“The flash of lightning that illumined the reality” was Lenin’s phrase. US President Joe Biden’s reversal of his earlier decision, and his newly announced one of giving Ukraine the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HMARS or HIMARS), is just such a flash of lightning that illumines the reality.
What is that reality? At its most obvious, it is that the US has rejected the recommendation of Dr Henry Kissinger in his remarks to the Davos 2022 meeting. He suggested the trade-off of the Donbass for peace and a chance at re-stabilizing the relationship with Russia, a nuclear peer of the USA. More importantly he went on to add that any aim that went beyond a restoration of the status quo ante would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Russia itself.
Initially President Biden seemed to be on the same page, but his New York Times Op-Ed (May 31st 2022) spells the end of that brief moment of convergence with the classic Realist paradigm.
In a sense, the USA and Russia have been here before, when in 1986 Stinger missiles were granted to the Afghani jihadi insurgency by the US. That was a game-changer, but Zbigniew Brzezinski, the original architect (1979) of the policy to draw Russia into Afghanistan and impose a defeat, did not intend the defeat of Russia domestically, i.e., the defeat of the Russian state on its home turf. He merely wanted a defeat of Russia which would be commensurate with the defeat of the USA in Vietnam.
US policy in Afghanistan was aimed at a strategic defeat for Russia but not necessarily a grand strategic defeat of Russia and/or an existential defeat for Russia. The aim was to weaken Russia as a competitor of the USA, but only within the overall context of an architecture; that of a strategic relationship.
Today, matters are different. The HMARs are not the contemporary equivalent of the infusion of Stingers because the former comes as adjunct to a different war aim, while the latter had a more limited objective. The HMAR transfer not only intends to overturn the possibility of durable Russian gains in the Donbass which can be frozen into the basis of a diplomatic settlement and a painful rebuilding of the US-Russia or West-Russia relationship. The HMAR transfer intends to give Ukraine the ability to defeat Russia. The limiting of the range of the HMAR to the lower-end is no guarantee against strikes against Russia, depending on where the war ends. Certainly, it is no guarantee against HMAR strikes into Crimea.
Today unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, the game is zero-sum, with no win-/win outcome envisaged in Ukraine or globally. In US thinking, China will be subject to the same treatment once Russia is permanently crippled if not destroyed.
Though the HMAR is a tactical weapon-system, Biden’s decision has a strategic implication. He has ignored Kissinger’s warning that there is no more room for escalation without crossing into the next level of the game: war against Russia itself.
Though not in the strict Clausewitzean sense of the Napoleonic levee en masse (mass national mobilization), the West’s war on Russia is now assuming, in its aims, goals and objectives, the character, or the outlines of the character, of an ‘absolute war’ rather than a limited one.
It is not that Russia does not know this. From the discourse on Russian state TV, it is clear that the penny has dropped. However, the classic question is not “what is to be said?” but quite precisely “what is to be done?” This means shifting from talking the talk, or even talking the walk, but walking the talk. It is the shift from agit-prop, to political praxis or more correctly, politico-military praxis.
What is Russia willing to do, firstly to prevent a negative outcome on the Ukrainian front, most pressingly in the Donbass, and secondly to prevent the West from prevailing in its increasingly manifest aim of war against Russia itself; inflicting defeat on Russia not only in the Donbass but in Russia itself; destroying or debilitating Russia’s will power and deterrent capacity within Russia itself?
What is Russia willing to do within Russia itself, to preempt the Western offensive which has already commenced?
Is Russia willing to change to such an extent that it can resist and prevail over the West’s offensive strategy?
This is not a reference to another 1917 as in a ‘revolution from below’. It refers to a ‘revolution from above’. Without a revolution from within and above, there could well be a counterrevolution from outside and later, from below; a counterrevolution which dismantles Russia’s capacity for regeneration as a Great Power, completing the West’s unfinished counterrevolution of the 1990s.
To successfully defend itself from the West’s destructive project, Russia has to recognize and grapple with its own contradictions with the lucidity that Lenin always showed in times of extreme adversity.
What is the main contradiction? It is that Russia continues to face the West on the same ground that led it to the present crisis, though not in the same stance, or on the same footing.
Russia is now resisting the extreme threat from a West which it appeased and then resisted but without shifting from the ideological ground on which the blunder of appeasement was made. Whether it abdicated as in the Serbian war or resisted as in Syria and Crimea, Russia occupied the ground that had been broken, firstly and tentatively by members of the Gorbachev team and later, more definitely by Yeltsin. What was that ground? In order to enter into a new historical relationship of convergence with the West, Russia made a trade-off. It turned nihilistic towards exactly its own political heritage that had given it the greatest impact and power in world history: 1917 and after.
In doing so, it made a colossal error that the USA and France never made towards their own revolutions, which they turned into legend and myth as well as a source of legitimation and inspiration, even while they were acting against the very postulates and values of those revolutions. Ironically, the West was more dialectical in its approach to its own political heritage than Russia was to its own.
Though Russian attitudes and policy towards the West started turning even towards the end of the Yeltsin period, the philosophical and existential rupture, the rupture in the identity of the State that was made in the 1990s, was never questioned still less reversed.
