Why we need a new spirit of internationalism. By EDWY PLENEL; March 4, 2022

The invasion of Ukraine is now forcing the world to face up to the unprecedented threat posed by Russian imperialism. In this op-ed article, Mediapart’s publishing editor Edwy Plenel argues that what is needed is a surge of international solidarity to defend and help the Ukrainian people who are resisting that aggression.

A new imperialism is threatening world peace and it is Russian. Russia's invasion of Ukraine is finally forcing us to face up to this reality. This truth has been staring us in the face for a decade, to be precise ever since March 2012 and the third presidential term of Vladimir Putin, who has held uninterrupted power in Moscow for what will soon be a quarter of a century.

Doubling Down On Double Standards – The Ukraine Propaganda Blitz
‘Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has gotten much more coverage, and condemnation, in just 24 hours than the US-Saudi war on Yemen has gotten since it started nearly 7 years ago… US-backed Saudi bombing now is the worst since 2018... The inevitable result of this level of media bombardment on many people: Conflict in Ukraine is ‘our’ war - ‘I stand with Ukraine!’... We can be sure that Facebook Instagram, Twitter YouTube and Tik Tok will never be awash with the sentiment: ‘I stand with Yemen!’

This truth, well-documented on Mediapart, is that of vengeful imperialism, driven by the resentment of defeated nations who turn their pain into aggression against other peoples. It is also of an imperialism guided by a mission, the conviction that it is defending a conservative and nationalistic vision of the world, as an alternative to democratic ideals that are equated with Western decadence.

Finally, this truth is about a nuclear power at the mercy of one man and his oligarchic clan, a regime which has moved from authoritarianism to dictatorship, that murders opponents and journalists, muzzles and jails political dissidents, bans organisations in civil society and demonises any challenge as foreign plotting.

In addition to its own people, who find their social aspirations and democratic demands hijacked by this headlong dash for war, the main target of this imperialism is the free will of different peoples to make their own decisions, their right to choose their own destiny, their freedom to invent their own future.

That has been the driving force of the Ukrainian crisis since 2014. But it was also behind the Russian intervention in Syria, when in 2015 Moscow came to the aide of one of the worst dictatorships in the Arab world. And it was the driving force behind the second Chechen War in 1999 when, even back then, Vladimir Putin was asserting his power through violence by conducting a war of extermination against the desire for independence of a people from the Caucuses.

The annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea eight years ago was the first time since World War II that a European state has captured a region belonging to another European state. Yet this violence was not a response to aggression, other than that which was implied - as far as Vladimir Putin and his supporters were concerned – by the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people expressed in their desire to formalise an association with the European Union.

In fact, it was the rejection of this association by the then-president in Kiev, who preferred an agreement with Russia, which triggered the Euromaidan protest movement in Ukraine in late 2013. When Russia then unleashed a cycle of war at the heart of the European continent – of which this invasion is the culmination – it was not about propagandist quibbling over the supposed threat of NATO. It was against that democratic awakening in Ukraine.

Whether through indifference or lack of awareness, many diplomats and politicians offered reassurance by regarding the annexation of the Crimea as an internal affair within a Russian-speaking geopolitical arena. Their ideological blinkers - or more prosaically their prejudices in relation to non-European peoples, in particular Muslims - stopped them from seeing any further. For taking the time to evaluate the aggressive dynamic of the new imperialism represented by Vladimir Putin would have meant paying more attention to the tragic fate of the Syrian people.

If they had supported, welcomed and listened they would have known. Syria, which become the epicentre of the democratic Arab revolutions after the military coup d'État in Egypt in 2013, was in fact the first theatre of Russian military expansion outside the parameters of the former Soviet Union. It has continued since with Russian's interventions in Africa, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa, carried out under the cover of the mercenary group Wagner.

Never baulking at war crimes against civilians, the Russian intervention saved Bashar al-Assad's bloody regime, against whom the Syrian people had risen after the 2011 uprising in Tunisia, with citizens of different beliefs and convictions uniting in peace. At the same time as it was asserting its power outside Russian borders, the Putin regime stepped up its domestic political violence. Its imperial court also became a dictatorial one. The start of the war in Ukraine was marked by two events which would go on to symbolise its capacity to violate norms, in the manner of a rogue state.

On July 17th 2014 a Malaysia Airlines Boeing jet airliner carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew was shot down in mid-flight above the region of Donetsk in the east of Ukraine which was under the control of pro-Russian separatists. The initial revelations from CORRECT!V, reported by Mediapart, about Russia's responsibility in this crime have since been confirmed by international investigations.

