Andy has spoken about the war mongering and hypocritical, self-righteous condemnation of the Russian invasion by the U.S. imperialists and media. It must be said and repeated: no other imperialist power holds a candle to the U.S. when it comes to unjust invasions, violation of national sovereignty, and regime change. As Andy also emphasized, anyone with heart and conscience should oppose the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. But we in the “belly of the beast” have a special responsibility to mainly expose and oppose our own imperialist rulers, to expose and oppose their aims and actions. They are the greatest exploiters and oppressors of the people of the world.
It must be said and repeated: the U.S. imperialists are not acting, as they proclaim, as “guardians of democracy against authoritarianism.” No they are pursuing their exploitative and murderous global imperialist interests. Doing so in our name. Seeking to rally our support for their crimes and for their empire.
The War in Ukraine: Not Democracy vs. Autocracy, but Conflict Between Rival Imperial Powers
This brings me to the heart of this talk. I want to pull the lens back and address how it is that Ukraine is not a battleground for democracy but a conflict zone of imperialist rivalry between Russian imperialism and U.S. and Western imperialism. I want to talk about the global developments and dynamics shaping this conflict.
Before getting into this, let me say that the history of Ukraine and Russia is both very unfamiliar to most of us AND what we do know is distorted through a certain pro-US imperialist lens. It would take more time than I have tonight to unravel that history—but you can go to www.revcom.us to get the basics of this.
First, some background. Ukraine is a country of some 44 million people with a rich history. It is the second largest country in Europe. Ukraine shares an almost 1,500-mile land border with Russia. Ukraine also borders Poland, Hungary, Romania, among other countries. On its south is the Black Sea, which is highly important for trade for Ukraine, Turkey, and especially Russia. For Russia as an imperialist power, this region is important economically—for shipping oil and natural gas, as well as grain, and thereby gaining leverage over countries that depend on importing those materials. The Black Sea region is also critical for projecting Russian military power: to Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Russia has a major naval-military base in a Black Sea port in Crimea—a region that used to be part of Ukraine but which Russia seized in 2014.
As for U.S. imperialism, since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1990-91, the U.S. has drawn other Black Sea countries, like Romania and Bulgaria, into the European military alliance that the U.S. heads up—called NATO. And Ukraine with its large border with Russia, has become more closely entwined with the U.S. America has provided Ukraine with great amounts of military and economic aid since the early 2000s. And the U.S. had a big hand in an uprising that took place in Ukraine in 2014 that put in power a government friendly to the U.S. and aiming to become part of NATO.
For sheer imperialist hypocrisy: imagine how the U.S. imperialists would react, if Russia or China had a military alliance with large parts of South America... and if Russia then brought Mexico into such close alliance.
The Russians, for their part, have, and especially since 2014, backed sections of Russian-speaking Ukraine to break away and ally or merge with Russia. In 2016-17, the U.S.-led NATO deployed battle groups with advanced weapons to Poland and other Baltic states like Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia that border Russia (and very close to Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg). Meanwhile Ukraine has been moving closer to the U.S. and trumpeting its determination to join the U.S.-dominated NATO military alliance. This is the immediate backdrop to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February.
The Russian invasion is not about de-nazifying Ukraine, as Putin proclaims. This invasion is designed to bolster Russia's rivalry with the U.S.: to command more influence and create a rival Russian pole of power focused in Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East. For its part, the U.S. is arming Ukraine in order to weaken Russia and prevent Russia from consolidating further imperialist strength and posing greater imperialist challenges to the current world order that the U.S. dominates and of which it is the main beneficiary.
So this is a first cut into why it is the case that Ukraine is a conflict zone between rival imperialist powers and their clashing strategic aims. But we have to pull the lens back further to take in the larger picture.
The world imperialist system and the world imperialist economy have undergone big shifts in the last 30 years... and this order is undergoing further shifts and major changes today.
The U.S. is still the strongest imperialist power, economically and militarily. The U.S. commands a vast, integrated global network of exploitation; it dominates international financial institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund)—which uses loans and imposes economic policies on countries of the global South to twist their development to serve the needs of U.S. and Western imperialism; the dollar still plays a central, dominant and privileged role in the world economy (oil is denominated in dollars). The U.S. spends astronomically more on weapons than any other country in the world. The U.S. has over 700 overseas military bases in 70 countries.
But the U.S.'s economic strength, its share of world production, is declining relative to capitalist-imperialist China—a rising power. And China is mounting a growing and all-round challenge to U.S. imperialism: economically, financially, and militarily. For instance, China has entered into all kinds of economic agreements with African countries, and made substantial investments in raw materials extraction in Africa. At the same time, the U.S. imperialists are facing Russia as another competitor which has grown more powerful economically and militarily under Putin. Western Europe has become highly dependent on Russia to supply oil and natural gas to power its imperialist economies.
