Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 2-2022, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

The three reasons for the war in Ukraine

Three parties are involved in the war in Ukraine: Russia as the aggressor that is carrying out a “special military operation”; Ukraine as the attacked state with its USA/NATO–trained and equipped army; and the West, i.e., USA and NATO in a newly united front including the EU. This third one may not be a direct party to the war, but it is a double one. It is firstly financing the Ukrainian state and organizing its military power. And secondly, it is waging — this time directly — an economic war that is worthy of the name since it is aimed at destroying the capitalist basis of Russian state power. Beyond all the good reasons that these three parties can readily give, as in any war, each has its own actual reason for this war.

1. Russia

has started a military offensive for two overlapping defensive purposes.

On the one hand, it is defending its diverse interests within and in regard to its large neighbor, which emerged as a new sovereign state after the former Soviet Union was dissolved into a “Commonwealth of Independent States.” What the Russian government is out to do is stabilize its special ties to Ukraine, which comprise more than the regular commercial and political relations between two states and the resulting benefits for one’s own country. These ties are based on the continuing effects of an era in which Ukraine was a Soviet Socialist Republic belonging to the political and economic system of the USSR led by Moscow and organized with its own non-capitalist division of labor. From the Russian perspective, all former Soviet republics, and Ukraine in particular, are the “near abroad.” They are characterized by a significant Russian-speaking population tending to be loyal to Russia; an economy largely ruined by being severed from the old Soviet planned economy and still at least partly dependent on the connection to Russia for survival; an accordingly strong pro-Russian political faction within the country, in the case of Ukraine in the disputes between the parties. The presence and effectiveness of Russia’s political and economic power in the large, now sovereign “brother country,” and its claim to Ukraine being fundamentally oriented politically toward it and strategically aligned with it, were being massively contested more and more effectively. NATO and its leading power, the USA, were progressively integrating Ukraine politically and militarily into its strategic Eastern Europe holdings. The EU was bringing Ukraine closer to its economic and legal regime by more or less forcing reforms on it that did the country no good but would definitely reduce Russian influence. For the past decade, Moscow defended its interest in and legal claim to the neighboring country mainly by military means, by establishing direct or indirect control over parts of the country. Its annexation of Crimea was uncompromisingly challenged politically, and two newly formed independent people’s republics in Eastern Ukraine were being attacked militarily. To secure and/or expand these acquisitions, undo the progress the West has made in getting a grip on Ukraine, and, ideally, fundamentally reversing the country’s pro-Western orientation: that is the one reason the Russian government has for its escalating “special operation.”

For Moscow, this reason coincides with the need for a strategic defense action of a completely different caliber. With NATO increasingly co-opting Ukraine and being more and more determined to define and treat Russia as an enemy, Russia sees its security undermined. After all, the purpose the West has been pursuing by incorporating Ukraine into NATO (regardless whether officially or “merely” de facto) is both to encircle Russia ever more tightly with conventional military forces and to build up a nuclear arsenal ever closer to the center of Russian state power. The latter is part of the USA’s general goal to bring the course of any war, even and especially the escalation of a nuclear confrontation with Russia, under control to the point that it seems viable, and can thus be used as an effective threat. This jeopardizes core elements of Russia’s military-strategic power: the security of its southwest border vis-à-vis an increasingly overpowering enemy, its freedom to act in the Black Sea. Above all, though, Russia is concerned about its nuclear clout, and that is far more than just a military option. It is worried about whether it will be able to endure the escalation of a nuclear war to such a degree that the result is at least incalculable for the USA, making the war seem an unacceptable risk and thus unfeasible. This is the idea of the notorious MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) “doctrine,” according to which the major nuclear powers mutually refrain from waging nuclear war — all the while planning and arming themselves for it — because the enemy’s weapons are already destructive beyond all measure. Should Ukraine become a launching pad for American missiles, then Russia would be in danger of being cast back to the last level of strategic self-defense with its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. Certainly the Russian government sees this danger being intolerably heightened here, in regard to strategic variables like advance warning times and possible reactions in a meticulously calculated exchange of blows. As for the last level, this is how the Russian president once soberly put it: a nuclear war “will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I'm a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?" (BBC News, Feb. 28, 2018). Ultimately, when it is only a matter of the last act of defense, its nuclear power may in any case be enough to make sure the rest of the planet, the USA included, does not survive Russia’s annihilation. But Russia is more and wants to remain more than just the last man standing on the nuclear battlefield. The security it is demanding is for it as a world power, one that unlike all other states decides the scope of its ambitions and the security of its power autonomously, truly only according to its own best judgment. It demands to take part in controlling the relations of force between and within the sovereign nations of the world on “equal footing” with the USA, i.e., on a level not attained by any other state. And it also aspires to be able to enforce all this. Such a status is based on Russia achieving a military deterrence that secures ultimately unconditional respect from its major opponent, thus effectively breaking the USA’s monopoly claim on the use of force to control the relations of force around the globe. It is precisely this status that has been contested — not only, but definitively — by NATO and its leading power advancing into Ukraine. The Russian government sees that the West is pursuing its intention here to deny its nation’s claim and right to security guarantees of the same rank as the West claims — and knows how to obtain — for itself in Europe, i.e., it is denying Russia’s claim to security for existing as a world power. This is something Russia has already been lodging diplomatic complaints about for some time, since the state had its monopoly on force rebuilt after the Yeltsin era. It has objected to NATO breaking all its promises to refrain from expanding eastward, or set geographic and military limits on this expansion, that it made when the Soviet power bloc was being liquidated. In accordance with the warning it conveyed along with these complaints, Russia has declared the ongoing political attacks and military encroachments on its holdings in eastern and southern Ukraine to warrant war. For Russia it must now be decided to what extent — or actually even if — the USA and its allies are willing to respect it as an autonomous power that defines its security needs itself with the same weight as the other side, and is able to assert these needs.

