Ramzy Baroud | Romana Rubeo
The Russians say that the letter is simply meant to distinguish Russian military equipment from those of Ukraine. Some media reports suggest that the letter “Z” is short for the Russian word “Za pobedu”, meaning “victory”.  Sauer, Pjotr, “Why has the letter Z become the symbol of war for Russia?”, The Guardian, March 7, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/07/why-has-the-letter-z-become-the-symbol-of-war-for-russia However, regardless of what purpose the symbol serves or means, the infatuation with a single letter for many people, especially in the South, raises the question: is this a reflection of pro-Russian—anti-Ukrainian—sentiment, or something else entirely?
In truth, Middle Easterners, Africans and others have no inherent animosity towards Ukraine. To the contrary, tens of thousands of students throughout these regions have graduated from Kyiv and other Ukrainian universities. Nor are they particularly fond of the Russian government, policies or leaders per se. That said, there are those who indeed admire Russian President, Vladimir Putin, due to his country’s growing role in the Middle East, and its ability to confront US-western designs in the region as a whole and in Syria, in particular. But the fondness of Russia seems to be largely motivated by real, rooted hatred of US-western policies, from Iraq to Syria, to Venezuela and beyond.  Parker, John W., “Understanding Putin Through a Middle Eastern Looking Glass”, Strategic Perspectives 19, Institute for National Strategic Studies, https://inss.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/inss/Strategic-Perspectives-19.pdf
A New World Order?
Despite sporadic statements here and there, there is a growing sense that a new global agenda is forthcoming, one that could unite Russia and China and, to a degree, India and others, under the same banner.
The Russian position has morphed throughout the war from merely wanting to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine to a much bigger regional and, eventually, global agenda.  Teslova, Elena, “Russia wants to demilitarize Ukraine, let Ukrainians decide their future: Lavrov”, Anadolu News Agency, March 3, 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-crisis/russia-wants-to-demilitarize-ukraine-let-ukrainians-decide-their-future-lavrov/2521771 This was stated clearly by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on April 11. Speaking to Rossiya24, Lavrov explained that his country’s “special military operation” is a way to “put an end to the unabashed expansion” of NATO, and the “unabashed drive towards full domination by the US and its Western subjects on the world stage.”  IANS, “Russia Seeks to End US-dominated World Order, Says Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov”, April 11, 2022, https://www.india.com/news/world/russia-seeks-to-end-us-dominated-world-order-says-russian-foreign-minister-sergey-lavrov-5332644/
But Russia is not the only country that feels this way. The meeting between Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in the Chinese eastern city of Huangshan on March 30, is likely to go down in history as a decisive meeting in the relations between the two Asian giants.  CBS News, “Russia says it’s building a new ‘democratic world order’ with China”, March 30, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-china-lavrov-visit-beijing-vladimir-putin-xi-jinping-new-world-order/
The meeting was not only important due to its timing or the fact that it reaffirmed the growing ties between Moscow and Beijing, but because of the resolute political discourse articulated by the two top diplomats. In Huangshan, there was no place for ambiguity. Lavrov, again, spoke of a new “world order”, arguing that the world is now “living through a very serious stage in the history of international relations.”
“We, together with you (China) and with our sympathizers, will move towards a multipolar, just, democratic world order.”  CBS News, ibid.
For his part, Wang Yi restated his country’s position regarding its relations with Russia and the West, also using precise language, some of which was employed before, following the February 4 meeting between Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.  Roth, Andrew and Ni, Vincent, “Xi and Putin urge Nato to rule out expansion as Ukraine tensions rise”, The Guardian, February 4, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/04/xi-jinping-meets-vladimir-putin-china-russia-tensions-grow-west “China-Russia cooperation has no limits… Our striving for peace has no limits, our upholding of security has no limits, our opposition towards hegemony has no limits,” Wang said.  CBS News, ibid.
