Lenin’s Epitaph: Lessons from the Russia – Georgia War

19 08 2008

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Now that the war between Russia and Georgia is over, it is a good time to learn a few lessons. This war holds out important lessons for all concerned – for the Georgians, for the Russians, for the Americans and NATO, for the world at large. Moreover the lessons are political, military and economic. Let us see what some of these lessons are.

The scale and ferociousness of the military clash between Russia and Georgia has taken the world by surprise. Few expected the simmering tensions around oil pipelines, geo-strategic control and national divides in the Caucasus region to erupt in such serious combat. It was a full scale military combat with fighter planes, infantry divisions backed by tanks and heavy artillery and naval skirmishes.

The most obvious lesson in this conflict has been military. Russia won the war in less than four days.

Fifteen years of large scale military aid from USA, NATO and Israel to the Georgian army could not prepare it enough to face the might of the Russian military for even one day. Compare this to the two other direct wars fought by imperial militaries in recent times. The untrained, ill-equipped, unpopular Taleban managed to hold out for two weeks before the might of the combined NATO forces captured Kabul. Saddam Hussain’s moth-eaten, sanction-weakened, demoralised army held out for three weeks before American troops could enter Baghdad. In comparison, the Russian army took one day to evict the Georgian army from South Ossetia, two days to evict them from “perimeter” towns like Gori and four days to capture and seal Georgia’s entire coastline and destroy the naval facilities at Georgia’s premier port of Poti. This when, unlike both Afghanistan and Iraq, Georgia had the full diplomatic support of the Western world with its massive propaganda machinery we commonly refer to as the “free press”.

This military comparison becomes even starker when one realises that over the past 15 years, Georgia has received hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment, training and support from the NATO countries and Israel to “modernise” and “westernise” its military. The Georgian economy was booming with Western aid and hydrocarbon money. The scale and ease of Russia’s military victory in Georgia is evident from the admission of Georgia’s President that the Russians have cut his country in half and despite the ceasefire agreement having been signed, the Georgian State still does not control half its territory, including the coastline.

The origins of the present conflict go back to the days of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. At the moment of the fall of the Soviet Union and the other socialist States, there was no readymade ruling class which owned the productive forces of the economy and controlled its political levers. Therefore, in all these successor States, power shifted to the hands of those personnel of the former communist parties and technocrats who were willing to take personal advantage of the situation of political vacuum to control the State. This mass of short-sighted, near gangster bureaucrats and technocrats quickly coalesced into a classic ruling class. They were helped significantly by the autocratic and authoritarian State structure left behind by Soviet State, which they used to unleash an effective dictatorship of capital-in-the-making. But they were still weak and managed to survive only because the fragments of the communist party who remained committed to socialism were in disarray. The help, both military-economic and political-cultural, which was provided by the United States and the European Union was also a significant factor in shoring up these new ruling classes.

After the dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR it took some time for these new ruling classes, whether in the Russian Federation or in the newly independent republics, to find their feet. During this decade long hiatus, US and European capital managed to establish significant presence all over the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by leveraging the dependence of the latter’s ruling classes over the former. Not only did they manage to make inroads into the economy and political structures of these successor States, they also managed to splinter the military-strategic might of the successor States’ armies. The move from a bi-polar world to a uni-polar world dominated by the increasingly arrogant United States is too well commented on to waste column space here.

But while the Americans and Europeans – the old imperialist powers – were successful in splintering the military might of the old Soviet system by incorporating the smaller nation-States into the European Union and NATO, they were not able to entirely destroy the political and military power of the Russian successor State. With the stabilisation of the class rule of the new capitalists of Russia, the Russian State started asserting its power. The secret behind the shift from Boris Yeltsin’s drunken dependence on the West to Putin’s quiet self-assurance is to be found in the stability of class rule in Russia and the success of its ruling class in strengthening its State. This new Russian State first strengthened its internal state institutions, re-established control over its economic assets, rebuilt its military might and then began to push back the military and economic inroads made by NATO and EU in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Today Russian ruling classes try to use the (objective) military-economic infrastructure of the Socialist State system as well as the (subjective) longing of the people for a return to the socialist past’s security and comfort to sew up their new politics. This politics has successfully managed to unite the Russian masses behind their State and also draw the energy rich States of Central Asia into a new subsidiary alliance with Russia at the top and China by its side.

In the period between the mid-1990s and the early years of this century, US and its allies like Britain had established military presence in almost all Central Asian and Caucasian republics and blocked their governments into pro-western energy deals. Over the past decade, the Russians have managed, in collaboration with the Chinese, to significantly reduce American and European influence in this entire energy rich region stretching from Siberia to the Black Sea. Georgia, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan remain the only strong US allies in the entire region, even though NATO has some military presence in many Central Asian States. In passing it must be remembered that the Russian ruling classes have lost much of Eastern Europe to NATO and EU and do not have too much of a chance of getting them back into their “sphere of influence”.