Then on February 27th 2015 the Russian politician and Vladimir Putin opponent, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered on a Moscow bridge a short distance from the Kremlin. He had been preparing a report on the Russian war in Ukraine, against which he had called on people to protest. Since then Russian special services operations against opponents and dissidents using deadly poisons in particular, including abroad, have increased in number.

Having miraculously escaped an apparent murder attempt thanks to Germany's intervention, the key Russian opposition figureAlexei Navalny is now rotting in prison on the basis of an entirely fabricated case, as is also true of other dissidents. A short time before his arrest Navalny had published an online video investigation carried out by his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) about 'Putin's Palace', a symbol of the cynicism of a government based on grasping and predatory capitalism.

The Moscow government has progressively ended what remained of public, pluralist and independent expression and of Russian civil society. Propaganda reigns supreme in the media, with no room for opposing views. Non-governmental organisations who receive foreign aid, in particular from foreign foundations, have come under attack, with a 2012 law paving the way for them to be first marginalised and then banned altogether after a toughening of the rules in 2020 forced such ONGs to declare themselves as a “foreign agent”. 

In such a context, with myth holding sway over reality, the past can no longer be discussed or re-evaluated any more than the present. Thus on December 28th 2021 the Russian Supreme Court announced the dissolution of the NGO Memorial, founded in 1989 with the support of the Russian nuclear physicist, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Andrei Sakharov. On top of its work defending human rights, we owe a debt to Memorial for its work documenting the crimes of Stalinism, in exhuming camps and mass graves, as well as the rehabilitation of all its victims.

A spectre who emerged from the wreckage of the USSR, Vladimir Putin offers up a blend of Great Russian Tsarism and communist Stalinism. That is, in outline, the reality of the Putin regime. It is impossible to detect within it an ounce of progressive ideals, democratic principles or political morality. The far right, particularly in France, know the reality, and went there for their funding and to court the regime's leaders, as our investigations have clearly demonstrated. Meanwhile from the campaign for a nationalistic Brexit in Great Britain to the election of the supremacist Donald Trump in the United States, the Kremlin was happy to serve its own interests by using the full array of virtual weapons made available by the digital revolution, those of disinformation, brainwashing and manipulation.

But with the invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin is now unleashing far more real weapons against Europe, even to the point where - in the manner of a modern day Dr Strangelove - he brandishes the nuclear threat. Whatever illnesses the leader may have, whatever his solitude and his paranoia, speculation about his irrationality or madness hide the key point: the coherence of his imperial project, which has been considered and thought about for a long time, and which has set Russia on its aggressive and belligerent course.

In 2015, the year after the start of the Ukrainian crisis, a meticulously-documented essay allowed us to understand this. 'Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine' ('Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin') by philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff, published by Solin-Actes Sud, is an exhaustive inventory of the ideologies that drive Vladimir Putin. Having returned to the presidency of Russia in 2012, after the fictional interlude when he was prime minister to his second-in-command Dmitry Medvedev, Putin openly embarked on a conservative shift of direction that was guided by the notion of the 'Russian Way'. 

Amid a hodgepodge of ideas in which intellectual proponents of a Greater Russia from the time of the tsars, White Russians opposed to the Bolsheviks and Alexander Solzhenitsyn from Soviet dissidence days are all intermingled, one factor remains constant in the regime: the promotion of an eternal Russia, pared down to its Christian and Slavic identity. This idea is held up as an alternative to modern democracy, which is dismissed as a Western deception. During a Youth Forum held in August 2014 in the Crimea, a few months after it was annexed, a Moscow-based lecturer and Putin supporter summed up what was at stake: “Building a separate civilisation … and to consider ourselves as the guardian saviours of Europe”.

Russia's posturing as a victim - of a supposedly aggressive and scornful West under North American domination - is taking root alongside rhetoric from the past. This rhetoric can be summed up in the words of the anti-communist philosopher Ivan Ilyin(1883-1954), who said that the “Western peoples neither understand nor support Russian originality” and that their objective was to “dismember Russia, to subject her to Western control, to dismantle her and in the end make her disappear”. Moreover, in January 2014 'Our Tasks', a collection of essays by Ilyin, who was briefly attracted by Nazism, was handed out by the Russian administration to all senior civil servants, governors and senior figures in the United Russia party. 

On March 18th 2014, in his address to the Russian Federation after the annexation of the Crimea, Putin himself explicitly echoed such sentiments. “The policy of containment [of Russia], led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner...” he declared. Meanwhile in an interview with the Russian publication Pravda, an historian close to the Kremlin, Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister who signed the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, stated: “A war has been waged against Russia for a thousand years. Today is no exception. The West's struggle against Russia will never end.”

