Russia/Georgia: War exposes limits of West

Major capitalist powers jockey for influence at expense of peoples of the region

Less than a decade ago US imperialism believed that, like a colossus bestriding the globe, it could act as an all-powerful, lone, global super-power. The Socialist explained at the time that despite its vast military strength, US imperialism would not be able to create a unipolar world and would quickly find its power checked and its authority undermined.

The nightmare and lies of the Iraq invasion and occupation left the authority of US imperialism severely dented. Now the ‘five day war’ between Russia and Georgia has again demonstrated the limits of US power and the increasingly unstable nature of relations between the major world powers.

Following the collapse of the Stalinist regimes that existed in the USSR and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s/early 1990s, capitalist political leaders claimed they would create a ‘new world order’ of peace, democracy and prosperity.

Instead, nearly two decades of unrestrained capitalism in the former ‘soviet bloc’ brought an unprecedented collapse of industry (with later some recovery), an unparalleled gap between rich and poor, an unfolding economic crisis and an increasing number of military conflicts.

Stalinism was not genuine socialism but a grotesque and undemocratic caricature of it. Nonetheless, the Stalinist states were based on planned economies, albeit controlled bureaucratically, and represented a threat to capitalism as an alternative economic model. As a result the existence of Stalinism tended to be the ‘glue’ pulling the different capitalist powers together in opposition to ‘communism’. The dissolving of that glue has not led to peace but to the tensions between the major capitalist powers coming to the fore.

It is the world’s working classes and poor masses that are paying the price for the ratcheting up of nationalist tensions. The military attacks in South Ossetia and Georgia by both sides in the conflict have led to widespread destruction, including many civilians being killed and wounded.

In the jockeying between the major capitalist powers, so-called democratic principles are entirely secondary to enhancing the national interests of each of the rival powers. In the current conflict both US and Russian imperialism are attempting to claim the mantel of defending the ‘weak and the just’. In both cases it is utterly hypocritical.

The Russian regime’s support for the rights of nationalities to self-determination is exposed for the sham it is by the two brutal wars it has carried out in Chechnya, where many thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands have become refugees. And for Bush to attack Russia for brutally invading Georgia after the US’s vicious subjugation of Iraq, is seen by millions around the world as blatant double standards.

Historical factors

The current conflict in Georgia escalated as a result of a number of factors. A key turning point for the Russian government was the recognition of Kosovan independence in February this year. This was a blow to Russia’s perceived interests in the Balkans as it saw an openly pro-US Kosovan government granted recognition against the wishes of Russia’s historical ally and ‘fellow Slavs’ in Serbia.

This took place after a period in which US imperialism – under Clinton and then Bush – has, in an extremely short-sighted way, attempted to take advantage of capitalist Russia’s weakness in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism, by trying to expand the US’ ‘sphere of influence’ right up to the borders of Russia. Russian capitalism, however, while weakened industrially, has now emerged as an energy super-power (at least while oil prices remain high) and is not prepared to accept this process continuing unchecked.

Military exercises near Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital city) in July this year involving over a thousand US marines, Georgia’s continued attempts to join NATO and Georgia’s open support for the US missile defence system based in eastern Europe, all played a role in bringing the conflict closer, prior to Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, sending troops to seize South Ossetia.

The end result has been a disaster for Saakashvili. The Russian regime has now recognised both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations. Both have been recognised as autonomous regions since 1810, and are linguistically and historically distinct. Nonetheless, Russia’s motive in recognising them as independent and providing Russian troops to enforce it, is not support for the national rights of the South Ossetians and Abkhazians, but a desire to cripple the Georgian regime.

There are widespread divisions between and within the US and the European powers on how to respond to the situation. Their uncertainty stems primarily from their lack of effective means to intervene and from fear of the effect on supplies of Russian oil and gas.

It was ruled out for any of the western powers to back Georgia by direct military means. To do so would have opened the door to serious military conflict between countries with unimaginable amounts of weaponry, including nuclear weapons. This would have been the case even if Georgia had joined NATO, even though membership of NATO is supposed to guarantee other NATO members coming to a country’s defence.

Nor are sanctions against Russia a serious possibility in the aftermath of the conflict. Many countries of Europe, including Britain, rely on Russia for a large percentage of their oil and gas. In contrast, the Russian elite rely on Britain only for ‘life’s little luxuries’. This was summed up by Tory leader David Cameron, when in arguing for sanctions against Russia, he suggested that it would “stop them shopping at Selfridges”!

Of course, serious sanctions from other western countries could have a devastating effect on the Russian economy, but Russia only has to threaten to go on an oil and gas strike to create a crisis in the rest of the capitalist world.

Instead, the European Union has limited itself to postponing talks on a Russia-EU partnership deal. The US has not come up with anything more effective. Nonetheless, these events mark a turning point. The coming years will see a major increase in conflict between the major capitalist powers – including the development of more frequent proxy wars. Russian capitalism will be more likely to publicly oppose US imperialism on different foreign policies, such as Iran.


Meanwhile, none of the problems of the masses in Georgia and South Ossetia have been solved. As genuine socialists, we defend the right to self-determination and fight against all forms of national discrimination and oppression, through working class and international solidarity. We support a genuine right to self-determination based on the rights of the working class and poor in society to decide where they wish to live.

When capitalist leaders talk of self-determination, they do not mean self-determination for the working class and poor, just for those who have armies and powerful friends.

As Kosovo and South Ossetia demonstrate, under capitalism there is no possibility of such nations being genuinely independent. But seeking the support of one or another imperialist power is no solution for the working people in those areas.

Developing independent working class forces capable of challenging and overthrowing capitalism – nationally and internationally – is the only way to guarantee the right to self-determination, whether it is autonomy or independence that is desired.

Socialists do not automatically and always support separation, but when we do, we still work to build solidarity between the working classes of all nationalities. And we argue for autonomous or independent areas to be part of a socialist federation or confederation, to enable socialist planning of production and resources for the benefit of all peoples.

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September 2008