Each of these imperialists has its particular strengths and advantages, each has a certain freedom to act. But each also faces necessity, the need to act and react to defend and extend empire. Putin cannot allow the U.S. and Western Europe to surround Russia with hostile alliances and advanced military weapons systems. The U.S. is facing the prospect not only of a newly assertive Russian imperialism, but the potential of Russia and China joining together in an alliance against U.S. imperialism.
Putin's invasion of Ukraine is a move to bring Ukraine back into its imperialist bloc. This is to strengthen Russia's ability to compete with and challenge the U.S., especially in the area of Europe and Asia.
The U.S, on the other hand, is arming the Ukrainians to weaken Russia, and hoping to bog Russia down. The U.S. is using this war to tighten its leadership and grip over the West European imperialist countries. The U.S. is imposing harsh sanctions on Russia. You hear that term sanctions: That refers to economic measures and penalties to deny your adversary access to markets, to financial institutions and mechanisms that world trade is carried out through, and blocking access to financial holdings by Russia's capitalists in other countries. The U.S. is using sanctions to strangle the Russian ruling class and economy.
This is a dangerous situation. This conflict could rapidly escalate and spiral into an all-out confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. And here is a sobering fact: The U.S. and Russia own and command 90 percent of the world's nuclear warheads. That's some 8,000 nuclear weapons. 2,000 of these weapons are on high operational alert. Both of these powers deploy these weapons in reach of battle zones of this war and its possible spread. This is an existential threat to humanity.
Now we can get more into this in the discussion. But there are three things to keep in mind:
1) This conflict in the Ukraine is not about Russian autocracy versus American democracy. It is about rivalry between imperial powers.
2) As Bob Avakian has written recently, none of these powers represent the interests of humanity. We must oppose all of them as the monsters and modern-day slave masters that they are. But we in the U.S. must give particular emphasis to opposing “our own” imperialists who have brought incalculable suffering to the people of the world... carried out endless wars of empire... and caused more damage to the environment than any country on the planet.
3) And this war is not happening at any time. As Bob Avakian has analyzed, humanity stands at a crossroads—when the possibilities exist for something terrible... OR something truly emancipating. He has shown how this is one of those rare times when revolution in the U.S. could actually be possible. That is what we must be preparing for.
When the Soviet Union Was Actually Socialist—an Important Lesson from History
In closing, I want to take a few minutes to talk about an important lesson and experience of history that widens our lens of understanding.
One of the ways that the U.S. imperialists and their media systematically misinform people is when they talk about an unbroken thread of “Russian tyranny”: the Russian emperor-czars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; Lenin and Stalin; the rulers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s; and Putin. But this idea of an unbroken thread of “Russian tyranny” erases the reality that there was an era of Russian history and society that was truly liberatory. This was the time of genuine socialist revolution in Russia: from 1917 until the early 1950s, but especially in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Soviet revolution inspired the oppressed and exploited throughout the world.
The earthshaking, liberatory revolution of October 1917 in Russia, led by the communist leader V.I. Lenin, created the world's first socialist society. This liberatory revolution also created the world's first multinational state based on equality of nations, cultures and languages. Russia before the revolution was often described as the “prisonhouse of nations”—because of the savage oppression of minority nationalities. (The U.S. today with mass incarceration directed at Black and brown people could be described as a “nation of prisonhouses”.)
The policy adopted and insisted on by Lenin was self-determination for the formerly oppressed nations and minorities who joined together in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), meaning that the unity of the new socialist state had to be voluntary. Putin by the way condemns Lenin for proclaiming and applying the principle of self-determination!
The socialist revolution of 1917 involved the people of Ukraine; and so too the civil war that followed in the years 1918-21. By 1922, the new Soviet state became a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics... the shortened name is the Soviet Union. Ukraine was one of the 12 large founding republics of this Union (which also included a great number of self-governing/autonomous territories of formerly oppressed nationalities).
The Soviet revolution under Lenin's leadership, and later Joseph Stalin’s, instituted bold and radical measures to overcome inequality and discrimination. Education in minority republics and regions was carried out in native languages (that had been forbidden under the old oppressive Russian empire); efforts were made to bring forward indigenous, local leadership in the formerly oppressed nations, and the Soviet state financed the mass production of books, journals, newspapers, movies, operas, folk ensembles and more in non-Russian languages.
At the same time, the Soviet state launched education and ideological struggle against what was called Great Russian chauvinism—the belief in the superiority of the Russian people and their right to dominate and oppress other nationalities, like white supremacy in the U.S..
So, all this history and lesson-filled experience has been erased. I can get into that—and I can also discuss why and how some of these policies got reversed later, how that fit into the actual weakening of socialism in the Soviet Union, and what Bob Avakian has summed up about that period—in the q-and-a. Or you can go to revcom.us to read an extensive and in-depth interview with me about this history and also go to the Set the Record Straight website and do a much deeper dive into this.