It is perhaps forgotten that the much feared Taleban of Afghanistan were built up from scratch and funded to victory by the United States in the late 1990s. The Americans, represented in this case by energy company Unocal, hoped that the Taleban would pacify the unruly Afghans under a severe Islamic theocracy like Saudi Arabia, and thus provide the route for laying a gas pipeline which would carry Central Asian hydrocarbons to the sea via Pakistan. That effort ended in the Frankensteinian failure we know so well. What needs to be remembered is that much of the efforts of the Americans and Europeans, in this period, was centred on finding routes for oil and gas pipelines which would by-pass the territory and military control of the Russian and Chinese States. While the Afghan pipeline did not materialise, the other significant project was a success.

Oil Pipelines of Central Asia and Caucasus

Oil Pipelines of Central Asia and Caucasus

In the early 1990s, the USA and Great Britain proposed an oil pipeline which would start at Baku on the Caspian Sea and bring oil to the Mediterranean Sea at Ceyhan in Turkey passing through the Caucasian mountains via the Georgian capital Tbilisi. A consortium led by British Petroleum invested over US $ 4 billion to build this – the second longest oil pipeline in the world – and it opened for commercial use two years ago. Since then it has pumped one million barrels of oil every day from Central Asia to the Western markets. This oil pipeline remains outside the control of the Russian military and State, the only significant energy source in the entire region to be so.

The attack on Georgia is primarily about controlling this oil pipeline and putting a final stamp of Russian hegemony in the entire energy rich region stretching from Siberia to the Black Sea.

In the past two years, Russia has emerged as the single largest player in the hydrocarbon energy market globally. It used gas supplies to effectively blackmail the EU into accepting its strategic demands vis-à-vis Eastern Europe and effected a division inside NATO over extending the military alliance to States bordering Russia. Georgia, like other Russian breakaway republics, has been fed and fattened by the USA and NATO as part of their strategy of encircling Russia with hostile military powers. None of these States have the independent capability of hitting at Russia but could be effective to make small cuts, bleed the Russian flanks and be used as bargaining chips in the great power game. Georgia is merely a pawn in this game and is today paying the price for forgetting its place in the hierarchy.

The geo-strategic significance of this military victory and the lessons it holds out for everyone cannot be over-stressed. This short war in the Caucasus has severely dented the United States pre-eminence in global power equations. Eager generals in scores of countries would be poring over reports and analysis of this war and the lessons they will learn is deeply damaging for the United States’ ability to threaten violence and promise safety. Not only has the US been incapable of winning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it proved utterly incapable for protecting a State which had given everything, including the third largest military contingent to Iraq, that the US demanded of it. Other than making ineffective diplomatic noises, the United States and NATO could do nothing material to help Georgia.

The reason for the United States and NATO’s inability to go beyond diplomatic anger is that unlike when they were facing the Soviet Union, today the Western powers face Russia. Russia is their imperialist ally – a member of the G8 and a crucial link in the imperialists’ control of global resources. If it was the Soviet Union, which for all its shortcomings and flaws was not an imperialist country and remained outside the imperialist cabal, it would have been easy for the Western powers to throw everything at it, like they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, the US and NATO have to pull their punches since Russia is an integral part of the global imperialist system and hurting it would hurt them in return. Therefore the potency of Russian statements like, “The United States must choose between its alliance with Georgia and its relations with Russia”.

Georgia, however crucial it may be in the global oil map, cannot replace Russia from the G8. After all, the war in Georgia was meant to announce to the world that natural resources, specially hydrocarbons, in the territories formerly called the Soviet Union, would be controlled and supplied by Russia. Russia today has firm and full control over Georgian part of the oil pipeline from Baku which brings one million barrels of Caspian oil to the NATO controlled Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey. The Russians have very effectively plugged this major leak in their oil resources and now control the entire hydrocarbon resources from the Bering till the Black Sea.

While this war has demonstrated the present inability of the United States and Western Europe to directly confront Russia, it has also demonstrated that the imperialist States are willing to bite each other, not merely bark at each other. Many Marxists have argued that over the past few decades the concentration and centralisation of finance capital over the world has sewn the imperialist States so close to each other in ties of inter-dependence that inter-imperialist wars like the two World Wars are today nearly impossible. This argument did not imply the end of inter-imperialist rivalry but rather what was argued was that given the objective conditions of global consolidation of financial capital (what non-Marxists call globalisation) it would not be possible for one imperialist State to fight a military war with the other. They would fight indirect wars between and inside the territories of their third world allies.

