world that must be “preserved” lest it become a minority, demonstrates the clear ideological basis of Putin’s status as demi-God to the global far-right, fascist, Nazi and white supremacist movements.
Here’s what David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, had to say when leaving Russia after his five-year sojourn there:
“In this holy cause we must share one immutable principle: all people of European descent, no matter where they reside in the world, are brothers. … Russia has always been a bulwark to the East, the frontier of our race, and it is now on the frontline of our current struggle. It is my prayer that Mother Russia be strong and healthy, may Mother Russia be free; may she always be White. When a racially aware Russia and reawakened America become united in our cause, the world will change. Our race will survive and together we shall go to the stars!”
Years later, exploding with joy following former US president Trump’s chummy press conference with his good mate Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Duke lavished praise on Trump and Putin, believing his wish had come true: “Bravo Trump! Bravo Russia! Russia has values America once had and America the values that Communist Russia had!”
Similarly, French far-right leader Eric Zemmour claims Putin “restored the state,” “stepped in as the last defender of the Christians of the East”, “defends national sovereignty, the family and the Orthodox religion”, contrasting this to liberal, multicultural French politics.
This may be confusing to some who have recently heard that Putin claims he wants to “de-Nazify” Ukraine by bombing it to bits; propaganda can be quite creative. Perhaps more confusing is that there are fascists and Nazis among the vast array of political forces in Ukraine resisting Russia’s imperialist invasion today and intervention in Donbas earlier.
But these are the inherent contradictions of fascism; always based on extreme nationalism and racism, it is near impossible for fascists to collaborate when their “great nations” are in conflict. Try to imagine a collab between Greek and Turkish fascists, for instance.
Not that we should underestimate the malevolence of the Ukrainian fascist forces; we will come to that below. But as we will also see, they are virtually an anomaly in today’s global fascist climate where to be anti-Putin is a non-starter; virtually the entirety of fascist, Nazi, white-supremacist and ultra-rightist forces everywhere in the world have been strongly aligned to the Putin regime; while the political and military forces Russia has installed in the Donbas region of Ukraine are also overwhelmingly fascist. Anyone considering taking seriously Putin’s rhetoric about “de-Nazifying” anywhere should read on for a reality check.
Material basis of Russian imperialism’s alliance with global fascism
The ideological basis of the alliance demonstrates that it is not simply a matter of expediency as sometimes suggested (eg, that Putin’s alliance with European fascism only represents a convergence of interests against the European Union). Nevertheless, this ideological alliance does relate to the concrete material interests of Russian imperialism as it challenges established imperialist powers.
While it is overblown rhetoric to compare Putin’s authoritarian regime, with its parliamentary façade, and its savage litany of crimes against humanity, to Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship and the Holocaust, this does not mean there are no parallels. German imperialism had been the loser of WWI, and the victorious ‘Allied’ imperialists imposed the winner-take-all Treaty of Versailles on Germany. The rise of extreme German nationalism embodied in Naziism reflected the struggle of the weaker, defeated, imperialist Germany, alongside weaker Italian and Japanese imperialism, against the dominant imperialist powers of the day. These weaker powers had to rely on direct conquest – unnecessary for British and French imperialism which still owned all the world they had earlier conquered, or US imperialism whose economic hegemony was growing. Extreme reactionary ideologies glorifying the mythical past as the ruling class crushes the masses while mobilising them for military conquest with nationalist, racist and militarist slogans fitted well with the needs of these powers.
In broadly similar fashion, the Russian ruling class emerging from the wreckage of the USSR, now heading a smaller Russian Federation, saw itself as ‘defeated’, given the effective domination Russia had exercised over the USSR. While the USSR was not conceived of as an empire, for the reactionary oligarchic elite that arose on the ashes of ‘communism’, the independence of the non-Russian republics was seen as “loss of empire,” and the mythical past of the ‘Great Russian Fatherland’ of the Tsarist Russian Empire extolled as something to aspire to. Of course, there was no unequal treaty a la Versailles imposed on Russia; while the massive immiseration of the Russian working class was imposed by the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and other western state-connected privatisation ‘experts’, the Russian oligarchy was completely complicit in this gigantic plunder, indeed it was its main beneficiary. However, the economic collapse this partnership-in-plunder led to could domestically be blamed on “the West” alone, as a propaganda device to deceive the masses. While I have argued elsewhere that ‘NATO expansion’ cannot be blamed for Putin’s aggression, in the big picture the retention of a US-led, Cold War relic like NATO, as opposed to a new pan-European security architecture, was a further factor that could be used to harness a new Russian nationalist world-view as the rising capitalist elite around Putin strove to overcome its humiliation and strike out as a new, relatively weak, imperialist power.
The strategic orientation of this new Russian imperialism consisted of a number of planks.
The first, more long-term, was embodied in its far-right ideology of ‘Eurasianism’, the idea of uniting Europe and Asia under Russian leadership, which would entail a defeat of off-shore US imperialism and its current hegemony in Europe. Russia, in other words, as the connection between Europe and China; since the turn of the 20th century, geopolitical strategists from the US, Europe and Russia have seen dominating ‘Eurasia’ as key to world domination. In many ways, one could argue this was slowing occurring; Russia’s domination of natural resources, especially oil and gas, and the pipelines, connected it to energy-hungry European and Chinese imperialism as the grand centre. To some extent this dovetailed with the Franco-German imperial project of a Europe more independent of US imperialism; French and German opposition to Ukraine joining NATO, the Russian gas pipeline to Germany, the active diplomacy they engaged in with Russia and Ukraine to prevent war, contrasted to the more confrontational US approach; for the US, avoiding this EU-Russia imperial consortium had been a strategic aim since the end of the Cold War. Beefing up NATO was a major tool of this US strategy, because providing “security” to European imperialism is the main way the US has continued to exercise hegemony there.
