Anita Fuentes interviews independent political analyst Eric Draitser about the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, discussing the roots and implications of the war.
Anita Fuentes: Eric Draitser is an independent political analyst and host of CounterPunch Radio. You can find his exclusive content including articles, podcasts, audio commentaries, poetry and more at patreon.com/ericdraitser. You can follow him on Twitter @stopimperialism.
Thank you so much again for joining us. How are you today, Eric?
Eric Draitser: I'm doing well. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Anita Fuentes: So today we're going to be talking about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and I have a few questions for you. So I'm going to go ahead and start with the first one. I would like to ask you if you could give us a brief overview of this conflict for those who are not that familiar with it.
Eric Draitser: Well there's a number of ways to look at the conflict. If you want to try to have an overview of it you have to have a historical lens; you have to have a contemporary, political, and geopolitical lens; you have to have a way of analyzing the economic issues at play. So to really understand the conflict you really have to have a sort of multifaceted perspective on this.
So just to address one aspect of it we could see that Russia's war in Ukraine is essentially a continuation of a number of unresolved conflicts stemming from the toppling of the former Ukrainian government in 2014, the Euromaidan uprising and the outbreak of the war in Donbass in 2014. Many of those conflicts, which remained unresolved, have led us, eight years later, to this war. But, of course, we can also look at it from an even longer historical lens and say that many of these conflicts have remained unresolved since 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, where Ukraine was an integral part of the Soviet Union. It featured quite heavily, in terms of economic development, economic output, GDP, all of the normal economic indicators. Ukraine was a central part of the Soviet Union in that regard. And Ukraine never recovered, really, since 1991 in terms of its GDP. It's one of the only… I think it's the only former Soviet Republic that did not recover to its pre 1991 GDP level. So there are economic factors, unresolved economic conflicts in Ukraine that, of course, gave rise to the class of people that we know as oligarchs today, both in Russia and in Ukraine. Many of those inner conflicts between those oligarchs also figure quite heavily in this war. And then, of course, it's not entirely Russia and Ukraine. NATO, and the United States, and the European powers since 1991 have also helped to create the conditions for this conflict, both with regard to NATO's expansion, and more broadly with the economic policies and foreign policies that have been pursued since that time. So to take the broadest perspective on it, you could say that the war between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine is in many ways the culmination of a series of unresolved conflicts that really, I think, have all come to the fore in 2022 as the global economic situation has changed, coronavirus supply chains… All of these things have brought us to a moment of crisis… And Russia, for various reasons that we could get into, chose this time to essentially “resolve,” from its perspective, these unresolved conflicts.
Now, if we want to look at some of these economic motivations, they really do form some of the basis of how we need to understand this conflict. I already mentioned the oligarchs. I think the oligarchs play a major role. And when I say the oligarchs, I mean oligarchs as a class of individuals, a class that exists both in Ukraine and in Russia. Ukrainian oligarchs and Russian Oligarchs. At times they have worked across purposes. At times they have aligned with each other. At times they have fought against each other. And we've seen throughout this conflict some of the economic motivations as being rooted in some of these power struggles. You have people like Kolomoisky, and Firtash, and Akhmetov, who are infamous oligarchs in Ukraine, who have essentially monopolized the economy of Ukraine in the last thirty years and essentially have run the country as an oligarchy. Similarly, in Russia you have an entire class of oligarchs that are basically orbiting around Vladimir Putin. Many of them regard the Ukrainian oligarchs as both rivals and also as problematic sort of troublemakers, right? People who are horning in on some of the Russian oligarchs' actions. So you see this in a lot of different contexts. You could take one example: gas pipeline infrastructure in Ukraine that is controlled by Ukrainian oligarchs, Russians are very much dependent on that, or have been historically dependent on those pipelines to ship their energy to Europe. So one of the conflicts within this conflict is a conflict over that infrastructure; a conflict over who gets to control all of the infrastructure and the resources flowing from Russia and into Europe. That's one aspect of this.
We can also talk about the various forms of corruption, the collapse of the Ukrainian economy in 1991. There was a so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, which brought a pro-Western government into Ukraine that then swung in the other direction as it was succeeded by a pro-Russian government. And so this tug of war between the pro-Western forces in Ukraine and the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine had also kind of led us to this culminating conflict. And so, again, I think we need to also keep in mind… One other important economic factor here that is often ignored or under-discussed is the role of agriculture and farmland. Ukraine has some of the most fertile farmland in the world. It is one of the main global exporters of wheat, and we'll talk about that I'm sure in a minute. And the Russians, who are also a global leader in wheat exports, also wanted to control that land, control those resources, control those exports, and control in some degree the global food supply. And, in fact, we're seeing that beginning to play out in the global South, and I'm sure we'll talk about that as well.
