Paul is asked if a strong Russia is a positive counterbalance to U.S. global hegemony. Paul is interviewed by Colin Bruce Anthes on theAnalysis.news.
Colin Bruce Anthes
Welcome back to theAnalysis.news. I’m Colin Bruce Anthes, and this is part three of my conversation with Paul Jay on the Russia-Ukraine war.
Welcome back to the Analysis. We’re interviewing Paul Jay on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. One of the defenses of the Russian position has been that the United States owns a huge amount of power internationally that it needs some countervailing power for other people to be able to stand up for themselves. One of the positions that’s been put forward is that Ukraine is going to have an extreme austerity agenda pushed upon it once this war is over, if it’s over.
There was a recent conference in Switzerland that was called the Recovery Conference— the Ukraine Recovery Conference. [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy attended that via video, along with ranking officials from all the major nations, Western nations. The agenda that they were pushing looked a lot like the agenda we talked about in 1990s Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
One of the lines of defense is you have to have powerful countervailing powers in order to push this kind of activity, this disaster capitalism that is constantly being thrown upon nations that are in difficult circumstances and give them some kind of line of defense. So what’s your response to that line of rhetoric?
Well, there’s absolutely no reason to think that Russia is a line of defense against austerity. You know, Russia is not some social, democratic Scandinavian country. I interviewed Aleksandr Buzgalin, and he was saying if we could ever make it to social democracy in Russia, it would be revolutionary. He called capitalism in Russia; he had this term Jurassic capitalism— the capitalism of dinosaurs. It’s very brutal capitalism with very little social safety net. To think that somehow having a powerful Russia that would in any way diminish what a post-Ukraine would look like, whether it was part of the West or even part of Russia, that’s kind of ridiculous.
The issue of a multipolar world is a bigger conversation. The way it’s posed is that a strong Russia and a strong China is a countervailing power to America as a global hegemon. Thus, some people are arguing, and I would say you get some of this in the Western Left, but it’s maybe even a more powerful argument in the global South that a strong Russia is a critical countervailing power and a strong China even more importantly to American power. I think it’s true and not true.
Let me say, to begin with, it makes absolutely no difference what anyone thinks about whether a multipolar world is a good thing or a bad thing. This is part of an objective process of the development of capitalism. We are in a multipolar world. It’s not up for debate. So have a theory, have a debate, write a paper, have a thesis, and argue with this academic or that academic. Honestly, nobody gives a shit because it’s not up to us. It just is. Is capitalism a bad thing? Yeah. It ain’t going away because we don’t like it.
So there is a multipolar world. Honestly, when wasn’t there? That’s what I don’t get. When was there a unipolar world? It certainly wasn’t during the time of the Soviet Union. So between 1990-2000, it was unipolar? Well, if it was so unipolar, why did India continue to make most of its arms purchases with Russia? If it’s so unipolar, why couldn’t the United States force India to transition to a totally U.S. supply of arms? Even to this day, only recently has the Indian arms purchases from Russia gone down a little bit.
At the end of the Soviet Union, during the final year of ’89-90, the number one trading partner of India was Russia. It was the Soviet Union. Where’s that unipolar world? The United States couldn’t even stop India from having such extensive trade with the Soviet Union, and most importantly, in arms, because there’s nothing more important to the United States than which arms network system you’re part of. I’m not saying the Americans weren’t a hegemon, but let’s be realistic about that hegemon.
Colin Bruce Anthes
If I can offer a little bit of a challenge to that position—
Colin Bruce Anthes
Certainly, there have been multiple players the entire time on a very large scale, but who has had the power to organize military coups, to instate disaster capitalism, and to have their major financiers get their fingers in every pie the way the United States has?
