Although French President Macron appears to have made little diplomatic progress after meeting with Russian President Putin, another meeting has produced a significant shift in world imperialist alliances. The recent meeting between Russia’s President Putin and China’s President Xi signaled a new convergence rooted in the reality of a more intense inter-imperialist rivalry. The meeting generated a joint statement, which showed the two nations moving to consolidate a more meaningful economic and political relationship.

The statement puts forward the notion that war does not have to be a foregone conclusion between the great powers. The statement reads, “The sides call for the establishment of a new kind of relationship between world powers on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and mutually beneficial cooperation.”

Yet peaceful coexistence within the boundaries of a world capitalist system based on cutthroat competition over who gets to extract the surplus value from the labor of workers across the globe seems impossible.

A rebuttal to U.S. expansion efforts in the region

While Russia dominates the region, the U.S. has made economic inroads to countries like Kazakhstan and Ukraine. July 2021 in Kazakhstan saw a forum co-sponsored by the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to explore deeper cooperation around agriculture, energy, green and digital technologies.  The Astana Times reports, “In his welcoming remarks, Minister Tileuberdi noted the Enhanced Strategic Partnership between Kazakhstan and the United States and the significant volume of American investments attracted to Kazakhstan over the past 30 years. He also expressed confidence that the forum will give an additional impetus to deepening trade and economic interaction.”

The statement by Putin and Xi is a rebuttal to the U.S. and an attempt to more clearly establish their sphere of influence, and it lays out collaboration rooted in economic agreements that, as an example, will have natural gas from Russia’s Gazprom flowing to China for the next 30 years. At the same time, Russia has significantly cut gas flow to Europe over tensions centered on Ukraine. Newsweek reports, “IEA head Fatih Birol said Russian state-owned gas supplier Gazprom reduced its exports to Europe by 25 percent in the fourth quarter compared to last year despite high market prices.”

Ukraine is viewed on one side as a gateway to Central Asia and on the other a gateway to Europe through which trade, but mostly natural gas, will flow. Both China and Russia are two of the top trade partners with Ukraine. Kyiv Post writes, “The trade turnover between Ukraine-China accounted for $15.4 billion in 2020, which was $3 billion more than in 2019. Overall, Ukraine had a $103.5 billion worth of total trade turnover in 2020, including $49.3 billion worth of exports and $54.2 billion worth of imports.”

The article also states that Russia has “$4.7 billion worth of total turnover, including $1.9 billion worth of exports and $2.9 billion worth of imports since the beginning of 2021.”

By contrast Ukraine ranks 67th among U.S. trading partners but there is always room for further investment and trade. There is also a necessity to try and strategically isolate Russia and push back against China’s Belt and Road initiative. Both countries are actively expanding their presence around the world especially in places like Africa. Russia’s expansion has capitalist think tanks like the Brookings concerned. They write, “Russia has been aggressively pursuing its strategic objectives in Africa in recent years—securing a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, gaining naval port access in the Red Sea, expanding natural resource extraction opportunities, displacing Western influence, and promoting alternatives to democracy as a regional norm. Africa, thus, is a “theater” for Russia’s geostrategic interests rather than a destination itself—a perspective reflected in the means that Russia employs.”

Is Russia imperialist?

There are questions within the socialist movement about whether or not Russia is an imperialist power. One thing to note is that the designation of a country as an imperialist power cannot not simply be judged by the volume of its export capital. Monopolies and the military also play a significant role. Russia is certainly not a leading power in the economic sense of export capital, as Forbes lists only two Russian companies in the top global 100. But as Socialist Resurgence’s 2019 resolution on Russia documents, rather than being dependent on foreign capital, the country’s economy is overwhelmingly dominated by Russian monopolies that rely on domestic capital. This includes the state-owned industrial and banking sector, which occupies around 30 to 35 percent of the economy.

Michael Probsting points out on the website of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, “The share of foreign capital in Russia’s banking sector has declined in the past decade.” He quotes Victor Gorshkov as stating, “In October 2018, 150 foreign banks operated in Russia, including 63 foreign-controlled banks with 100% foreign share; 17 foreign-controlled banks with foreign shares of 51-99%; and 70 foreign banks with capital participation of less than 50%. The number of foreign banks has steadily declined from 2014 to 2018, suggesting that foreign investors may be reconsidering their investment plans in Russia. Foreign-controlled banks with foreign shares of 51–99% and foreign banks with capital participation of less than 50% decreased by 63% and 54%, respectively. The foreign banks’ share in the total charter capital of the Russian banking sector declined from 23% in 2014 to 13.44% in October 2018. It should be noted that about 11% of foreign banks are significantly controlled by Russian residents” (Victor Gorshkov: “Fundamentals and Recent Trends in Russian Banking,” in: Steven Rosefielde (ed.): “Putin’s Russia : Economy, Defence and Foreign Policy,” World Scientific Publishing, Singapore 2021, p. 81).