Yet how does this Eurasian conception relate to the second leg of Russian imperial strategy – the tendency of the emerging weaker imperialist power to rely more on traditional imperialist methods of direct conquest, straight land grabs, similar, in some way, to weaker German, Italian and Japanese imperialism in the 1930s? Again, Russian imperialism doesn’t possess the global economic hegemony exercised by US and European imperialism, or that China is gaining. This difference should not be exaggerated; the absurd western rhetoric about Putin overturning an imaginary “rules-based international order” is too laughable to require comment; obviously conquest was a past staple of western imperialism, while Russian imperialism has also quietly expanded economically. But the relative difference has become sharper over Ukraine. Obviously one could point to the criminal US invasion of Iraq to highlight the hypocrisy of current western propaganda, but not only was the sheer hubris of this war widely seen as the onset of decline of US global hegemony, but the argument here is not about levels of morality or invasions and violations of international law as such; the US of course is highly “revisionist” in such matters. Rather, the issue if one of formal territorial conquest/annexation as a characteristic of emerging Russian imperialist expansion, which the US has no need for and which even Iraq did not concern.
Yet by invading Ukraine (rather than just Crimea and Donbas, or small parts of Georgia and Moldova), Putin has destroyed the more gradual advance of the Eurasian project; NATO, and US “security” hegemony over Europe, is now more solid than for a generation, and Russia’s European links have been destroyed, symbolised by Germany’s abandonment of Nordstream. While obviously this is the result of catastrophic miscalculation by Putin, it also signifies a limitation of the Eurasian project in its gradualist form: while domination of oil and gas gives Russia bargaining power, in economic terms it means Russia remains eclipsed as the ‘second world’ natural resource supplier of more powerful European and Chinese imperialism. A revanchist Russian Empire, however, drunk on past glory, and its outsized role as the world’s second largest military power, envisages itself as the leader, the centre, of Eurasia. Therefore, asserting its military superiority was important to its “credibility”; it wasn’t going to allow a third world country like Ukraine to demonstrate any independence from the Fatherland. According to professor Jane Burbank, Ukrainian sovereignty was always a problem to ‘Eurasianist’ ideology, its leading ideologist, Alexander Dugin, calling it a “huge danger to all of Eurasia”. Russian leadership of Eurasia required Russian-led unity of the three ‘core’ ex-Soviet states (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus), and, as a minimum, control of the whole north coast of the Black Sea was an “absolute imperative.” A strategic waterway full of hydrocarbons, Russian imperialism did not plan to share the Black Sea with its former colony.
As such the seizure of the Black Sea coastline from the recalcitrant child represented economic, political, military-gendarme, ‘credibility’ and nationalist-ideological objectives at once.
Given these specific needs of the weaker, emerging imperialist power, and its ideological emergence from alleged “national humiliation”, it is logical for the deeply reactionary, revanchist regime to cultivate ties to other extreme right, fascist parties around the world, which can act in Moscow’s interests by challenging the western imperialist leaders from the right without challenging the same capitalist system they are all part of. Not unlike the role of western fascist parties as allies of Nazi Germany or fascist Italy.
A third dimension of Russian imperial strategy has been to strike out beyond the former Soviet sphere, to exert power in regions such as the Middle East and Africa; the intervention of the Russian air force on the side of Assad’s genocidal regime has been the most prominent, alongside a smaller scale intervention in the Libyan civil war, and support for various African dictatorships’ military and ‘security’ needs, via the Wagner paramilitary. These armed interventions accompany growing Russia economic penetration, even if at a far lower level than western or Chinese capital; in Syria, Russia grabs significant parts of the economy while entrenching itself in vital infrastructure such as ports and bases.
While the plunder of Syrian resources as ‘compensation’ for aiding Assad is old gunboat-style imperialism, Russia’s gendarme role in aiding the regional counterrevolution has been appreciated by the US and its regional allies, especially Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Given the sharing of Syrian air space with the US air force (which bombed ISIS as Russia bombed the anti-Assad rebels), the Russian role had more a ‘sub-imperial’ character, rather than that of ‘imperial rivalry’ with US imperialism. But the war also entailed a Bush-Cheney-style “war on terror” Islamophobic ideological construct that was very attractive to the global far-right, who almost universally saw the Assad regime as a defender of “western civilisation” against “Islamic barbarism,” the ideology espoused by the Syrian regime itself. So Assad was another key connection between Putinism and global fascism.
Alexander Dugin: Putin’s fascist alter-ego
The alliance between Putin’s far-right, uber-nationalist ‘United Russia Party’ and global fascism should already seem obvious from an ideological perspective; but in any case, relations between the Russian and global far-right are also mediated by Russia’s own crop of far-right ieologues. The most well-known is unabashed leading Russian fascist, Alexander Dugin, “former adviser to Sergei Naryshkin, a key member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party who was appointed Russian foreign intelligence chief in 2016.” While Dugin and Putin are not personally close (indeed Putin appears to be closer to a number of other far-right ideologues), and some of their emphases are different (which however would require a different essay), nevertheless Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics – which advocates his Russian-led ‘Eurasianist’ empire “from Dublin to Vladivostok” – is “assigned to every member of Russia’s General Staff Academy.” While Dugin lost his position at Moscow State University in recent years, Putin seems to have drawn closer to Dugin’s uber-reactionary positions in the same period. If not strictly Putin’s fascist ‘philosopher king’ as he has been dubbed, he has acted as a kind of fascist alter-ego, a Rasputin-type figure in the background to the Russian elite’s descent into fascistic thinking.
According to one source, “Gestated in anti-communist right-wing activism during the waning days of the Soviet Union, indebted to a specifically anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment philosophical embrace of authoritarianism, irrationalism, and hyper-nationalism, Dugin dreams of a reborn Orthodox Tsarist state surpassing the borders and spheres of influence as they existed before 1989, of a Novorossiya built not on socialist principles, but fascist ones.” In fact, he criticises traditional fascisms in his 1997 book, Templars of the Proletariat, for moderation; by contrast, in Russia there will emerge a truly “fascist fascism.”