Yeah, of course, nobody. But because you’re the dominant player in global capitalism, even more important because you’re the manager of global capitalism, including reserve currency and such, the power of the Fed internationally, of course, it’s very powerful, the CIA, it’s very powerful. Look at the projection of American military power. One disaster after another, they fought to a standstill in Korea and lost in Vietnam. They were successful in Grenada, and they were able to kidnap the president of Panama. They lost in Iraq. They won the first Iraq War; let’s give them that. They lose the Iraq War where there’s a real invasion. They lose in Afghanistan. I mentioned Vietnam, which is the obvious one. Every major projection of U.S. military power has been a debacle. Let’s not exaggerate the ability of the U.S. to determine the outcome of everything. Every one of these big defeats, with the exception of Korea, was done virtually by the people themselves with very little external support. Vietnam got some support from the Soviet Union but not much from China. However, not a lot from the Soviet Union. Not nearly as much as one would have expected because the Soviets didn’t want to antagonize the Americans. The Iraqis fought and basically won, making the American troops withdraw a little bit of external support from Iran, but not that much. It goes on and on.
In this world, people try to imagine that the Americans are pulling the strings of everything. Did the Americans really want all these left-wing governments to get elected in Latin America? No. They fought tooth and nail to stop the elections of [Hugo] Chávez, [Evo] Morales, and [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva]. The people were fed up with these American-backed dictatorships, and the people demanded democratic elections. Even if the Americans did everything to undermine them, they had some successful coups in Honduras, but in spite of that, people are a factor in history. Maybe, in the end, it will be true that people make history.
The peoples of Latin America are what defied this American domination. The Americans did not use the power of their military. What was it that constrained Lula? It wasn’t a threat of the U.S. invasion of Brazil; that would have been insane. In a million years, the United States would not imagine invading Brazil. They would be eaten alive by the Brazilian people. No, they use the power finance. They threatened Brazil in terms of interest rates, bond markets, and what they would do to Brazilian debt. Also, of course, the Brazilian elite was still powerful, and the role of religion. They didn’t control the outcome of everything.
Imagine this. Who’s the biggest trading partner of Brazil, and I think every country or almost every country in Latin America? China. They are the number one trading partner in spite of no military projection at all. In spite of this global hegemon, they couldn’t even keep China out of their own bloody Monroe Doctrine backyard. The U.S. is not as in control as it would like to be. Of course, the Americans would love to be so in control, but they’re not.
Why does Biden have to go with his tail between his legs to Saudi Arabia? They can’t even control the Saudis. The Saudis just have to hint that they’re going to cozy up to the Chinese and the Russians, and Biden had to rush there and say, oh, please don’t do that. It’s not that they don’t interfere wherever they possibly can. It’s not that the CIA isn’t active everywhere. It isn’t that they don’t use the power of finance to dictate and blackmail. They do, but only with relative success. Sometimes they’re more successful, other times not. In general, they haven’t been as successful as some people suggest. They’re not as domineering. As I said, they couldn’t get India to stop buying Soviet and then Russian arms. This is true in other places as well.
Is it more a multipolar world than it was? Of course, especially in China and Russia too. Russia, as compared to 1990, before this invasion, at least, was certainly a far more powerful entity than it was through the ’90s and in the early 2000s. China, of course, is the far bigger story. It’s part of the Russian story because the more the Russians can depend on China, it helps strengthen Russian support. Even for Russia, to get militarily involved in Syria, where is there another power other than a China? China is too smart to do that. Who else militarily comes close to being face to face with the United States? So yes, this is a more multipolar world than it was.
Is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. It’s a good thing that the countries of Latin America and elsewhere have an alternative to the United States for financing. It diminishes American blackmail because countries can go to China and borrow money. Some people argue that the Chinese are every bit as predatory in loaning money as the Americans are. Let’s assume it’s true. I don’t know if it’s true, but let’s say it is. It’s still a good thing because it’s an alternative to American blackmail, especially in places like Latin America and maybe in Africa and other places. It’s a very useful thing to be able to say to the Americans, we have somewhere else to go, so you can’t screw with us the way you’re used to it.
I would say the same thing goes for Russia. It has nowhere near the capacity of China. The fact that Venezuela was able to buy arms or get some arms subsidy from Russia was a good thing. I don’t think the Americans really had any agenda to invade Venezuela. If you want to stoke Venezuelan nationalism, the people of Venezuela are not shy about fighting for their country and for their people. If there ever were a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, the opposition would have been demolished completely. I’ve been there a bunch of times, and the Venezuelan people would not accept Venezuelan quislings. I actually don’t believe, and the Americans know it, I don’t believe the Americans ever intended to invade.
