Ukraine war: Russia out, no to NATO

22 July 2022
Tom Bramble

Five months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war grinds on relentlessly, with devastating effect. The Russian army may have been forced to pull back from its initial assault on Kyiv and Kharkiv, but this has not meant an end to its long-term objective of subjugating Ukraine nor to the barbarism it has inflicted on the population.

Every day brings new reports of atrocities. Whole towns have been levelled. Untold numbers of civilians have been shot in the streets. One-third of the population has been displaced, and tens of thousands of others forcibly deported to Russia. Ukrainian prosecutors charged with investigating human rights abuses are incapable of keeping track of the sheer number of rapes, assaults and murders committed by the Russian military. Mayors refusing to cooperate with Russian occupation have been abducted or killed. In the Donbas, tens of thousands of Ukrainian men have been forcibly drafted to fight for Russia’s proxy armies.

The environmental effects of the war have been devastating. Fires at fuel depots, blown-up reservoirs of dangerous chemicals, damaged gas pipelines, disruptions and wildfires at the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone and destroyed vessels in the Black Sea area are all having disastrous consequences.

The Ukrainian economy has been shattered by the war as Russian forces seize vital Black Sea trading ports, the industrial and mining area of the Donbas and important tracts of agricultural land in the south. Critical infrastructure has been wrecked. Thirty percent of the civilian population have lost their jobs, and many households are surviving only on food relief and medical supplies delivered by volunteers.

Russian forces are trying to annex occupied areas, appointing Russian officials as administrators and heads of local government, severing transport and internet links to the rest of Ukraine, introducing the rouble as local currency and discouraging the use of the Ukrainian language in schools and libraries. Their aim is to hold referenda later this year which—they hope—will confirm the formal takeover of occupied regions, just as occurred in Crimea in 2014.

The conflict is set to become a gruelling war of attrition. Russian forces are inching forward in the Donbas. The Russian army also controls large areas in the south, including the provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson which provide access to the Black Sea coast and Crimea. Russia has a ten-to-one advantage in heavy artillery and has used this to pulverise Ukrainian forces, seriously depleting Ukraine’s best brigades. On the other hand, the Russian army has lost thousands of military personnel, including many senior officers, and its weaponry is inferior to the new weapons slowly being supplied to Ukraine by NATO.

On the Ukrainian side, the army is fighting a desperate defensive war. Morale in the armed forces is high overall, even though Ukraine has ceded ground in recent weeks and has lost many thousands of soldiers. The army is increasingly forced to rely on untrained and poorly equipped reserve units. Access to recently arrived NATO-supplied artillery and rocket launchers has, however, provided Ukraine with the means to destroy Russian ammunition depots and command and control centres deep inside Russian-occupied territory. But Ukraine is incapable of mounting a sustained attack on the 1,100-kilometre line that separates the two sides.

In Russia itself, although repression has smashed most public opposition and the war is reportedly making little impact on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow, many people are suffering the burden of war, ranging from artistic figures forced out of their posts after refusing to support the war to the thousands of families from the poorer regions of the country whose sons and husbands are those disproportionately fighting and dying.

Popular support holding up

The Ukrainian population overall remains committed to repelling the Russian invasion, which they see, rightly, as a war of national defence against imperialist aggression. At the outset of the war, long queues formed outside army recruitment stations, and civilians from all backgrounds signed up for the territorial defence units. At the end of April, polling showed two-thirds of the population were willing to take up arms to defend the country against Russian troops, and another 6 percent said they were already doing so. Virtually the entire population believed Ukraine could win the war. Support for President Zelensky, who was becoming increasingly unpopular before the war, soared when he emerged as the national figurehead for Ukrainian resistance.

The population has rallied to help those suffering the war’s effects. Thousands of established relief and welfare NGOs, along with thousands more informal volunteer groups that have sprung up, are providing housing, food and clothing. Dozens of these groups have gone to the front lines to evacuate people, risking Russian shelling. Ukrainian civilians have contributed significant funds to buy everything from heavy equipment and arms to boots and medical supplies for the army.

Although regular forces are doing the bulk of fighting, there are also small signs of resistance in southern districts where Russian troops are thin on the ground. Most Ukrainian politicians, even those belonging to what are considered pro-Russian parties, are refusing to cooperate with the occupation authorities, possibly out of fear of the consequences. In Kherson, CNN reported a trio of assassination attempts in June targeting pro-Russian officials. Such attacks against Russian collaborators are isolated, but they indicate the potential for an insurgency and the difficulties Russia is facing in establishing a quisling administration.

