A new global militarism is emerging from the war in Ukraine, argues John Rees
A new phase of inter-imperialist conflict has opened up with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We cannot know how this war will end but we can already see some of the dramatic effects on the shape of world politics. The most important difference between this conflict and the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that this is an invasion conducted by an imperial power not aligned to the West. It raises directly the prospect of conflict between industrialised, nuclear armed, states in a manner not true of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The fact that Russia is both economically and militarily weaker than the US-dominated Nato alliance, the fact that it is conducting a police operation in its so-called ‘near abroad’, the fact that Russia does not have the global reach of US imperialism, underlines the asymmetrical nature of this inter-imperialist rivalry, but it does not alter its nature. Not all the participants in inter-imperialist rivalry have to be equally matched. In fact they rarely have been.
The emerging threats of an inter-imperialist conflict have already been unfolding during the present crisis.
The accelerated re-militarisation of Europe
One of the greatest immediate impacts of the war in Ukraine has been to create a de facto inseparability of the European Union and Nato. It was already the case that joining the EU meant joining Nato, but now that identity is likely to become complete. Finland and Sweden, EU members but not part of Nato, are very likely to become a formal part of the alliance with opinion, both elite and popular, swinging to pro-Nato positions.
The long cherished dream of the extreme advocates of a European superstate have become a reality, at least temporarily, in this crisis. The economic power of the EU has been wielded by a supra-national alliance functioning as a unitary state. As one commentator put it:
‘It took Europeans just days to revolutionise their geo-economic policies and formulate unprecedented sanctions by working alongside their partners. Having often been criticised as too siloed in its approach, the union is now pursuing a strategic geo-economic response to Russian aggression across various fields, mixing financial sanctions with export controls and trade. The EU acted with unity even though some member states had major incentives to oppose tough action, fearing for their energy security. The union’s sanctions packages were crafted by the European Commission centrally and proposed to member states’.
If the current crisis were to end with a return to the previous status quo perhaps this impulse would unravel again. But that is not the most likely outcome. More likely is that a renewed Cold War on the continent will shape Europe as a more unitary armed camp.
German rearmament, so long a taboo, is underway. And that will mean, whatever tensions it creates with France and others, a re-emergence of Germany as the central economic and military power in Europe. But Germany will not be alone in increasing military budgets. War hawks in the UK are already calling for increased defence expenditure, and it is very likely that this will be a continent wide experience.
Within this remilitarisation the issue of nuclear weapons will become more central. The heightened nuclear alert which Putin imposed has already alerted public opinion to this danger, and the Mayor of London’s office confirmed how real this prospect is in many minds by, unconvincingly, claiming that the capital was well prepared for a nuclear attack. More seriously the urge to deploy nuclear weapons in more European countries will become all but irresistible.
The new Cold War has a hot border in Europe
Whatever the outcome of the war, more flashpoints will be created along the new iron curtain borderlands between Russia and Natoland. Moldova and Georgia have already said they wish to be part of Nato, instantly creating new dangers of future conflicts. The Baltic states are already flammable armed camps. And the unresolved conflicts of the Balkans, the site of Nato’s trial war of the post Cold War period, are already being inflamed again by events in the Ukraine. One only has to remember the armed stand-off between Russian and Nato forces at Pristina airport during the Balkan war to be reminded of how dependent on great power relations the peace of the Balkans has always been. Serbian forces have already been put on high alert as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.
And all this is before we know the outcome of the war in Ukraine. But whether the war drags on as a long and bloody occupation, as Iraq and Afghanistan did for Nato and the US-led forces, or a brutally repressed colony of Russia, or in some kind of partition on the model the British used in Ireland and India, it will remain a huge disputed territory on the borders of Natoland and Russia.
And as the centre of gravity shifts east in the EU/Nato it's worth noting that some of the countries closest to the borderlands are some the least democratic state structures with the most populist regimes on the continent, potentially capable of helping, in collusion with right wing forces like the NF in France and the AfD in Germany, to propel ‘old Europe’ into war.