It’s also an example of the limit of American power. Why haven’t the Americans been able to overthrow Nicolás Maduro yet? I’m no Maduro fan. I, obviously, totally oppose the Americans having anything to say about who governs Venezuela. In fact, I don’t think Americans should have anything to say about who governs anywhere except the United States. It’s an expression of the limit of power of the United States. Even in Monroe Doctrine countries, Latin America, they couldn’t get rid of Maduro, and obviously, they wanted to. So that’s a good thing. Still, it’s a good thing Venezuela could get arms from Russia. It, at least, mitigates the threat of U.S. intervention.
So this multi-polarity has some upsides. It’s not transformative. The people talk about BRICS, the BRICS countries. What is it? Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. It’s a good thing to the extent those countries can diminish American financial power, to the extent those countries can have an alternative to the World Bank, IMF, which is American-dominated. It’s a good thing, but it’s not going to change global capitalism managed by the United States, certainly not in any foreseeable future.
Look at what’s going on with the U.S. dollar right now. It’s through the roof. All the United States had to do to make the world buy more dollars was add a couple of points of interest on the American treasury bill. All of a sudden, everybody’s buying dollars again. It’s through the roof. All the rest of the currencies of the world, except for Canada because oil is up. We’ll see how long that lasts. Almost every other currency in the world is tanking. Look how little they had to do, raise interest rates. So the global economic system, the capitalist system, is dependent on American management. Nobody in the capitalist world, including the Chinese, wants that to end. The Chinese need the American market as much as the Americans need the Chinese market. The Chinese owned, what is it, a trillion and a half U.S. dollars. They don’t want that to turn into nothing. There’s no alternative that’s feasible on any horizon. It doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a new currency created for trade between Russia and China, and maybe some other countries, but it’s going to be very limited for this historical period.
Now, it can change if you get a [Donald] Trump or Trumpist elected in ’24, and whoever he or she is, probably a he, is going to be as crazy or crazier than Trump. They’ll start to play out Steve Bannon’s dream of a war against China, at least a much more serious economic war. It puts China in a corner, which China is already preparing for. A lot of other countries are thinking this through now, including European ones. They may say, you know what, as disruptive as it’s going to be, we can’t play in that world where the Americans control our finance, and we’re so damn big we don’t have to. So maybe we’ll take our medicine and start to decouple from this American-dominated capitalist system. It’s possible. I don’t see it happening as long as the majority of the elites, financial elites represented by the Democratic Party, as long as they control foreign policy and economic policy, I don’t see it happening. The BlackRocks’ of this world are increasing their investment in China. Apple is, and others are. You don’t give up on a billion-and-a-half-person market unless you’re a fanatic. The fanatics may come to power in the United States. They did in Germany. Why not in the United States? I don’t see that happening.
So we’re looking at a multipolar world within capitalism managed by the United States. Now, here’s the rub. I’ve given some pluses of the multipolar world. Here are the not pluses. Regionally, the major powers, even if they’re in contradiction with, even antagonistic contradiction with the United States, it doesn’t mean they can’t be their own villains in their own regions. As progressive people, we have to be able to say, just because you’re fighting against a regime that’s anti-American, we aren’t going to condemn you as being puppets of the United States.
I was in Georgia, the country, not the state, after Russian involvement there. I talked to a lot of Georgians, and the progressive Georgian’s position was no to NATO, no to the West, and no to Russia. That was the progressive position. They supported the overthrow of the [Mikheil] Saakashvili regime, Saakashvili government. They wanted the pro-American government out. They were condemned as being pro-U.S. In fact, it’s happening everywhere. Some of the Left was condemning the uprising in Cairo as being pro-American just because [Barack] Obama and the Americans had their own reasons for sympathizing with it.
There are a lot of things I don’t agree with Mao Zedong about, and there are some I do. One of them was people have a right to rebel against reactionaries. Yeah, it doesn’t matter where you are, and it doesn’t matter whether your government is anti-American. If it’s a reactionary government, if it’s repressive, if it’s a police state, people have a right to fight it without being accused of being American puppets and all the rest. Some of this is Russian propaganda or propaganda coming from.