The population in Ukraine is also taking heart from acts of solidarity in Russia and Belarus. There are anecdotal reports of destruction of military equipment and army recruitment centres by anti-war activists in Russia, and in Belarus in April, railway workers sabotaged the railway line connecting Russia to Ukraine, wreaking havoc on Russian supply lines.

Debates on the left

These characteristics of the war—the initial invasion and brutal acts of war committed by the Russian army along with the resistance being put up by the Ukrainian army and the will to fight evident among the Ukrainian civilian population—help us to make sense of debates on the left.

A small minority of the left, often from Stalinist backgrounds, openly support Putin and justify the Russian invasion on the bogus grounds of protecting the Russian-speaking minority in the Donbas or “deNazifying” the country. Putin himself has dropped most of this early rhetoric and now openly boasts of his plans to restore Russian imperialist might, but this has not prompted any change of heart among his defenders on the Western left. Simply opposing the US and its allies is reason enough to back such figures, in their view. This has nothing to do with socialism or fighting imperialism. Indeed, Russia’s invasion has only strengthened NATO.

Much larger numbers, including Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Walden Bello, New Left Review (NLR) editors, the Morning Star newspaper and the British Stop the War Coalition, condemn the invasion but aim most of their fire at NATO, for supposedly provoking Russia’s invasion. They call for a Russian withdrawal, but their main demand, widely shared in pacifist organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, is for a ceasefire and negotiations to resolve the differences. None call for support for Ukraine’s defeat of the invasion.

Some in this camp urge Ukraine to trade territory for peace, up to and including partition in order to satisfy Russia’s so-called “legitimate security concerns” on its borders. In the words of NLR editor Susan Watkins, Putin’s war is unjustifiable “but it was not unprovoked ... In calling for a stable settlement of military borders, the Kremlin has a good case”.

The British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has a slightly different perspective. It denounces Russia’s invasion and supports the right of Ukrainians to resist. However, citing Western weapons supplies and statements by NATO leaders that they wish to use the war to weaken Russian imperialism, the SWP argues in its theoretical journal that “Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion has been subsumed under what is fundamentally an inter-imperialist war”. The war from this perspective is in its essentials a war between NATO and Russia, with NATO using Ukraine as its proxy.

On this basis, the SWP advocates revolutionary defeatism, not just in the US and Russia, but in Ukraine too. SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber writes: “If either Russia or the West wins in Ukraine, it will be disastrous for the country’s people and lay the basis for future wars ... But a victory for the Ukrainian government of Volodymyr Zelensky based on the weaponry and military backing of the US-Nato forces would also be ruinous”. The conclusion, then, is: “Ordinary people can only win when they fight all the warmongers”.

Because both these camps view this as primarily an inter-imperialist war, they oppose the West sending weapons to Ukraine and applaud unions in Italy and Greece blocking such supplies. They argue that the supply of NATO weapons only threatens to widen the conflict and deepen the loss of life.

It should be obvious from the description of the war above that these views are mistaken. While NATO and Russia are contesting for influence in Ukraine, the dominant element of the war is a fight for national self-determination on Ukraine’s part, something socialists should support.

The right of national self-determination of oppressed nations is a basic democratic demand, like the right to vote in elections. Supporting a fight for national self-determination, furthermore, helps clarify the lines of class division, both in the oppressor nation, by splitting the working class from the imperialist ambitions of their rulers, and in the oppressed country, by increasing the potential for workers in such countries to see their own bourgeoisie as their enemy, something which is much more likely when the foreign invader has been expelled.

Socialists do not support such struggles only when we approve of the leaders, which is rarely, if ever, the case. Workers in the oppressed nation must at all times retain their political independence. And that means never surrendering their own struggles and political goals for the sake of “national unity” with their own bourgeoisie.

A basic democratic right though it is, the fight for national self-determination is however subordinate to the broader objective of advancing the international struggle for working-class liberation. Where a war between oppressor and oppressed nation threatens to blow up into a direct clash between imperialist nations, with devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of workers, the right of national self-determination of a single nation must take second place to the broader objective of preventing world war.

