When viewed more closely, the crises in which Trump and Putin find themselves go a long way towards defining what they have in common and where they differ. The fact that Putin is still in power and Trump is not – at least for now – illustrates these similarities and differences as well as the difference between Russian and US capitalism itself.
Consider Trump’s situation. Oaklandsocialist explained in our article on Why Socialists Should Understand the Trump Crisis and an earlier one on the Mar-a-Lago search: Unlike every other major presidential candidate since the Civil War, Trump never was the candidate of any faction of the capitalist class. After he came into power, and as he distributed goodies to the capitalists, some of them came around to supporting him, but none of them controlled him. He tried to establish a method of rule like that of Napoleon Bonaparte of old times – one person dictatorship or “bonapartism”. However, the established state institutions were strong enough to thwart him, for now.
In the last few days, Trump has received major legal setbacks. First, the “special master” that his own lawyers had chosen insisted that his legal team either put up or shut up about Trump’s claim that he’d declassified those 100 or so stolen documents that he was hiding in Mar-a-Lago. At the same time, New York attorney general Letitia James filed a civil suit against Trump, his children and his family business for fraud. Then the 11th circuit appeals court in Florida ruled that the Department of Justice may immediately review the classified documents to see if any laws had been broken. What all of these reverses show is that the great majority of those who administer the federal government are more loyal to the US capitalist class than they are to Trump personally. There was a little temporary speed bump with judge Aileen Cannon – appointed by Trump – ruled in his favor in Southern Florida. A panel of three appeals court judges – two of whom were appointed by Trump – swiftly reversed that ruling. They reasoned that if the federal government cannot protect its most prized secrets – including who their spies are – then what can it do?
Putin’s situation was less obvious exactly because his method of rule was more glaring. Having come into existence in a chaotic process – something like the wild and woolly old Western frontier of the United States – Russian capitalism never had a strong and unified capitalist class nor strong state institutions based on capitalist rule. As a result, Putin dominated and controlled the capitalists rather than vice versa. He made sure there was no center of power nor any individual that could possibly challenge him. His decision to invade Ukraine was made with the advice of a few individuals – possibly Aleksandr Dugin at the head of those. But the individual capitalists – the “oligarchs” – were not consulted, and had they been they would have disagreed. They knew it was harmful to their economic interests. By the end of April, a number of those oligarchs had spoken out against the invasion. These included Oleg Tiknov, Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, Mikhail Fridman, Alexei Mordashov and Vladimi Lisin.
In case you are wondering why more such capitalists haven’t spoken up or organized to oppose Putin, consider the case of Ravil Maganov, chairman of the board of Lukoil company. He recently “tripped while smoking” and “fell” out of a hospital window from the sixth floor. Maganov joins a list of 18 similar deaths.
Many of them have “fallen out of a window”, although Vasily Melnikov, Vladislav Avayev and Sergei Protosenya supposedly killed their wives and daughters before committing suicide. That was a warning to their fellow oligarchs that not only were they personally in danger, so was their entire family if they posed a threat to Putin.
The difference between the situations of Putin and Trump can also be seen in their relations with their respective militaries.
Trump and the U.S. Military
Trump’s relationship with the US military was ultimately defined by the position of the military tops regarding the 2020 elections. They had made it clear that they were not going to overturn the tried and true method of capitalist rule in the US – capitalist-controlled democracy. When Trump was implying that he would call for martial law, his then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen gave a speech in which he said that the military would obey every “lawful” order of the president. That was a diplomatic way of saying that they would disobey unlawful orders!
The US military is controlled by generals who are loyal to the major wings of the US capitalist class and are perfectly willing to see to it that their method of rule holds sway.
Putin and the Russian military
Putin’s situation is entirely different.
Before he even ordered the invasion, it was clear that Russia’s military tops opposed it. Consider, for example General Leonid Ivashov, who is the head of the All-Russia Retired Officers Association: In early February, well before the invasion even started, Ivashov published an open letter opposing the invasion, which he called “criminal”(in the sense that it would be harmful to Russia). In a clear reference to NATO, he said that “nobody threatens us”. Ivashov said that he was writing not on his own, but on behalf of the Association which he headed. It’s not that Ivashov is a “dove”. Just the opposite. But he knew that such an invasion would not end well for Russia.
Today, the situation has deteriorated even further for Putin. CNN reports that the Russian military tops are even further divided and that Putin has taken to communicating directly with some of the generals leading the war inside Ukraine.