To the Chinese people, if they want to fight against the Chinese Communist Party, and this is very important, of course, the CIA will be there and are there. Of course, the Americans will try to manipulate these struggles in their own interests, and people should not fall for that. In Libya, there was a great banner on a building at the very beginning of the war, the invasion of Libya, when all these threats from Muammar Gaddafi were going on against Benghazi. There was this banner unfurled on a big building in Benghazi, and it said no to NATO, and no to Gaddafi. There was another one that said, NATO stay out.
There was a real uprising in Benghazi where people were organizing to resist the Gaddafi government, but they didn’t want NATO. Now that was crushed. The NATO countries, led by France actually, this is another interesting thing about multi-polarity, because the French were the ones that led the invasion because of TotalEnergies oil interests in Libya, and that was crushed. People condemned, some people on the Left condemned that resistance to Gaddafi as just being pro-American. Why can’t people fight against the Gaddafi dictatorship without being pro-American? I mean, they can and they should, but they shouldn’t do it as puppets.
Now, here’s where it gets complicated, and I’m a little on the fence here. There are people like Gilbert Achcar, who’s a progressive academic and lives in England now. He says if you’re going to support people’s right to fight against Gaddafi or, in the current situation in Ukraine, to fight against a Russian invasion, you also have to support their right to get arms wherever they can. So you got to support the Libyan people’s right to get arms. Arms only. Not troops, he argues, not bombers, but arms. His argument is if the people get arms but no bombers and no foreign troops, then, in the end, they end up with guns, and if they win, they win, but in theory, without foreign control.
The reason I’m on the fence on that is that, in some ways, the principle, I think, is right. Imagine the French partisans fighting [Adolf] Hitler and say, oh, no, you can’t get arms from England or the United States. No, you got to fight without. Who was the worst, biggest, vicious imperialist in the world prior to World War II? England. Anglo-imperialism, colonialism, and imperialism up until its essential demise after the end of World War II, over 300 years, apparently killed 1.5 billion people. In the history of war crimes, Britain takes the prize. Even the United States pales in comparison. Now you’re going to tell French partisans you can’t take weapons from the British because the British are the worst colonialists and butchers in the world? It’d be ridiculous. You can say it if you’re not living in France and occupied by fascists. Life is complicated. It’s not so simple, and people like to simplify it, but it’s not so simple. The day may come when a Russian state or an American state can become so fascistized that we have two relatively fascist states at each other. We’re heading into crazy times.
Colin Bruce Anthes
Yeah. I’m going to go into one more pessimistic note or dark note before we go into what could be a better path forward and how we can start to articulate goals, public goals, that people are demanding of their politicians as well, that can maybe lead us out of this crisis somehow. It’s a very difficult crisis to get out of. First, I do need to bring in one other complication. This has come up in some of your past interviews as well. A major war like this could very well turn into a long war. It can serve as cover at a time when we have both an economic downturn right now and an escalating climate crisis that either the catastrophes of or the solutions are going to have to be paid for and to do so within an austerity framework for the average citizen. If there’s a war going on, these are cuts that are necessary. This is austerity that is necessary in order to fight for justice and basically to use the better angels of our nature as a justification to put people through the wringer. Can you speak to the degree to which crisis there’s an incentive for major powers that are aligned with big economic powers, especially big oil, to continue this war? You said it’s covered for austerity for the masses.
Yeah, well, of course, I agree with all that. Who are the winners so far of the war in Ukraine, the Russian invasion? Clearly, it’s the fossil fuel and the arms manufacturers. Fossil fuel and arms are two of the largest sectors of the Russian economy, disproportionately so, and major sectors of the American economy, not as disproportionately so. The American economy is more diversified. It’s not as dependent on fossil fuels and arms in terms of the GDP. Fossil fuel and arms play a disproportionate role in politics because of the bribery, campaign financing, control they have over Congress, and the role of nationalism in the American narrative.
