Frank Carrigan: Putin and the geopolitics of war in Ukraine

Jun 20, 2022
Vladimir Putin
Putin’s revenge was swift. Crimea was annexed, and Putin supported separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Image: Wikimedia Commons /

Every day, the Western media has been setting out its interpretation of the war in Ukraine. It is a narrative formulated in Washington. Countless times in organs based in countries that are part of the Washington consensus the line spelt out is the culprit responsible for the war is Putin. This approach is achieving blanket coverage.

The particular philosophy of history that reduces seminal events to the conscious activities of individuals was all the fashion in eighteenth century historiography. But everything old is new again when it comes to allocating blame. History is made by notable individuals, is what Washington thinks, and its satellites fall in line with this conceptual structure. Reporting on the war in Ukraine parallels Nietzsche’s superman thesis.

The course of history is influenced by individuals, but it is social forces and the architecture of society that create events of historical significance. Only if someone like Putin is following in the tracks of social development will they influence geopolitical outcomes. Force of circumstances wins out over the most charismatic of individuals in the geopolitics of empires.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a seismic shift in global affairs. It is a counterfactual, but if Russia had been inserted into the international circuits of capital as an equal partner, and been incorporated into the EU and NATO, history would have turned out differently. Washington had this option―but instead wanted to make Russia a client state, and ensure it would never again be a rival. This policy has resulted in a stunning blowback. The US applied a neoliberal shock therapy program within Russia. It delivered a private property economy, but one controlled by the Soviet nomenklatura and their allies. Russian carpetbaggers seized public property at bargain prices, and a financial and industrial oligarchy became entrenched. The US power elite was unfazed by this development―but it came to haunt them.

After a turbulent period this oligarchy came out of the shadow of Washington, and Russia took the imperial path. Russia became part of the geopolitical strategy that first emerged in the late nineteenth century. Giant enterprises coupled with national states and undertook an expansionary policy based on control of raw materials, captive markets and investment outlets. A market economy is hooked on expansion: if profits shrink, the system begins to die. Limitless growth is the watchword, and all must maximize their slice of the pie. This economic imperative underpins the rise of modern imperialism, and great power rivalry. Those outside the inner circle of great powers must accept secondary status.

Post WW2, the US, UK, EU and Japan had the resources of the world at their command through a network of transnational corporations, but an interloper with dreams of building a sphere of influence in Eurasia burst upon the scene. It was the development of an oligopolistic economy that was the catalyst for the emergence of imperialism in Russia. It was this phenomenon that permitted a one-time obscure KGB agent to step onto the world stage and influence geopolitical forces―and ultimately it led him on the road to war in Ukraine.

Geopolitical doctrine aims at global domination. Every imperial player seeks to crush competitors, and ethics and morality has no role. Power expressed through maximum space or an informal empire of client states is the only currency. Even before the Russian bear entered a new phase of imperialist aggrandisement, the US applied a containment policy every bit as ruthless as that directed at China today. For example, if the Russians believed dissolving the Warsaw Pact was an olive branch to the US, they were in for a rude awakening. The US saw it as a sign of weakness, and despite its promise to Gorbachev in 1990-1, NATO and the EU began their eastward trek to the borders of Russia, absorbing states that had previously been in the orbit of the USSR. Yeltsin adopted a craven attitude to the US, but this approach only intensified Washington’s drive to dismantle Russian power.

Putin’s meteoric rise took place against the backdrop of Russia’s humiliation. The Russian ruling elite understood that going down an appeasement path guaranteed an end to any dream of great power status. In Putin they found someone who had the will to stop the slide.

Prior to Putin’s elevation, Russia was embroiled in military conflicts. Russian military muscle was utilized in civil wars in Georgia and Tajikistan. In Transnistria, Russia supported separatists seeking independence from Moldova. Yeltsin was in office during the first Chechen war, whilst Putin took over as President in 2000 during the second Chechen war. The Chechen wars cost thousands of lives, but Putin did not blink. He steered an imperialist path, and he has proved as adept at great power machinations as any of his adversaries. His rule has been defined by militarism. He has shown he has the mettle to turn to force to promote his geopolitical vision. Exploiting Russia’s military power by intervening in civil wars in former parts of the USSR, to ensure contemporary Russian dominance in its backyard, is Putin’s imperial calling card.

Russia’s growing imperial ambition was given a boost when the global hegemon power was drawn into the abyss, in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An imperial power is either rising or falling. When it exhibits signs of falling, sharks scent blood and circle. US decline created an opportunity for Russia to fill additional space. Putin was riding high. Russia’s gas and oil exports were surging, and provided the resources to reinforce imperial dreams.

In 2008, NATO, stoked by the US, promoted Georgia’s and Ukraine’s aim to join its ranks. Putin accepted the challenge, and responded by reigniting the conflict in Georgia―recognizing the status of breakaway regions. But in Ukraine, a revolving door of political leaders underpinned by struggles between competing factions of oligarchs, created a headache for Putin. There would be periods when pro-Russian leaders prevailed, and then a backlash as pro-NATO and EU leaders jostled for power.