Not that it will be the right wing populists who are the main political drivers of the new militarised Europe. The pro-EU liberals, casting aside their previous arguments that the EU is a force for peace on the continent, are now the most vocal Nato enthusiasts, loudly proclaiming that ‘European civilisation’ has to be defended from Putin’s Slavic barbarians.
So the warmongering atmosphere will quickly force the populist right to suppress their previous half-admiration for Putin and his oligarchs (witness the chaotic retreat of Johnsonite Tories from their ruble-fuelled enthusiasm for all things Russian) and will become unreservedly anti-Russian. The centre and the liberals will lead the way, partly out of Europhilia, partly because they wrongly think this will give them leverage against the populist right. And as in the previous culture war over Brexit, the liberals will continue to denounce the left, re-weaponising identity politics to portray themselves as defenders of the oppressed. Expect more grotesque expressions of this along the lines of the recent message from the head of MI6 lauding LGBTI+ rights or the head of the Nato press office tweeting the increased arms being sent to Ukraine under the hashtag ‘StopWar’.
The further decline of America
The preconditions of Nato are altering. When Nato was founded its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, said that its purpose was to keep ‘America in, Russia out, and Germany down’. But Germany is not now down in any sense, and Russia is resistant. The US is still overwhelmingly militarily powerful and Nato is a US-controlled outfit. Its commanding officer is always from the US military. But conflict in European borderlands is bound to shift decision making into the European theatre. And US economic decline has long led to complaint that European powers are not pulling their weight in military spending. These complaints have grown louder as the US has shifted its resources from Europe to the Asia Pacific and as the US share of the world economy has declined. But when the Europeans do start a more aggressive military policy the US may be discomfited, since it strengthens the hand of the EU states.
And in this respect Brexit helps the EU leaders. It has removed the main US conduit of influence and most loyal ally from EU councils. It also removes one of the states most critical of EU centralisation from the debate in the EU. The defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq, mostly keenly felt by US and UK, and a major driver of the desire to confront Putin, also weakens the Atlanticist axis in European debates. Nato is more than likely to survive these tensions because the EU cannot provide a credible military force without US arms. But the tensions may create political problems that weaken a united Western response.
The China question
Russia has no doubt felt emboldened by its increasing economic and security ties with China. Indeed its hard to see Putin taking the Ukrainian gamble without the context of China’s increasing weight in the world system. But events have revealed the gap between China and Russia as well as underlined their alliance.
China has distanced itself from the invasion of Ukraine, offered to act as a mediator, and generally positioned itself as a restraining voice in international pressure on Putin. This stance results from China’s current location in the world imperial system. China certainly has a considerable military establishment and equally certainly entertains military ambitions, at least in its immediate sphere of influence. But it is primarily a rising economic imperial power, relying in the first instance on its massively expanding economy to break open competitors' markets and on the deployment of foreign direct investment to enhance its international influence.
Leading with economic power is often the favoured strategy of rising imperial powers against declining competitors. Without for a second neglecting arms spending or the threat or use of force, such a strategy requires ‘peaceful’ market competition as far as is possible. Threats to global economic stability, the eruption of sanctions wars, are not in China’s interest, hence the policy of restraint urged by them on their ally.
The threat of war between major powers is now greater than at any time since the Cold War. The re-militarisation of Europe will make this danger permanent, it will embed chauvinism all the more centrally in European political discourse, and it will enlist a section of liberal opinion as recruitment sergeants for the warmongers.
Working people will not only have to face the horrors of war, and the fear that such a war could involve nuclear weapons, but will also have to pay the costs of increased military spending almost immediately.
The only effective antidote to this is the construction of an international anti-war movement effectively rooted in the labour movements of all the competing imperial powers. The sudden eruption of the anti-war movement in Russia is both a beacon of hope and a sign of things to come.
Such a movement, from the Vietnam anti-war movement to the Stop the War movement against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has required at its core a revolutionary Marxist presence with a clear analysis of imperialism. Only such a core can develop the politics which rejects chauvinism and militarism, focuses on what we can do to combat our own government, while providing an internationalist perspective of how we can resist the imperial pretensions of all the competing powers.
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John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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