Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, is probably the most serious journal of the US capitalist class. It recently published an article entitled Putin’s Last Stand.
This article brings to mind the scientific law of “entropy”. This is the tendency towards fragmentation and disorder. Energy from an outside source is necessary to counteract this tendency. On Planet Earth, that outside energy source is the Sun, whose energy makes possible life on the planet. The processes of life itself give order – a pattern – to the molecules.
It is similar (but not exactly the same) with capitalism, which has a tendency towards fragmentation and disorder. What has held US and actually world society together for so long has been the power of the US capitalist class, first and foremost its international power. Of course the US capitalist class did so in its own interest, but it did so nevertheless.
Oil industry in infancy and Standard Oil
An example from the past was the US oil industry. In his seminal book “The Prize”, Daniel Yergin recounts the chaotic early development of that industry. Every oil company had to pump as much oil as possible and as quickly as possible in order to steal a march on their competitors. Based on the development of an oil well, entire towns sprung up nearly overnight and disappeared just as quickly, once the well ran dry. Then one oil company, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, took control. It either gobbled up or ran all the others out of the market. Order was restored, based on the interests of Standard Oil. What it accomplished within the United States it also did globally… for a time. Ultimately, though, other oil companies were able to escape its control outside the U.S. Competition – disorder – returned, but on a global scale. That was over 100 years ago.
Today, in a time that must seem equally distant to the younger generations, US capitalism reined supreme within the capitalist world. This was the period following WW II, when global capitalism was threatened by a rival social order – the Soviet Union. The other capitalist nations huddled under the protection of US capitalism. This gave global capitalism a stability and created a world order. This order was used by US capitalism to its advantage, but it was an order nevertheless. When the Soviet Union collapsed and started to return to capitalism, US capitalism thought it was the last man standing and could do whatever it liked. That was the basis for its invasion of Iraq. As that invasion collapsed, so did the world order based on the unchallenged power of US capitalism.
The world order could not last. It did not last.
The rise of Trump was a signal of – and also contributed to – the end of that world order. His whole “Make America Great Again” campaign was partly based on that – the claim that America was disrespected around the world and he would restore that respect. He accomplished just the opposite, first and foremost in Europe.
Meanwhile, Putin was moving to establish his own vision of order in “Eurasia”. That vision of order was based on the domination of the old Tsarist Russia. That is the basis for his invasion of Ukraine – to reestablish a new Russian empire in that region. In this vision, the order would be that of domination, exploitation and repression, but it would be order of a sort nevertheless. In that sense, it would be similar to what Germany experienced under Hitler. But similar to Hitler’s Germany, the domestic order led to global chaos – WW II – which then engulfed Germany itself.
And what is the prospect for Russia, and in fact that entire region and beyond, under Tsar Putin? That is where the Foreign Affairs article comes in. It is worth quoting that article at length. It opens exactly as we have explained: “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine was meant to be his crowning achievement, a demonstration of how far Russia had come since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991. Annexing Ukraine was supposed to be a first step in reconstructing a Russian empire. Putin intended to expose the United States as a paper tiger outside Western Europe and to demonstrate that Russia, along with China, was destined for a leadership role in a new, multipolar international order.”
The authors, Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage, then explain that “it hasn’t turned out that way” and that Russia is facing defeat on the battlefield. Fix and Kimmage offer three different scenarios:
First is that Putin accepts this defeat and withdraws his troops. In the understatement of the year, they say this is the “least likely” scenario.
The second scenario is that Putin could escalate the war, possibly even using “tactical” nuclear weapons. This would lead to direct NATO involvement in the war. “Russia would transform from a revisionist state into a rogue one,” they write, and would hasten Russia’s defeat in Ukraine.
The third and final scenario is “defeat through [Putin] regime collapse.” The authors game out how such a collapse could occur and what would be the result. They consider which different forces and players could replace Putin. Significantly, they don’t even consider Navalny nor any movement from below. Here, it is worth quoting the authors at length: They write that regime collapse “would be welcomed…”
They explain: “It would free Ukraine from the terrors it has suffered since the invasion. It would reinforce the principle that an attack on another country cannot go unpunished. It might open up new opportunities for Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova, and for the West to finish ordering Europe in its image.” (This means that those three countries, under the economic domination of US and Western Europe, would act on behalf of Western imperialism. This would be the sort of order that Rockefeller imposed on the oil industry for a time.)
Russia a failed state?
But the authors also warn: “Disorder could take the form of separatism and renewed conflicts in and around Russia, the world’s largest country in landmass. The transformation of Russia into a failed state riven by civil war would revive questions that Western policymakers had to grapple with in 1991: for example, who would gain control of Russia’s nuclear weapons? A disorderly Russian defeat would leave a dangerous hole in the international system….”