Russia also has political motives here. Russia really saw an opportunity to counter what it sees as an unending expansion of NATO all the way to its borders. That has been one of the principal talking points for the Kremlin, really from the very beginning of this conflict. But it also has a lot more to do also with controlling the former satellites, the former Soviet republics, not allowing the former republics of the Soviet Union to be turned into European and American partners that could be potentially seen from Moscow's perspective as being turned against Moscow.
And then, of course, we also have to keep in mind that the United States figures really centrally in all of this as well, both in terms of what decision makers in Ukraine do, but also decision makers in Russia. I would argue that part of the rationale behind Russia's invasion of Ukraine had to do with US politics, and had to do with Biden versus Trump. What Putin saw as a moment of opportunity, a window of time where he might be able to act and predict how the US might respond, versus a much more unpredictable Trump administration.
So there are… And, I mean, I could go on and on. There are probably a lot more factors that we should probably point to. But I guess the larger takeaway from what I'm trying to get at in this question is the fact that the war between Russia and Ukraine, which is an aggressive war waged by Russia… We have to remember that Russia claims that this was not even a war; it's a special military operation. They also claim that this was essentially a defensive operation because of everything that had happened since 2014. Irrespective of what one's opinion of that is, ultimately, Russia chose a moment to invade Ukraine, and I think it's important for all of us to think through all of the reasons why that is.
Anita Fuentes: So you’ve walked us through the roots and drivers of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and you did mention the global South, which I wanted to ask you about, in fact. Most global South countries have condemned the invasion of an independent country by a powerful neighbor but have largely abstained from taking actions that could harm their relations with Russia. And many global South countries abstained in the vote to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council and have also refused to pursue economic sanctions. So how would you explain the diplomatic response of global South countries to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Eric Draitser: I can explain that very well. But, if I could, I'd like to back up for one second because there was one other point I needed to make in regard to understanding Russia's motivations and understanding the conflict. And the other aspect of this that I didn't mention… I focused on the economic reality, the material reality, the political situation. But we do also need to keep in mind that ideology figures into all of this as well. Ideas, the vision that people in Russia, Putin himself, and others around him, have of Russia's place in the world, that also figures centrally in a lot of their decision making. I would describe it as a form of imperial revanchism. They see themselves as the inheritors, not of the Soviet Union, but of the Russian Empire. They see this as a form of neo-imperial conquest. And this really is important to understand, because it's not simply trying to demonize the Russian government as imperialist, rather to say why they invaded Ukraine. Russian imperial revanchism doesn't see Ukraine as a real country. Russian imperial revanchism sees Ukraine as a part of Russia historically and today. They don't view Ukraine as either independent or view Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian people as somehow separate from them. So this is part of the reason why under the Russian imperial system, and also under the Soviet Union, Ukrainian language, Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian customs were all suppressed. This is also part of the reason why when Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine back in February he made a boldly and blatantly anti-communist, anti-Lenin, anti-Soviet speech where he essentially described Ukraine as a ticking time bomb created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and essentially that Putin is the inheritor of that, and that he is the one to resolve that unresolved conflict of 105 years ago. So in essence what we see with Russia's invasion of Ukraine is also Russia extending this kind of revanchism ideology, an imperial revanchism ideology, into what it views as its traditional sphere of influence those that it views as part of Russia. And this plays into all of the other factors I was talking about earlier. The Russian oligarchs, they don't recognize Ukrainian oligarchs as their equals. They recognize the resources of Ukraine as belonging to Russia. So the economic and political and ideological factors sort of overlap and fold in on each other, and create the situation that we see today.
But, anyway, to get to your other question about the global South, I think that this is really also a very important point that we need to keep in mind. States in the global South are independent states. While there is a global imperial system, while there are major powers, and countries fall into camps, and all of that, ultimately, these countries are independent and they have their own interests. They might be interests based on domestic political concerns. They might be interests based on economics, or corruption, or whatever, but they have their own interests. And so what you see in this context is a lot of countries in the global South that see it in their interest not to take a side in this conflict. Not because they necessarily agree with what Russia's doing or agree with Joe Biden or with the Europeans or whatever, but because they actually need to use this situation to their own advantage, to gain their own leverage in these situations.
So take for example Venezuela, a perfect example of a country in the global South that has been hammered economically by the United States for years now. Venezuela, which is a close ally of the Russians, they took this opportunity of this war, this conflict between Russia and Europe and the United States, they took the opportunity to meet with the United States and to see if they could leverage the situation to get some of the sanctions removed to decrease the pressure on Venezuela's government. Is this because Venezuela likes the United States and hates Russia? Of course not. Venezuela needed to use the situation to its own benefit, to help its own political and economic situation.