Recently, Putin made an infamous speech in which he implied he was willing to use nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” he said. It seems unlikely that he would actually resort to this; he knows that would probably bring direct US intervention and he is not insane. Putin cannot afford to lose, however, and what does seem more likely is further attacks on Ukrainian cities and essential infrastructure. On September 19, for example, Russia reportedly shelled the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant in Ukraine’s southern Mykolaiv region. This is far away from any fighting. It is simply a terrorist threat of what Putin will order if his troops are defeated even further. That is especially so if Putin manages to officially annex the Russian occupied regions of Ukraine. If and when that happens, then Putin will claim that Ukraine is attacking Russia itself.
Some thoughts on Russian Perspectives
All military analysts agree that Putin’s mobilization of 300,000 new soldiers will not stop further Russian military defeats in the near term, if at all.
At present, the complete breakdown of Russian troops has not been repeated outside of Kharkiv, which doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t. If it does not, though, it seems that Ukraine’s gains may continue to be slow. (That’s a big “if”.) But the main thing is that Putin cannot afford to come away from this invasion without an increase in Russian control over Ukrainian territory over and above what it stole in 2014. Without that, Putin’s continued rein – and possibly his life – would be seriously in danger.
Up until now, he has managed to suppress any possible threats to his rule either from the Russian capitalists/oligarchs themselves or from any military heads. An overthrow from below seems even less likely. However, his newly instituted draft may change that. Already the NY Times rewidespread reports, that the outlying rural areas are hit especially hard by this new draft. “Support for Mr. Putin “was off the charts” in rural Yakutia, Mr. Shadrin said,” the article says. “Now I think a sobering-up is starting to happen.” Increased protests from below and further military losses may stimulate the overthrow of Putin from above. It also seems entirely possible that if he uses “tactical” nuclear weapons – or even chemical warfare – and as a result brings the US directly into the battle, that my be a step too far for the military heads or for some individual head, who could decide to remove him. The only method of doing so at this time seems to be simply by assassination.
But that raises a whole other question: Putin has managed to make into reality what the old French king, Louis XIV said: “L’etat c’est moi” – “I am the state”. So if he goes, what happens to the Russian state, the government? Would it not shatter into dozens of different pieces, with different oligarchs vying for power through or with different generals? Would it no tend to break apart even further since its breakup when the old Soviet Union collapsed? At that time, by the way, except for Ukraine, the different states did not have or control nuclear arms. This time, wold not the different oligarchs and generals have access to their own nuclear arsenals?
We should remember that when Ukraine broke away, US imperialism helped ensure that the nuclear weapons housed in Ukraine would be repatriated to Russia itself. That was because US capitalism opposes further nuclear proliferation. What would be the role of US capitalism if and when Putin is challenged or removed? Would it possibly move to retain him or boost somebody like him exactly in order to prevent dozens of different forces in Russia from gaining their own nuclear arsenals?
Maybe some in the US would support Navalny. But it’s unclear to what extent the Russian oligarchs and military tops would ever accept him. This means that it’s unclear whether Navalny could maintain a stable central Russian state, and the nuclear arsenal that that state controls at this time.
Nor should we be overly condescending from the vantage point of the United States. Trump was unable to overturn the method of rule of the US capitalist class. That was because the tops of every wing of the US government remained loyal to that method of rule. That includes the Department of (in)Justice, the US military command, and the judiciary in the main. Those like Aileen Connor, who ruled in Trump’s favor in the 11th district court, are the exception. That was proven by the fact that the Trump-appointed appeals judges overturned Connor’s ruling almost immediately. But that was a matter of state security.
However, that same Trump judiciary is now on track to grant the individual states near complete control over how elections are run. In an upcoming case, beyond simply racist voting rules; it will signal giving complete and unchecked power to Republican/MAGA state legislatures to overturn election results in 2024. In that case, it’s entirely possible that Trump or another MAGAist (like DeSantis) could take power through openly fraudulent means. Such a MAGA president would have learned from Trump’s experience and would be sure to appoint to key positions those who are loyal to him, not to the old methods of rule. In any case, through that exact fraud the old methods would have been further weakened. If that happens, then the fragmentation of US society would be in the cards.
“It ain’t over…”
In other words, as that great American philosopher and former baseball star Yogi Berra said, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”