With its “special operation,” the Russian government is confronting the West with its determination not to let its capacity for nuclear deterrence be taken away. And it actually applies this capacity by repeatedly warning NATO and the USA not to interfere to an extent that would lead to an escalation approaching world war. That, however, is a very defensive position in a fundamental sense. The interference that the West should refrain from on the “red line” Ukraine in order to satisfy Russia’s claim to ultimate security and Western respect has already happened; Ukraine has already been armed and de facto appropriated by the West. After all, that is the reason why Russia sees the need to carry out its drastic, defensive “special operation.” This is its response to the West already going so far in refusing to respect Russia’s security claims. The operation is accordingly not a solution, but the result of an insolvable predicament. For Russia, a success would actually decide whether the feared strategic power shift can at least be halted at this point, i.e., whether the credibility of its deterrent force can be ensured without having to use it. The operation is expressly not intended to be a war against NATO, much less the start of a third world war. However, even in the — increasingly questionable — case of Russia winning, nothing at all would actually have been gained in terms of the goal of protecting Russia’s security by forcing the other side to respect its deterrent force. Such an effect is not in Russia’s hands at all. On the contrary, it is entirely up to the USA and NATO powers to decide if they consider Russia’s intervention in its neighboring country, a mere “special operation” after all, to be a serious warning directed at them and their aggressive security policy towards Moscow, and consequently stop attacking Russia’s claim to security as a world power in Ukraine at least. Russia is waging a semi-proxy war, so to speak, in which it itself is battling with a military power that is only fighting on behalf of the real, intended opponent. So even if it won in Ukraine, it would not be beating its real opponent. This asymmetrical constellation leaves the West complete freedom to decide if, or to what limited extent, it wants to consider the war its own affair. It is free to steer “from behind,” without really being dependent on its Ukrainian proxy winning. There is in any case no question of NATO and the US being deterred from their general policy of aggressively going against Russia. They actually make that quite clear themselves. They are now driving forward Ukraine’s fight, which they have been preparing the country for and committing it to for years, until it is won, in whatever form and with whatever devastation it brings. At the same time they insist that, as the North Atlantic war alliance, they are neither a direct party to the war nor are themselves — yet — under attack. In this way, they make sure Russia’s strategic defense act misses the mark. Yes, the USA and NATO must admit that their enormous military power did not deter Russia from attacking Ukraine. But what does that matter? After all, they didn’t threaten to start a third world war. That’s an option they are keeping open in case Russia does actually decide to carry out an act of direct provocation — or do something they choose to take as such.

So its “special military operation” does not provide Russia with a way out of its strategic predicament of needing to defend itself against being increasingly excluded from major decisions about European and global peace and having its self-defined security interests disregarded ever more gravely, while at the same time trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the Western war alliance. And the reason for this impasse is not simply an unequal balance of military power between the Western war alliance with its American clout and a Russia that is under pressure on many different fronts. The reason why Russia’s asymmetrical struggle for Ukraine doesn’t solve its fundamental security problem is that it is facing an imperialistically lined-up world that simply leaves no room for any second country demanding recognition and respect for asserting itself as a world power.

The dominant ordering principle of this world, as far as normal civilian times are concerned, is that nations compete freely for capitalistic wealth and the means of its accumulation. This principle is installed in a legal structure of institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, the WTO and a number of sub-organizations of the UN. It is open in principle to all states that make capitalist enrichment the source of their power. This system of competition has not been rejected by new, post-Soviet Russia. No, it wants to take part with its considerable, outdated means of production and long-standing international relations. It has established itself in this system as a trading nation and a financial center, as a source of sought-after export goods, and as a destination for capital export. It is involved in the international exploitation and extortion business of worldwide capitalism, and affected by the accompanying adversities just like any other capitalist state. At the same time, however, the country has had special obstacles to overcome right from the start, but especially since the government has been increasingly successful in restoring an intact monopoly on force domestically and gathering up the remnants of the former Soviet Union under its control as its “near abroad.” Objections and obstructions from Washington and reservations from the global economic powers allied with the US have — as intended — made it difficult for Russia to put its economic capacities to good capitalistic use and have them serve the purpose of consolidating and increasing its political power.