We see this in countless other examples. You can look at countries like Mali and Sudan, where Russian military advisers are literally inside of those countries, helping the governments in those countries. And Mali is a perfect example. They recently rejected the French and welcomed in the Russians. See that similarly with the Junta that's now in control in Sudan that is forcibly suppressing a pro-democracy movement there. They also see their interests as aligning with Russia. You have other countries that have investments from China that don't want to run afoul of their Chinese investors, but they also don't want to run afoul of the global economic system that the United States, to a large extent, dominates. And so what you find is that a lot of these countries play a middle ground, and abstaining at the United Nations is an obvious, clear, and unmistakable indication of playing that middle ground, of finding a middle ground in this conflict. And not necessarily keeping your country out of it, but preventing your country from clearly falling on one side or the other. And, I think, to a large extent that's what we see in the global South.
Similarly, like I mentioned, there are material interests. In Mali, and in Sudan, and in Nicaragua, and in other countries you have Russian military advisers, you have Russians conducting military exercises, you have governments that feel for various reasons targeted by the United States or by the Europeans, and who need some kind of allies. And so some of those abstentions we saw at the UN are really self-interested, self-motivated by their own self-interest. Some of that is also strategic, undoubtedly. Trying to use this situation to coax more concessions on other issues. And, also, I think you have some that are just trying to keep their options open. India is a perfect example of that. India's taking advantage of the fact that Russia has very few markets to sell energy to right now, and India is trying to buy energy at discounted prices. Similarly for the Chinese, similarly for other countries. They can use the situation to benefit themselves. At the same time India also has 50+ billion dollars riding on its relationship with the United States. So while the Indians can make a deal with the Russians to trade rubles and rupees for oil, it doesn't mean that India is exiting the orbit of the United States.
So you have different forms of alignment happening, shifting alliances. You have countries moving to a middle ground after having been in one camp or the other, and I think this is all pretty predictable given the fact that you have something like an East-West dynamic playing out here, at least East West in regard to Russia-China on the one side and the United States and Europe on the other.
Anita Fuentes: Thank you so much, Eric.
So in one of your videos on the Ukraine conflict you argue that Russia is waging war and information spaces that fall below the radar of the Western researchers and journalists, that is, global South countries. And you go on to assess that Russian narratives are playing really well and gaining a lot of traction in the global South. So what are the main narratives of Russia's media campaign directed towards the global South, and to what extent are Russia's media efforts outside of the West’s sphere of influence influencing the actions taken by global South countries with regard to the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
Eric Draitser: Well, there's a number of ways that it's penetrating in the global South, and there's a number of reasons. I think most important is to understand the reasons why Russia's propaganda, Russian narratives are landing in a lot of places in the global South. One is obvious, and, I mean, it almost is so obvious that you hate to even say it. But the truth is that the United States and the Europeans are hated in much of the world. And for obvious reasons, you know? Iraq and Afghanistan are just two of the most obvious examples of why the United States is globally seen as much more dangerous than many other countries. And there are plenty of, you know, billions of people in the global South who have been on the receiving end of US and European imperialism and colonialism for 500 years now. So there are historical reasons why many people in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, when they view this conflict they're not exactly all that keen on listening to humanitarian pleas from the United States or from the Europeans, their former colonial overlords. So that is the obvious reason why you have some of this, but there's plenty of others as well. And part of this has to do with the fact that much of the world sees the United States as a criminal regime, a criminal state, one that acts outside of international law, one that essentially dictates to the rest of the world how the rest of the world should conduct its business, how the rest of the world should integrate economically, and so forth. I mean, the word is imperialism. There's a reason we use that word. It means what it means, and the rest of the world, to a large extent, knows that the United States, the empire that the United States is at the head of, has historically been the global force of destruction and genocide and all of the other things that it has been. So that is one aspect of this.
But there's a whole other aspect of this as well. There is a vast disinformation apparatus that has been developed over the last number of years, that has become essentially state sponsored both by the Russians and by the Chinese; the Chinese are parroting a lot of Russia's talking points. You see it filtered directly from Russian media into Chinese media, reported dutifully by Chinese media which then is disseminated to more than a billion people in China, and then, of course, around the world as well that information spreads very, very quickly.
Also, I think we have to remember that much of the world is also teetering on the brink of collapse itself, and it's looking to figure out ways to resolve a lot of these conflicts. And you have a lot of countries in the poorer parts of the world that don't see some of the things coming out of the United States and Europe as being beneficial to them. They don't necessarily see getting away from gas as something that has to be done when they don't have the gas to cook food for their families. You understand? So the priorities in different parts of the world are vastly different than they are in the United States or in the West, where people will complain about paying a lot for gas but not really thinking about how in much of the world that's the difference between eating and not. And so a lot of people who are viewing these issues from the outside are not that interested in who is morally at fault. They don't want to hear moral arguments from Washington, or from Paris, or from London, or Brussels, right? They also don't want to hear about the need to teach the Russians a lesson when they themselves aren't sure if the wheat is going to be here in two months or not. So you have a lot of global food insecurity, energy insecurity, economic insecurity. All of these things open people up to being accepting of simple and easy answers. And, in fact, the Russians, sometimes true, sometimes untrue, are providing a lot of simple and easy answers. Their answer to why the war is going on in Ukraine is that the United States is an empire that refuses to stop expanding its borders eastward in Europe. Well, a lot of people in Africa, and Latin America, and in Asia can understand that. They can understand that very, very well. They understand it because they have lived through the experience of being on the receiving end of US and Western imperialism and colonialism. So that is one of the primary reasons why a lot of it is landing.