The authors correctly discuss various scenarios, including that of escalation on the part of Putin. They explain that such escalation will resolve nothing for him. They then get to the real point: What, or who, comes after Putin? The authors raise two possible names: Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, and Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic. They say that “other contenders” are possible but that Putin has surrounded himself with “mediocrities” to prevent any challenges from within. Whoever follows – and Putin cannot live forever – will have to deal with the war. Here’s where it gets interesting:
“In the worst case, Putin’s fall could translate into civil war and Russia’s disintegration. Power would be contested at the top, and state control would fragment throughout the country. This period could be an echo of the Time of Troubles, or smuta, a 15-year crisis of succession in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries marked by rebellion, lawlessness, and foreign invasion. Russians regard that era as a period of humiliation to be avoided at all costs. Russia’s twenty-first-century troubles could see the emergence of warlords from the security services and violent separatists in the country’s economically distressed regions, many of which are home to large numbers of ethnic minorities. Although a Russia in turmoil might not formally end the war in Ukraine, it might simply be unable to conduct it, in which case Ukraine would have regained its peace and independence while Russia descended into anarchy.”
The authors point out that had the invasion of Ukraine succeeded, the next stop could have been Kazakhstan. The failure of the invasion might mean a further distancing of that country from Russia. “That would be far from the only change in the region. In the South Caucasus and in Moldova, old conflicts could revive and intensify. Ankara could continue to support its partner Azerbaijan against Armenia. Were Turkey to lose its fear of Russian opprobrium, it might urge Azerbaijan to press forward with further attacks on Armenia. In Syria, Turkey would have reason to step up its military presence if Russia were to fall back.”
Then there is Eastern Europe: “If the Russian military were to withdraw from the region, conflicts might again break out between Georgia and South Ossetia on the one hand and between Georgia and Abkhazia on the other. That dynamic could also emerge in Moldova and its breakaway region Transnistria, where Russian soldiers have been stationed since 1992.”
And further: “ If Russia were to suffer a defeat in Ukraine, policymakers would have to take into account the presence and the absence of power, in particular the absence or severe decline of Russian power. A diminished Russia would have an impact on conflicts around the globe, including those in Africa and the Middle East, not to mention in Europe. Yet a reduced or broken Russia would not necessarily usher in a golden age of order and stability….
“Russia’s collapse could also be contagious or the start of a chain reaction, in which case neither the United States nor China would profit because both would struggle to contain the fallout. In that case, the West would need to establish strategic priorities. It would be impossible to try to fill the vacuum that a disorderly Russian defeat might leave. In Central Asia and the South Caucasus, the United States and Europe would have little chance of preventing China and Turkey from moving into the void….”
“The West would need to establish strategic priorities…. Whatever form Russia’s defeat took, stabilizing eastern and southeastern Europe, including the Balkans, would be a herculean task. Across Europe, the West would have to find a creative answer to the questions that were never resolved after 1991…. the United States and Europe would have little chance of preventing China and Turkey from moving into the void….” The authors repeatedly warn their class about this. They conclude:
“A Russian defeat would furnish many opportunities and many temptations. One of these temptations would be to expect that a defeated Russia would essentially disappear from Europe. But a defeated Russia will one day reassert itself and pursue its interests on its terms. The West should be politically and intellectually equipped both for Russia’s defeat and for Russia’s return.”
What can U.S. do?
Note one thing: The question of what “the West” should do in practice goes unanswered. That’s because all “the West” – meaning US capitalism and its allies – can do is respond pragmatically, deal with each issue one-by-one as it arises. They cannot stop the tendency toward fragmentation and disorder under capitalism any more than we can stop the same tendency, entropy, on Planet Earth once the Sun fades and dies billions of years in the future.
The working class, and socialists who take international working class solidarity seriously, should take this as a warning. Yes, of course, we should work to defeat Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine. Were that invasion to succeed, it would mean the crushing of all democratic rights, including working class rights like the right to free and independent unions and the right to strike, within Ukraine. It would also enormously strengthen Putin’s tyrannical grip within Russia. Nor would it ward of the tendency towards international chaos; such chaos would just take a somewhat different form.
Up until now, most socialists in “the West” have shown complete confusion on this issue. They have abandoned international working class solidarity in favor of repeating Putin’s propaganda that Russia is either just defending itself against NATO or trying to wipe out Nazis in Ukraine. (The second is particularly ironic since the Nazi-connected Wagner Group is playing a key role in the invasion!) Already we are hearing reports of increased nationalism inside Ukraine. This is a natural reaction, but it can only contribute to the tendency towards social fragmentation and disorder. (It seems likely that if the invasion even partly succeeds, the tendency towards nationalism would be even greater.)
Fix and Kimmage – the Foreign Affairs authors – see the general rout for a solution as lying through the expansion of the European Union. But rebellions against the EU, including in France, Italy and elsewhere, have been a central part of that fragmentation and disorder. What is needed is a working class European Union – a united working class movement of all of Europe and beyond. A first step in that direction lies in building working class support for the Ukrainian working class resistance to the Russian invasion. Connected with that has to be a serious, in depth discussion of what comes after the invasion and how the working class can star to build its own, independent force in Ukraine, in the United States and elsewhere.