The ruling transformation politicians in Moscow have taken these hindrances as a violation of the major concessions they made when liquidating the real-socialist planned economy and opening up their national economy to free capitalist commerce. But this has not made them doubt their program of private and state enrichment through capitalist competition. Indeed, as the major political players of global capitalist business have made it clear to them, participation in this business does not come without a price. States are required to submit to a business system that makes their self-interest fundamentally dependent on conditions and their autonomous self-determination subject to limits, these conditions and limits being advantageous only to the leading powers. For all the others, including the big Russian Federation, conforming with this system out of self-interest means exposing themselves to the extortionate power of the West. This power does not stem from any superior competitive success or comparatively larger economic power, but is instead based an a sweeping regime over the nations’ competition. What maintains this regime is not really the international law governing the institutions that represent the global business system and implement regulatory policies largely determined by the USA, sometimes their largest shareholder but always their most important member. It is the material, i.e., ultimately the US dollar as definitive world money, that capitalists compete for to accumulate and modern capitalist states compete for to use on furthering their nations. It is the American financial market as the decisive source of credit that the world’s capitalists use for financing the accumulation of their wealth and states for financing their national growth. It is the liquidity created and guaranteed by the US Federal Reserve that keeps all this going. It is these products and works of the USA, linked productively with a few allied rivals in Europe and Asia, that have made the capitalist world markets and their private and political actors fundamentally dependent on the one global economic power, thereby giving it a monopoly on taking possession of the world. It is not the constraints of capitalist competition as such, nor the — again quite lopsided — results of competing on the world market, but this dependency that enables the USA to command such a regime over the participants of global capitalism, through its sovereignty over the creation of the world economy’s money and credit. This regime is tantamount to the power to admit or exclude entire nations, and gives all the restrictive decisions in between their force. This is the power that the big capitalist legal successor of the broken-down Soviet Union is up against. More specifically, it faces a Western, primarily American, policy that is out to prove that the supremacy of the nations with world money over the capitalist world is incompatible with a Russia that is transforming itself into an autonomous major power.

Russia has nothing comparable to counter this civil imperialist rulership with, because American money and credit are not interchangeable means of global capitalism, and the regime based on them is not a maneuver requiring America to keep asserting itself over and over again. Over the decades, the dollar’s power over the world economy has become firmly established, beyond all political intentions and strategic plans, as an entire system of cooperative relations of superiority and subordination, which presents the freely competing sovereign states with the conditions for their economic existence as “the way of the world.” The results of competition have given rise to a complete hierarchy of types of capitalist state that no one of them ever invented or chose for itself. Quite the opposite, a nation’s status in this hierarchy determines its reason of state and its leaders’ options and freedom of action when they go about trying to reinvent their country. Of course there are rival states creating money, alternative currencies, successful competitors to the USA in all different areas. Potent world economic powers obviously have the ambition to emancipate themselves from the US dollar and US financial markets. There are also international partnerships within the raging rule-based competition, even economic alliances that are implicitly or explicitly anti-American like the EU or China with its New Silk Road. But they, too, are — for the time being — far from overcoming the unique position of America’s economic power. And this applies to Russia especially, with it contributing a letter to the loose BRICS alliance and making offers to try and co-opt its “near abroad.” The country’s foreign relations do not come close to being anything like an alternative to the established imperialist system of economically functionalized sovereigns. With its ambition to turn its socialist heritage into capitalist growth on the world market, Russia is basically fighting for a — naturally outstanding — place within this global system.

This system incorporates the long-term effects of a competition imperative that the global economic power USA imposed on the world of states as a way to achieve private and national enrichment. This was an offer that no one could refuse if only because the only alternative, the system of real socialism, Soviet style, had been effectively fought and finally driven to ruin, using, among other things, the economic weapon known as the arms race. The downside to this unrefusable offer was, from the beginning, that sovereign states were bound to try and assert their interests against others, try and utilize other nations, solely that way, i.e., in accordance with the American business system of capitalist competition that benefits US money, credit, and capital growth. This was a ban on using force, which is not to be confused with non-violence because, if nothing else, the US was only able to establish it as an accepted norm by forcing it on the losers and its allies after World War II as the unrivaled victorious capitalist power. As for the Soviet Union, which actually had an alternative system encompassing half the world, the US managed to overcome it using proxy wars, its own wars, and deterrent preparations for nuclear war. Since the USSR was liquidated, the US has continued to expand its own system by the familiar combination of deterrence and exemplary punishment of any state using force on its own authority whenever it bothers the “only remaining superpower.” That this regime is known as peace in the modern world is neither misplaced idealism nor mere cynicism. Rather, it reflects the achievement of making an entrenched imperialist system out of the world’s states subjecting themselves out of self-interest to the dictate, ultimately guaranteed by the USA, of recognizing each other and, on that basis, competing against each other to appropriate and accumulate wealth in the uniform of American credit money. The emphasis on peace makes clear that the globally enforced business system of competition not only regulates how capitalists deal with each other and provides economic policy-makers with purely civil means of extortion, but must also be respected by the sovereign states as a stipulation for how they use their power, as a ban on using force on their own authority.

That is the crucial point where Russia collides with the imperialist world system and its protecting power. Based on the business means it has at its disposal and the pressure its economic policy-makers can wield, Russia has the status and hierarchical rank of a particularly strong emerging country, in the nomenclature of imperialism. It competes for wealth and influence using these means in accordance with the prevailing competition imperative —depending on whether others let it, recognize it as a capitalist competitor, or even value it as a reliable supplier and partner. While fighting to survive in conformity with the system, Russia finds itself repeatedly hindered, even marginalized, by the administrators of the whole thing, thereby making acquaintance with the tough, irreconcilable peace-keeping side of the competition imperative it is complying with: the American ban on using force that hangs over it. The reason for obstructing Russia is not that it is constantly starting wars or even just doing it more often than other discontented powers on the globe. It is that its ability to embrace, supervise, or even itself initiate the use of military force within and between states is of a different quality than the militancy of its fellow users of force. Russia is the only power capable of not merely shooting holes in America's global guarantee of peace in a particular region, but actually repelling it, i.e., altogether negating it at the level of ultimate strategic deterrence. It is not only able to do so; it derives its particular claim to security from this, its claim to recognition of its freedom to guarantee its security at the highest level, itself, according to its own calculations. And it is out to guarantee other states’ freedom as well. Russia places its claim to respect for the autonomy of its power in a global context that makes the thrust quite clear. Russia offers itself as an ally to all nations that consider their national interests as coming up short in whatever way in the US-dominated world, at times even courting Europe’s latent anti-Americanism. At the same time it, conversely, solicits support for itself as an independent, respectable, and respected regulatory power. It wants to be perceived, i.e., needed and recognized, as a state power that is ready and able to provide assistance whenever other states come under pressure from the US or US-sponsored adversaries due to their domestic or international security interests. And this does not just apply to special cases of particular importance for Russian interests. Russia aims at establishing quite generally an alternative, a multipolar, world order that gives all states the freedom to shape both their internal affairs and their foreign relations autonomously, without any anti-Russia reservations and without any Western paternalism. Its initiatives to this end show, of course, that Russia is battling an established world order that it can't topple, despite whatever sporadic successes it might achieve. But that doesn’t change anything. What is incompatible with imperialist world peace is the principle of Russia's politics, its unconditional claim as a world power with a nuclear deterrent capability to be master of how its rights are defined and asserted in the world. That is Russia's fundamental violation of the monopolistic offer, i.e., the USA’s exclusive claim, based on its globally superior military power, to allocate all sovereign states in the world the degree of security and military freedom of action that it considers appropriate.

