Russia: US-Russia tensions escalate

Putin exploits Western hypocrisy over ‘democratic rights’

Not since the height of the ‘Cold War’ have tensions between Russia and the western imperialist powers been so tense [the post-WW2 Cold War was the result of deep antagonisms between two different hostile social systems; the capitalist West, and the Stalinist states – bureaucratically-dominated planned economies. Ed]. The suggestion that the US would use Polish and Czech territory as bases for elements of its anti-missile defense system, supposed to protect the West from missiles launched by countries, such as Iran and North Korea, led Russian president Vladimir Putin to claim Russia would aim rockets at Europe. His threat was backed up by a test firing of an anti-ballistic rocket, which was widely covered by Russian TV news broadcasts.

This dispute, which threatened to dominate the recent G8 summit, in Germany, was only partially diffused by Putin’s offer to Bush to use anti-missile facilities in Azerbaijan which were originally built as part of the Soviet defense system. This proposal clearly caught Bush by surprise. But the underlying tensions continue to grow – the struggle between the different imperialist powers, on political and economic influence, is becoming ever more bitter.

In April, the decision of the Estonian government to move a statue commemorating Soviet Army soldiers led to serious rioting in the capital, Tallin, in which one Russian was killed. In response, the Kremlin whipped up an anti-Estonian mood in Moscow, with a pro-Kremlin youth group effectively laying siege to the Estonian embassy. In the aftermath of the G8, following Bush’s "superstar" tour of Albania, during which he expressed support for Kosovo’s independence, the Kremlin stepped up its opposition to such plans, fearing that a precedent would be set that would encourage the numerous breakaway regions in the former USSR to step up their efforts to gain international recognition.

These conflicts are acting as proxies for even more serious conflicts of interest. Russia and the US have already been fundamentally opposed to each other over Iraq, they disagree on the Middle East and also over Iran. To some degree, this reflects the continuation of the alliances forged during the cold war. It also indicates the strengthening of an unofficial alliance between governments, such as those of China, Iran, Venezuela and Bolivia and, of course, Russia – all of whom are increasingly open in their opposition to the dominance of the world by US imperialism.

Russian President Putin used last weekend’s St Petersburg Economic Forum to complain that existing organizations (such as the World Bank) are "not doing a good job regulating global economic relations", declaring that "the interests of stable economic development would be best served by a new architecture of international economic relations based on trust and mutually beneficial integration."


The Kremlin is becoming increasingly aggressive in its defense of the economic interests of Russian capitalism. Russia is aggressively exporting technology for nuclear energy, including to Iran. India has also recently signed a contract for Russia to build four new atomic power stations. On top of this, Russia is increasingly challenging US dominance of the international arms trade. It has already displaced the UK and France at the top of the league table of arms exporters and, for several key products, Russia has overtaken the US.

And, naturally, oil and gas play a role. Russia, which is the world’s largest natural gas producer and vies with Saudi Arabia for first place as crude oil producer, is not only involved in a bitter struggle with the US over pipeline construction, but uses its control over oil and gas supplies to blackmail neighbouring governments. Most spectacularly this happened in early 2006, when the Ukraine had its energy supplies cut until it agreed to pay the market price for supplies. This led to supply cuts in many countries in Western Europe. More recently, Russia informed the government of Belarus that it too has to pay market prices for energy supplies. As a result, President Lukoshenko announced that all social benefits will no longer be paid! As well as this, Western energy multinationals, such as Shell and BP, are being squeezed out of the Russian oil industry.

Against the background of continuing economic growth in Russia, Putin is able to use international developments to present an image at home of himself as a "strong defender" of Russia’s interests. With both parliamentary and presidential elections due, the Kremlin is using what excuses it can to play the Russian chauvinist card to bolster support for its candidates. It uses the hypocrisy of Western leaders, who have suddenly become concerned at the lack of democracy in Russia, to strengthen its case. When the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the recent EU-Russia summit, held in Samara, publicly criticized Putin for arresting participants during an anti-summit protest, this was shown on Russian TV immediately proceeding pictures of the German police attacking anti-G8 summit protesters. While US leaders complain about the increasingly undemocratic methods used in Russia, they welcomed constitutional changes in Kazakhstan that enable President Nazabayev to be ‘President for life’, not least because Nazabayev adopts a more friendly approach to US oil companies.

Coca Cola uses Russia’s labour code

Western powers, despite their rhetoric about democracy, are not interested in defending democratic rights, as long as their economic interests are served. This was again demonstrated again at the Economic Forum in St Petersburg. This was attended by a record number of Western companies, who expressed their determination, according to the Financial Times (London), "To step up investment in Russia, despite warnings from political leaders that faltering relations with the west could harm Russia’s investment prospects". The Head of Coca Cola, for example, commented that the company planned to double its investment in Russia. The company recently used Russia’s extremely anti-worker ‘labour code’ to justify the low wages it pays.

Long gone are the days when many Russians looked on the ‘West’ as a haven of economic prosperity and democracy. Unfortunately, given the lack of a mass left alternative, the Kremlin has been able to use anti-Western rhetoric in its own interests. How long that can last depends on how long it takes to build a genuine workers’ alternative.

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June 2007