Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 24, 2017

Tony Wood on Russia

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Tony Wood

This weekend I went to the Historical Materialism conference in NY held at NYU that is basically an academic conference with presentations by graduate students and professors. Unlike the Left Forum that meets in early June, you won’t find any 9/11 Truther or Assadist panel discussions. That’s the upside. The downside is that you are likely to hear someone read a jargon-filled paper on their brand-new interpretation of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony for 15 to 20 minutes until your eyelids feel like they have been tied to anvils.

I went to hear Lars Lih and Eric Blanc defend Stalin and Kamenev as closer to Lenin on theorizing the Bolshevik revolution than Trotsky but was far more interested in hearing what Todd Chretien had to say in response. Todd was very good but far too civil. I would have thrown a pie in Lih’s face myself.

I only wish I had been able to hear George Ciccariello-Maher speak at a “Roundtable on Training Political Cadre: Historical Lessons and Currents [sic] Methods”. His insights on turning over garbage bins as a currents methods to stop fascism must have really wowed all the sociology students.

Instead of running down every panel discussion I attended, I want to touch on a couple of high points in this post and a follow-up tomorrow. The first today will recap Tony Wood’s presentation on Putin’s Russia that was included in a panel titled “Critical Geopolitics Today” and the one tomorrow will be about how CUNY adjuncts are pressing for their demands in the Professional Staff Congress (PSC).

I am not sure about Wood’s background but right now he is working on a PhD in Latin American History at NYU, which might explain how he ended up speaking at the conference. Wood is best known as a Russia specialist and has been around for a while. Since he would likely be close to 50 after getting a PhD in Latin American History and qualified at that point for getting a position as an adjunct like the people I will be talking about tomorrow, I am not sure why he is bothering. But good luck to him anyhow since he is fucking brilliant.

If you want to know how I became a CIA agent pushing for regime change in Syria, you can blame it all on Wood. You have to understand that during the war in Kosovo, I opposed the KLA that I considered a tool of NATO in the same way that many people today regard the FSA in Syria. Someday I might revisit the debates I had with Michael Karadjis but as is the case today with respect to Syria, I would have opposed NATO intervention back then whatever the merits of the KLA.

Not long after the Kosovans won their independence, Putin launched the second war on Chechnya. Most people on Marxmail used the same arguments they used about Kosovo that sounded a lot like mine, except they didn’t seem to notice that the Chechens not only had received no aid from the West but were likened to the American secessionists in our Civil War by President Clinton who said:

You say that there are some who say we should have been more openly critical. I think it depends upon your first premise; do you believe that Chechnya is a part of Russia or not? I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country in which we lost on a percapita basis far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.

Clinton, I should add, did view Chechnya as part of Russia.

As Putin began the bombing campaign in Grozny that had all the criminal aspects of his blitzkrieg in East Aleppo, I began to become increasingly put off by the enthusiasm for Putin on Marxmail, including some who went further than Clinton. They likened Putin to Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, a position that I found just as psychotic as the Assadist crap I put up with every day, at least not on Marxmail.

As I began looking for alternative views on Chechnya, I stumbled across Tony Wood’s article in the November-December 2004 NLR that was presented in the name of the editorial board (too bad we never saw anything like that from Tariq Ali et al when it came to Syria.) Wood’s command of the facts and his logic persuaded me that Putin was a counter-revolutionary. Not only that, his methodology primed me to look critically at other struggles that defy the neo-Cold War thinking of people like Mike Whitney, Roger Annis and ten thousand other numbskulls. This excerpt should motivate you to read the entire article:

There can be no greater indictment of Putin’s rule than the present condition of Chechnya. Grozny’s population has been reduced to around 200,000—half its size in 1989—who now eke out an existence amid the moonscape of bomb craters and ruins their city has become. According to UNHCR figures, some 160,000 displaced Chechens remained within the warzone by 2002, while another 160,000 were living in refugee camps in Ingushetia. The latter figure has declined somewhat since—a Médecins Sans Frontières report of August 2004 estimated that around 50,000 Chechen refugees remained in Ingushetia—thanks to the Kremlin’s policy of closing down camps and prohibiting the construction of housing for refugees there. Those forced back to Chechnya live on the brink of starvation, moving from one bombed-out cellar to another, avoiding the routine terror of zachistki and the checkpoints manned by hooded soldiers, where women have to pay bribes of $10 to avoid their daughters being raped, and men aged 15–65 are taken away to ‘filtration camps’ or simply made to disappear. The Russian human rights organization Memorial, which covers only a third of Chechnya, reported that between January 2002 and August 2004, some 1,254 people were abducted by federal forces, of whom 757 are still missing.