Russia's fundamental contradiction is that it is, and wants to be, an active participant in the prevailing world system of capitalist competition, i.e., a prominent part of the world order that came about under the dictate of the American regime and endures — for the time being, only — under its pretty widely respected imperatives. In this imperialistically organized world, Russia is not just an outsider, but a contradiction incarnate. On the one hand, it is a capitalist power fighting for capitalist growth as its means of survival following the prevailing rules and using the business means created and controlled by the USA, and, on the other hand, it is a military power with nuclear weapons that can autonomously guarantee its own security and demands recognition accordingly as a strategic world power. To the Russian government, of course, this is no contradiction at all. But it is less and less willing to let the West confront it with the contradiction more and more harshly, by sometimes exploiting Russia as a capitalist world market participant and sometimes impeding it as one (preferably doing both at the same time), and by recognizing it less and less as a power capable of world war and fighting it more and more aggressively. Russia cannot resolve the predicament that its imperialist opponents have put it in. It fights back, making NATO’s and the US’s occupation of Ukraine the arena for its resistance. That is the reason for this war from Russia’s point of view.

2. The West

— meaning NATO under resolute and energetic US leadership, shoulder to shoulder with the EU, and once again as the G7 — leaves no doubt that the Ukrainian army’s fight against Russian troops is the West’s war. Not only the statements Western politicians have made, just short of an outright declaration of war, but above all what they have been doing — actively participating to the point of turning Russia’s “special operation” into a regular war — stand for much more than the global police actions in third countries that Western powers otherwise put on their agenda. They have in any case decided to wage what they expressly call an economic war against the Russian Federation. To justify it, they invoke Ukraine’s sacred right of self-defense. The West’s reason for war is not so defensive.

What it is really defending in Ukraine is, when you first look at it, European peace. Russia did not start violating this peace when it invaded Ukraine, nor by just supporting pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country or annexing Crimea. Its encroachment has been of a more general, political kind. This is what many Western European rulers, both former and current, are unmistakably expressing when they look back and criticize themselves for not having vigorously countered the aggressiveness of the Putin government early on, instead encouraging it by desiring good relations. Moscow has basically been sinning against European peace by not resigning itself to the former “Kremlin-ruled” East European/Central Asian sphere of power being progressively dissolved, but instead opposing the newly formed national entities being incorporated one after the other into NATO territory and EU responsibility. Russia has resisted this by diplomatic means, by applying political pressure and attempting economic blackmail, and also by providing military aid to pro-Russian forces and to fight militantly anti-Russian forces. So when the West so resolutely supports Ukraine militarily and fights the Russian invasion, it is following its general policy of persistently expanding NATO and the EU beyond the long-integrated Eastern European states of the former Warsaw Pact and the Baltic republics into territories that Russia is claiming as its sphere of influence and wants the West to concede to it as a security buffer zone. Accordingly, what the West is defending as European peace involves more than just preserving accepted borders (ironically, borders drawn by the former Soviet “tyrants”) and launching no unauthorized military operations. It is defending the West’s indisputable legal claim to be free to act politically, economically, and militarily, even to the point of stationing weapons of world war, right up to the borders of the Russian Federation, if not further. Equating this claim with peace means that not recognizing it is an unpeaceful act, thereby absolving the West from the obligation to avoid warlike behavior. Thus, Russia, with its security and other political interests in its western approaches, is defined a priori as a disturber of the peace that is not entitled to participate in shaping European states, i.e., the relations between them or their domestic conditions. It must therefore be pushed back, ousted from the legitimate competition of encroaching powers on the old continent. The West is putting this judgment — that was actually passed long ago — into effect by making the Ukraine war its own business.

The US president places this intolerance of Russian power in a very large strategic context. He wants to make an example of Russia in Ukraine, making it stand for a general global conflict between democratic and autocratic rule that cannot be resolved by any compromise. While the politico-moral labels are fuzzy, his distinction is clear enough to go by in practical world politics. It is clear which regimes definitely belong on the enemy side, and how adamantly to open up a front that forces all ruling sovereigns to take sides against Russia unless they want to be classified as at least potentially hostile themselves. The practical consequences do not have to be decided right away in every case. But for Europe, and above all for America’s NATO partners, they are obvious: the war alliance has to prove itself as such straight away. The first thing required is unconditional unity under American leadership. What this means in military terms can be seen by the escalation of the war. Warfare on the economic front is advancing most ruthlessly, also with regard to what it costs the West itself. What counts on both levels is that the commitment must be effective and sustainable for the long haul.

