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Putin and Ukraine: Making the World Safe for Plutocracy

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"Either this nation shall destroy racism, or racism shall destroy this nation." S. Jonas, Aug., 2018.

Principalities of Kievan Rus. Once upon a time, it was a pretty big place.
Principalities of Kievan Rus. Once upon a time, it was a pretty big place.
(Image by Wikipedia (commons.wikimedia.org), Author: SeikoEn)
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There is a wide variety of explanations for why Pres. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Prime in the minds of many is that he was/is reacting to the threat that Ukraine might join NATO. This holds a special primacy of place in the context of the violation of every agreement made by the West vis-Ã -vis the Soviet Union/Russia on the matter, even since before the final victory of Western Imperialism (led by the U.S.) over the Soviet union, at the conclusion of The 75 Years War Against the Soviet Union. Then there is what some (including myself) see as his legitimate interest in holding on to Crimea. (It was annexed in the face of the possibility that a newly-installed, hostile, Ukrainian government might have simply cancelled the lease [whether legally-cancellable or not] under which Russia held its only warm-water port.) That, combined with the interest in protecting the Russian speakers under military and civil repression (language, no local government prerogatives) in the two "Eastern Provinces." Obviously, there were the "Minsk Agreements" aimed at settling those localized conflicts, which each side charges the other with the responsibility for the failure of implementation. And so-on-and-so-forth. But I have to say that I see something else at play here, beyond "NATO" and "the provinces" in explaining the "why" of the Putin-Invasion.

Putin presides over a remarkable political structure in the context of those nations that comprise the developed (that is, industry-based), capitalist world. (To be sure, some are much more developed than others). Almost all of such capitalist nations are governed by some form of what is usually termed "liberal democracy." What that might be? Well, while the ruling classes of such nations would not define the system in this way, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin put it succinctly:

"To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament -- this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies [which existed widely in Lenin's day], but also in the most democratic republics."

And, of course, modern bourgeois democracy takes the bourgeois/capitalist form not only in its governing structure(s) but also in how the ownership of the means of production are owned and controlled. That usually takes one form or another of corporatism. Shares may be widely or closely held, but there are shares and there are corporate structures. This is not to say that most capitalist societies do not have some very wealthy controllers (usually men). Of course they do. But in most instances they exert their control through corporate structures, under some kind of greater (under liberal governments) or lesser (under reactionary governments) regulation-by-the-state. Of course, regardless of how "liberal" a society is (or is not) there are always a relatively few wealthy folks at the top of the ownership/control pyramid and then everyone else. And then there is Russia.

Let's start with the ownership and control of the means of production. No corporate structures (with any meaning or power), no shareholders (who have any at least potential power), little to no independent government regulation, virtually no influence of legislation over corporate functioning. There is a stock market and individuals can own shares in various companies. But as arranged by Boris Yeltsin and his cronies (as well as certain foreign operators), a system of directly private ownership of the means of production, by individuals, was set up.

And this an inordinate (inordinate in comparison with Western capitalist systems) amount of corporate ownership lies in the hands of a relatively few individuals. They have been given the quaint name of the "Oligarchs." But they are really no different from the individual members of the ruling class in the early days of U.S. capital formation who owned an inordinate number of shares in their corporations and exerted an inordinate amount (that is inordinate in comparison to that exerted in the last century-plus under various kinds of governmental controls) of both ownership and control: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, "The Copper Bosses," Vanderbilt, (Jay) Gould, and so on and so forth.

One could go into great detail on this subject vis-Ã -vis Russia, and many scholars have. But the key point here is that while the economic control of the Russian capitalist system is very primitive, so is the political control of the government. That is that for the most part it is entirely in the hands of one man. Putin appears to exert absolute control of the government in Russia, and through it he thus exerts absolute control of the whole of the State apparatus.

Few observers have noted the similarities between the State system over which Putin presides and that of the classic fascist nations of the 20th century (in the definition that I use):

"A politico-economic system in which there is: total executive branch control of both the legislative and administrative powers of government; no independent judiciary; no Constitution that embodies the Rule of Law standing above the people who control the government; no inherent personal rights or liberties; a single national ideology that first demonizes and then criminalizes all political, religious, and ideological opposition to it; the massive and regular use of hate, fear, racial and religious prejudice, the Big Lie technique, mob psychology, mob actions and ultimately individual and collective violence, to achieve political and economic ends; a capitalist/corporate economy, with the economic ruling class's control of State power and thus, economic, fiscal, political, and regulatory policy and policies [emphasis added ]."

The characteristics are not all in place (yet) in Russia, but the centrality of the primary levers of government control in one person, the absence of an independent parliament or judiciary, and the absence of adherence to a Rule of Law that applies to people and the poltico-economic controllers are. One word that can define the system over which Putin presides is "plutocracy," that is a society, and its state apparatus, that is controlled by a group of wealthy individuals. (And apparently, no one in Russia is wealthier than Putin himself.) But to repeat, in Russia's case, the plutocrats (that is the Oligarchs) are entirely dependent on Putin and are entirely controlled by him, in terms of what they can and cannot do both economically and politically.