This assumption is now under challenge. Even though Georgia is not an imperialist country, it was close to becoming a part of NATO. Even at the height of the Cold-War when NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other with enough nuclear weapons to destroy planet Earth a few times over, the danger was not so great. The Warsaw Pact was composed of countries which, despite all their political shortcomings and authoritarian mistakes, were not predatory and which did everything possible to reduce the possibility of war. The present competition between nuclear weapon States is for a final grab of the remaining resources of the planet. It appears that two centuries of limitless growth of capitalism is now close to reaching the natural limits of planet Earth. The struggle to control the remaining resources have therefore gotten that much more sharper and the principal competitors, motivated by feeling no better than crass greed, are armed with nuclear weapons and willing to use them for their self-interest. This is fundamentally more dangerous a military standoff than what we experienced under the Cold War.

Finally the manner in which most leftists and communists have responded to this war is a sorry lesson of the final defeat of Leninism as an ideology.

Leninism as a distinct form of Marxist political practice was developed during the last time the Russian State was involved in a struggle to divide the world between the imperialist powers, ie. World War I. Lenin argued that beyond communists and leftists had to look beyond the obvious “aggression” of the Austro-Hungarian and German empires and see this war as a struggle to control colonies and their resources. All the principal actors in that bloody war – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Britain, France, Russia, USA – were out to protect their colonies and usurp the colonies of their rivals. Lenin pointed out that the competition between imperialist States for control of markets, resources and populations would lead to bitter inter-imperialist rivalries which could and should be exploited by all anti-capitalist revolutionaries to destroy imperialism.

He particularly warned against communists and leftists taking sides in this inter-imperialist struggle to corner global resources. In fact, the defining break between what was traditionally called ‘socialism’ and what, after Lenin, came to be called ‘communism’ was over his attack on the traditional socialist parties which espoused Marxist ideals but ended up supporting their own country’s war effort. The largest such socialist party – the German Social Democratic Party and its leader Karl Kautsky – were the special target of his attack because they ended up siding with the German nation-State in World War I. He accused such parties and leaders of reneging on the basic principles of Marxist politics and using socialist verbiage to hide their national-chauvinist actions. He coined the pejorative term ‘social-chauvinists’ to describe them.

Nine decades later, when Russia is engaged in a similar imperialist battle to control the natural resources of the world, it is disconcerting to find that almost all communists parties have either kept quiet or supported the Russian attack on Georgia in the false assumption that they are thus opposing US imperialism. Russia is as ruthless as any other member of the imperialist club. It has used the banned cluster bombs in Georgia, it has shelled hospitals and killed civilians. It has cynically used nationalist emotions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to further its geo-political strategy of controlling Caspian oil. The brutal destruction of Chechnya and the dehumanisation of its population is evidence of the utter fraudulence of Russia’s support for national self-determination in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Today, if Russia has its way, Georgia is in the process of being turned into a Russian colony from being a US/NATO protectorate.

But the Russian communist party, the supposed inheritor of the legacy of the great Lenin, has today come out in shameless support of Russian arms. They are busy organising fund collection drives and blood donation camps for Russian soldiers and civilians in Georgia and Ossetia. When communist parties forget the imperialist ambitions of their own nation-states and come out to defend the national interests of such states, they become inherently anti-Leninist. It is yet unclear who will finally win the war for the control of the Caucasian region, but already thousands of working people of that region, whether Georgian, Ossetian or Russian are dying and suffering for this. And with them is dying the Leninist legacy of communist parties free from the disease of nationalist social chauvinism.

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Large sections from this article were published over two weeks in my column in The Post on 13 and 20 August, 2008.

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6 responses

19 08 2008
Sundaram

Read most of your posts tagged nationalism, war and imperialism, caste, Marxism and Marxists and found them really useful. I could not agree with you more in pointing out that the Left has ignored caste and adopted nationalism and parochial (pro-war, pro-nuclear, pro-‘sovereignty’) anti-imperialism totally on its own peril.

The only question that comes next to mind is : Where does this nationalism comes from? Is this a just mistaken tactical add-on which can be better got rid of even upon late realization? Or is it more? I am afraid it all stems from the linear necessitation of developing independent capitalism in the perceived (and compartmentalized) initial phase of revolution ( socialist, neo-democratic whatever). And this need for growth (euphimistically called revolutionization of productive forces) leads to collaboration with the illusive ‘nationalist’ bourgeoisie. Then, nationalism and growth & development fetish come as necessary corollary.

Same with the caste issue – because the CPM justifies aligning with peasants (read landowners) and progressive bourgeois, the caste and related dignity issues never come to its task as they are faced majorly by the landless poor. So, even this late realization about caste and dignity has come only as a cosmetic add-on, more from the fear of BSP like bourgeois formations, while continuing repression on Dalits in Chengara.