In Foundations of Geopolitics, Dugin asserts that “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning. It has no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness;” hence Putin’s view that Ukraine has no right to exist and was merely a communist plot by Lenin to destroy the Russian Fatherland, expressed in a long article, and then in the speech he gave before his invasion of Ukraine, is sourced from his fascist philosopher alter-ego. Dugin’s new Tsarist Empire would be a pre-modern one (while happy to use modern technology for weapons that obliterate large numbers of humans); in Novorossiya, according to Dugin’s The Fourth Political Theory, “everything is to be cleansed off… science, values, philosophy, art, society, modes, patterns, ‘truths,’ understanding of Being, time and space. All is dead with Modernity. So it should end. We are going to end it.” Clearly, the alliance with the western far-right’s war against liberalism, multi-culturalism, homosexuality, feminism, ‘decadence’ and so on is based on common “values.”
Another source of this Duginite and increasingly Putinite worldview is the Russian Orthodox Church, which promotes the ‘Russian World’ concept, according to which the peoples of the historic territory of ancient Rus are one, including those in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. At the third annual Assembly of the Russian World in November of 2009, Moscow Patriarch Kirill stated that “if we consider the Russian Federation with its present boundaries, then we have sinned against the historical truth and artificially cut off millions of people who are aware of their role in the fate of the Russian World.”
The global far-right and Putin
We will now review the global far-right’s connection to Putin’s regime; hopefully the next sections can be used as a handy guide when Putin supporters pedal out the argument that Putin is fighting “fascism” in Ukraine in the form of the 1000-strong Azov regiment.
Following French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen’s, visit to Moscow in June 2013 at the invitation of State Duma, discussing “issues of common concern, such as Syria, EU enlargement, and gay marriage,” the Front supported the annexation of Crimea, stating that “historically, Crimea is part of Mother Russia.” She visited again in 2017. Her rival on the French far-right, Eric Zammour, reacted to Crimea by proposing a “Russian alliance, the only way to kill both the myth of federal Europe and to finally break away from the American protectorate.”
Similarly, the Nazi-like Jobbik party in Hungary called Putin’s fake Crimea referendum “exemplary.” Leader Gabor Vona visited Moscow in May 2013 at the invite of right-wing nationalists at Moscow State University, where he was hosted by Dugin. The Moscow visit was considered “a major breakthrough” which made “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner.” Bulgaria’s far right Ataka party similarly “insisted that Bulgaria should recognize the results from the referendum for Crimea’s joining to the Russian Federation.”
Not surprisingly, Putin’s Crimea ‘referendum’ – carried out after Russian military occupation forces staged a coup and placed in power the far-right ‘Russian Unity’ party that had received 4 percent of the vote at the previous Crimea elections – did not bother with many international observers. However, Russia did invite a few. Alongside observers from the French National Front, Jobbik and Attaka, the rest of the invitees list – Austrian Freedom Party, Belgian Vlaams Belang, Italy’s Forza Italia and Lega Nord, and Poland’s Self-Defense – reads virtually like a roll-call of the European far-right.
Other European far-right leaders have followed the National Front and Jobbik in their Moscow pilgrimages. In February 2017, three politicians of the German neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfD) “flew to Moscow in a private jet paid for by the Russian government,” at a cost of some 25,000 Euro. This was not the only time Moscow was caught funding far-right parties; the French National Front has also been a recipient of Moscow cash which helped finance its 2014 election campaign.
Another far-right leader invited to Moscow by the State Duma, in March 2018, was Geert Wilders, of the arch-Islamophobic Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). According to Wilders, “Vladimir Putin is a leader, whatever you think of him. … I applaud him as I applaud Mr. Trump for being leaders, who are standing there on behalf of the Russian and the American people … We lack that kind of leadership in Europe.”
The St. Petersburg forum launched a World National-Conservative Movement (WNCM), to which some 60 global fascist organisations were invited (full list here), an expanded version of the Alliance for Peace and Freedom (AFP), an existing pro-Putin alliance of 20 fascist parties, led by Fiore, Griffin and Le Pen. The AFP itself was invited into the WNCM; the dozens of other extreme right parties not only covered Europe and the US (including unabashed Nazis like the Nordic Resistance Movement, and the US Confederate League of the South), but also further afield, such as the South African white racist Front Nasionaal, the Nazi-inspired Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and Thailand’s viciously anti-democratic National Alliance for Democracy, the ‘Yellow Shirts’.
The presence of Greece’s Golden Dawn – which explicitly displays Nazi symbols, and who sing the Greek version of the Nazi Party anthem – is hardly surprising, given the close alleged ‘historic’ connection between Russian and Greek fascism and ultra-conservative ideologies connected to Orthodoxy. Golden Dawn leader Michaloliakos even received a letter while in prison from Dugin, who “expressed support for Golden Dawn’s geopolitical positions.”
Just as the marchers at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 chanted “Russia is our friend,” so likewise at a recent white nationalist event in Florida organised by the America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), racist Nick Fuentes prompted the crowd, “Can we get a round of applause for Russia?” The crowd responded by shouting: “Putin! Putin!”
Then there is the more mainstream, parliamentary, far-right, such as former US president Trump itself, whose Putin connections are well-known. As Ukraine exploded, Trump praised Putin as a “genius.” “Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine independent. Oh that’s wonderful. … How smart is that? And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force. We could use that on our southern border.” And of course there’s right-wing ideologue and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who recently declared“Putin ain’t woke” in an exchange with Blackwater founder, Eric Prince, who agreed that “The Russian people still know which bathroom to use;” and Trump’s Secretary of State and Christian rightist Mike Pompeo, who declared his “enormous respect” for the “talented statesman;” while Trump’s first National Security Advisor Mike Flynn claimed that after Biden “ignored and laughed at Putin’s legitimate security concerns … President Putin calculated this strategic, historic, and geographic play and made the decision to move.”