Also, I mean, you know, there's plenty of other reasons. Part of it is the fact that Russian media and Chinese media penetrate in a lot of places where Western media doesn't. Part of it is also the weaponization of social media online, and using that to spread Russia's narratives. Using not only social media platforms that we know, but messenger apps, WhatsApp and some of the other similar types of apps, where, for example, in Brazil there were studies conducted that found that Bolsonaro essentially won his election several years ago because of Whatsapp disinformation. Steve Bannon and the people around Bannon, they perfected the art of spreading disinformation using messaging apps. And so, again, there are probably dozens of factors why it is penetrating in the global South, but it is, and the fact that it is I think is very clear.
There was a firm called Casm Technology. They did a pretty detailed study on some Russian propaganda, and they found that Russia's narratives have penetrated deeply specifically in the BRICS countries, that would be Brazil, obviously Russia, India, China and South Africa. And then from there filtering out to other smaller countries. And so you see that the Russians, quite cleverly, I would say, targeted those countries with large and influential economies that are outside of the West, that are in the global South, that can from there essentially become launching points for their narratives to travel much further. And so for all of those reasons it's been relatively successful.
Anita Fuentes: So, Eric, I wanted to ask you one last question. For those interested in global South issues, what else should we be aware of as this conflict continues, and basically what issues do you think should be brought to bear on the general discussion in the West that are currently missing or that we haven't touched on yet in the public debate?
Eric Draitser: Well, it's not that it hasn't been touched on, it's been discussed at length, but it's important to discuss it further. Food insecurity is the biggest one, probably, because food insecurity then leads to everything else. It leads to the social upheaval of protest movements, the overthrowing of governments, the replacement of those governments by, potentially better, potentially worse governments, depending on the situation. So I would say food insecurity is the obvious one. Energy insecurity is of course the other. These have direct impacts all throughout the global South. You had a number of countries that were specifically dependent upon Ukrainian and/or Russian wheat supplies. So countries like Egypt, which is an extremely populous, and extremely influential country in the Arab world. Probably the most influential among what we would call the Arab world. Similarly, you have countries like Ethiopia, Lebanon, others that are extremely dependent upon Ukrainian and/or Russian wheat supplies. And so what you see then is that the food insecurity issue then leads us to other potential regional conflicts. I mentioned Ethiopia. And I mentioned Egypt, and of course the other country is Sudan. Those three countries are themselves involved in a dispute over Ethiopia's construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, which could potentially threaten Egypt's access to clean water on the Nile. I think it's very possible we end up seeing a war breaking out between those countries over that issue, exacerbated by the lack of wheat on the global market and the exorbitant increase in the cost of food generally. So you'll see conflicts beginning to emerge that are not necessarily only about food insecurity or energy insecurity that are involving a lot of other already existing issues that have then been exacerbated by this conflict. So I would say that, depending on what region you're looking at, there are plenty of dynamics already in place to create new conflicts. I mentioned Sudan, obviously. Sudan is engaged in its own domestic conflict between a military Junta and a democracy movement. How does that get resolved in the context of a food crisis and potential famine, and also a water crisis, right? So we see that obviously people talk about China and Taiwan and the potential of a conflict there. There's many other conflicts that could emerge from some of these other issues. So I would say that, from the global South perspective, one of the things that we really have to be looking at is what is happening to the material reality of ordinary people in the global South. If you look at the hundreds of millions of farmers in India who are on the verge of economic ruin and/or committing suicide because of the dire economic strait that they're living in, how are they then impacted by these changes, by rising prices, by the lack of imports…? In India, especially, the lack of fertilizer of which Russia is the primary is one of the world leaders. Without the fertilizer, the farmers can't farm, without that they can't feed the rest of the country let alone themselves. So all of these issues have knock-on effects in the global South, and it is precisely in the global South where you see countries that are already teetering on the brink of economic and political collapse. I already mentioned a few of them. There's plenty of other countries that we could point to that are potentially in crisis, and I think that the situation with Russia and Ukraine could be the issue that pushes them over the edge.
Anita Fuentes: Eric Draitser, thank you so much for joining the conversation. I really hope that you can keep collaborating with security and context in the future.
Eric Draitser: Thank you so much for having me. It was my pleasure.