Yes, i was relieved to read your anti-growth manifesto. But we remain good guys as long as we keep talking in abstractions. Found no mention of Nandigram on this blog, surprise?

19 08 2008
Sundaram

that smiley was by mistake. sorry.

21 08 2008
Chris

Nice article!
Thanx for posting.
Maybe I will link to it.

31 08 2008
Valentin Zorin

Any “ruthless criticism of ALL that exists” cannot be taken seriously unless it begins with a ruthless SELF-criticism of the Ruthless Critic. It is doubly so if the Ruthless Critic belongs to the Imperialist Left by birth, education, and his all life experience (political history, mentality, cultural prejuduces, etc.) RCATE’s dogma that ” it’s all about oil” shows his complete ignorance about the causes of this war. But this ignorance is not of innocent kind. The Imperialist Left uses it again and again to mask the aggressive designs of Western ultra-imperialism against Russia and all other countries that stand on its way to world domination. The Left Boot loyally marches on with the Right Boot, not a step behind! The Western Left is just as RUTHLESSLY hypocritical as its ruling classes.

Just like the American fascist Robert Kagan, our “ruthless critic” deems it irrelevant just WHO attacked WHOM on August 8. Just like the Nazi-kisser McCain, our ruthless critic does not seem to care that this was the third attempt by Georgian chauvinists to cleanse South Ossetians out of existence, the first under the Menshevik President Jordania in 1920. Just like Western corporate press, our ruthless critic of ALL, that is except his own complicity in the ideological white-washing of Western ultra-imperialism and benefiting from those proverbial “crumbs” from its table, somehow forgets that it is US NAVY that enters the Black Sea to rearm Georgian fascists, not Russian Navy entering the Gulf of Mexico. It is NATO that encircles Russia, not Russia encircling Britain and its settler empires. Its US and British intelligence who stir ethnic hatred in the former SU, not Russian FSB training Scottish and Texan separatists. These FACTS do seem important to our ruthless critic of ALL, except his own prejudices. Even honest bourgeois observers begin to speak up as critics of Western imperialism in the face of these and similar facts, while our ruthless critic of ALL, with his upper lip stiff , makes no difference between the aggressor and its victim, between the gang of Western ultraimperialists and the nationalism of the people they want to destroy.

Lenin is and will remain in our hearts. Even in Putin there is more of Lenin than in all Western Left for the last 50 years. It is Putin who said right after 2000 Russian citizens were murdered by Georgian fascists that the Georgian people are our brothers, that Russian culture is unthinkable without Georgian culture. And what do YOU know or care about Georgian culture? You don’t even know Russian, the language of Tolstoy and Lenin, to read news other than those your corporate media poisons your brain with! Shame on all you, shameless Western fuckers, left and right! For you to become human again only a bitter medicine will help. Nothing short of losing dozens of millions as we did to break the back of German Nazism, no, of Western Nazism, because without the entire history of the genocidal West there would have been no Hitler. Russia will lead the peoples of the world you fucked up and genocide for centuries and we will destroy you. We will, sooner or later.

Valentin Zorin,

Russian Marxist-Leninist

31 08 2008
Aniket Alam

Dear Mr. Zorin,

Thanks for leaving your comment on my article.

There are three things I would like to say in reply.

1. Before leaving this comment it may have been useful for you to check my biographical details on this blog itself. It would have prevented you from making an obvious mistake like terming me “Western”!

2. I would like to know your opinion about whether you consider Russia an imperialist State or not, as defined by Lenin. From your reply on my blog, it appears that you don’t think so. If that is indeed true, I would then ask you these questions;

(a) How and why is Russia a member of G8?

(b) How would you accept Lenin’s categorisation of the Russian State in 1914-17 as imperialist, when it had lower levels of industrialisation, concentration of capital, significantly smaller working class, weaker military, etc. than Russia does today?

(c) Do you support Lenin’s line of “Revolutionary Defeatism” of 1917? If yes, why do you support the Russian State today? If no, why do you call yourself a Leninist?

(d) How do you define the ruling class in Russia today?

(e) How is the Russian’s State’s concept of “near abroad” — countries in Russia’s sphere of influence where they will not allow the influence of any other country to dominate — different from the Monroe Doctrine of 19th Century USA?

3. I would like to remind you of that famous saying “Strong words signal a weak cause”. I was really touched by your insistence on waging war and making love at the same time. We “Westerners” manage only one at a time.

Best,
Aniket.

10 10 2008
Aniket Alam

here is another confirmation of Russia’s growing clout in international affairs

http://inthesenewtimes.com/2008/10/08/iceland-the-little-cuba-of-the-north-grateful-for-russian-support/

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