So the West’s reason for war is pretty clear. By invading Ukraine, Russia has gone too far in defending itself against the West tightening the military/strategic noose ever more and progressively cutting it out of any influence over Europe’s political regime. US, NATO and EU claim to be the only party entitled to determine what peace means in Europe and in the world, that is, to ultimately decide how far state interests reach and, in particular, whether a state’s security claims are to be recognized or contested. This Western claim requires action to put it back into full effect, a powerful crackdown in the given case. The West needs to make sure there is no doubt about the credibility of its power and the reliability of its will to have the last word on how states use their force, to make their use of force dependent on its permission or guarantee. Under no circumstances can America’s and Western Europe’s democratic agents of the world order allow even the slightest possibility of a loss of control.

Demonstrative uses of force like this, for the cause, are nothing new for them. Their confrontation with the Soviet Union and its alliance was quite unequivocal, dividing the world and more or less creating the West. After it ended, they saw a need to launch such actions, not infrequently against their own creatures, and with “shock and awe” when required, not only to eliminate various unsuitable rulers, but with the aim of enforcing and anchoring their monopoly on establishing order in the world. In place of the “bipolar” order they had vanquished, they sought a “new world order” under the direction of the USA, the “only remaining superpower.” This is the kind of operation the USA and NATO are undertaking “against Putin” when it comes to Ukraine, the escalation level being far above their global police actions in many other cases. But this is obviously not the full story to explain the particular war the West is waging there — the way it is waging it. For instead of staging a grandiose display of its superiority, it is adding a disclaimer to its double intervention, the military one with old and very new weapons including information and directives for how to use them, and the civilian one with economic sanctions aimed at destruction. It is saying that what it is doing is not a US war, not a NATO war, and certainly not the prelude to a third world war. It is only providing assistance — albeit for the Ukrainians to win, drive out the Russian army, restore the borders inherited from Soviet days, and thus defend democracy itself, but all at Kyiv’s own sovereign discretion. According to the official definition, the Western armed forces are not acting as a direct and active belligerent; they might be getting into a bit of a gray zone under international law, but definitely not doing anything to justify any Russian attacks on them. Although a democratic public in Europe morally incited for war mainly sees this position as being totally misguided hesitation and vacillation that is impossible to understand, the position is quite in line with the war goal of getting closer to finally ousting Russia from the influence and security zone it is claiming, and decimating the basis of its power. For the same purpose, the West does not want to be held responsible for being what it is, the crucial strategic actor. It is doing exactly what it indignantly denies when Russian propaganda calls it by name, and by formulating its war aims as Ukraine’s it is actually admitting it: it is having others do the fighting, it is using Ukraine’s unrestrained war readiness for a proxy war. And it is not doing so against another proxy, as usually in the past, but directly against the enemy power itself. In the same duplicitous way, it declares that the economic war it is waging at the same time of its own accord, with allocated roles, has the warlike purpose of irreversibly damaging Russian might, but without actually being a war, with the potential of escalating to a world war.

The first reason for this peculiar self-abnegation is no secret — certainly not to the Western warmongers, drunk on their bravado, who reveal it is an alibi for sheer cowardice. The West is going at a nuclear power that in its own way has been planning a third world war just as thoroughly as the USA and is just as capable of destroying the inhabited world. NATO must take this into account when “forwardly defending” its imperialist wish for peace. This it does — and how! The US has noted that its deterrent power has not prevented Russia from deploying its military at the trouble spot where NATO and the EU are expanding eastward. But it has not seriously threatened to wage a total world war either. Ukraine is not worth it to the US for the time being, being basically just a tempting further bit of “forward defense.” The US reserves that threat for every inch of its NATO allies’ territory, who must be quite aware themselves of what to expect if worse comes to worst. But conversely, Russia’s deterrent power has not prevented NATO from waging its war against its disruptive enemy by proxy. If Russia instigates a “special military operation” in Ukraine, then the war for Ukraine and for the West’s unrestricted right to Europe should definitely be fought. That is what the country’s Western sponsors and arms suppliers have openly set out to do. And this makes it quite a bit clearer what positive reason (rather than the negative one above) the West has for carefully distinguishing between the NATO powers as the main stakeholders in the events and Ukraine as the actual war party they are merely supporting. For in this way, the West puts itself in a position to weaken its main enemy by its counteroffensive to the point of surrender, at least to the point of proving that it definitely does not pay off to rebel against America’s and Europe’s continental and global peace, while at the same time still maintaining control over the escalation it is thereby risking. It preserves its freedom to survey whatever state is reached at any time in the mutual destruction of Ukraine on one side and Russian military might on the other side, plus the decimation of Russian economic power, and to declare its war objective achieved as it sees fit. How far it is prepared to go with this may not have been clear from the outset, but a few weeks of war have made it clear enough now. By supplying arms and “leading from behind” (a bon mot from the Obama White House), the West is aiming in Ukraine at the military result of inflicting a clear defeat on Russian forces and making it impossible for Russia to try anything on the scale of its “special military operation” again for a good while. By increasingly tightening economic sanctions that not only affect Russia’s trade goods but also prevent it from engaging in international payments, thwarting its whole economic purpose of participating in the world market, the West is out to paralyze the capitalist growth the Russian state has made its society and thus its own power dependent on, and thereby make sure the nation is lastingly deprived of power.