Trump loyalist and white supremacist Fox News host Tucker Carlson went full dog-whistle for Putin: “It may be worth asking yourself… why do I hate Putin.. Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a world-wide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”
This extends around the world, from Modi’s reactionary Hinduvsta regime in India to Brazil’s far-right Trump acolyte Bolsonaro. Both are allied to the US, while India is also geopolitically allied to Russia (above all, balance against China), but the Russia connection is also ideological in the case of its current far-right regime. In Brazil’s case, there is no obvious geopolitical connection to Russia, but Bolsonaro was more pro-Trump than pro-US, leading him into ideological alliance with Putin – Bolsonaro visited Putin on the eve of his invasion and declared he feels “deep solidarity with Russia.”
Fascism in the Donbass
But what of the Donbas? Putin is God to most fascists and Nazis the world over, but in Ukraine the only Nazis are anti-Russia Ukrainians, like Azov, right? In reality, as one source argues:
Let’s look at some of this galaxy of ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi, Orthodox-fascist and neo-Cossack parties and militia involved in the ‘separatist’ political and military leadership; of whom most are actual Russians, from Russia, rather than ethnic Russians from Ukraine.
First let’s look at Russia’s leading mercenary gang, its equal to the US Blackwater – the Wagner Group, named by its founder after Hitler’s favourite musician. An extremelyvicious militia, but are they fascists? Well, take a look at founder Dmitry Utkin. Pointing to the tattoos on his neck, Idrees Ahmad notes “Those are the Waffen SS rank insignia for a Hauptsturmführer (chief assault leader). And on his chest? That’s the Nazi Reichsadler (imperial eagle) badge.” A candidate to “de-Nazify” Ukraine?
One far-right unit within Wagner operating in Donbas, known as Rusich, sports a logo featuring the ‘Slavic Swastika’ known as a Kolovrat; one Rusich account shows fighters holding a Valknut flag, which has been appropriated by white supremacists. But just in case these are just traditional symbolic errors, Rusich leader Alexey Milchakov decided to make it clear for us in an interview: “I’m a Nazi, I’m a Nazi. I won’t elaborate whether I’m a nationalist, a patriot or imperialist. I say directly: I’m a Nazi. I can raise my hand in Nazi salute.”
The first Russian militias in the Donbas were associated with the Russian National Unity party, a neo-Nazi organisation; here is its swastika logo. The DPR’s first ‘people’s governor’, and founder of the Donbas People’s Militia, Pavel Gubarev, was a member of the RNU. The RNU’s founder, Alexander Barkashov, previously led post-Soviet Russia’s first fascist organisation, Pamyat.
Gubarev has since joined the Duginite ‘Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine’, led by Natalya Vitrenko, “a long-term associate of American right-wing extremist and anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche.” Gubarev later lost out to rival fascists in the DPR, but returned to Ukraine to take part in the invasion in 2022. Just in case there was any doubt about his (and Putin’s) motivations, he lays it out clearly his promises of genocide to the Ukrainians: “We aren’t coming to kill you, but to convince you. But if you don’t want to be convinced, we’ll kill you. We’ll kill as many as we have to: 1 million, 5 million, or exterminate all of you.”
For all the inevitable hatred between ultra-nationalist fascists in countries in conflict with each other, their similarity occasionally shows through. In July 2015, then DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko praised Pravy Sector:
“The Right Sector rose and said: “Down with Poroshenko!” I began to respect them. I respect them for two moments: when gays were beaten in Kiev and when they tried to remove Poroshenko. I realized that the Right Sector are the same normal men.”
“Various far-right Italian mercenaries and ultras (the country’s extremist football fans) are even fighting alongside Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Many of those combatants have made contact with a neo-Nazi organisation called Rusich, inspired by Pan-Slavism and a longing to recreate a 21st-century nationalistic version of the USSR. The exchange of personnel goes in both directions: in recent years various Italo-Russians have stood in local elections in Rome for Forza Nuova and another neo-fascist party, Fratelli D’Italia.”
Alongside the love of Putin generally, global fascism is also specifically enamoured to one of Putin’s major projects independently of Putin: in their support for Syria’s genocidal Assad regime. Everywhere in the world – in the US, everywhere in Europe, in Australia, various reactionary governments from India to Hungary – the far-right, fascists, Nazis, white-supremacists, far-right populists – almost unanimously support Assad.
This involves more than their connections to Putin, or to Assad’s allies in the Nazi-style Syrian Social Nationalist Party (established in the 1930s in admiration of Naziism, it displays its specific kind of swastika). Rather, the global far-right has lapped up Assad’s propaganda that he is fighting a war for civilisation against “Islamic terrorists” and “jihadists,” protecting Christians and minorities. Assad’s “war on terror”, like that of Israel, the US and Russia, is one global war the far-right fully identifies with.
In early September 2013, an Italian delegation from the European Solidarity Front travelled to Damascus and Tartus “in support of the legitimate government of Bashar Al Assad and the Syrian people.” Alongside Forza Nuova, the delegation included the anti-immigrant CasaPound, “the fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstream,” which in September 2015 invited the Syrian regime and the SSNP to its ‘International Congress of identity-solidarity’ in Rome. According to leader Simone Di Stefano, “Under the Assad regime, people can celebrate Christmas openly and women are not forced to wear a headscarf. Of course, we like the ideology of the Syrian state, but we also support what they represent.” In 2016, Forza Nuova chief Robert Fiore wrote that his fascist group “defends Assad and the Syrian people against attacks by ISIS and the USA,” in a post showing FN members holding a pro-Assad banner.
When in 2019, CasaPound visited Aleppo, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism tweeted the visit with the message “Syria is getting its tourism groove back.” CasaPound “expressed their pleasure to experience the fast restoration process and resilience & steadfastness of Syrian people.”
Udo Voigt, former leader of the neo-Nazi German NPD, took part in a 2016 Alliance of Peace and Freedom trip to Syria; on his return he noted that he “did not notice any oppression” and therefore “there is no reason to flee,” being an advocate of forcible return of Syrian refugees to Assad. The far-right AfD organised its own “fact-finding” trips to Syria in March 2018 and November 2019, feted by the regime, aimed at proving how “safe” Assad-land is for refugees to return to. The AfD has special links with Assad, via one Kevork Almassian, a Syrian who, curiously, sought asylum in Germany despite being a crazed Assadist, and was given a job in the AfD’s office.