A spectre who emerged from the wreckage of the USSR, whose fall in 1991 he describedon April 25th 2005 as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, Vladimir Putin offers up a blend of Great Russian Tsarism and communist Stalinism. There is nothing illogical about this when one considers the extent to which Joseph Stalin, who made a clean and murderous break with the internationalist ideals of the October Revolution of 1917, reduced Sovietism to blind love for the Russian Fatherland, to a culture of military obedience, with the organs of repression and espionage – the KGB, now the FSB, where Putin started his career – forming the backbone of the state. 

This is no mere speculation. The connection was acknowledged by the Russian president himself in his speech of February 21st 2022 which stunned the world when he announced that his offensive against Ukraine was being stepped up. Denying the very historical existence of Ukraine, which he called an “invention” of the Bolsheviks, Putin returned to the issue which marked the schism between Leninism and Stalinism, a rupture whose memory would endure in opposition from the Left, from Trotskyism: and this was the issue of nationalities.

For Putin, the indelible fault committed by Lenin - “worse than a mistake … when it comes to the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples” - was to have wanted to “satisfy the ceaselessly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former [Tsarist] empire”. By refusing to put oppressive imperialism, with its conquests and colonial dominions, and the forces of nationalism which were rebelling in order to free themselves on an equal footing, Lenin was in effect defending the right of peoples to make their own decisions. Stalin, meanwhile, sought to place the small nations of the failed Tsarist empire under Russian domination.

Just as the colonial issue still affects our current day societies – in their diversity, in the discrimination and racism that exists – so, too, this question of nationalities is at the heart of the Stalinism that persists in Putin's ideology. Stalin's only theoretical work, 'Marxism and the National Question', which was written in 1913 under the supervision of Lenin, led to him becoming the Commissar of Nationality Affairs from the start of the Russian Revolution until 1923. The work is characterised by Great Russian chauvinism and opposes self-determination to the point where it considers demands for secession to be counter-revolutionary particularly, even back then, in the case of the Ukraine.

How Putin propaganda twists aggression and turns it into victimisation 

Exactly a century later – the USSR was created in 1922 – Putin thus portrays himself as Stalin's political heir. When work first began in in August 1922 on defining relations between the future Soviet Republics and Russia, Stalin only wanted to give them a vague autonomy inside a federation that was entirely subordinate to Russia. Lenin was strongly opposed to this, to the point where, as well as his belated awareness that “Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands”, this issue of nationalities would be his last fight before illness struck him down.

In his well-known 'Testament' written in December 1922, which was kept secret by the Soviet authorities for a long time, Lenin attacked the “truly Great-Russian nationalist campaign” advocated by Stalin, whom he described in not very flattering terms as a “Georgian … who carelessly flings about accusations of 'nationalist-socialism', whereas he himself is a real and true 'nationalist-socialist', and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully ...” 

In contrast, during his speech on February 21st 2022 the current occupant of the Kremlin acknowledged that Stalin had “fully implemented … not Lenin’s but his own principles of government”, in other words a “tightly centralised and absolutely unitary state”. Putin's only criticism is that Stalin “did not formally revise Lenin’s principles underlying the Soviet Union”. In other words, he did not challenge the right – on paper – for the republics to have self-determination and to secede. Putin described these rights as “odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state”.

Rather than a sign of madness, Vladimir Putin's historical meanderings justifying his war of aggression indicate the coherence and dangerous nature of his project. When the dead hand of the past captures the present it becomes the driving force behind the ideologies of resentment which make nations dangerous. Their obsessive refrain is of the humiliations they have suffered and of the greatness they have lost, which fuels the conviction that they can only rediscover the latter by avenging the former. 

During his speech on February 24th which marked the triggering of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin spoke about the end of the Soviet Union and stated that it had made him certain that “the paralysis of power and will is the first step towards complete degradation and oblivion”. 
He followed this with a diatribe against the United States and its European allies, the “collective West”: “They ... tried to put the final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us.” Putin continued: “They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values ... attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.”

This twisting of aggression into victimisation is the trap set by Putin propaganda, which hides his desire for power behind the need for self-defence. The supposed military threat from NATO is held up to stifle the democratic aspirations of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.

It goes without saying that the long list over the past three decades of missed opportunities, persistent blindness and tragic errors on the part of the United States and its allies gives some substance to this rhetoric. Indeed, quite understandably, such rhetoric resonates with the peoples who have suffered the consequences of such errors and paid the price. None of these faults, even crimes, on the West's part can excuse the Russian aggression. They have certainly assisted the advent of this Russian imperialism. But they are not the cause of it.