Ukraine today is a clear-cut case of a fight for national self-determination in which Russia, an imperialist nation, has invaded an independent nation, one that that it has historically treated as a semi-colonial state, whose territory it has partially occupied since 2014 and whose existence as an independent nation its president denies. Socialists must support the victory of Ukraine in this war as a basic act of anti-imperialist solidarity. Arguing that Russia has “legitimate security concerns” in Ukraine or that its invasion is justified by reference to NATO encirclement only accepts the imperialist perspective that every great power is entitled to its own sphere of influence. Similarly, the argument that Ukraine should trade land for peace is neither anti-imperialist nor internationalist since it legitimises Russia’s land grab, poses the threat of future offensives at a time of Russia’s choosing and betrays Ukraine’s right to self-determination.

It is not just Ukraine’s future in the balance but that of all the nations in what Putin regards as Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence. A Russian victory would increase the likelihood that Russia will advance its claims over other areas of its so-called near-abroad, only bringing about the extension of the conflict that opponents of Western arms argue will result from such supplies. A crushing victory for Russia would also confirm all the most right-wing, nationalist currents inside Russia itself. Defeat, by contrast, would significantly discredit President Putin, potentially contributing to revolt inside Russia against the regime that took the country to war.

Support for Ukraine in its war of national defence against Russian imperialism does not mean political support for the Zelensky government. Ukraine is a profoundly unequal country, divided between one of the poorest working classes and some of the richest oligarchs in Europe. The Zelensky government operates at the behest of country’s big capitalists. Its plummeting approval rating before the war is testimony to its failure to deal with the pressing needs of the population.

The Zelensky government and the bosses have used the war to try to strip workers of their industrial rights. Postwar reconstruction programs propose neoliberal restructuring, including privatisation of the biggest banks, subsidies for business and foreign investors and public service cuts. And Zelensky has been entirely uncritical of his new friends in the West, bloodthirsty butchers one and all. The Ukrainian army simply reflects the capitalist society in which it is embedded. It suffers the same class hierarchy, with the top brass afforded privileges and the lower ranks allowed no rights to organise.

To avoid the war being used merely to advance the interests of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and its allies, it must be fought using methods that strengthen the working class and maximise Ukraine’s capacity to resist. Rather than boosting the profits of the capitalists, war industries should be nationalised and put under popular control. Strict measures must be taken against war profiteering and the assets of the oligarchs seized to pay for the war. Repayment of foreign debt incurred by previous governments must be terminated. No infringement on political rights for trade unions, student and civil society groups and the left can be tolerated. Democratisation of the armed forces is necessary, a purge of right-wing elements in the army and state apparatus and the formation of local workers’ militias where possible. A working-class perspective also means combating prejudice towards Russian-speaking Ukrainians, which where it exists can undermine unity between the two populations. With nearly half the population having relatives in Russia, building bridges with Russian workers too, themselves victims of this war, is crucial to achieving solidarity between the working classes of the two countries, the better to fight the capitalists and governments of both. Military resistance inside Ukraine would be doubly effective if combined with political revolt inside Russia.

Finally, the war for national self-determination has not been converted into an inter-imperialist war by virtue of the West supplying Ukraine with arms. There is nothing new about oppressed countries or national liberation movements taking weapons from another imperialist power as they battle imperialist aggression. Whether that then converts them into a proxy for the imperialist supplying the weapons is a concrete question. Important issues to consider include the degree to which the oppressed nation retains control over the direction of the war effort and the level of popular support for the war. Irish republicans who took weapons from Germany in the early twentieth century, the Greek and Italian resistance movements in World War II supplied weapons by Britain, and Vietnam in the 1960s armed by Russia and China all enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the imperialist powers that supported them. The revolutionary left had no qualms about supporting any of these, nor did they argue that their victory would be “ruinous”. As for Ukraine, there is no indication that NATO is now directing the struggle, nor any sign that the population has given up. Nor is the war being prolonged artificially by the Ukrainian government for NATO’s benefit.

Understanding how and why Ukrainian people are resisting throws into doubt any idea that the resistance has been “subsumed into an inter-imperialist war”. Imperialist invasion cannot be defeated by pacifist methods. Western military supplies went some way to preventing a rapid Russian military victory and the imposition of a puppet government in the early stages of the war. Given the evidence of atrocities around Kyiv, with mass graves uncovered after Russia pulled out, such a result would have resulted in the slaughter of even greater numbers of civilians.

Nor does it look likely that the war will develop into a direct conflict between imperialist powers. The war remains, as it began, a contest between Ukraine and Russia. The stiff resistance put up by the Ukrainian armed forces, using a mix of Soviet-era and Western weapons, explains why the conflict, rather than spreading into surrounding countries, has shrunk in scope since the initial invasion. This does not rule out the possibility of the war being transformed at some point into an inter-imperialist war; in the imperialist era, any national war has that potential. In such an instance, socialists would have to revise their assessment. But that is not the case at present, and it is disorienting for the left to assume that it is.

NATO using the war for its own ends

This is not an inter-imperialist war, but the context of imperialist competition is essential to understanding it. Lying at the crossroads of Europe, Ukraine has been the subject of imperialist contest for many years.

The war is the result in the first instance of Russia’s decision to try to secure Ukraine for its sphere of influence. But the invasion has resulted in what it was designed to avert. Ukraine is now clinging still more closely to the West.

Western imperialists are doing their best to seize on the war to advance their position and to send a signal to Russia and China that Western imperialism is still a force to be reckoned with.

More broadly, NATO leaders and generals are using the Ukraine war to justify the largest military expansion in decades in Europe. In June, NATO members meeting in Madrid drew up a new “strategic concept”, involving the creation of a new high readiness force of 300,000, up from the existing 40,000, with more pre-positioned equipment and stockpiles, more forward-deployed F35 fighter jets and new military planning to consolidate NATO’s influence in Eastern Europe. Finland and Sweden, neutral for decades, have applied for NATO membership.

Every action taken by the US against Russia is taken with an eye to its impact on China. As leaders at the NATO summit made clear, the Western military alliance is now to extend its role to the Indo-Pacific, potentially to prepare for war on two fronts, Russia and China. This explains the NATO invitation to the governments of Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand to attend the summit.

Imperialism of course is defined by competition, and China and Russia for their part are seeing advantages in joining forces. China is rapidly expanding its military to extend its reach in the Indo-Pacific. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has condemned “Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation” and America’s sanctions against Russia, but China too is doing its bit to increase imperialist tensions in the world.

Socialists must resolutely oppose this bloody contest to divide the world. In the West, that means in particular opposing NATO’s growing militarism just as we support Ukraine in its fight to end Russian occupation. We should have no truck with those in the British and Australian labour parties, the US Democrats or the German Greens who are now acting as cheerleaders for NATO.

NATO’s propaganda regarding the Russian invasion and its claims to noble deeds in Ukraine should be treated with contempt. These blood-drenched warmongers are proclaiming their support for self-determination against imperialist aggression when the US and allies have for decades been rampaging around the world, killing millions through bombs and economic coercion. NATO leaders may now denounce Putin, but for many years they turned a blind eye to Russian atrocities in Chechnya at a time it was expedient to do so, just as Putin cooperated in the US’s invasion of Afghanistan.

NATO member states say that they support Ukraine and have promised billions of dollars in aid. But this aid will only further enrich the capitalists and politicians. In July, representatives from dozens of wealthy countries gathered in Switzerland to sign up to a “Recovery and Development Plan” for Ukraine, which confirmed Western support for the Zelensky government’s neoliberal program. Ukrainian union leader Natalia Zemlyanska, declaring the document “absolutely worthless”, asked: “Why is this document only about money and mythical investors, and no words about the policies that will affect real people, Ukrainians, workers – the people who are going to restore the country?”. All the while, as Ukraine’s economy is being destroyed by Russian bombing, Western banks are demanding interest payments on loans taken out years ago.

NATO support for Ukraine is entirely conditional on its broader imperialist project, but NATO members are divided on this score. One camp, led by the British government and backed by Eastern European states, says that it wants Russia decisively beaten. The other camp, led by France and Germany, is more nervous about a long war and more inclined to press Ukraine to enter negotiations and make concessions. Neither side in the debate has any real concern for the Ukrainian people, only their own interests: their assessment of the economic damage and potential political backlash in Europe and further afield that will follow from extending the war, along with its associated sanctions and blockades, versus the benefits of crushing Russian threats to NATO. None of them has any principled objection to imperialist conquest of weaker nations, after all.

The war in Ukraine is a brutal endeavour that is taking the lives of many thousands of Ukrainians and Russians. Ukraine’s determination to repel the invasion should be supported by the left. But we should equally condemn our own ruling classes who are attempting to use Ukraine’s suffering for their own purposes. In a world divided by the big imperialists, we can only expect more such wars. Stopping this barbarism requires us to uproot the entire imperialist system, which is threatening to take the world to ruin.

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