During the 2017 white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, demonstrators proudly wore T-shirts advertising “Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.” The white supremacist James Fields who murdered Heather Heyer posted a portrait of Assad with the caption “UNDEFEATED.”
It is quite hard to find any on the US far-right that have not defended Assad, whether in the form of chemical war denialism, slanders of the White Helmets or more general praise for the alleged “defeater of jihadis,” from Alex Jones and his right-wing conspiracist ‘Infowars’, to far-right commentators Ann Coulter, Mike Peinovich , Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy, Tomi Lahren (who sought to remind Trump “that it’s America first”), and of course racist Tucker Carlson. While some mistakenly see Tulsi Gabbard as part of the “left”, in fact her praise for Assad comes from the same place as her strong Zionism, her love for the BJP and her claim to be a “hawk” on the drone wars – ie, right-wing Islamophobia.
Of course, the more mainstream right-wing in the US and elsewhere, as opposed to ultra-rightists and fascists, is a mixed bag. While some on the right are anti-Assad because they are anti-Iran, or because they love US military power and see Assad as a convenient target, overwhelmingly rhetorical anti-Assadism was more prevalent among “liberal interventionist” voices in the Democratic Party, while the hard right tended towards the ‘Assad ain’t good but he’s better than the jihadists’ trope.
Putin, global fascism, Assad and the Israel connection
In 95 percent of the above cases of global far-right support to Assad, these parties, organisations and spokespeople also strongly support Israel and its war against the Palestinian people, for the same reason: Israel is another frontier state in the “war on terror”, a defender of western “civilisation” against “Islamic terrorism.” Given Israel’s nature as an apartheid state, it will be included here as part of the global far-right (as would apartheid South Africa if it still existed), but even for those who don’t accept this, there can be little doubt about the essentially fascistic character of the parties of the Israeli right: former prime minister Netanyahu’s Likud, and other parties of the secular, religious and settler right, such as those of current prime minister Naftali Bennett, and minister under both, Avigdor Lieberman.
Even some of the most unrepentant anti-Semites of the Naziesque far-right are concurrently pro-Israel, most prominently Richard Spencer, who describes himself as “a white Zionist,” calling Israel “the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethno-state,” which he wants for “whites” in the US. He supported Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “capital,” and was enthusiastic about Netanyahu’s “nation-state” law. He just doesn’t like “globalist” Jews who live in the US, which leads to “white people being dispossessed from this country,” unlike Israeli Jews “who understand [their] identity, who ha[ve] a sense of nationhood and peoplehood.” Not surprisingly, Spencer’s inspiration, Alexander Dugin, holds similar view: “the chief enemy of the Jewish tradition will come from its own house,” from “the mixed multitude, the assimilated people,” just as “in our own community, in a similar way, the chief enemy of the Russian nation are liberal Russians and not the representatives of other groups.” As in classical anti-Semitism, it is the “cosmopolitan” Jew that is the enemy, not the “traditional” Jew attached to the state of Israel.
This more or less total identity of western fascist support for Assad and Israel is not simply an odd parallel, but is ideologically consistent, support for two “frontlines” in their “civilisational” war against “radical Islam.” But in addition, there is a key connection between the two: the Putin regime, which while intervening in Syria to aid Assad’s victory has also cultivated excellent relations with the Israeli right.
From the moment Russia’s Syria intervention began in 2015, Putin and Israeli prime minister and Likud leader, Zionist extremist Benjamin Netanyahu, never stopped having high level meetings – Netanyahu met with Putin more than with any other world leader. In 2018, Netanyahu was one of only two world leaders standing next to Putin in Red Square commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, alongside Serbia’s Alexander Vucic. Netanyahu even produced a massive billboard showing himself with Putin for the 2019 elections. Not surprisingly, both partners were also enthusiastic allies of Trump. Under his rule, Israel authorized the ‘Cellebrite’ company “to sell its mobile phone hacking device to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which serves President Putin as a key tool of internal repression and political persecution in the country.”
Israel refused the US request to co-sponsor a UN Security Council move to put a motion to condemn Russia to the General Assembly. Again this caused rebuke from Washington, so Israel voted in favour at the General Assembly, where it had no teeth. Bennett explained that Russia understood Israel’s forced stand, as Russia affirmed, promising that this would not affect their cooperation in Syria. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s far-right Likud opposition criticises the government for saying anything at all, advising an even more “guarded” approach.
While Putin is one key link between Israel and the Assad regime (alongside the UAE-Bahrain-Egypt axis), Israel leaders are not shy about their own views. As Assad’s troops reconquered the south in 2018 as part of a Trump-Putin supervised deal, Netanyahu declared “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” His Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot stressed that Israel will allow “only” Assad regime forces to occupy the Golan “border,” while his National Security Adviser, Meir Ben Shabat, declared that Israel has no problem with Assad as long as the Iranians leave. Fascistic defence minister Lieberman noted that from Israel’s perspective, “the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule,” as it “is also in Assad’s interest” to keep the occupied Golan “border” calm.
In other words, Israel always preferred Assad to prevail over the uprising; the alliance with Putin is not only because Putin’s air defence system in Syria allows Israel to bomb Iranian assets in the country (Russia and Iran both backed Assad’s victory but are now partially rivals over influence and spoils), as widely claimed.
Actually the Israel-Russia alliance precedes direct Russian intervention in Syria. During Israel’s Gaza blitzkrieg in 2014, Putin declared “I support the struggle of Israel,” while Israel refused to join its western allies in condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea, abstaining in the UN and rejecting sanctions.
Therefore, this alliance must be seen in its broader context: Israel’s own territorial aggression, violation of international law via annexation of other countries’ territory, and justification of occupation, aggression and commission of crimes of humanity on the basis that the Palestinian nation is a fiction, all strongly parallel Putin’s actions and ideological justifications. While allied to the US empire, Israel is a small-scale imperialist power in its own right with similar “revisionist” tendencies to Russia. There is a clear understanding of this affinity within the ruling elites of both countries.