Those following the evolution of the Russia-China political discourse, even before the start of the Russia-Ukraine war on February 24, will notice that the language employed supersedes that of a regional conflict, into the desire to bring about the reordering of world affairs altogether.  CNN, “February 24, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news”, Updated Feb 25, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/ukraine-russia-news-02-24-22-intl/index.html
Though the readiness to push against US-led western hegemony is inherent in both countries’ political objectives, rarely did Moscow and Beijing move forward in challenging western dominance, as is the case today. The fact that China has refused to support western economic sanctions, condemn or isolate Russia is indicative of a clear Chinese forward-thinking policy.  Cheng, Evelyn, “China will not join sanctions against Russia, banking regulator says”, CNBC, march 2, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/02/china-will-not-join-sanctions-against-russia-banking-regulator-says.html
It is obviously too early to examine any kind of superstructure resulting from the Russia-NATO global conflict, Russia-Ukraine war and the Russia-China solidification of ties. Per Friedrich Engels’ definition, superstructures encompass all the “juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period.”  Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895. Anti-Dühring : Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. Moscow :Progress Publishers, 1947. It is too early to make that determination because superstructures are by-products of substructures which, according to Marxist thought, are the economic system or modes that govern the inner workings of any given society. Though much discussion has been dedicated to the establishing of an alternative monetary system, in the case of Lavrov’s and Yi’s new world order, a substructure, in the Marxist sense, is yet to be developed.
New substructures will only start forming once the national currency of countries like Russia and China replace the US dollar, alternative money transfer systems, like CIPS, are put into effect, new trade routes are open, and eventually new modes of production replace the old ones. Only then, superstructures will follow, including new political discourses, historical narratives, everyday language, culture, art and even symbols, like the letter Z.
The thousands of US-western sanctions slapped on Russia were largely meant to weaken the country’s ability to navigate outside the current US-dominated global economic system. Without this maneuverability, the West believes, Moscow would not be able to create and sustain an alternative economic model that is centered around Russia.  BBC, “What sanctions are being imposed on Russia over Ukraine invasion?”, April 12, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60125659
True, US sanctions on Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and others have failed to produce the coveted “regime change”, but they have succeeded in weakening the substructures of these societies, denying them the chance to be relevant economic actors at a regional and international stage. They were merely allowed to subsist, and barely so.
Russia, on the other hand, is a global power, with a relatively large economy, international networks of allies, trade partners and supporters. That in mind, surely a regime change will not take place in Moscow any time soon. The latter’s challenge, however, is whether it will be able to orchestrate a sustainable paradigm shift under current western pressures and sanctions.
Time will tell. For now, it is certain that some kind of a global transformation is taking place, along with the potential of a “new world order”, a term, ironically employed by the US government more than any other.
Speaking to a joint session of the US Congress on September 11, 1990, then US President George H. W. Bush spoke about his world vision during the first Iraq War. “Recent events have surely proven that there is no substitute for American leadership. In the face of tyranny, let no one doubt American credibility and reliability,” Bush announced amid a thundering applause. He then declared that one of his country’s objectives is a “new world order.”  Bush, George, H. W, “The other 9/11: George H.W. Bush’s 1990 New World Order speech”, The Dallas Morning News, September 8, 2017, https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/09/08/the-other-9-11-george-h-w-bush-s-1990-new-world-order-speech/
Though the Iraq war in 1990, and the subsequent Iraq war, invasion and occupation of 2003 are often discussed within regional contexts, in reality, they were intrinsically linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of traditional bipolarism. Once the US managed to dominate the world’s strategic reserve of oil and gas in the Gulf, the US-western intellectual classes began the process of creating superstructures that politically, culturally and morally defended and justified American dominance.
In 1992, US political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his now infamous book “The End of History and the Last Man”.  Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The end of history and the last man. New York: Free Press. Drawing on the Hegelian dialectic, which sees human history as a linear series of philosophical conflicts culminating in the moment when humanity acquires self-consciousness and, therefore, full awareness, Fukuyama concluded that that moment—meaning the end of history—had arrived with the conclusion of the Cold War and the decisive victory of Western liberal democracies over socialism.  Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay. 1977. Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Fukuyama was obviously wrong. If great powers were capable of bringing history to a halt, then historical progress would have been stymied, if not completely frozen, during the height of the Roman Empire (around 100 CE), for example,  Storey, Glenn R. “The population of ancient Rome”, Cambridge University Press, Vo. 71 Issue 274, December 1997 https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=googlescholar&id=GALE%7CA20586744&v=2.1&it=r&sid=googleScholar&asid=1838e57c or the magnificent rise of the Tang Dynasty in China (618-906 CE)  Lewis, Mark Edward. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. Harvard University Press, 2009. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvjnrtgk or during the centuries of Abbasid caliphate rule in Baghdad, starting in the eighth century.  Khan Academy, The Golden Age of Islam, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/medieval-times/cross-cultural-diffusion-of-knowledge/a/the-golden-age-of-islam
But there is a good reason that drove Fukuyama to conclude that history was ending. Aside from his own intellectual prejudices regarding the superiority of Western values, liberal democracies and free market, he also concluded that no other ideology is capable of replacing that of the US. For such intellectuals, this must also be true since the dominant global substructure—western capitalism—and the adjoining superstructures—western thought in politics, academia, media, etc… —are entirely defined by the west. With most global resistance pacified, subdued or contained, for Fukuyama, the battle for global dominance had been won.
Fukuyama, was of course, one of many. The west’s intellectual apparatus was rife with such hyped predictions and grand hypotheses. Samuel Huntington, for example, spoke of “Christianity, pluralism, individualism, and rule of law” as the “distinctive character of (Western) values and institutions,” which, according to him, “made it possible for the West to invent modernity, expand throughout the world, and become the envy of other societies”.  Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Palestinian-American Professor Edward Said, along with other anti-colonial intellectuals dissected the “relentlessly aggressive and chauvinistic” rhetoric of the likes of Huntington, who forces the reader to “conclude that he’s really most interested in continuing and expanding the Cold War by other means, rather than advancing ideas that might help us to understand the current world scene or ideas that would try to reconcile between cultures.”  Said, Edward W., Edward W. Said, and Samuel P. Huntington. 2002. The myth of the ‘Clash of civilizations’: Professor Edward Said in lecture. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.
Limits of Military Power
Post-Cold War euphoria notwithstanding, it quickly became obvious that American dominance was unsustainable anyway, not only because historical analysis tells us that history is in constant motion, but because, under the most extreme circumstances, many nations around the world continued to fight back through the creation of their own substructures. Social movements in South America, the farmers struggle in India, the homegrown resistance in
Palestine and numerous other examples, all reveal the extent of people’s durability, ability to organize, mobilize and fight back even within the restrictions imposed by the unipolar world order, which has no space for social mobilization, let alone dissent of any kind.  Qumsiyeh, Mazin B. Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment. Pluto Press, 2011. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt183p294
Of course, this oppressive reality—oppression, containment and isolation—is not only confined to geopolitical spaces and conflicts, but is openly manifested in the class division, racism and disregard of human rights within western societies as well. A 2017 Credit Suisse Report revealed that “the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population… owns more than half of the world’s wealth”.  Frank, Robert, Richest 1% now owns half the world’s wealth, CNBC, November 14, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/14/richest-1-percent-now-own-half-the-worlds-wealth.html This discrepancy applies to the US as much as other western societies. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center report, the “Income inequality in the US is the highest of all the G7 nations” and “The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016”.  Schaeffer, Katherine, “6 facts about economic inequality in the U.S.”, Pew Research Center, February 7, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/07/6-facts-about-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s/
