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Is Putin pulling the strings?

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Issue 2581
Russian president Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin (Pic: The Kremlin)

Russia is back as the bogeyman of liberal politics.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s the myth was that Russian tanks were minutes away from rolling into Western Europe. Today it’s that president Vladimir Putin’s online army of Twitter bots and hackers has already penetrated Western defences.

According to Theresa May, Putin is waging a war by “weaponising information to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”. Her charge sheet included “planting fake stories and photo-shopped images”, “meddling in elections” and “fomenting conflict”.

And the Guardian newspaper lapped it up. That’s because it sees Russia’s hand behind almost every major upset—from Donald Trump’s election to the vote to leave the European Union (EU).

May claimed, “I have a very simple message for Russia—we know what you are doing.”

In reality no one apart from the Russian state itself knows the details of what it’s doing.

But every imperialist power has weaponised information and tried to influence voting, not least the US and Britain who are now crying foul over Putin.

“Intelligence” chiefs boast of their ability to snoop on people online. And the US CIA spy agency has a long history of interfering in elections and destabilising governments across the world—sometimes through dirty money, sometimes through coups.

In 1996 the US pumped money into the Russian presidential election.


It looked like the corrupt incumbent Boris Yelstin would lose to a Stalinist challenger. Yeltsin had implemented brutal austerity and free market reforms and languished at 8 percent in the polls.

The US pushed the International Monetary Fund to give Yeltsin a £6.5 billion lifeline—money that was unavailable weeks before. Unpaid wages were paid. Votes were bought. The result was a resounding win for the West’s favoured candidate.

Creating “fake news” is not unique to Russia either.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq the US military struck a £412 million deal with British PR agency Bell Pottinger.

There were plenty of real jihadists and real jihadist videos in Iraq. But Bell Pottinger also made and distributed fake Al Qaida videos, which showed Western military forces the IP addresses of those who watched them.

Assassinated reporter Anna Politkovskaya

Assassinated reporter Anna Politkovskaya (Pic: Flickr/Blaues Sofa)

It’s certainly likely that the Russian state is using online propaganda to influence politics in the West too.

And Putin has shown himself to be ruthless when going after potential threats—inside and outside of Russia.

Both the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the former spook Alexander Litvinenko were murdered in the space of three months in 2006.

Politkovskaya, who bravely reported on Russia’s brutal war on Chechnya, was shot dead by a hit squad at her Moscow flat. Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium while eating at the Itsu sushi restaurant in London’s Piccadilly Circus.

By comparison a propaganda war on Twitter is child’s play for Putin.

Yet it’s useful for Britain’s ruling class to hype up the threat of Russia so they can seem like a world power.

As home secretary May unsuccessfully tried to block an inquiry into Litvinenko’s murder. But now May wants to grandstand over Putin so she can pretend that her new “global Britain” is taking on a global threat.

Similarly former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, said Britain is “locked in a daily confrontation” with Russia.

It’s true that Russian submarines and planes are now more frequently found in the seas and sky around Britain. Again, that’s hardly unique—Britain and its allies try to project their military might all over the globe.

But for the top brass it’s a chance to lobby for more cash.

Zambellas made his comments in a hearing of the House of Commons defence select committee last week. He said the Armed Forces were “close to breaking point”—and pleaded for more funding.

The military lobbying is backed up by newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, which cling onto delusions of British imperial grandeur.

The Sun has used Russian submarine patrols in the North Sea as a way to show its support for Trident nuclear weapons, in contrast to supposed Putin-apologist Jeremy Corbyn.


It’s also in liberals’ interests to talk up the role of Russian propaganda.

But Russian meddling doesn’t mean that there aren’t real social forces driving political events such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump.

The liberal capitalist order is cracking up. And liberals are blaming

everyone—apart from themselves. Blaming Russian propaganda avoids having to ask why the “centre ground” is failing, why people are angry and why they’re looking for alternatives.

And it fits with a patronising view of working class people. Could they really make an informed decision to vote to leave the EU? No, it must be the Russians.

Similarly Democrat Hillary Clinton blames her presidential defeat on “Russian fake news”, not her record of supporting wars and neoliberalism.

And now the Democrats have no intention of dealing with the social crisis that led to Trump’s election. They hope to bring Trump down by focusing on links between members of his campaign team and Russia.

This really could spell the end for Trump—because beneath his opportunism lie real imperialist rivalries.

As the Russian revolutionary socialist Vladimir Lenin argued in 1917, capitalism has grown into a world system of competing imperialist states.

“The capitalists partition the world not out of personal malice,” he wrote. “The degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to get profits.”

Imperialisms game of empires
Imperialism’s game of empires
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This sort of imperialist rivalry was at the heart of the West and Russia’s clash over Ukraine in 2014.

Russia was trying to build a Eurasian Customs Union trading bloc from the countries that used to be part of Stalinist Russia’s empire. It partly wanted to stop China’s growing influence in central Asian republics.

As one of the most industrially developed, Ukraine is a key link in Russia’s plans. This brought it into conflict with the US and EU who were furthering their own interests in eastern Europe.

Fearing Ukraine could go fully into the EU’s orbit after a political crisis in 2014, Russia sought to destabilise it by supporting separatists in the south east of the country.

And it seized Crimea, the region where it leased a port for its Black Sea Fleet.

But this is not a return to the Cold War with the US and Russia competing for dominance as the world’s two imperialist superpowers.

After the Cold War, Russia’s economy and military collapsed. Since then Russia’s aim has been to regain control over states that used to be part of the Soviet empire—what it calls its “near abroad”.

For a time, high oil prices let Putin’s Russia flex its muscles more and pour money into the military.

But internationally its approach is much more targeted than that of Stalinist Russia, and this summer it also announced big military spending cuts.

Russia has been bombing Syria to prop up dictator Bashar al-Assad. His regime is a long-standing ally of Russia in the Middle East.

If Assad had fallen Russia would have lost its major naval military base in Tartus, Syria, which gives it a port on the Mediterranean.

Without Tartus it would have to rely on the goodwill of the Turkish government which controls the narrow straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Russian capitalism has large financial interests in the Mediterranean, particularly in Cyprus near the new gas fields of the East Mediterranean.

Meanwhile the EU is building a “Southern Gas Corridor” from central Asia to the Mediterranean to break its dependency on Russian energy.

So muscling in on the Mediterranean will be decisive for Russian economic growth and projecting its imperialist interests in the future. And this rubs up against other imperialist powers such as the US and Britain.

Rivalries like this are where the real danger lies.

For all our rulers’ posturing over the Russian threat, it’s imperialism that threatens to create deadly confrontations. To remove the threat means getting rid of the system of competing capitalist states—and that starts with getting rid of our own hypocritical rulers.

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