The Ukrainian far-right versus the Russian far-right
While the summary above demonstrates that the global far-right has been overwhelmingly pro-Putin and highlights the nonsense in Putin’s claim to want to “de-Nazify” anywhere, that is not to deny the presence of an aggressive far-right, fascist and Nazi sector among the political and military formations associated with Ukrainian nationalism.
On the one hand, the far-right – Svoboda, Right Sector and political representatives of Azov – collectively only received some 2.3 percent of the vote in the last Ukraine elections, so there is an extraordinary amount of demonisation in calling Ukraine some kind of “Nazi” cause, equivalent to the racist dubbing of freedom fighters in the Middle East – in Palestine, Syria and elsewhere – as “jihadis.”
On the other, the far-right – in particular the Azov regiment – has played a somewhat greater role on the military front since 2014, a common impact of military action which tends to empower tough guys and nationalists. The far-right Azov Battalion was formed in May 2014 by members of the ultra-nationalist Patriot of Ukraine gang and the neo-Nazi Social National Assembly, which had “engaged in xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideals and physically assaulted migrants, the Roma community and people opposing their views.” It gained a lot of initial support due to the relative disorganisation of official Ukrainian forces when suddenly confronted by the Russian intervention that year.
In November 2014, the government incorporated the Azov Battalion into the National Guard, as a means of controlling, or taming it; the government claims it can no longer act outside the discipline of the armed forces. While perhaps a dubious means, it did separate the armed forces from its political leadership. Ideological cadre including leader Andriy Biletsky had to leave Azov, as they allegedly were no longer able to do far-right work in the Ukrainian military, according to Alexander Ritzmann, a senior adviser at Berlin’s Counter Extremism Project. In 2016 Biletsky founded a far-right political party, National Corps. To get a taste of his views, in 2010 he had asserted that Ukraine’s mission should be to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade against Semite-led Untermenschen.” Separated from his former militia, he set up the ‘Azov Circle’ civil movement and a new militia for internal repression, the National Druzhyna, formed in 2017 from veterans of the Azov Battalion. In January 2018, National Druzhyna “carried out pogroms against the Roma community and attacked members of the LGBTQ community,” under the guise of “restoring order.” These actions by the National Corps militia can easily be confused with the Azov regiment of the National Guard, but should be distinguished.
Azov is therefore part of the problem, because its very existence as part of the Ukrainian armed forces is a bigger political problem than its small military reach as such; having a fascist-influenced regiment on the fronts is the best way to drive any ethnic Russians sitting on the fence into the hands of the far-right Russia-owned separatists. The Ukrainian government should indeed be criticised for not disbanding it or more fully severing its connections to the political movement.
Regardless, Ukrainian fascists fighting Russia are virtually an anomaly in today’s global fascist climate. The appeals to global far-right solidarity by Ukraine’s Svoboda and Pravy Sector fell on deaf ears in 2014 following Ukraine’s Euromaiden. There was a history of connection between sections of the Russian and Ukrainian far-right before 2014; Svoboda had had observer status in the far-right Alliance of European National Movements (AENM). However, it had already been expelled in 2013, before the Euromaiden, at the initiative of Hungarian Jobbik, which objected to Svoboda’s anti-Hungarian statements.
On the military front, Azov has had a little more success, with several fascist groups that are anomalous among the far-right within their countries developing links. An article in Newsweek, before the invasion, titled ‘Ukraine’s War Draws U.S. Far-Right to Fight Russia’, claimed “neo-Nazi militias have recruited white supremacists from around the world to join their fight against Russia and advance racist ideology.” Yet the only groups mentioned were, in the US, the Nazi Atomwaffen Division (members of whom were deported from Ukraine) and the racist Rise Above Movement, clearly at odds with the strongly pro-Putin hegemony on the US far-right; Germany’s neo-Nazi Third Path (Der Dritte Weg), differentiating itself from the pro-Putin NPD and AfD; and Italy’s fascist CasaPound.
The idiosyncratic fascists of CasaPound may likewise want to distinguish their position from Forza Nuova, Lega Nord and other pro-Putin Italian fascists by supporting Ukraine, but in reality their position is more ambivalent; “some members of CasaPound have voiced their support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, while others support the Kremlin and have even fought on the side of pro-Russian militants in Eastern Ukraine.” CasaPound has participated in conferences with Azov in Lvov; but has also participated in rallies with other Italian fascists where “the crowd displayed posters hailing Putin as well as waving flags of the DNR” [Donetsk Peoples Republic], and organised a public meeting in Rome with Dugin. Explaining CasaPound’s vision of a new Italian-led Mediterranean, Simone Di Stefano, explained that “Outside the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance, Russia is a fundamental strategic ally for us … I very much appreciate the concept of ‘eternal Russia’ expressed in Dugin’s book.”
Impact of the Russian invasion on far-right support for Putin
The unexpected nature, ferocity and wide-ranging nature of Russia’s outright invasion of sovereign Ukraine has caused considerable anxiety for Putin’s far-right allies, from quite different perspectives. Although most remain cautiously supportive, some have expressed concern while others are torn between Russian and Ukrainian fascism.
On the one hand, the far-right parties that have some tendency towards “respectability,” due to participation in elections, have been humiliated by the sheer blatancy of Russia’s aggression. So, for example, French National Rally leader Le Pen, her rival Zemmour, Italian Lega Nord leader Salvini, Czech president Miloš Zeman and Hungarian prime minister Orban all had to condemn the aggression; though just days earlier they were still claiming the idea of invasion was just a beat-up and that Russia did have legitimate “security concerns”.
Some still entirely blame NATO with no criticism of Putin. For example, Alice Weidel, MP of the German fascist AfD, blamed the failure of the West to assure that Ukraine remained neutral rather than “continuously pushing the frontiers of NATO’s eastward expansion,” which was an “insult” to Russia’s great status. Dutch fascist Thierry Baudet of the misnamed Forum for Democracy claimed “Russia didn’t have much of a choice.”