It’s very interesting that the Christian nationalists, when they march and organize, it’s not just against abortion. I’ve seen some of these marches being overtly pro-fossil fuel. What that has to do with a conviction of being against abortion beats me, except that we know that a lot of the money helping drive Christian nationalism is fossil fuel money and military-industrial complex money. So it would not surprise me at all that when [Vladimir] Putin does his calculations about whether to invade or not, he looks at how this is going to impact the price of oil. Even if he underestimated the extent of the sanctions, he knew that Europe couldn’t not buy Russian gas. It had to. An American Ambassador— this came out of WikiLeaks at the time of the Libyan war. He said Russia had an energy noose around Europe’s neck. Boy, he was right; they do. Putin knew that.
Of course, the American fossil fuel companies are very aware that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would lead to an enormous spike in oil prices. The American arms manufacturing, of course, knew billions of dollars go into Ukraine in arms. Oh, yeah. Whose arms are they buying? Obviously, it’s mostly American, although I’m guessing the European arms manufacturers have a piece of the action.
Does this consciously go into the making of plans both on the American and Russian sides? It must. I don’t know if you can see it in the Foreign Affairs journals, but it’s impossible that fossil fuel companies, others, and their representatives in the American Pentagon and the State Department, and the White House, it’s impossible that they don’t look at, well, what’s this going to do to the price of oil? There will be contradictory interests.
Biden, the Democratic Party, and whole sections of the economy that don’t benefit from the high price of oil don’t like this. Of course, the fossil fuel companies do. The arms manufacturers do. So there are lots of competing interests here. The stock market was flying, and then the Ukraine war went down, then it went back up. There is tons of money being made during this period. It’s not a coherent strategy, but yes, of course, certainly in Russia, it’s a distraction from the problems.
Here in the U.S., and I would say Canada too, very soon, I should say very quickly, people actually could care less about what’s going on in Ukraine. It’s become an abstraction. [Boris] Kagarlitsky says it’s true in Russia too. He says there’s very little coverage on Russian TV about the war. Putin’s deliberately recruiting soldiers from small villages and towns, not from the big cities. For a lot of people, it’s a real abstraction.
I saw something similar when I was in Israel. Most Israelis weren’t thinking at all about the occupation and what was going on in Gaza. Maybe for a few days when the war is on, but then after that, it goes back to being an abstraction if you don’t have a kid in the army. Most people are preoccupied with their day-to-day lives.
I interviewed a guy that grew up in San Francisco, a black guy in World War II. He said if you didn’t have someone in the army in your family, you were barely aware there was a World War II. He said we were just fighting to get through the day. We were trying to pay our rent every month. He said it was a complete abstraction. We imagine the entire country was at war. Maybe at some point, you couldn’t buy this or that. Ukraine is not that much of a distraction anymore in terms of American public opinion. Biden just has to look tough on standing up to Russia in terms of his domestic politics; that’s about it. Most people couldn’t give a damn.
The real, more serious problem here is in terms of distraction. Whether this is deliberate or not deliberate, to some extent, it is because of how much this power comes from the fossil fuel companies. It is the complete diminishing of the conversation about the climate crisis. That, for me, is actually the most important thing there is about this whole thing. I would say to the Ukrainians, another argument about why they should make a deal, in spite of the fact they’ve lost so many people, is because if there isn’t a deal made over the war, there is no chance of a deal made over climate change. If there isn’t a deal with Russia, China, the United States, and then everybody else on dealing with climate as a global emergency, we are toast.
I’ll repeat this very quickly, but we’re going to hit 1.5 warming in less than ten years, in all likelihood. In all likelihood, maybe 20 years, 30, maybe, we could easily be hitting 2, and then we’re into 3-4. We’re on a planet that’s unlivable within this century, certainly for most people in the Southern hemisphere, with extreme weather in much of the Northern hemisphere. Where are all these people in the Southern Hemisphere going to go other than north? If we’re not addressing that and immediately taking steps to get off fossil fuel, plant a zillion trees, and give up on illusions of geopolitical geoengineering. Give up on the dream of some magic bullet geoengineering technology. Although I’m not against investing some money to look at it. Maybe there’ll be something. Let’s assume for now there isn’t, because right now there aren’t other than tons of trees, which is ridiculous we’re not at least doing that. In fact, we’re cutting down more trees than are being planted.