Now, there are a few other nations that have such a tightly-controlled poltico-economic system, e.g., Hungary, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Byelo-Russia. These are all capitalist countries, run in a fascist manner (see the definition above), with concentrated ownership and control, in corporations, not individuals, and thus known as autocracies. A special case is China, in which control of the economy is shared between a private and a socialist sector, but in which, with the election of President Xi to unlimited terms as President, politically it has essentially become an "autocracy." That is the political power is (or seems to be) concentrated on the hands of one person. (So, side point, what is the difference between the Russian structure and that of the principal 20th century fascist countries, Hungary, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Spain? For the most part, their means of production were in the hands of corporations, rather than individuals.)

Now, in terms of the invasion of Ukraine, given satellite images and a variety of on-the-ground means of electronic communication, the whole world knows what Putin and the Russian forces are doing there. A major as-yet-unanswered question is why Putin is doing what he is doing. (And, to review, under this tightly controlled oligarchic system of government, it seems to come down to that one person --- there does not seem to be any form of collective leadership, or if not leadership, per se, at least individuals running their own sectors. In the case of Germany, they could of course be over-ruled by Hitler, but Goering, Himmler, Goebbels, and a few others did have a certain degree of independent decision-making powers with in their own ministries. This does not seem to be the case in Putin's Russia.)

A major question in this context then is why did Putin do what he did, that is invade Ukraine, in a particularly brutal manner? First, let's see what it's NOT about. I don't think that it has anything to do with NATO, except that for Putin "NATO" is a useful excuse. There are already two NATO countries that directly border Russia, Estonia and Latvia. And Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are not too far away. Having NATO in Ukraine, on Russia's South-western flank, might have been a thorn in his side. But if he got permanent control of the Crimea and the two Eastern provinces, it wouldn't matter. And by threatening the use of massive force, without actually using it, he might well have been able to achieve that, through negotiation.

But I think that what Putin wanted to show the world (and he could still succeed, at a huge cost in lives and property --- of Ukrainians) that as a Plutocrat he could do just about anything he wanted to do (within the sphere of what he thought his armed forces were capable of), thus "Making the World Safe for Plutocracy. (Back in the 20th century, for the capitalist nations governed by the form of bourgeois constitutional democracy the saying was "Make the world safe for democracy.") I think that Putin thought that at least a majority of the plutocracies/autocracies would openly line up on his side.

Well, Hungary, with elections coming up, isn't. Running against a unified opposition, Orban doesn't want to appear to be too fascist just now. Turkey is waffling, and acting as a (sort-of) mediator. Saudia Arabia is sort of waffling too. The key is China. China certainly hasn't hopped-on-board with Putin full-bore. And the huge corporate sector in China, for which the U.S. is of course the major trading/financial partner, certainly doesn't want to China to line up with Putin. But Xi and his coterie may have other ideas (especially vis-Ã -vis Taiwan).

As of this writing, the book remains open as to what they will actually do. Right now, they seem to be trying to play both ends against the middle. In the matter of international affairs that is usually a strategy that cannot last for too long. But China is critical, and China, Russia, and the United States all know it. If China goes along with Putin, or at least goes along "for the most part," Putin will have won the gamble, large parts of Ukraine will have been destroyed, and significant parts of the Ukrainian-speaking sector of the population will have been killed or turned into refugees.

That is, Putin will have won the international part of the gamble. What will happen within Russia as a result of the economic pressure being brought to bear as a result of the sanctions, remains to seen. And major factors in determining what will happen is of course (widely recognized) Putin's control of information, and just how much force he will be willing to use against his own population.

Finally, as to Putin's removal from office, that, it would appear to be safe to say, would happen only through the use of force, of one kind or another. And you can bet your bottom dollar that whatever else might surround Putin, there is a private security force (invisible for now) that would line up very favorably with the original "Schutzstaffel" (SS), Hitler's private security guard (he didn't trust any of the State security organs. It later grew into the mass human-extermination machine that it became during WW II). So for now, at least, we won't go there.

But to repeat, whatever may happen to him, his "oligarchs," and his nation, in my view Putin's invasion of Ukraine has nothing to do with NATO. As I have said, its existence, with which he has dealt for a couple of decades without problems, is a convenient excuse for what he is doing. I think that he is out to make the world safe for plutocracy (and of course autocracy) and if he gets China's help (which he very well might) he may very well succeed in that endeavour, with a destroyed Ukrainian nation as the symbol of his triumph.

(Article changed on Mar 15, 2022 at 11:35 AM EDT)

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY). As well as having been a regular political columnist on several national websites for over 20 years, he is the author/co-author/editor/co-editor of 37 books Currently, on the columns side, in addition to his position on OpEdNews as a Trusted Author, he is a regular contributor to From The G-Man.  In the past he has been a contributor to, among other publications, The Greanville PostThe Planetary Movement, and Buzzflash.com.  He was also a triathlete for 37 seasons, doing over 250 multi-sport races.  Among his 37 books (from the late 1970s, mainly in the health, sports, and health care organization fields) are, on politics: The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022; A Futuristic Novel (originally published 1996; the 3rd version was published by Trepper & Katz Impact Books, Punto Press Publishing, 2013, Brewster, NY, sadly beginning to come true, advertised on OpEdNews and available on  (more...)

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