On the other extreme, much of the more hard-line far-right have been attracted to Putin because he is seen as a firm and tough leader who is not scared to throw his weight around to defend “his nation”, “western civilisation” and the like. Hence their unanimous support for Putin’s backing of Assad’s dictatorship against “Islamists.” They feel none of the “respectable” pressures of the first group, but Putin’s invasion is a huge risk due to the stakes involved: an outright victory of Imperial Russia would greatly embolden the admiration he receives from global fascism, whereas a humiliating defeat could equally lead to a massive loss of support. With the Russian army bogged down, thousands of conscripts returning in body bags, the inability to yet conquer any major city, and the disastrous impacts of harsh western sanctions, humiliating defeat is not out of the question.
A third issue is the difficulty of choosing between equally attractive fascist partners. Azov appears to have had some success with its active promotional activities; “it is a larger-than-life brand among many extremists. It has welcomed Westerners into its ranks via white-supremacist sites. Azov stickers and patches have been seen around the globe.” This blends with right-wing oriented soldier-of-fortune types and various macho gun lovers and fascists who just want combat experience, including many who admit they are not going to fight for Ukraine, but for a pure white state, with Ukraine a useful springboard; from where they are in the West, it is simply easier to enter Ukraine to fight than to enter from the other side.
Combined with this is fascist uneasiness with two “white” nations at war. This can lend itself either to supporting Putin’s propaganda about Russians and Ukrainians being “one nation” divided by communists and globalists, or to opposing Putin launching aggression against fellow “whites.” Reportedly there has been discussion on far-right social media platforms about the role of “Jews” in driving two “white” nations to war.
To date though this has not led to a massive swing against Putin by the global far-right, rather confusion, division and nervous watching. Deutsche Welle reports that “some of Germany’s right-wing extremists have long had links to Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov militia. Other German neo-Nazis support Russia’s Vladimir Putin. … far-right activists who spent the past two years denouncing the German government and its restrictions to rein in the COVID pandemic, now place their hopes on Russia to champion their values: “When Putin marches through, men will again be men, electricity, and fuel will become cheaper, Islamization will end, and the greens and lefties will all be locked up,” read a chat group message of the ‘Free Thuringians’ extreme-right group. Similarly, the Washington Post reports that “the conflict has exposed a rift among extremists” in Germany, support divided between Russia and Ukraine. “A group called Free Saxony recently told its followers that the conflict was “largely fueled by NATO,” condemning smear campaigns against “friends of Putin.”
Thus, despite various articles with headings like Far right militias in Europe plan to confront Russian forces, concrete evidence is slim. This article reports that “in recent days, militia leaders in France, Finland and Ukraine have posted declarations urging their supporters to join in the fight to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion” and that “numerous far-right white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups throughout Europe and North America had expressed an outpouring of support for Ukraine, including by seeking to join paramilitary units in battling Russia,” while naming very few.
The most concrete example was from Finland: “Neo-Nazi and white supremacist Telegram users from Finland also encouraged fellow Finns to join the fight alongside Ukrainians … One post said, “the age-old duty of the Finns has been to wage war against the Russians.” But that’s unsurprising – Finland was invaded and occupied by the Russian Empire, and then again by Stalin, leading to Finnish alliance with Nazi Germany against Russia, ie, like Ukraine, there is a history of national conflict with Russia which leads extreme nationalists into conflict with that country.
On the whole, therefore, while the edifice of Putin’s global alliance with fascism has been under strain from opposing pressures, there has been no drastic change to date. A complete Russian victory would almost certainly solidify the alliance and lead to an enormous surge in support for Kremlin-backed and financed fascist and far-right movements globally. In contrast, a humiliating Russian defeat would possibly lead to desertion of a weakened Russia by many fascist groups, and conversely, their long association with Putin, their heralding of him as the great white saviour, may discredit many of these groups and lead them to lose support. This is one more, not unimportant, reason to hope for the defeat of Putin’s bloody gamble in this fascistic far-right version of late 19th century imperialism.
In response to the claim by the Assad dictatorship that it received 95 percent of the vote in its May 26 staged “election” circus, and that the turnout was 78 percent, or 14 million people, critics have pointed to a variety of obvious issues:
And countless more valid reasons to reject the legitimacy of these “elections” under a dictatorship where every expression of dissident thought is ruthlessly crushed in a country with one of the world’s largest and most horrific torture gulags.
The regime almost certainly increased its official percentage of votes, compared to what it would have gained in an actual election, due to all this fraud, manipulation and life-and-death pressure, and only in the sense that there was no-one else to vote for in any case.
However, we do not know how much all this increased the potential vote by; it may have increased it from 30 percent to 60 percent, for example, we simply do not know. All we know are the figures invented by the Ministry of Truth of a tyrannical dictatorship.
Why would anyone believe these figures had any reality at all, even given all the above methods? The most likely way the regime “gained” 95 percent of the votes, and a 78 percent turnout of voters, was by not gaining them at all, via any methods, but by simply making these figures up. Only after having decided on the “election results” in advance did it carry out all its pressure, fraud and so on to at least make it look like voting was real, to give something for its craven international supporters and fake “observers” to cite as “evidence.”
I mean, if you were part of the “electoral” process in Syria and you disputed the figures created by the regime, would you open your mouth? Would you want to stay alive? Or even if you didn’t care, would you want your children to be “disappeared”? Anyone who actually knows anything about the regime knows this is no exaggeration.
A history of dictators getting “99-100 percent” of the vote
After all, if the 95 percent is real, but gained only due to fraud, threats, having no opposition etc, then does that mean that in every other “election” held by the Assad regime (father and son in this hereditary monarchy), the announced figures were also the real results of regime pressure and fraud, rather than inventions of the dictatorship? I mean, did Hafez Assad really get 99-100% in “elections” in 1971, 1978, 1985, 1991 and 1999? Is fraud, manipulation, fear etc that effective?
Isn’t more likely that the consistency of figures around 94-100% (except in a couple of cases when dictators chose lower but still overwhelming figures to try to be more convincing) indicates that these figures are pure inventions, where there is no-one to check (at least, who wants to live)?