Russia is, moreover, a world-leading military force, which has been demonstrated through interventions in Syria, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Russia is the second largest military and arms exporter in the world after the U.S. An economically and militarily aligned Russia and China would have serious consequences for the U.S. and E.U. The new alliance could easily bypass and diminish the largely ineffective use of sanctions in diplomacy.

Will Ukraine join NATO?

Both Russia and the U.S. are using the question of NATO as an axis on which a deeper inter-imperialist rivalry turns. Putin’s vision of a new Russian empire hinges on consolidating what he sees as Russia’s historic destiny—reclaiming Ukraine. The entry of Ukraine into NATO would push that vision further away. While the question of Ukraine joining NATO remains outwardly open, actions by the U.S. and E.U. might suggest otherwise.

For the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China, the dispute over Ukraine joining NATO is really just a facade for the larger conflict over strategic weapons deployment, access to markets, resources and ability to exploit labor. The U.S. is looking to push back against Russia’s regional influence, but there is no real desire to take what they view as a corrupt and irresponsible Ukrainian government into NATO.

A New York Times article states, “While the Biden administration insists it will not allow Moscow to quash Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO, it has no immediate plans to help bring the former Soviet republic into the alliance. If Ukraine were a NATO member, the alliance would be obligated to defend it against Russia and other adversaries.”

For a country to join NATO there has to be a unanimous decision on the part of all 30 member states, and the likely result regarding Ukraine would be a “no” vote. The big question in the alliance is whether the addition of Ukraine would bring more or less stability. For leading EU nations like Germany that have deep economic ties with Russia, the question of Ukraine joining NATO is almost certainly off the table.

There is also a question of whether or not Ukraine wants to join NATO. Past Ukrainian presidents, like Petro Porschenko (2014 to 2019), did not push to join; instead Porschenko preferred to develop relations with Russia. However, current President Volodymyr Zelensky pressed the issue at a meeting with President Biden in September 2021, stating, “I would like to discuss with President Biden here his vision, his government’s vision of Ukraine’s chances to join NATO and the time frame for this accession, if it is possible.” President Biden, however, ignored the comment from Zelensky; instead, he prefers to waffle over Ukraine’s participation in NATO.

Ukraine workers take on privatization

The instability caused by the situation in Ukraine can only spell disaster for workers living there and in the region. The war threats come on top of developments in Ukraine in which the workers—like workers in other former Soviet states—are fighting an all-out assault on wages, working conditions, public ownership, and trade unions.

Ukrainian coal miners protest in Lviv in February 2019, demanding payment of back wages. (IndustriALL)

Plans are underway in Ukraine to privatize the more than 3000 state-owned enterprises left over from the Soviet era. This also includes the lifting of a 20-year ban in July 2021 on the sale of agricultural land. Reuters reports, “Ukraine is a leading agricultural producer and exporter of corn, wheat and sunflower oil. Its grain exports reached 57 million tonnes in the 2019/20 season.” The article continues, “Opening up Ukraine’s land market has been a political hot potato for years and critics [of the proposed privatization measure] complain that it could allow local oligarchs to snap up land or help foreigners muscle out poorer Ukrainians in purchasing plots.”

Capitalist think tanks like the Atlantic Council point to the state-owned businesses as the main mode through which corruption takes place. But instead of workers’ democratic control over these industries to curb corruption, the Atlantic Council puts forward a solution short of wholesale privatization that favors the wealthy elite. They write, “For 30 years straight, influential economic clans have bilked these enterprises, while the state has been left with the burden of welfare responsibilities, tax shortfalls, and unrealized economic potential. In rare cases it has been possible to break this vicious circle, such as the sale of KryvorozhStal, but these remain exceptions to the corrupt rule. The only way to rid ourselves of this shady side of Ukrainian economic reality forever is to perform a large-scale, open, and honest privatization of non-strategic state-owned assets.”

That is largely the model that is currently being followed in the Ukraine. Kyiv Post reports, “The sale of the state’s stakes in the large companies is expected to bring in Hr 21 billion, or $800 million, to the budget this year—seven times more than privatization raised in 2017. In addition, the government also approved a “general” list of more than 700 enterprises that are to be privatized over the next three years, Economy Minister Stepan Kubiv wrote in a Facebook post on May 10.”

The article continues, “The initial list of 26 entities includes giant companies in the energy, mining, chemicals, processing and agriculture sectors such as: Azovmash, Turboatom, Zaporizhzhya Titanium-Magnesium plant, and Odesa Port Plant, along with five regional power distributors (oblenergos), and Kyiv’s President Hotel. The general list of 700 enterprises includes two state-owned banks—Privatbank, the largest bank in Ukraine, and Ukrgasbank, according to Interfax news agency.”