Yes, the reality is that the West became intoxicated by its default victory when the USSR collapsed in on itself in 1991. Colluding with the new ruling class there that got rich pillaging the remains of the Soviet Union, the West behaved with domineering arrogance, carried away by its belief in an End of History in which capitalism - free of any obstacles and threats - would be the end state.

Yes, in the decade after 2001 and 9/11 in New York, the West went into Afghanistan and Iraq, in a war against terrorism that was as disastrous as it was deceitful, violating international law, trampling on the sovereignty of nations, increasing the number of human rights abuses, and tolerating torture, illegal detentions and war crimes. All this was done while it allowed the continuing violation, even the denial, of the Palestinian people's rights by a sovereign state.

Yes, when the democratic Arab revolutions sprang up in 2011, rather than showing solidarity the West worried about how long its domination would last, to the point where it again colluded with the old order of absolute monarchies and nationalist dictatorships. President Nicolas Sarkozy's France even went further, with a military intervention in Libya to which Russia and China were not opposed, a sham war with aims that were not stated because they could not be stated, hiding as they did his own corruption.

Yes, since the start of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 Europe has been faint-hearted, displaying a mixture of lack of awareness and hesitation. While rarely refusing to do business with the Putin oligarchy - even tolerating the greed of some of its former leaders - it relied on the Atlantic alliance under American domination rather than asserting itself as an independent power, including in defence matters. At the same time it turned its back on the world, barricading itself in a fortress built on security and national identity.

This Europe which is now rediscovering war on its own continent, with the resulting processions of refugees, disasters and human misery, is the same Europe that very often – particularly France – closed its doors to the wounded humanity that arrived there. It refused to come up with a new relationship based on interdependence and solidarity with the peoples of the Mediterranean and Africa.

Evidence of this in recent days has been the casual, accepted racism seen in the necessary moves to take in Ukrainians fleeing the fighting. These actions were accompanied by talk about how these refugees are similar to us - in short, they are white – and that this is about “quality” emigration (unlike migration that comes from elsewhere) (read Ellen Salvi's op-ed on this in French). Meanwhile non-Europeans, in particular Africans, who were doing the same thing on the borders of Ukraine have been unceremoniously turned back.

However, none of these faults, even crimes, on the part of the West can excuse the Russian aggression. They have certainly favoured the coming of the aggressive, belligerent and reactionary Russian imperialism that Vladimir Putin represents. But they are not the cause of it. The “Russian Way” that he wants to impose on the world has a logic of its own.

This invasion of Ukraine has forced the world to become aware, albeit belatedly, of a brutal new reality that we have to face head-on rather than just resorting to old approaches, automatic reactions or the tendency simply to take a particular side. Those who have absolutely no sympathy for the ravages caused by economically predatory, environmentally devastating and geopolitically dominant capitalism cannot use them as a reason to absolve the Russian aggression or not take a stance on it, when faced with the duty to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

During the wars in Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001, the first time that the sound of gunfire returned to Europe, we also had to confront this new reality of states and armies that arose from the collapse of socialism and who espoused a murderous, nationalistic and racist ideology. This led to the carrying out of crimes against humanity whose victims were the Muslims of former Yugoslavia.

The dilemma then was to do nothing and wash one's hands of it, which was unthinkable both politically and morally, especially after the genocidal crimes at Srebrenica in Bosnia, or instead to take action, even if there was a risk that the response was carried out within a debatable framework that was open to criticism – for Kosovo it meant a NATO operation that was not part of a United Nations mandate.

It is, however, easy to get out of this false dilemma: one simply has to listen to those most involved, in particular Ukrainian, Russian and Polish voices who share the socialist and anti-imperialist commitments of the European radical Left. For them, as was the case during the Russian intervention in Syria (read this opinion article by Franco-Syrian author and publisher Farouk Mardam Bey on Mediapart), there is no debate, unless one wants to be an accomplice to fresh oppressive and criminal domination.

This is the approach of The Social Movement, a new political organisation in Ukraine which brings together trade unionists and activists from various former organisations on the Left. Attacking the “resurrection of Russian imperialism” it has launched an appeal to the “international left” to “condemn the imperialist policies of the Russian government and to show solidarity with people who have suffered from the war that has lasted almost eight years and who may suffer from a new one.”

It continues: “Unfortunately, the decline of American imperialism has been accompanied not by the emergence of a more democratic world order, but by the rise of other imperialist predators, fundamentalist and nationalist movements. Under these circumstances, the international left, accustomed to fighting only against Western imperialism, should reconsider its strategy … Just like in the 19th century, when the Russian Empire was the gendarme of Europe, the Putin regime is now becoming the roadblock of social and political changes in the post-Soviet space.”

