Whatever you might say about Russia, you’re wrong. Whether you’re on the left or the right, the answer is the same.
Criticise Moscow and you’re complicit with the New Red Scare. Take Putin to task and you’re supporting American hegemony. This split has infected every political question, if you’re pro-Brexit you’re pro-Putin and vice versa. US-led globalisation is the only game in town for Remainers.
It’s a terribly impoverished set of alternatives to choose from, but one which reflects our inability to break out of Cold War binaries. Whatever you do, you’re always taking the wrong side.
Yes, America and Russia are still the world’s greatest military powers and competitors. But they are no longer ideological foes. Neither offers a discernible political alternative to the other. The conflicts between the two states are really spats at the same dinner table.
Putin was more than happy to support the War on Terror after the Twin Towers came crashing down on 9/11. It meant Russia could get even tougher with the Chechens. But he was less happy when it came to toppling a Russian client regime in Iraq. The American establishment would have the same reservations about overthrowing the Saudi royal family.
The only reason we believe they do is because of their different interests, and how they perpetuate the belief that Moscow still supports the Third World resisting Western imperialism. If war is an extension of economics, Russia has no loyalties beyond the interests of its elite.
Take Syria, for example. If it were up to the West, Sunni jihadist groups loyal to Turkey and Saudi Arabia would have prevailed and the nation would be theirs for the taking. It would be a major loss to the Shi’a crescent, whereby Iran and its allies try to sway the region away from US influence.
Or take Ukraine, with its growing ultra-nationalist movement and militias, such as the Azov Battalion, making it safe for fascism once again in a former Russian colonial territory. As a result, the country is crippled by competing nationalisms.
All true, to a point. For anyone with a sense of history, since the end of World War II, the United States has not sided with pro-democracy movements and certainly not the left. The US has gone out of its way to crush such movements, going as far as to expend a lot of blood and treasure in some cases.
Take your pick of any conflict. From the Shah to Somoza, to Pinochet and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the US has consistently gotten in bed with the wrong people. Just ask the Palestinians. It’s quite a rogues’ gallery of thugs and tyrants.
The problem is that Russia, today, traffics in the same lowest common denominators and follows the American lead. The choice of Washington or Moscow is no longer an ideological choice. Their conflicts take place in the same capitalist world.
Whether it is competing for Erdogan’s affections, or bolstering Bashar Al-Assad and arming Iran, there is nothing to like about Russian foreign policy. The Russians may sound more reasonable at times, but they are not and this is a low bar in Trump’s world.
Ever since Moscow entered the Syrian civil war, the country’s refugee crisis has worsened, and the death count has skyrocketed. The civilians suffer most in a war of all against all. Russia has not held back at any point, often bombing hospitals and targeting rebel forces under the cover of anti-ISIS operations.
Yet, Moscow continues to portray itself as a moderating force, bringing with it law and order, and somehow it is believed in the West. Russian aggression against Ukraine and Syria is often seen as a ‘lesser evil’ to US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The continuing popularity of Russian news media, like RT and Sputnik, is testimony. Granted, their audience tends increasingly to the far right, but it is real, and ironically ensnares unlikely people like the president of the United States. This is no aberration. Putin has entranced a large section of the conservative nationalist right. Russia is great again in the minds of every white nationalist.
This is why it’s crucial to ask certain questions. How is the left supposed to produce a politics without a need for alignment with Washington and Moscow? Or end up being somehow complicit with them in their fight for global domination?
The most obvious example would be to attack inequality. Since both powers have dispensed with any modicum of a social agenda, this could be the best opening for socialism since the Cold War. No longer does the left have to answer for the faults of the Soviet Union. Yet the old Trotskyist slogan ‘Neither Washington or Moscow’ is still very much in vogue today.
Never mind Washington’s lip service to protectionism or Moscow’s rhetoric about multipolarity. It’s disingenuous and only seeks to mobilise the marginalised to support their programmes. Just as the US is willing to support marginal forces like the Kurds when it suits their ends, Russian support is not reliable. The left has to find the next link to break if it is going to win.
If progressives can find a way to put to bed the idea that one must compromise their critique of the capitalism by hitching themselves to a particular nation-state, that would be a perfect start. If capitalism was just a geopolitics, then it could have been beaten decades ago.
The problem, at the end of the day, remains capitalism. Any attempt to move beyond it will inevitably be compromised by participating in nationalist conflicts that perpetuate the system. Whether the oligarchs are American or Russian is beside the point. Capital has no national loyalty.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.