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The Ukraine conflict as a world war

The war is not a localized conflict but part of a reemerging global imperialist rivalry

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Members of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps fire artillery in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine, March 2022. Photo courtesy the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Twitter.

The war in Ukraine has almost reached its first anniversary. When it will end is unclear. Indeed, it has actually been going on since 2014 with the overthrow of the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime by ultranationalists backed by the United States. The subsequent Russian seizure of Crimea and the state of siege instituted in the Donbas by the Ukrainian government led up to the launching of the Russian “special military operation” at the beginning of 2022. The goal of the Russians is to chew up the Ukrainian army using massive firepower while minimizing its own casualties. In the course of doing so they hope to destabilize the current Ukrainian government and force some kind of peace on Ukraine.

The Russian style of war based on military-industrial power resembles the exhausting attrition of the First World War, minus its casualty rates. It seeks to minimize the human and economic cost to Russia while inflicting pain on Ukraine to the point that it will not be able to continue the conflict. The Ukrainians have fought valiantly and sometimes foolishly and have taken very high casualties as well as massive damage to their infrastructure from drones and rockets. Their largely unsuccessful offensives to retake Donbas and Luhansk are meant to sustain civilian morale and to convince their NATO supporters that they retain the will to fight. Nevertheless, despite Ukraine’s lack of success in its offensives, the defence that its military has put up against the overwhelming Russian attacks has been impressive. It is astonishing how well they have soldiered on.

The denouement of this conflict would seem to lie in the exhaustion of Ukraine’s manpower and the destruction of its economy. That exhaustion might even come from the incapacity of NATO to provide enough military and financial resources allowing the war to continue.

Indeed, we cannot view the Ukraine conflict in isolation. It is negatively impacting the global economy as well as international relations across the board. At a time when the world urgently requires more cooperation and integration it has once again become divided into antagonistic camps. And while Russia and China, both with traditions of internal economic self-sufficiency, are doing relatively well and indeed benefitting from their growing economic and military ties, the West and especially Western Europe is being pummelled by high inflation and energy shortages. The latter desperately needs to hold on to its access to the resources and markets of Eurasia from which it risks being denied.

More profoundly, the working populations of Western Europe and North America continue to be hit hard by the neoliberal policy of guns rather than butter—or perpetual austerity for the sake of imperialist conquest. The pursuit of these policies meanwhile has helped to undermine further the credibility of the political elites of the Western representative democracies in the eyes of the mass of the population. In the long term the collapse of public confidence in the liberal order might prove to be the Achilles heel of Western imperialism.

The war in Ukraine is surely not a localized conflict but part of a global imperialist war against Russia and China. Its purpose is to subordinate these two independent states to American economic and political hegemony. In doing so the latter would be able to restore its control over all the states of the Global South. It represents a breathtaking gamble on the part of the US to leverage its military and financial power to recover its economic power. As such it is essentially a pillaging operation.

In this war the US is employing a dizzying array of weapons—traditional arms, proxies, mercenaries, rockets and drones, air and naval power, space technology, social media campaigns, and economic sanctions. Indeed, it has evolved into a perpetual warfare state in which its war industries and its high tech and media companies are driving its imperialist foreign policy. Waging multi-pronged or full spectrum war has become the raison d’etre of the American state.

The US had long been a monopoly capitalist state. America’s turn to militarism followed the Second World War, when total war mobilization had become the means by which it had broken out of the global depression of the 1930s. In the aftermath it used the Cold War as a means of suppressing class conflict and consolidating its global hegemony, a permanent war economy and a national security state. Its imperialism led to the exporting of its manufacturing jobs to countries in the Global South with low wages undermining the strength of its industrial economy and forcing it to become even more coercive in order to retain control of the economies and resources of those countries. Its ideology essentially is a rationalization of this imperialist drive. In defending themselves Russia and China stand for a multipolar world. Their defeat would mean the subordination of the whole globe to a predatory empire.

American defeat would mean an opportunity for other states to pursue their own distinctive developmental route. Moreover, it is possible that many of these states, including China, would take the socialist route, making it difficult for a monopoly capitalist state to divide the world along imperialist lines and pursue a global imperialist project.

But is China itself an imperialist state? It is hard to be definitive on this question. Although the heights of the economy are controlled by a single-party communist government there is an important capitalist segment of its economy and it does have unequal trade relations with many less developed countries. But given that it is integrated into the global capitalist economy it is more exploited that exploiting. Moreover, much of its investment overseas is closely meshed with the development plans of other nations.

As for Russia, it is definitely capitalist although the state looms large and the bourgeoisie are highly dependent on it. Given the fact that it has enormous internal resources to exploit and a tradition of autonomist development its imperialism, if it exists, is limited to the now politically independent states of the former Soviet Union.

Chinese and Russian military spending is a fraction of the US, and their capacity to project their forces across the globe is limited. Yet the Russians have been able to steadily advance their economic and military influence in the Middle East, notably by virtue of their intervention in Syria and their increasingly warm relations with Iran and Turkey.

As best they can the militaries of China and Russia ape that of the US as much as possible. Above all, however, they both seek to guard their frontiers; China seeking to keep guard of its seacoasts and block attempts to undermine its authority in Mongolia, Taiwan, and Tibet. Russia likewise has to keep a wary eye on threats by the US in Central Asia and the Caucasus while fending off NATO’s drive to the east in Ukraine.

Russian-Chinese military cooperation is growing although they are not full political allies. Unlike the US the military of both countries are rooted in the revolutionary tradition of mass mobilization against imperialist invasion. Their ability to mobilize patriotic popular support boosts their potential in a protracted conflict. What’s more, Russian military-industrial capacity dating back to the hot and cold wars of the last century and its ability to produce new advanced weapons gives it unsuspected strength. Both sides in this conflict are trying to avoid all-out war and nuclear confrontation. But will that be possible?

Protests against the war have occurred on a small scale in most Western countries. Bigger protests have taken place in countries closer to the conflict like Italy and the Czech Republic. These protests are likely to grow into larger demonstrations as the economic and political costs weight on the population. Clearly what is needed is the growth of a worldwide anti-war movement which points to the cost of the war at the expense of the wellbeing of people. Only such a which movement can stop the madness of this world conflagration.

Henry Heller is a Professor of History at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective (Pluto Press, 2011), The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005 (Monthly Review Press, 2006) and The Bourgeois Revolution in France (Berghahn Books, 2006).


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