Obviously the same game plan that Assad and Putin are using in Syria.

Wood’s talk on Saturday was mostly focused on demonstrating Russia’s weakness. Despite the obsession that many liberals have about Russia as a super-power, the reality is quite different. Except for its nuclear weapons, it is quite weak—especially economically. When it comes to per capita GDP, Russia now ($18,100) ranks lower than Greece ($23,600). This is not just a function of falling oil prices. 10 years ago the comparison was $9,753.30 to $28,899.90—an even greater gap.

In reviewing Russia’s place in the world, Wood asserted that the big change is Putin’s shift away from partnership with the West. Although we tend to think of Putin as the ultimate anti-Yeltsin, there were signs that he hoped to continue Yeltin’s foreign policy but with a greater emphasis on Russia’s rights. Wood startled me by mentioning Putin’s hope during the Clinton administration that Russia would be able to join NATO. This morning, I found a reference to this obscure passage of history fleshed out in a Michael Weiss article titled “When Donald Trump Was More Anti-NATO Than Vladimir Putin”.

“Even before being elected president,” Mikhail Zygar writes in his recent history of the Russian president’s longtime cabal, All the Kremlin’s Men, “Putin asked NATO Secretary General George Robertson at their first meeting, in February 2000, when Russia would be able to join the alliance.” Robertson was not prepared for the question and answered routinely that every country that wanted to join should apply according to the established procedure. “Putin was irked,” writes Zygar. “He was convinced that Russia should not have to wait in line like other countries; on the contrary, it should be invited to join.”

Unlike most on the left, Wood regards Putin’s intervention into Ukraine as a disaster. It has only resulted in sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Demographically, Russia is suffering as well. The population is receding and the percentage of older people increases each year. The only solution to this problem is opening the doors to immigration but that would mean from the Caucasian countries abutting Russia to the south, which is made impossible by the official Islamophobia today.

Much of Wood’s talk was reflected in an LRB article from March 2, 2017 titled “Eat Your Spinach” that is a review of new books on Russia and fortunately not behind a paywall. This excerpt will give you an idea of the weakness of the Russian state that no amount of military adventurism can overcome:

Part of the reason there has been no place for Russia inside the Euro-Atlantic order is that, despite its weakness in the post-Soviet period, it nonetheless remained too large to be absorbed comfortably – especially in a system that revolved around a single, superordinate power. The paradox of Russia’s recent resurgence is that, for all its refusals to fall into line with Washington’s priorities, it is still in no position to mount a frontal challenge to the West. In terms of military might, economic weight and ideological reach, Russia is no match for any of the larger NATO member states, let alone the whole alliance combined. The collapse of the planned economy sent all of the former USSR – already lagging behind the West on any number of indicators – into an economic depression that lasted a decade. In 1999, Putin said that it would take 15 years of rapid growth for Russia to draw level with Portugal’s current level of per capita GDP. It reached that milestone in 2011; but by then Portugal was further ahead, and even amid the deep recession sparked by the Eurozone crisis, its GDP per capita was still more than one and a half times that of Russia. In 2015 Russia devoted around a tenth as much money to its armed forces in absolute terms as the US did, and slightly more than the UK; in per capita terms, it spent somewhat less than Germany or Greece. All told, its 2015 military spending came to around 8 per cent of the total for NATO as a whole; the US accounted for almost 70 per cent of that total.

To be sure, Russia still has one of the largest armies in the world in terms of personnel, though many of them are teenage conscripts. But the 2008 war with Georgia among other things revealed how far behind Russia was in terms of technology and military organisation, prompting a major overhaul and upgrading of weapons; Syria has been the testing ground for some of these new-look forces. Yet what allows Moscow to pose a military threat to its neighbours is not so much the scale or strength of its armies as its readiness to use force in pursuit of its policy goals. This was what enabled it effectively to call NATO’s bluff by invading Georgia in 2008 – causing alarm in Central and Eastern European capitals about the solidity of the alliance’s security guarantees, especially the commitment to ‘collective defence’ in Article 5 of its charter. But the rapid resort to force is in itself an indication of the much cruder means at Russia’s disposal, a sign of its inability to secure the outcomes it wants either through diplomatic persuasion or through economic pressures or inducements. As Trenin observes, ‘the obvious asymmetry in power and status between Russia and the United States leads Moscow to elect the field which it finds more comfortable – military action.’