In an interview with the daily Slovenian publication Dnevnik, the Russian historian Ilya Budraitskis, who lives in Moscow and who remains a voice on the Left critical of the Putin regime, takes a similar line. “The European left has lost interest in internationalism. They see the world as a conflict between US imperialism and those who oppose it,” he said. “Among them we find, quite surprisingly, sympathy for Putin, because he resists the political domination of the United States. It seems to me that, in the light of the conflict in Ukraine, there is an urgent need to renew the internationalist approach of the European left to international politics.”

“That would be very useful for us,” Ilya Budraitskis added with quiet humour, even as he issued an alert. “We are in a worse situation than during the Cold War,” he warned. Why? Because the “ethics of responsibility” has gone from international relations on both sides, he said. And because Putin's Russia, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, “cannot claim to offer any ideological, political, social or economic alternative to the American order”.

Finally, from Poland, there is this address made to the Left in the West: “You don't have to like NATO, but Russia isn't the weakest party or the one most at threat.” These words come from the left-wing party Razem, whose name means 'Together', and whose politics are similar to that of Podemos in Spain and in certain respects France's radical left party La France Insoumise. 

“For decades,” write four of its leaders, “Russia has been trying to portray itself as a victim surrounded by hostile forces who threaten its security. The facts contradict that. It is Russia, with a powerful army, a powerful arsenal of nuclear warheads and imperial ambitions, which is trying to impose its wishes on its neighbouring countries – and it's that which the Left must oppose.” 

In short, confronted with this new Russian imperialism this is no time to be haggling. Every stance that treats the adversaries as equivalent, with both of them an equal threat, boils down to an underestimation of the new reality and the dangers involved. As a result the response cannot be to retreat inside a national fortress, to adopt an illusory even-handed stance under the pretext of non-alignment. Faced with a peril of this scale there is no other riposte than one carried out with other nations, that internationalism whose abandonment by the European Left paved the way for the return of identity-driven and xenophobic nationalism. And which, as a consequence, paved the way for a new belligerent and authoritarian imperialism.

Moreover, the origins of the Putin regime that were outlined earlier underscore how any ambiguity towards it ends up with a key concern relating to emancipation - and its struggles and demands - being left to one side: and that is the issue of democracy. As its far-right supporters demonstrate, tolerance towards the current Russian government is, to say the least, an indication of low requirements when it comes to freedoms: in truth, such tolerance indicates a fascination for authoritarian governments.

Battling in 1941 at the start of World War II against left-wing intellectuals who baulked at standing behind their government in the fight against the Nazis, the British essayist George Orwell happily conceded all the defects of the British regime, which was then still an empire. In his essay 'Culture and Demicracy' Orwell stated, for example: “After all, if the Germans are very cruel to the Poles, our own behaviour is not so very nice in India.” But this was to better make an obvious point that, while a crime is still a crime whether committed by a democracy or a dictatorship, there is nonetheless no equivalence between the two regimes; one allows a challenge, the other bans it. “In a country like this we are not afraid to stand up and say what we think,” Orwell continued.

So that the Ukrainian people today, the Russian people tomorrow, and the other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, can again stand up and say what they think and freely choose their own destiny, there is nothing more urgent than supporting, defending and helping – including militarily – those who resist the aggression of this new Russian imperialism.


Rebecca Solnit: It’s time to confront the Trump-Putin network / George Monbiot: We must confront Russian propaganda / Moscow police detain children for laying flowers at Ukrainian embassy

Sergey Faldin: Putin is digging his own grave in Ukraine / Berlin stands up against Putin at huge anti-war rally / Indian Student Killed In Shelling In Kharkiv

Nesrine Malik: Let the horror in Ukraine open our eyes to the suffering of war around the world

Stalinism: A Study of Internal Colonialism (1977) by Alvin Gouldner

Book Review: Sankar Ray on Sobhanlal Datta Gupta's 'Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India'


10 Theses on the Proliferation of Egocrats (1977)

Ukraine: India refuses to take a clear position on the Russian invasion

Jonathan Steele: Understanding Putin’s narrative about Ukraine is the master key to this crisis / Oliver Stone: American Exceptionalism Is on Display in Ukraine / Mariia Shynkarenko: Not about NATO

Kelly Denton-Borhaug: The True Costs of America’s All-Consuming War-Culture / Chris Hedges: Chronicle of a War Foretold

Tory lobbying row over unregulated ‘Westminster Russia Forum’ / Donald Trump can't stop praising Vladimir Putin

Marina Hyde: Putin’s tale of two cities–London for his oligarchs, Kyiv for his bombs / Oliver Bullough: Butler to the World


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