In 1991, Russia made a choice. With the dissolution of the USSR came the renunciation of and rupture with 1917 and the Soviet heritage; the amputation of a swathe of Russian history in which it was at its strongest both in hard power and soft power. One might even say that this renunciation resulted in the decision to dissolve the USSR rather than the other way around.
Having given up not just the USSR but the entire Soviet heritage, and may I say, the intellectual heritage of Lenin, the Russian personality who was the most famous of all in world history, in exchange for a vision of a relationship with the West which has since proven just a mirage if not a nightmare, what makes Russia continue to inhabit the same ground; still stand by the same choice?
It is the decisions made in 1991 that have led Russia to the situation it finds itself in today. While it is true that in the 21st century, gesturally prefigured in 1999 by Foreign Minister Primakov turning his flight around from its Washington destination, Russian policy toughened up and even reversed towards the West, but it did so with two continuities: one, the discourse of ‘partnership’ (though the Russian discourse became testy); two, the anti-Soviet, anti-Communist ground of 1991. The latter was evidenced in the state’s attitude to the centenary of 1917.
Having amputated the Russian revolution and the Soviet period of history, Yeltsin sutured the Russian story with that of Tsarism. That pre-Lenin, pre-Communist, pre-1917 narrative remains.
Some questions that flow are as follows:
- Is it possible to fight the West while sharing the West’s version of Russia’s 20th century history?
- Is it possible to fight the West while abandoning a significant period of the country’s own lineage and patrimony?
- Is it adequate to embrace as one’s lineage only a pre-modern absolutist social and state system that was defeated in war and overthrown by its own people?
Continuing to renounce the period of history in which one was strongest, most widely respected and influential globally, in which one exhibited the most valiant and victorious standards and norms of behavior, does not equip a state to face an unprecedented contemporary threat from an empire.
In order to out-think the West, to think against an adversary, Russia needs to re-evaluate the most penetrating, influential and successful political brain produced by it. Antonio Gramsci regarded Lenin as the Machiavelli of his period of history. Russia shouldn’t face its adversary who seeks to destroy it, without the modern Machiavelli that it gave birth to.
These are not merely intellectual issues. They are issues of strategy and arguably grand strategy. The choices of 1991 led to today’s dead-end of the relationship with the West. Russia must rupture with the rupture of 1991; negate the negation (as the dialecticians say). It has to move completely out of the Yeltsin ideological ground, which includes his anti-communism and anti-Leninism; his contemporary historical nihilism.
The West has decisively ruptured with any notion of Russia as a partner and has embarked upon a mission of destroying Russia by any (non-nuclear) means necessary.
Since the grand bargain of the amputating of 1917 and after, in exchange for Western partnership, has failed, does it serve Russia to continue to keep its side of the bargain? The retention of one side of a ‘grand bargain’ that has been unilaterally repudiated by the other side and rendered irrelevant, could be the real ‘fifth column’, rather than any social strata or individuals.
At this time of an actively hostile West, Russia must reconfigure in a manner that reclaims for its identity its toughest, smartest, strongest historical experience and achievement; its peak of power. This part of its identity must be fully rehabilitated and restored not by ‘revolution from below’ but ‘revolution from above’: drawing from the full spectrum of its historical strengths while addressing its weaknesses. That is the reinforcement and re-armament that Russia needs now.
At its most fundamental level, the problem is this: can Russia successfully resist the West while remaining on the ground that its deadly adversary dominates: capitalism and the capitalist world-system? Can it continue to adhere to its 1991 preferential option for capitalism, share capitalist values and norms with the West, and yet prevail against the West?
Shouldn’t Russia demarcate and distinguish itself decisively from the West that regards it as an adversary to be destroyed? Shouldn’t Russia re-think all its discursive and systemic ties with the West and take its stand on a ground that makes it the dialectical opposite, the antipode of – and, perhaps like China, alternative to its Western adversary?
Should it not reassert its socialist option, as an option that is sovereign and Russian and yet of universal relevance, much in the manner that China and Vietnam run a highly successful and competitive modern economy but identifies themselves as socialist?
When the US-backed counterrevolutionary invasion of Cuba took place in April 1961, Fidel Castro did what he had desisted from doing throughout the revolutionary guerrilla war and the first years of the revolution starting January 1959. He publicly proclaimed the socialist character of the revolution. That gave the defense of Cuba an added emotional-motivational charge.
Bad as the HMAR, the Switchblade drones etc. are, and the Stingers were in their day, the Vietnam War showed that a huge discrepancy in weapons technology is not necessarily a determinant of outcome. But that was a war fought and won under the leadership of a combative Leninist party.
Faced with an aggressive, expansionist, bloodthirsty West, Russia should consider unfurling the red banner once again, the red flag that was suicidally furled in 1991, but this time alongside the tri-color with the double-headed eagle. The latter must not fly alone.
The synthesis that is needed was already envisioned by the great Russian poet Aleksandr Blok in ‘The Twelve’, where at the end, the Red Guards who are half-blinded by the swirling snowy gusts of wintry wind, dimly discern a figure walking ahead of them. It is the figure of Jesus Christ, carrying a blood-red banner.