 

7 Comments »

  1. Is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization any good for Russia? (or China)

    Comment by Curt Kastens — April 24, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

  2. “As I began looking for alternative views on Chechnya, I stumbled across Tony Wood’s article in the November-December 2004 NLR that was presented in the name of the editorial board (too bad we never saw anything like that from Tariq Ali et al when it came to Syria.) Wood’s command of the facts and his logic persuaded me that Putin was a counter-revolutionary. Not only that, his methodology primed me to look critically at other struggles that defy the neo-Cold War thinking of people like Mike Whitney, Roger Annis and ten thousand other numbskulls.”

    I still recall reading this article, an article in which Wood impressed with his mastery of Russian imperial history in the Caucasus. It was an important one because Wood challenged the prevailing perspective in Europe and the US that Russian intervention in Chechnya was consistent with the objectives of the US “war on terror”. He was one of the few voices that I encountered that rejected the demonization of the Chechen people, and I came to conclusions similar to yours. An article still well worth reading.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 24, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

  3. “… during the war in Kosovo, I opposed the KLA that I considered a tool of NATO in the same way that many people today regard the FSA in Syria. Someday I might revisit the debates I had with Michael Karadjis but as is the case today with respect to Syria, I would have opposed NATO intervention back then whatever the merits of the KLA.”

    I remember that debate well (some of its in the a.p.s.t usenet archive).

    You made the mistake of endorsing Milosevic & his accommodation with Serbian nationalism (as opposed to defending a Socialist Yugoslavia).
    Whereas Karadjis made the mistake of believing the KLA was a revolutionary organisation and that NATO had subcontracted the task of destroying it to Milosevic.
    (This was tantamount to saying that Serbia was a “sub-imperialist” power, which was the position of some third camp Shachtmanites)

    Both positions were wrong.
    The US and EU & Turkey support Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.
    The KLA leader Hashim Thaci is now the President & last December, he travelled to Ankara to congratulate Erdogan on his victory over the coup plotters (whoever they are)
    Erdogan says “Kosovo is Turkey; Turkey is Kosovo”.

    Not sure who actually believed that Putin as the anti-Yeltsin.
    Putin was the neo-liberal wing of the bureaucracy and can no longer remember where he left his CPSU membership card!
    He was nominated by Yeltsin and granted him and his family life-time immunity from prosecution.

    Economic collapse & NATO expansion forced Putin to reign back the Russian restorationists & strengthen the Russian state, relying on the Siloviki, rather than the Russian workers.
    He obviously doesn’t intend to bring back socialism.
    But this doesn’t prove that Russia is “imperialist”, any more than Serbia was “sub-imperialist”.

    Comment by prianikoff — April 25, 2017 @ 9:20 am

  4. “You have to understand that during the war in Kosovo, I opposed the KLA that I considered a tool of NATO in the same way that many people today regard the FSA in Syria. Someday I might revisit the debates I had with Michael Karadjis but as is the case today with respect to Syria, I would have opposed NATO intervention back then whatever the merits of the KLA.”

    With the strong agreement we have to day on Syria, it might be hard to imagine the kind of fire between Louis and I many years ago on these issues. Regardless of polemical exaggerations by both of us at the time, I’d just like to clarify a couple of things.

    First, I never supported the Kosovar struggle on the basis of any “merits of the KLA.” I simply viewed it as the armed vehicle of the legitimate Kosovar Albanian national struggle against oppression; I viewed the armed struggle as having been forced on them by relentless repression of their peaceful struggle; but I viewed the KLA as a rough-as-guts manifestation of that struggle, forged out of the oppressive atmosphere, with all the political and other limitations of a raw military force arising spontaneously – much like most of the leaderships of the military struggle today in Syria (not only Islamists, but FSA as well). Again like the FSA and Syrian rebels more generally, within the KLA were a broad range of views. I never expressed any political illusions in the KLA whatsoever, it was at all times a blunt instrument.