So the West is evading a direct confrontation with its adversary that could lead to world war — and staying free to calculate and wage an all-the-harsher war of resources from a position of superiority that it could not at all be as sure of in a nuclear war. The human resources are contributed by Ukraine, free of charge and with plenty of nationalistic morality. How fitting and fair, and only deeply cynical from an objective point of view, that the third-highest-ranking American (Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) personally and warmly thanked the president in Kyiv for Ukraine’s heroism and willingness to make sacrifices in the interests of democracy, with other Western state personnel constantly doing the same of course. For arsenals, the Europeans can just draw on their near unlimited supply left over from both sides’ war preparations in the days of the fight against communism. Even the real-socialist weapons of the Warsaw Pact are still quite serviceable after three decades. The capitalist armament concerns are naturally also standing by. The US is reactivating the legal basis for providing the material subsidies to Britain and the Soviet Union that turned the tide on the fronts in World War II even before it entered the war, the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. And is it supplying for free, and whatever it deems necessary — neither of which it did in those days. Finally, the dual-use good par excellence, money, is doing its work. Not only do the arms budgets of the Western democracies exceed Russia’s by a factor of 10 to 20; when it comes to state finances, there are the really inexhaustible funds of dollar imperialism facing off with Russia’s ability to pay being progressively exhausted and crippled by sanctions. This is not merely a quantitative difference. As mentioned above, Russia’s capitalist wealth depends on it having international purchasing power in the money of its enemies, and thus on a payment system it is gradually being squeezed out of. By contrast, the US and its financially strong allied rivals have their debt, no matter how high, immediately recognized by the international business world who use it to finance their capitalist growth, and by the states of this world for whom it is the basis for their national credit money, guaranteeing its value. From this perspective, the fifty billion dollars the US is spending to buy Ukraine in a first installment is peanuts for the world power. The burdens the Western democracies also have to bear in the form of their money losing value, “price inflation,” are happily distributed as if by themselves among the countries participating in the world economy according to their financial clout. And shared with their inhabitants of course, quite in keeping with the capitalist justice whose values Ukraine is so valiantly defending.

What the West is doing is nevertheless a hazardous business without any example or script to follow. It is going about destroying the power of a state that not only has a conventional army that NATO is supplying more and more of its own means to have Ukraine fight against. It also has the sophisticated equipment for a nuclear world war, thus being able to inflict unacceptable damage (if not a defeat that can somehow be made use of) on any adversary including the US, albeit at the price of its own destruction. The West’s calculating avoidance strategy does not make this risk disappear. It is ever-present in America’s repeated assurances that an escalation in this direction is definitely not on the agenda. However, this very risk is at the same time the reason why the world power does not shy away from it; it tests how far it can go in the case of Ukraine and, without fighting with strategic weapons, drive Russia into a defeat it cannot recover from. So the USA is indulging in the following contradiction. On the one hand, it is avoiding the transition to a final world war — and for good reason, as its imperialist rationale is domination for the purpose of making capitalist use of the world. And on the other hand, it is denying coexistence to an adversary against whom it is planning and preparing such a war ever better down to the last detail. And the reason is the same: according to its imperialist rationale, capitalist exploitation requires domination of the sovereign powers of the world.

This imperative is neither an arbitrary “America first!” decision of the Trump brand, nor is its militant application to Russia a decision out of any “Cold War nostalgia” of the Biden generation. America’s imperialism consists in tying down the world’s states to obeying the rules of competing for capitalist wealth. They must pursue their own national extortionate interests against their peers only that way. They must not deploy their military force (which of course a state monopolist on force still needs for exercising sovereignty over its land and people and for delimiting what it lawfully possesses) beyond their borders except for the sole purpose of enforcing and maintaining this peace, i.e., on behalf of or under license from the superior creator, guardian, and beneficiary of this peace. This imperialist rationale of the “Americanized” world is simply incompatible with the existence of a second power capable of choosing whether to submit to the prevailing global business and peace system. And that is what Russia is: a military world power that will not have its security status dictated to it but insists on being absolute master of this decision. That makes this state intolerable for imperialist world peace — while at the same time making it impossible to execute this judgment as required. Russia’s military world power calls for its elimination and likewise prevents it!

As for the war in Ukraine, it shows that this contradiction does not put the West on the spot, but rather poses a problem that, since it cannot be solved directly, needs to be tackled all the more carefully with means that are not at all yet sufficient in themselves. The US and its allies simply take into account that they are dealing with one of their own kind: a state power that attaches no importance to human lives, whether its own citizens’ or the enemy’s, when its own security is at stake. A state power that also knows, just as they do, that its nuclear deterrent can only work if there is no question it is willing to deploy its weapons to the bitter end if the event they are set up for actually occurs. So, in Ukraine, America & Friends are being accordingly judicious in working to create a world in which Russia still exists but only as a shadow of itself, substantially weakened in its military and economic means.