At first Putin attempted the velvet-glove treatment. He has formed a Eurasian trade bloc replicating the EU. The Eurasian Economic Union comprises Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and incorporates 180 million people. His aim is to extend this common market from China to the edge of the EU. Putin offered Ukraine membership of this organization. This project is a direct challenge to the US, UK, EU and Japan. It is imperial bravado on a high scale. It is unsurprising that the US stepped up the pressure in Ukraine as Putin’s Eurasia common market took shape. The hand of the US was seen in fostering dissent. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2013-14 took Ukraine out of Putin’s Eurasian game plan, and he was left to witness the prospect of a border nation joining the EU and NATO. Putin argued the skullduggery of the US and neo-Nazis were behind the Orange Revolution. The Azov battalion, with its far-right ideology and Nazi insignia, was pinpointed as evidence of a fascist coup.

Putin’s revenge was swift. Crimea was annexed, and Putin supported separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. These regions now became engulfed in a bitter civil war that cost thousands of civilian deaths, as separatists battled with forces led by the Azov battalion, and other voluntary far-right battalions that did most of the frontline fighting. An agreement was struck in Minsk in 2015 to solve the conflict by granting Donetsk and Luhansk autonomous status within Ukraine, but the carnage continued. The fuse for a full scale war was lit.

Biden’s inauguration as President in early 2021 was followed by withdrawal from Afghanistan, and this coincided with Putin calling for the Minsk agreement to be implemented and Russia’s security assured. Putin could point to signatories of the Minsk agreement that included France and Germany. Also, the agreement was endorsed by the UN Security Council. Biden, humbled by the Afghanistan collapse, turned a deaf ear to Putin’s pleas. The US began to increase its weapons supply to Ukraine. Putin responded by unleashing his army and war erupted.

Biden took a gamble by sparking escalation. Once Zelensky and his backers saw Biden had their back, they were emboldened. For Washington, early signs were promising. The Russian offensive stalled, and Putin was fighting a bloc of Western powers, as sanctions were applied and military equipment flowed to Ukraine. Soon the US policy mandarins were speaking of their strategy to permanently weaken Russia. The Ukrainians were fighting a proxy war on behalf of the US and its allies. Putin appeared to be staring down the barrel of the loss of great power status.

But the Russian army regrouped, and Putin avoided the nightmare of urban warfare in Kiev and Kharkiv. Russia now has achieved a bridgehead to the Crimea, and the ultimate aim is to expel Ukraine from the Donbas.

Putin has had to confront Sweden and Finland joining NATO. But this means less than some in the Western media think. These countries were already in the Western camp. Putin soon cooled his rhetoric on this issue.

Putin would be taking stock of his position. China’s import of Russian gas and oil has skyrocketed. India, with its large consumption needs, has sharply increased its Russian oil imports, thumbing its nose at Western sanctions. Energy prices are off the chart and filling Russia’s coffers. Even allowing for discounts to its customers, Russia can fund its war in Ukraine and retain a buoyant trade surplus. Putin can also take comfort from OPEC holding firm on quotas, while raking in the profits and snubbing US requests to lift oil production and depress prices.

Taking a long view, Putin would be justified in believing the cards will fall for Russia. The united front against him will weaken over time. Western economies are feeling the pain as gas and oil prices along with inflation soar. In time, there will be a retreat from economic war. Furthermore, countries will be found to circumvent the sanctions. Russia will launch an import replacement program to produce components and spare parts critical for the war machine. Russia can also turn to China for high tech supplies. China can match anything the West can do in the cutting-edge technology industries. Crucially, both China and Russia have the metals that will spearhead the drive to the new economy. Russia is not dependent only on oil and gas: it is a major producer of copper, nickel and other vital metals that will turbocharge the low carbon future. And China not only has large reserves of lithium, but is a major producer of a critical commodity essential for batteries used in electric vehicles, solar panel systems, laptop computers and smartphones. Eurasia is about to become the new frontier of the world economy.

The two pariahs in the eyes of the West recently declared their relationship has no boundaries. The spectre that must haunt the US power elite is what happens if Putin’s Eurasian common market embraces China. Domination of Eurasia by China and Russia would rewire inter-imperial relations. China is already set to displace the US as the world’s most powerful economy, and its military spending will match the US in the late 2040s. The only blot on the landscape for Russia is it would have to accept a secondary role in the Eurasian trading bloc, if China became a member. It cannot match the economic superpower status of China. Given Putin saw the Eurasian trading bloc as a way to not only counterbalance the US, UK, EU and Japan, but also China, Putin will have to eat humble pie and accept a junior role. The tempo of economic and military development of each imperial nation determines its place in the pecking order.

At bottom, competing imperial powers are warring brothers. How Russia and China navigate their rivalry will be determined by their respective power, and not the individuals in charge. That is an important principle of geopolitical doctrine. These ruling figures are not just puppets on a string. In the usual circumstances they have more agency than those they rule, and those they wish to expropriate and rule over. But the idea that they are omnipotent is a fallacy.

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