    Second point: like Louis, I oppose US intervention in Syria (not only the 8000th strike that was the first to touch Assad, but the previous 7999 as well, more so in fact), and I opposed it in Kosovo. As people know, things can be tense when you end up on the wrong side with Louis. There were times when the argument didn’t make either of us look great. But one point I remember was when one of his more fanatical supporters started carrying on with the demagoguery about me being a NATO agent etc etc. Proyect came down hard and reminded him that I was opposed to the NATO intervention and so to back off with that. Incidentally, I was opposed not only out of abstract principle, but also particularly because it was a vicious air war, which on one hand hit Serb civilians, and on the other didn’t hit the Serbian tanks in Kosovo that were expelling the Albanians, and so was negative in both respects; more generally, I view air war as normally indistinguishable from war crime.

    (As for the views attributed to me by prianikoff, not sure where they come from).

    Comment by mkaradjis — April 25, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

  5. This for a start;
    http://links.org.au/node/322

    NATO wasn’t in principle opposed to Kosovo’s independence.
    It has more or less recognised it (and has just recruited Montenegro)

    It can deal with small ‘independent’ capitalist states.
    What it’s opposed to, is any chance of them being outside of its orbit, and/or promoting socialism.
    That’s why it’s more opposed to Serbia than to Kosovo.

    Comment by prianikoff — April 26, 2017 @ 10:49 am

  6. Thanks prianikoff. I have no interest in any discussion of this old issue now, so this will be my last response. For the record, in the piece you linked to, I make no mention anywhere of the KLA being “revolutionary.” In fact I wrote more or less exactly what I just wrote above: “The KLA thus became the armed force of the Kosovar population, containing vastly different political currents, from its Maoist core to left, right and liberal currents, to those more or less in favour of accommodation with imperialism, from former human rights fighters in the peaceful struggle to traditional clan leaders, advocates of independence and of union with Albania, from Albanian anti-Serb chauvinists to strong defenders of the rights of the Serb minority. While demonisers of the KLA often focus on more negative traits among some elements and attempt to roll them together and depict the KLA as a uniformly Serb-hating, mafia-led tool of the CIA, in reality its political breadth reflected its emergence as a real national movement.”

    Second, on “NATO had subcontracted the task of destroying it to Milosevic,” the way you write this is absurd: of course, Serbian nationalist leaders wanted to crush Kosovar independence struggle, not because someone else “subcontracted” them to do so. I think the part you are referring to was where I was discussing the first 2 weeks of NATO bombing: when the bombing was rather light, no tank was even touched, and half the Albanian population was expelled. I said “it was in NATO’s interests for Serbian forces to destroy the KLA’s real village social base, rendering it less able to resist NATO’s disarmament later” and I then quoted Turkish journalist Isa Blumi that, while the bombing “was initially intended only to be a face-saving gesture, to allow Milosevic to return to the table, the paucity of the first few weeks of night bombing was also meant to allow Serb forces to eliminate the KLA … Serb daytime operations inside Kosova were not immediately threatened by NATO’s night-time bombing.’’ That’s not subcontracting. The point was, in order for US/NATO to take control of the KLA leadership and turn it into a proxy ruling over a non-independent client state, it needed to be drastically weakened, its real guerrilla nature based in the villages, needed to be destroyed. Regardless of erits or demerits of the KLA, imperialism did not want a viable armed liberation movement, but a pliant shell.

    Yes, the US of course had no in principle opposition to independence, but was strongly opposed to independence at the time, for the reasons I explained, mostly to do with the ‘nightmare scenario’ US leaders talked about in the southern Balkans, in particular the threat of a unified new ethnic Albanian state and how that might impact borders throughout the region. The Rambouillet accord represented less than autonomy. The fact that the US and Europe recognised the reality of a long non-threatening Kosovo independence a decade later does not change what they were saying then.

    Comment by mkaradjis — April 26, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

  7. It was an important one because Wood challenged the prevailing perspective in Europe and the US that Russian intervention in Chechnya was consistent with the objectives of the US “war on terror”. “As I began looking for alternative views on Chechnya, I stumbled across Tony Wood’s article in the November-December 2004 NLR that was presented in the name of the editorial board (too bad we never saw anything like that from Tariq Ali et al when it came to Syria.

    Comment by Programming Lang — May 2, 2017 @ 6:19 am


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: