Monday, April 21, 2014

German Imperialism and the Ukraine

by Stephen Morgan

A recent article in the NYT on Germany and the Ukraine was interesting in that it helps to explain aspects in the changed situation and altered balance of forces in Europe compared to the 1930s, especially with regard to Germany, and how this affects relations between the US and Europe and the differences in their approach to Russia.

Without being explicit in a popular newspaper, it makes the point that since Germany was disarmed after the war, German Imperialism has relied upon “Ruhe und Ordnung” - “peace and quiet and order” in Europe for its continued Imperialist economic exploitation of the continent. Stripped of its military power in the post-war situation, Germany has for a long time taken a more friendly and conciliatory approach to Russia than other countries in Europe, which were without former borders with the ex-Stalinist states.

To some degree, West Germany broke ranks with the other Western powers in the 1970's and pursued what it called an “Ostpolitik” which might be translated as a policy based on collaboration and a realistic and pragmatic approach to maintaining friendly relations with Russia and Eastern bloc countries. This was important for its political relations to East Germany, but also helped stability and opportunities for some trade with the Eastern Block. West Germany also made an agreement with Russia to recognize national borders in Europe, obviously something which is now being torn up by events in the Ukraine.

After the collapse of Stalinism, Germany has continued this “Ostpolitik” in order to help maintain political stability in the East and improve its relations with Russia, so it could, in turn, pursue a more economically aggressive intervention in these newly-capitalist countries. Since then, Germany has gained enormously from becoming the dominant economic power in the former Stalinist states raking in huge profits and helping it better weather the global economic problems and keep its position as the world's 4th largest economy.

It struck up important trading interests with Russia, investing in the economy and importing its gas,

upon which the German economy has become heavily reliant. Initially, Russia was very dependent on Germany in the 1990s, as a result of the social and economic chaos into which the country was plunged after capitalist restoration. It needed Germany a lot for investment and aid and was, at that time, the junior partner in the relationship. However, the boom in the Russian economy under Putin and the simultaneous re-establishment of Russia as a world superpower has freed Russia from its dependency on Germany and reversed positions to some degree. So maintaining good relations with Russia has become even more important for German capitalism. 

The crisis in the Ukraine, the annexation of the Crimea and the international repercussions have been a blow to German plans. It would have preferred a more stealthy take over of the Ukraine based on political stability. With a market of 40 million people, rich in resources and with a skilled workforce and cheap labour, the Ukraine would have been a juicy acquisition for German capitalism. Germany would have begun selling its goods on the Ukrainian markets, investing in the country, asset-stripping its best industries and moving some of its production units there to get a higher rate of profit through greater levels of exploitation.

Of course, if the crisis had resulted in a peaceful annexation of the Ukraine by the EU, without serious damage to relations with Russia, the German capitalists would have been delighted. But after events that is obviously not on the cards any longer. So, they don't want to lose economic opportunities as a result of an escalation of the crisis. The eastern Ukraine is more important to the German bourgeoisie than the western half, because the east is the industrial heartland, while the west of the country is more agricultural. Furthermore, the Ukraine's physical proximity and economic links to Russia and other neighbouring states would help Germany a lot.

Now the crisis is undermining German interests, both in the short term and potentially the long term. Its interests are more firmly linked to stable politics in Eastern Europe and Russia than other European countries, like France and Britain and most certainly the US. When the crisis first broke out, Western financiers began pulling out investments from neighbouring Eastern European countries. This could open a Pandora's box damaging Germany's vital interests across the region.

Germany also has interests in other Russian allies like Belarus and Kazakhstan and must tread carefully elsewhere. Even EU member, Bulgaria, has opposed sanctions on Russia. For the German capitalists, continuing instability will undermine confidence in investing in the region. Even the broader interests of Western Imperialism in Central Asia could be undermined if, at some point, a similar conflict erupted in the important oil producing country of Kazakhstan, where Russians make up a quarter of the population, living mostly just within the Kazakh border with Russia, much like the Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine.

Germany is, therefore, now in a very weak position and its interests clash to some degree with those of the US, which is pursuing a harder line, because its economic interests in Russia are far less and because, for the US, this is more about broader, superpower global rivalry. Therefore, Germany has been distancing itself from the US and is trying to quietly protect its friendly relations with Russia, because the German bourgeoisie has to look at the wider picture. It still hopes to come to some agreement with Russia on opportunities to exploit the Ukrainian market, if things can be stabilized. They have not given up on eventually achieving a strong German presence in the Ukraine through some sort of compromise with Russia.

As The NYT article points out, unlike the 1930's, Germany has no military clout to throw about when backing up its interests. Its economic advantages depend entirely on “Ruhe und Ordnung” - and it can't rock the boat or threaten to pursue its interests in the Ukraine by military deployment in the west of the country. The article quotes a German publication which points out that compared to Germany, Britain and France could defend themselves, given that they retain important armies and nuclear weapons.

In modern times, of course, this doesn't give British or French Imperialism much leverage in the European economy, but unlike Germany, they can compensate for this by using their military power to intervene where they have economic interests elsewhere in the world. We saw the joint role of Britain and France in leading NATO action in Libya and we have seen it recently in France's military actions in the Ivory Coast, Mali and Central Africa to maintain its economic interests in these regions. In fact since 1960, France has launched a total of 46 military operations in Africa.

Britain tends to utilize its old economic ties to ex-colonies through the “Commonwealth” to maintain its Imperialist interests, but we have seen it in action in the Suez crisis, Malaya, Yemen (Aden), Falklands, Yugoslavia and recently as a poodle of US Imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it had major oil interests. Germany, on the other hand, has no former areas of colonial influence to fall back on. Incidentally, Prime Minister Cameron's hypocrisy over how Russia has “trampled on the rights” of Ukrainians is rich, given the fact that out of almost 200 countries in the world, there are only 22, which Britain hasn't invaded.

Of course, Britain and France wouldn't be able to withstand the military might of Russia, but they would at least have the “bargaining chip' of eventually launching a joint nuclear strike on Russia. The point the journalist is really making is that Germany is, on its own, totally defenceless in the face of any future Russian aggression and this again reinforces its tendencies towards conciliation, compromise and de-escalation. Russia has the upper hand in the present crisis and therefore the European and German talk of sanctions amounts to little more than the wiggling of a rubber sword. 

Full-scale European war again is not an immediate prospect. But that could change, however, if the new instability in the Ukraine leads to a feedback loop of unrest in Russia itself, especially given its growing economic problems. If a new world economic crisis led to the Ukrainianization of Russia, Putin could, in the future, be replaced by an extreme right-wing, nationalist, military-based dictatorship.

Such a regime could possibly attempt to overcome its economic and social problems by grabbing foreign markets through the invasion of neighbouring countries, in the way Nazi Germany did in the 1930's. Putin's annexation of the Crimea and possibly the eastern Ukraine are eerily similar to Nazi Germany's policy of “Ansluss” or military annexation of German-speaking Austria, the German populated area of Czechoslovakia, followed by the invasion of Poland which started World War 2. So the present crisis is not just a threat to the short-term interests of Germany, but a potential threat to the whole future of German capitalism.

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