So I would say to the Ukrainians, honestly, your problems of sovereignty aren’t as important as having a livable planet. We’re in a time frame where you, on behalf of the planet, but on yourselves, Ukrainian children are going to grow up in the same climate catastrophe as the rest of us. Have your sovereignty in an unlivable world; what does that sovereignty mean? Nobody’s talking about it. As far as I can tell, I can’t even find a glimmer of that conversation in Ukraine. I understand why. When you’re being invaded, thousands of people are dying, but that is the truth of it.
What is this issue of America has to stand up to Putin? Why? For prestige? For geopolitical influence? Yeah, prestige and influence over what? An unlivable planet? I mean, it’s insane. It’s totally insane. This capitalism is at the point of utter irrationality.
So what should progressive people do in solidarity with Ukraine? Demand a resolution of this. Compromise, yes. End the killing. End the war. Do your best to get back to or as close to February 23 borders as you can. Try to insist on as much as you can. The Ukrainians don’t have much leverage here but try to make climate part of the conversation and make clear declarations.
They’re already starting this. Apparently, Kagarlitsky says one of the most popular politicians in Ukraine right now is really pushing back against Ukrainianization and any discrimination against the Russian language. In solidarity with Ukraine, we should support that. Yes. No discrimination against the Russian language. No discrimination against Ukrainian culture in areas controlled by Russia. Make progressive demands. Let’s be clear, humanity is at stake here. We haven’t even talked about the threat of nuclear war, which is certainly heightened under these situations. Climate is a for sure. It’s not a risk. It’s a for sure. So we have to say to the Ukrainians, as part of humanity, we need to get this war over and demand a deal between Russia, China, and the United States on fossil fuel.
What does that partly mean? It means a Marshall Plan where the United States, Europe, and China help Russia transition from fossil fuel. Of course, they better do it themselves for it to have any legitimacy.
Colin Bruce Anthes
I think it’s a very important part of the conversation. It’s from the mainstream media that I have seen in Canada and the United States and not currently factored in at all. There really is the line that, as you put it, on your programming before that this is being fought down to the last Ukrainian, or it’s being set up to be fought down to the last Ukrainian. Do you see breaks in that narrative that are going more in the direction you’re talking about happening in Canada, the United States, and in Western countries that are currently propping up an agenda of war down to the last Ukrainian? Do you see breaks in that?
Yeah, maybe. There are increasing news stories and such about how the sanctions aren’t hurting Russia as much as they thought it would and how the energy situation in Europe is worse than they thought it would be. Inflation is being driven higher than they thought it would be by high fuel prices, and the food emergency in the Middle East and Africa is worse. There are a lot of stories in the press now about the downside of sanctions against Russia.
To me, that reflects, one, it reflects reality. Two, maybe sections of the elites and the population are losing some of their appetite for this hyper-aggressive stance towards Russia. I know for Ukrainians, this will feel like a betrayal. Still, I’ll say it again, it’s not worth dying for a section of the Ukrainian oligarchy, and it’s not worth the Earth dying because nobody will seriously address climate. What’s been happening with inflation and the energy crisis in Europe? They’re all going back to increasing their fossil fuel use. They’re giving up on some of the green strategies. Even though the obvious strategy to get off Russian gas is green. They can’t do it fast enough, so they’re going back to more coal.
The U.S. is talking about more coal even though there are tons of oil and gas in the United States. Whatever modest, pathetic, weak climate strategy there was is getting demolished by the consequences of the invasion and the sanctions. So I would say, in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, you’re part of humanity, and we as humanity got to deal with the climate crisis. What I would say is to end the war, use the crisis to overthrow the Ukrainian oligarchy, create a really democratic Ukraine and become a model. You’re going to have to rebuild. The country is, to so much extent, destroyed. Well, what about a green rebuild? Not an IMF, austerity rebuild. What about a green rebuild and asking the world to come help rebuild a green Ukraine? A green democratic Ukraine. Now that’s something to fight for.
Colin Bruce Anthes
I think a lot of people would love to join that effort. I think that’s a great place for us after a very difficult conversation; that’s a great place for us to wrap up. Thank you so much, Paul, for delving into this difficult terrain and for addressing a lot of challenges and a lot of different perspectives. Thanks, everybody, for putting your two cents in and giving us something to respond to. Thanks for tuning in.
Great. Thank you, Colin.