18/4 – Richard D Wolff: The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine

The 30-plus years since 1989/1990 have changed both the U.S. empire and its challenges. Russia proved too weak to hold on to most of Eastern Europe. The United States reintegrated much of that region into Western capitalism via EU and NATO memberships, trade agreements, and Western investments.

Slowly, over the last 20 years, Russia overcame some of its post-1989 weaknesses. The meteoric rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) brought new challenges for the U.S. empire, including a Russia-China alliance. Russia is now a capitalist economic system allied with the PRC (whose economy has a larger private capitalist sector than at any time since the Chinese Revolution of 1949). These two powerful capitalist economies are the largest globally by geography (Russia) and by population (China). They present a major problem for the U.S. global empire.

Russia evidently felt finally strong enough and allied with a much larger economic entity so it could hope to challenge and stop further “losses” in Eastern Europe. Thus, it invaded Crimea, Georgia, and now Ukraine.

In stark contrast, the U.S. empire’s ability to suppress challenges to its global dominance shrank. It lost wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as its intervention in Syria’s civil war. Its global economic footprint decreased in relation to that of the PRC. It proved unable to bring nations like Venezuela and Iran to heel despite trying hard for many years. In Ukraine, on one side is an effort led by nationalists who would bring another nation further back into the U.S.-led global capitalist empire.

On the other side is Russia and its allies determined to challenge the U.S. empire’s growth project in Ukraine and pursue their own competitive agenda for part or all of Ukraine. China stays with Russia because its leaders see the world and history in much the same way: They both share a common competitor in the United States.

Ukraine, per se, is not the issue. It is tragically a war-ravaged pawn in a much larger conflict. Nor is the issue about either Russian President Vladimir Putin or U.S. President Joe Biden as leaders. The same history and confrontation would prevail upon their successors. Meanwhile, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to force change on the PRC by imposing the biggest sanctions action in history (i.e., a trade war and a tariff war) utterly failed. Trump was caught up in the same history as Biden, even if each focused on attacking the Russian-Chinese alliance differently.

Eventually some compromise will end the Ukraine war. Both sides will likely declare victory and blame the war on the other among propaganda blizzards. The Russian side will stress demilitarization, denazification, and protection of Russians in eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine side will stress freedom, independence, and national self-determination. Meanwhile, the tragedy goes beyond Ukraine’s suffering. The entire world is caught up in the decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another. Conflicts between the capitalist empires can occur anywhere where differences between them flare up.

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