The privatization has picked up pace since the process stalled prior to 2018. In order for the government to drive forward the process of privatization, it has to dismantle labor rights at the same time. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been on a campaign to pass labor reforms that will further weaken an already weak trade-union movement.

According to a January 2020 article in Global Voice, the labor reform would allow “employers to terminate contracts without good reason, reduces the premium for overtime pay, obliges employees to disclose any (vaguely defined) information which may impact the performance of their work, and significantly expands the scope of zero-hours contracts. Furthermore, it amends Ukraine’s current law on trade unions, limiting the number of unions in an enterprise to two, increasing the minimum number of members required to start a trade union, and allowing directors to refuse to negotiate with unions who employ (vaguely defined) ‘managerial” staff.’”

Vitalii Kopysh, a trade-union activist, writes on the proposed labor laws, “My general impression is as follows: the government isn’t just making a fool of us, it’s doing it rudely and cynically. In short: this government ‘reform’ means a smaller wage, less time off, less additional payments, no protection.”

Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU) chairman Mikhailo Volynets, addressing IndustriALL’s 3rd Congress, said, “Under the cover of adapting labor and social legislation to modern realities and creating improved conditions for investors, Ukrainian authorities continue their attack on workers’ and trade union rights.”

However, workers through their unions and with the help of international solidarity, have beat back devastating reforms. IndustriALL writes, “During the #HandsOffUkraineUnions day of action, unionists across the world delivered protest letters to Ukrainian embassies, demanding that the President withdraw the draft labor law undermining workers’ rights and freedom of association.”

A tremendous amount of pressure is coming from foreign capital on all sides and none of it represents a progressive alternative for Ukrainian workers. The clearest example in the region is Russia’s use of military force through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Belarus and Kazakhstan to maintain repressive regimes and loyalty to Putin.

Working class key to counter imperialist aims

As antiwar demonstrations and panels discuss and debate the current world crisis, the situation in Central Asia, as in Syria, has produced a lot of speculation around U.S. intervention and color revolutions. In today’s world there’s no doubt the U.S. operates on a global scale and can provide material support for movements to destabilize governments. But it is also true that the working class still has agency around the world, especially in places like Central Asia and Eastern Europe, where workers at one time had a workers’ government and ended capitalist rule. The worker militancy in the former Soviet states is the legacy that can’t be contained by Russian or U.S. intervention indefinitely.

The resistance of trade unionists in Belarus during the 2020 uprising, despite decades of repression, was highlighted during the country’s mass mobilizations and strikes against what many felt was a fraudulent election. Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions released a statement, “The strikes now underway in the country show the growing political activity of working people. This regime, illegally clinging onto power, is leading this country towards economic collapse: towards the bankruptcy and closure of businesses, the loss of jobs, and the impoverishment of the people.”

Workers at the Belkard metalworking plant in Grodno, Belarus, released a statement, “Right now, around 200 workers of Belkard JSC, the large producer of components for cars, have gone onto company premises to demand that the directors appeal to the local authorities and the Ministry of the Interior to demand that an end to brutality and the use of force, as well as baseless detentions of people at the hands of the security services and police.

“Furthermore, workers of Belkard demand that all detained citizens be freed and that the general prosecutor conduct an assessment into the accuracy of the tallying of votes in every electoral district in Hrodna.” 

In the months leading up to the uprising in Kazakhstan, workers were organizing new unions and leading industrial actions. In March, striking oil workers in the Aktobe region in western Kazakhstan, for example, voted to form a new trade union.

As the uprising began in early January, an article republished in Socialist Resurgence that interviewed Kazakh socialist Ainur Kurmanov states, “The form of protest initially was a classic “proletarian” strike. On the night of 3 to 4 January, a wildcat strike began at the Tengiz Oil enterprises. Soon the strike spread to neighboring regions. Today, the strike movement has two main focus points—Zhanaozen and Aktau.”

Conspiracy theorists claim that the careful organizing and coordination of the protesters in Kazakhstan shows that the demonstrations and strikes were prepared in the West. Local socialists paint a different picture (see:

In Kurmanov’s words: “This is not a Maidan [referring to the February 2014 protests in Ukraine, led by pro-capitalist elements], although many political analysts are trying to present it this way. Where did such amazing self-organization come from? This is the experience and tradition of the workers. Strikes have been shaking the Mangistau region since 2008, and the strike movement began back in the 2000s. Even without any input from the Communist Party or other leftist groups, there were constant demands to nationalize the oil companies. The workers simply saw with their own eyes what privatization and foreign capitalist takeover was leading to.”

From trade unionists in Ukraine who oppose privatization to union members in Belarus and Kazakhstan fighting for democracy, any resolution favorable to the working class in the current crisis will come through the struggle to build independent strikes, mass mobilizations, international solidarity, and a revolutionary socialist party of workers who refuse to take sides in an inter-imperialist conflict and prepare to cripple the capitalist economy and take power.

Top photo: Coal miners in Ukraine. (IndustriALL)