How many “voted” in Syria? 14 million or 4 million?
What of the alleged voter turnout of 78 percent? This invention can in fact be disproved with empirical facts. The regime claims this 78 percent voting amounted to 14.24 million Syrians. This is absurd because:
This would indicate a Syrian voting population of some 18 million. However, the current total population inside Syria is estimated to be around 18 million people, and some 40-45 percent are under 18, ie, non-voters.
Of the pre-war population of some 24 million people, there are now 6.6 million refugees living abroad; that’s why only some three-quarters of this figure now live in Syria.
Therefore, the absolute maximum number of people – adults and children – living in regime-controlled parts of Syria is 8.5 million, and is likely considerably less.
In response, some regime apologists claim that refugees voted from abroad. If so, then their claim of a voting population of 18 million (out of a total Syrian population, in Syria and abroad, of over 24 million), might make some sense. Even if still inaccurate, given the considerably higher proportion of under-18’s in the population; and even though the regime clearly does not mean this, because it considers most Syrians in refuge ineligible to vote; let’s go with this for argument’s sake.
Some refugees did vote, to be sure. However, if we are to leave out the populations in Syria outside regime control where no voting took place, and add the population under regime control (8.5 million maximum) and in refuge abroad (6.6 million), the total figure, adults and children, comes to some 15 million people, just slightly higher than the alleged voter turnout! Therefore, for this to be true, it would mean not only that virtually every child, from 0-18 years of age, voted in the election inside regime-controlled Syria, but that virtually every one of the 6.6 million Syrians abroad, who fled Assad’s tyranny, also voted (again, from the age of 0 and up)!
While the first criterion is obvious nonsense, how likely is the second, that almost every refugee voted in the “election” circus, and for Assad?
First, there certainly were various pressures applied to refugees to vote (including legitimate concern that the regime would never return their property if they did not vote), and therefore it is likely that more “voted” than really wanted to. However, what is the evidence of the success of this campaign?
This does not leave many “voters” among Syrian refugees in the three largest – by far – host countries.
As for Europe, the country with by far the largest number of Syrian refugees, Germany, also banned the “elections.” Again, while this may have violated the rights of some, the likelihood that this would have made much difference is small – refugees in Europe are overwhelmingly anti-Assad and largely refuse to go home precisely due to his presence in power. Nevertheless, some Syrian refugees in Germany staged this terrific mock election to protest the farce.
And in any case, despite claiming all these votes from abroad and applying pressure to vote, the dictatorship itself makes it almost impossible for most refugees to vote even if they wanted to – registering to vote requires a valid Syrian passport with an exit stamp issued by an official border crossing that show you left the country “legally”!
From all this, it is difficult to work out how many refugees voted – none in Turkey, where the majority of refugees live, a figure ranging between 50,000 and a few hundred thousand perhaps in Lebanon and Jordan combined, none in Germany, and any that voted elsewhere would be among relatively tiny populations of Syrians.
For argument’s sake, let’s be very generous and say 500,000 Syrians abroad voted. Now, of the maximum figure of 8.5 million Syrians living in regime-controlled Syria, let’s first leave out some 40-45 percent who are under 18, and we get a maximum voting population of 5 million. Now let’s take the regime’s word for it that 78% voted (I don’t know why we should, but I guess it is possible with all the methods described above) – that comes to nearly 4 million voters. Add a very generous half million from abroad, and we find that Bashar Assad was “elected” in an “election” involving a mere 4.5 million voters, where the only alternatives were Assad Clone 1 and Assad Clone 2.
Therefore, if the figure the regime cited for the number of voters can empirically be shown to be pure fiction, then obviously the same can be just as true for the numbers who “voted” for Assad.
However, one objection may be that if the regime only has to invent figures, then why go to all the trouble to organise fraud, manipulation, pressure etc? As stated above, impressions count. Trying to make it look like the invented figures could have some truth can be good propaganda – just look at the clownish “journalists” from Gray (Red-Brown) Zone gushing over the Syrian “elections”.
It is also important for internal consumption. Tsurkov sums it up well: “In an authoritarian regime like Syria’s, when the falsification of the results takes place out in the open, elections project the regime’s ability to compel compliance. Elections serve the interests of the regime, signaling to opponents that resistance is futile, encouraging its loyalists and creating a sense that the regime enjoys greater support than it actually does.” Or, as Kristin Helberg writing in Qantara puts it, “the election serves a dual purpose: it forces people to demonstrate loyalty at home and provides legitimacy abroad.”
“Elections” under a dictatorship? Why is this article even necessary?
None of the above discussion should really be necessary. For decades, dictatorships (often, though not always, backed and armed by the US government and military) carried out “election” circuses and declared unbelievable figures for their “victories”, but left and progressive activists in the West denounced such “elections” as fraudulent. It was – and is – elementary common sense that “elections” under a violent dictatorship will not be “free and fair.” To anyone who understands elementary logic, no further explanation is necessary.
It is a sign of strange times therefore that I even need to be writing this. Because a great range of political activists in the West today from the mechanical and superficial “anti-imperialist” school of thought are praising these “elections” being carried out by the world’s most violent dictatorship, one that has bombed every city in its country to rubble and which holds tens of thousands in horrific torture chambers. For example, this statement by “leftist” western observers that gloriously proclaims the legitimacy and democratic nature of Assad’s election victory. It is true, of course, that every section of the global far-right also praises Assad and his “elections” of course, but it is strange days when a section of the left finds itself in the same boat.
“We are no less than the Paris commune workers: they resisted for 70 days and we are still going on for a year and a half.” Omar Aziz, 2012
On 18 March 2021 people around the globe will be commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune. On this date, ordinary men and women claimed power for themselves, took control of their city and ran their own affairs independently from the state for over two months before being crushed in a Bloody Week by the French government in Versailles. The Communards’ experiment in autonomous, democratic self-organisation, as a means to both resist state tyranny and to create a radical alternative to it, holds an important place in the collective imaginary and has provided inspiration for generations of revolutionaries.