3. Ukraine

under its President Zelensky, now suddenly a war commander, has its own reason for war that is distinct from defending against aggression and from its function for the West. For the government in Kyiv, every battle it faces head on documents the state’s will to defend itself, every fighter, dead or alive, is its representative, every appearance by the president before a foreign parliament even if only via video link, and every visiting statesman from abroad is proof that the world wants and needs Ukraine and recognizes it as an important country entitled to demand weapons of every caliber. What it is so aggressively displaying to the world is matched by the uncompromising way the commander treats his people: he offers no escape clause for reaching an agreement with the aggressor; cities and towns are defended to the point of complete destruction, or Russian retreat; escape routes for civilians to Russia are considered kidnapping and stopped; able-bodied men are not allowed to leave the country — all according to the motto, we are not giving ourselves up! None of this is new or much different from how it usually is when a sovereign commands his citizens to kill and die. What is striking, though, is that all of this seems to be an additional demonstration that is somehow needed. Ukraine is out to refute Russia’s view of it as not being a real sovereign state, with borders making it an artifact of the Bolsheviks, unable to survive on its own, with half the population speaking Russian, the parts already in separate republics and the annexed Crimea being in better hands than under the Kyiv government, Kyiv not really being the master of its — supposedly — own country, making the Russian invasion not an attack on another country but a “special military operation” against an illegal regime, the label for this being Nazis… The Ukrainians have quite a bit of denying to do. And of course they reject Russia’s arguments justifying its move as ideological constructions, branding the invasion as Great-Russian imperialism. However, this accusation involves an element of admission, because it refers to a reality that is hard to take for Ukrainian nationalists: the existence of a sovereign Ukrainian state is not simply a matter of course. It is no mere act of propaganda that its powerful neighbor has already been calling its sovereignty into question for one of the three decades of Ukrainian autonomy by annexing Crimea and forcefully detaching eastern parts of the country, and now more than ever by an invasion aimed at weakening its statehood. The separation of the pro-Russian people’s republics and Crimea actually created an acceptable status quo for a number of states. Some leading world players, i.e., the arrangers of the Minsk Agreement for pacifying the new situation — who are now being accused of having committed a kind of high treason — took it as the starting point and material for implementing an anti-Russian foreign policy pursuing a quite different, much more far-reaching goal than an intact Ukrainian state. But above all the Kyiv state power itself does not see Ukraine simply as an undoubtedly sovereign power vis-à-vis a quite foreign aggressor, but as the first victim of the “Great-Russian” imperialists in the Kremlin who are about to attack other former Soviet republics next. It defines its own independence in relation to the encroaching claim of the same leading power that it was an integral part of until recently and that it has still not properly escaped from.

This last point in particular: that elements of the epochal unity of the Soviet Socialist Republics persist under the Kremlin regime is not only felt by Ukraine when the former power’s legal successor sends troops to invade it. This has actually determined its economic and political make-up in a quite practical and most negative way since its emancipation from the Soviet Union. When the parts of the USSR’s real-socialist planned economy formerly located in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic were nationalized, this tore apart cooperative relations that were crucial for the productive power or even production of the country’s industry and its supply of goods. The real-socialist ruble was replaced by an internationally worthless national currency, and the Soviet Union’s division of labor was replaced by a money and credit regime based on euros and dollars. The country’s material riches, including its lucrative agricultural areas, the ruins of the defunct planned economy left by the new nation being cut off from its now foreign relations, were transformed into capitalist property, privatized in line with the system change. In the process, some parts were opened up to buyers from the Golden West, while the ownership of other parts became the basis of business for a band of oligarchs who made the best out of them for themselves, their family clans, their clients, and their political helpers and creatures. When responsible representatives of the now sovereign state power attempted to mold this mess into a national economy, they ended up adding to the international market-economy system a further model of capitalist growth that fails on a national scale, makes no expedient use of its formerly working people, gives them no livelihood, and, according to its foreign mentors’ competent judgment, is characterized by corruption — this being the general title for an economic system of capitalistically irrelevant, unproductive personal dependencies. Residing over this economy is a public authority that, as the protective powers interested in capitalistically functional relationships between rulers and ruled see it, is mainly good for legal uncertainty. In positive terms, this means that laws are enacted and order enforced formally and by intent according to the model of bourgeois states, using procedures of democratic authorization and separation of powers, but de facto it is taken care of by wealthy private individuals using blackmail and their own means of force to pursue their particular interests.

So the former Soviet republic was replaced by something having the form of a democratic, constitutional national polity with a capitalist economy. But when it comes to the fundamental substance of a bourgeois state — a nationwide monopoly on the use of force over a country with its animate and inanimate inventory, over human material and economic resources, over productive wealth and how it is used — this existed only as a project. In reality it was at most a subject of dispute between political parties that were essentially defined by the special private interests of their sponsors, clients, and leaders. From the beginning of Ukraine’s career as a nation, it has not had that one final authority representing a general state will and exclusively, effectively dominating the nation, with political parties competing according to rules to execute it. Nor has this part been played, as in most other nationally emancipated ex-Soviet republics, by an autocrat who might alternate in his abundance of power with an alternative figure of the same type. Ukraine has only survived with a claim to being a nation at all due to the two great foreign powers with their interest in political, economic, and military-strategic ownership and use of the country — the whole country, that is. Russia asserts a legal claim to it, being the recognized legal successor of the great power under which it first became the political actor that was later out to and supposed to become a nation state. Russia helped the country survive with remnants of the former Soviet Union’s division of labor that were still in place, as well as the transit fees for natural gas. The West saw the destruction of the Soviet Union as the basis for its right to use the country as an outpost for encircling Moscow’s military power ever tighter, and its right to incorporate it politically, legally, and economically into the EU’s holdings, thereby crushing the country’s industry bit by bit. In return it financed the state with loans, with the attached conditions ruining the remnants of economic cooperation with Russia and the nation’s means of subsistence. At the same time, it built up an army for an anti-Russian national state to be constructed around. Each side also had a corresponding reason of state to offer the country; a constitution, not only in a legal sense but also in a tangible material sense, that would be constitutive for a united Ukrainian nation. It could be part of Russia’s “near abroad” participating in a Russian capitalism that would then really flourish — or else a highly armed NATO country under the regime of the EU legal order that would open up a career for the country as a low-wage investment project for Western companies. Neither side prevailed to establish a national state will with a monopoly on the use of force that was sworn to either reason of state. As Russian influence was increasingly pushed out, this by no means turned the fierce inner-Ukrainian party strife into a consolidated rule committed to pro-Western functionality. And although Russia reduced its hegemonic claim to the Crimea and some of the east in practice and achieved this militarily, it never gave up its claim to the whole country. The Zelensky government came to power as a successful oligarch’s investment project and on a platform promising the population peace at last, no more anti-Russian language law, and many other nice things. Its scope of rule too remained the dependent variable of the dispute over strategic co-optation of the country, a dispute reflected within the country as a fight between the parties over what Ukraine’s fundamental political orientation is and how to attain a state power that can effectively commit all the political forces to a basic national consensus.

