The War in Ukraine and Imperial Decline

It’s important to recognise that the war in Ukraine, far from revealing the scope of the United State’s power,   points to the structural decline of the US and crucially, its global domination of cybernetic capitalism.

The weakness of the United States is exemplified in Joe Biden’s spin doctors trying to position this smiling vacuum as the ‘clear and consensus leader of the free world’. A quick reflection on the crumbling superpower’s recent inglorious defeat in Afghanistan is illustrative also of its moral bankruptcy. Upon existing, Biden froze $7 billion in Afghan foreign currency reserves stored in US- based banks and is planning to give at least $3.5 billion of pillaged monies to the families of 9/11 victims and their lawyers. One of the facts that this ignores is that the majority of Afghans today were not even born in 2001 (the median age is eighteen). While the spin doctors try to inflate the Biden void, the United Nations reports that one million children in Afghanistan are at acute risk of starvation.  

As disturbing is Biden’s approval of another half-a-billion dollars’ worth of military support to Saudi Arabia. Powered by US- based military contractors, Saudi Arabia has been laying siege to Yemen for six years via brutal aerial bombardment. This ongoing atrocity has been met with no widespread condemnation, no boycotts of Saudi oil, no standing ovations in Congress, no celebrity selfies circulating on social media seeking to ‘stand with Yemen’. Many have observed that the key difference is that – unlike Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Somalis, Syrians, and Yemenis – Ukrainians are predominantly white. The sanctions imposed on Russia are similarly revealing of the contradictions of US power. Considering the atrocities associated with military invasion and violent occupation, sanctions could well be justified, so long as they were applied evenly to in situations like those in which Israel and Saudi Arabia are complicit. Meanwhile, the UN reports that millions of people in Yemen are ‘a step away from starvation’.  

These contradictions and hypocrisies seem to be of no interest to the mainstream media. Commentators seem incapable of recognising that American power is implicated in the current multidimensional catastrophe, and that the Western-supported ‘rules-based international order’ is precisely what is creating conditions for war around the globe. This is not to absolve Russia for its brutal actions but rather to locate them within a larger structure – a world system in rapid decline.  

One aspect of the sweeping sanctions will have lasting implications that will spill beyond the immediate conflict. As Western corporations pull out of Russia, a technological vacuum threatens to open up with the withdrawal of ‘enterprise resource planning’ (ERP) software such as SAP and Oracle, as well as cloud computing titans like Amazon Web Services. The ERP technology that such corporations provide is used by many Russian companies –  from Gazprom to the Russian railways to  Russia’s nuclear industries – enabling them to centralise the management of sprawling logistical, finance, accounting, manufacturing and human resources into a single platform to cybernetically monitor and manipulate the organisation of whole businesses. For example, the German-based tech-titan SAP, which provides services to half of the top Russian companies (by revenue), is considering withdrawing more of its services, which will produce new fracture lines. The seemingly banal world of ERP software highlights the sovereign danger of relying on monopolistic computing systems emanating from the West. It is also something China will be keeping a close eye on, keen to have their tech sector positioned to respond with non-Western alternatives, which could become more attractive to countries worried about their independence.  

This is one of the ways in which sanctions in the Ukraine context may actually weaken the US-ed world. Another example can be seen in the partial ban on Russia from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunicaitons), the singular, standardised system that connects 11,000 financial institutions, receives around 40 million messages a day, and enables immense flows of capital around the world. This partial exclusion has had serious economic consequences for Russia in the short term, but in the longer term it may undermine the Western monopoly itself. Both China and Russia have developed their own alternatives, China’s CHIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System) and Russia’s SPFS (Financial Message Transfer System) are operational, albeit on a small scale. Were these systems to become more broadly integrated with one another and with other states – as is happening with parts of the Belt and Road Initiative – there would be a real threat to US-dominated infrastructural imperialism. If an alternative global financial system that does not use the US dollar as its reserve became more widespread, the dollar would likely plummet in value, dragging down the endless treasury bonds that the United States uses to bulk up its immense debt.  

The Afghanistan example above is telling. The United States will cynically use the Russian invasion of Ukraine for its own purposes, especially to keep Europe subservient to NATO, which is to say the Pentagon, and thus from Ukraine having an independent foreign policy – one of the United State’s greatest fears. Afghanistan’s forty-year war should serve as a caution: the United States is an awful ally: its concern for the actual people of Ukraine is questionable, and as its decline hastens depending on it becomes more dangerous. Likewise, a declining and desperate Russia is likely to become increasingly brutal as long as this invasion lasts.

Put these new burning hot expressions of a new Cold War together on a globally heated planet and the prospects are grim indeed.  In this context we must consider the possibilities engendered in this situation. For example, what will happen if the war grinds into a nasty stalemate and continues for a year or more? This apparently old-fashioned land war seems to be exposing the extreme fragility of global capitalism, a system we have been told is the only possible future. This is a further rip to the fabric of these illusions, which have recently been cast asunder by an apparently old-fashioned plague, and some very cutting-edge climate catastrophes.  

In more concrete realms, surging commodity prices are forcing the price of food up drastically. Taken together, Russia and Ukraine produce about one-third of all wheat, with many countries in the Global South heavily dependent on those countries for their staple foods. For example, half of Algeria’s wheat comes from Ukraine, and given the Russian blockade, exports have ceased, forcing Algeria to go elsewhere, pushing the price up further. Recall that food shortages were a key factor driving the Arab Spring and the various revolutions and NATO military interventions a decade or so ago. We can expect comparable intensifying situations, doubly so as droughts intensify.  

To return to cybernetic issues, we see that Russia is rushing to localise its computing systems to avoid the infrastructural imperialism of US-dominated cybernetics. Its replacements will be patchy, partially pirated, and will underline the possibilities of authoritarian command – something that US-based systems also exemplify, if with better spin. Having seen the vulnerability that comes with submission to informational systems in the US sphere, other countries will begin quietly to localise their own computing infrastructure. Western pundits will lament the once glorious ‘open internet’, with much romanticisation and nostalgia for this imperial artefact. Meanwhile, China will be well positioned to capitalise on this shift, accelerating the transition to a  more multipolar world, with the US’s decline steepening, dragging its allies down with it.  

Sub-Imperial Australia

Guy Rundle, 16 Sep 2021

Our focus on subs has long been an expression of our idea that any defence would involve us contributing a subordinated part of a giant US-led naval force in the region.

About the author

Timothy Erik Ström

Timothy Erik Ström is the editor of Arena Online. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cybernetic Capitalism (Verso), and his collected writings can be found at his website: The Sorcerer’s Apparatus.

More articles by Timothy Erik Ström

Categorised: Arena Online

Tagged: ,

Comments closed

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.