At grassroots levels, this translates into horrific work conditions, minimum wage jobs with no benefits and overworked labor force. Tragic stories often seep through social media of how huge conglomerates, such as Amazon, treat their workers. Last March, for example, after a brief denial, Amazon apologized for forcing its workers to urinate in water bottles, and worse, so that their managers may fulfill their required quotas.  Klippenstein, Ken, “Documents show Amazon is aware drivers pee in bottles and even defecate in route, despite company denial”, The Intercept, March 25, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/03/25/amazon-drivers-pee-bottles-union/
Like resisting nations and communities in the Global South, oppressed communities in the US and other western countries also fight back to assert themselves, though often at a high price. On April 4, for example, workers in Staten Island, in New York formed the first independent Amazon Labor Union in the US. This may seem as a small achievement, but considering the very restrictive, anti-union environment in corporate America, the Amazon workers’ accomplishment is no less than a major victory.  Menegus, Brya, “Amazon allegedly retaliates against worker at its Bessemer facility”, Engadget, January 25, 2022, https://www.engadget.com/amazon-bessemer-retaliation-ulp-rwdsu-025525584.html
Rosy, reassuring language and political triumphalism aside, the truth is, the US has been experiencing a major decline for years. Structural weaknesses in the US economy have led such financial experts like Lawrence Light to conclude, in 2021, in the Chief Investment Officer international magazine that the US economy was in a “race to the bottom.”  Light, Larry, “How Low Can You Go? Strategists Compete for Lowest 2022 GDP Growth”, Chief Investment Officer, December 10, 2021, https://www.ai-cio.com/news/how-low-can-you-go-strategists-compete-for-lowest-2022-gdp-growth/
This deterioration is expressed both at home and at the global stage. The US ability to police the world and to enforce “American values” through wars and sanctions has been largely hampered. It failed in Iraq, leading to a major US policy shift in 2012, known as the “pivot to Asia”. This failure was also palpable in Libya and Syria, as the US and, by extension, its western partners failed to influence political outcomes in these countries. But the greatest and most embarrassing spectacle was the forced US withdrawal—read: defeat—in Afghanistan in August 2021. Fleeing Kabul under the pressure of a ragtag army of poorly equipped Taliban fighters was reminiscent of the US defeat in Vietnam in 1973.
It is argued, and rightly so, that the Russian war in Ukraine may have served as an opportunity for the US to reassert its leadership over NATO and to thwart any European initiatives to gain full political independence from Washington, let alone establish, as advocated by French President, Emmanuel Macron, in 2018: “I want to build a real security dialogue with Russia, which is a country I respect, a European country—but we must have a Europe that can defend itself on its own without relying only on the United States,” Macron said at the time.  BBC, “France’s Macron pushes for ‘true European army’”, November 6, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46108633
Alas, for Macron’s nascent army, the successive and often exaggerated steps taken by Washington, through its leadership of NATO, to fight Russia in the Ukraine, might not be possible in the short run. US post-WWII hegemony seems destined to linger on.
Still, there are too many moving pieces that make it difficult for us to assess the full spectrum of possibilities. While those advocating a “new world order”—Russia and China—or seeking some degree of independence from the US—France and other EU countries—have strong reasons to pursue these ambitions, Washington, too, has strong reasons to maintain the status quo. For the US, it is not only a question of leadership, military and political hegemony, but also a fight over natural resources, trade routes and massive profits.
Until the tussle is over, the world will continue to experience a transition, rife with possibilities but also dangers. Italian anti-Fascist intellectual Antonio Gramsci wrote about this phenomenon, which he dubbed “Interregnum”—the transition between two vastly different realities—from his prison cell in the 1930s:
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”  Gramsci, Antonio, 1891-1937. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York :International Publishers, 1971.
We are already experiencing some of these “morbid symptoms”, manifested in the horrors of war, growing poverty and food insecurity. The hope is that, once this Interregnum is over, the world will be reborn with much greater margins for equality, justice and freedom.