This was changed by the war between Russia and the West over Ukraine. The Zelensky government is counting on the West’s interest in its country as a combat outpost against the Russian enemy, an interest that particularly the USA has been actively demonstrating for years by building up Ukraine’s armed forces. This government sees the Russian invasion as the challenge and the opportunity to take on the job of war commander and to subordinate the country and its people, social interests and political parties rigidly and uncompromisingly to its command. Its territory being partly destroyed and partly occupied by Russian troops is, to this government, a historic opportunity to get its citizens under control more rigorously than any previous government, or it itself previously, managed to do. Opponents still sympathetic to Russia, factions and forces in the country — including oligarchs — that aim to cooperate with the big neighbor are eliminated. Popular opinion is brought into line — if it doesn‘t do it itself — as befits a society at war. The president governs with an iron fist, organizes the required hatred of Russia, and presents himself to his public as a model of fighting will.

What the government is doing with its war, waged with the force the West puts at its disposal, is dealing with the contradiction that Ukraine as it now exists is: a state without a universally recognized monopoly on the use of force to bear down as a matter of course; a rule without any real sovereignty above the parties; a nation without any national reason for all social interests with an assertive claim to be committed to as their point of reference and criterion; a people who are not effectively utilized by their supreme authority, for whom this authority is more of a destroyer than a means for their reproduction, and who lack an unquestioningly practiced national consciousness as “us.” The war is forcing some progress to be made here. First and foremost, it is consolidating a national state power, sovereign both domestically and beyond its borders — against the previously so overpowering neighbor — over the whole country in its borders inherited from Soviet days, with its animate and inanimate inventory. The people are being utilized, in a way both murderous and life-threatening, as victims or perpetrators or both at once, and have no alternative to standing up to the aggressor and enduring its aggression as well as the counter-offensive. The war turns the country’s inhabitants willy-nilly into personifications of Ukrainian identity — and turns all those who want to escape this life premise into anti-national enemies of the state and the people. As the incorporation of the will of the people that it creates in this way, the state sovereignly takes possession of the country and the people: the whole country it is recapturing and all the people it is not ostracizing. That is the war’s productive power for Ukraine: it is waging the state-founding war that is evidently needed for proper nation-building, even if there is not a stone left standing afterwards.

Of course, that too is somewhat contradictory: the former Soviet republic’s national emancipation being commissioned by imperialists, its success — if any — being by the grace of others. But for the imperialists commissioning the job, the two sides of the contradiction definitely fit together. If they create a national Ukrainian state power that by donated means establishes its sovereignty domestically over a people forced by war to unite, that asserts itself beyond its borders against Russia as the US prescribes, and that becomes an EU candidate leaving behind its origins in the multi-republic Soviet Union with their continuing effects, then here too — as elsewhere around the world — they will have a local government power to suit them. That is, one that will ensure on its well-defined territory, if only out of self-preservation, at least the basic prerequisites for making the place imperialistically useful: law and order, the rule of property, and a people who are usable, if not necessarily being used. If Ukrainian patriots then understand and accept this function of their mother country for the West as being the West’s service to their newly learned anti-Russian stance, so much the better. For Ukraine as a fledgling nation state, this would also be a move in the right direction. Even though the war it was supposed to and allowed to and able to wage decimated the country’s inventory, its inhabitants’ living conditions and a considerable number of their lives, it would establish political rule as a sovereign with its own pro-Western, anti-Russian, NATO- and EU-compliant reason of state. And this result would be all the more sustainable, the longer and the more successfully it taxed its human material. Ukraine’s monopoly on the use of force and its national raison d’être would not suffer from all the required material means having to come from the West.

For the heroes of Kyiv, who want to go down in history as the new founders of an eternal Ukraine, it is in any case no contradiction to become servants of their foreign masters and outfitters out of an ambition to rule, for the sake of the dignity and scope of their power. On the contrary, Zelensky and his people think it’s totally fine that their complete dependency makes them so important. They take their situation as an opportunity to act as if it were the other way around toward their sponsors, while being celebrated by a public all indignant with pro-war morality in those countries. And they take the victim role they impose on their people as their absolute right to act this way. So they pose as having the mission of fighting for the lofty values of humanity, democracy, and so on, and therefore being entitled to summon Western military aid as they need it.

In the end that dependence, too, is simply part of the deal if Ukraine can use its war to leave behind its status as an unfinished nation.

© GegenStandpunkt 2022