National Sections of the L5I:

The different components of the war in Ukraine

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The war in Ukraine is certainly at a historical turning point. It doesn't help when leftists like Sahra Wagenknecht keep emphasising that it is only one of many - and that most of them are in defence of "Western values". In fact, since World War II, most wars involving major powers have been "asymmetric" (except for the Korean War or the two Vietnam wars), in which one side was completely superior militarily.

The "conventional" Ukrainian war is a cruel one, very destructive, like World War II, with all the horrors of artillery and tank battles, trench warfare, bombardments, weeks of sieges and encirclement battles. Added to this is the fact that behind it lies the confrontation of the most important great powers active in the European area. As a result, industrial mass production of weaponry is being ramped up by both sides - with the danger of prolonging and escalating it as far as the type of weapons is concerned, up to and including the use of so-called battlefield nuclear weapons. This conflict is embedded in the development of crisis-like conditions of the imperialist world system, in which a weakening capitalist world economy is creating a struggle between the great powers, especially China and the USA, for the redivision of the world. Whether or not the Ukraine war is linked in the short term to an intensification of the Taiwan conflict, we have entered a new period of increased confrontation between the great imperialist powers, including military aspects, which raises the purely economic globalisation competition to a whole new level.

Problematic comparisons
Various historical comparisons have been made with the two world wars or their precursor conflicts; for example, the Balkan Wars in the former case and the Spanish and China-Japan wars in the latter. In the debate amongst bourgeois experts, comparisons with the Second World War predominate, since this enables them to link it with the "anti-fascist struggle" or draw the supposed lessons of history from mistaken "appeasement policies".

Predominant too is the narrative of the "crazy" autocrat Putin who, like Hitler, subordinated his country to a fascist dictatorship and whose insane threats had for too long not been recognised by "naive" democratic governments, especially in the European Union.

From a Marxist point of view, the Putin regime is of course not fascism, but an authoritarian one that has consolidated itself over two decades and which, from a position of weakness after the restoration of capitalism, is attempting to recover its “rightful” place as an imperialist power in the “concert” of great powers. The "Putin system" is thus not bound to his particular person but encompasses a political leadership layer closely intertwined with the large arms and raw materials corporations, whose imperialist super profits are closely linked to the preservation of spheres of influence and military power.

The expansion of NATO and the USA into Eastern Europe and their interventions in Central Asia, as well as its declining economic significance relative to China, made Russia fear for its position as a world power. Specifically, in Ukraine, a kind of stalemate between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces was maintained for a long time after 1990, but this tilted with the Maidan movement around 2014 and led to the conflict over Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The history of the slide into war, including the role of the various great powers and nationalist forces in Ukraine, is then also more reminiscent of the prologue to the First World War and the "sleepwalking into disaster" escalation centred in the Balkans.

Conversely, there is also the misuse of the fascism label by parts of the left. For example, the Berlin daily "Junge Welt" likes to call the Zelensky government a "fascist lackey of NATO", which is said to have established a Nazi-like dictatorship in Ukraine with the "Maidan coup" in 2014. Although Ukrainian Nazis did play an important role in the immediate change of regime in 2014, this is by no means sufficient to accurately characterise the Western-oriented system of oligarchic capitalism that emerged in Ukraine afterwards as a fascist regime. Its permanent economic crisis forced this regime to use nationalism as social cement and to employ many extreme right-wing forces, especially in the security apparatus. But these are rather subordinate aspects compared to the general orientation towards the West, which is associated with huge illusions in "Western democracy and prosperity" among the masses in Ukraine.

Both sides of the "camps" struggling against either "Putin fascism" or the “Maidan Nazis” are engaged in a nasty cover-up of the real nature of the war. The invocation of the alleged fascist character of the other side obviously serves to justify taking sides for what is claimed to be either a "democratic" or "anti-fascist" imperialism, that is, open support for NATO or Russia’s supposed "anti-fascist struggle". As always, the "anti-fascist popular front" here excuses the abandonment of class politics in favour of political subordination to the reactionary goals of one of the fighting bourgeois camps. The true character of this war should therefore first be understood away from this false track of a war against fascism.

Susan Watkins in the September/October issue of New Left Review has helpfully broken down the war's different levels in an article "Five Wars in One". In analogy to Ernest Mandel's well-known analysis of the Second World War, (Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, London and New York 1986.) she has presented five levels of conflict for it as a "war over the world order". These show the problems of finding a left position and the dangers of oversimplification.

1 An imperialist war of aggression

The first, and certainly the most obvious, aspect is that it is a brutal imperialist war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine. In contrast to the bourgeois publicists, this does not refer to the specific "imperialist" ideology of the Putin regime, but to the imperialist world order existing in the current epoch of world capitalism, shared by all the “great powers”, of which Russia is certainly not the greatest. Imperialism is an expression of the inability of global capitalism to replace the historically outdated form of the nation state with a political world system appropriate to global problems. In its place is a system of rival great powers and their spheres of influence, which must necessarily come into conflict with the principles of nation-state sovereignty.

Today, the Western imperialist powers secure “theirs” wherever possible through "soft power". The semi-colonies the West powers dominate through their banks, international financial institutions, alliances etc, seem to voluntarily opt for "democracy and human rights", which are then "protected" by NATO and similar powers (when need be, by military means). When, as is now said about Russia, that defending its "sphere of influence" is "outdated thinking", it only obscures the fact that e.g. NATO's expansion eastwards or the EU's expansion is of course also about securing their sphere. Unlike "the West", however, Russia has fewer and fewer economic and political advantages to offer and certainly does not appear as a less oppressive and more democratic alternative. A weakening imperialism, or one blocked by an already existing power, as was the case for Germany and Japan in the first half of the 20th century, tends to secure its sphere of influence militarily.

This explanation of the Russian attack is, of course, in no way a justification or excuse for it. It is above all an argument for the fact that the imperialist system as a whole is responsible for it and is inherently inhuman and crisis-ridden – as the wars in Chechnya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, to name only the most recent, clearly show. It is this system that must be overcome. This means above all that the working classes in the imperialist states must work to wrest the weapons out of the hands of their leaderships and turn them against their own warlords themselves. The position of socialists in the Russian Federation must be one of intensified class struggle against the reactionary, nationalist Putin regime. Here we advocate revolutionary defeatism and the transformation of the war into a revolutionary civil war to overthrow Russian imperialism.

Therefore, we also reject the sham solutions for settling the conflict that in Germany dominate in the Left Party (Die Linke) and German Communist Party (DKP). They say that in order to restore lasting peace it is necessary to guarantee "Russia's legitimate security interests". This includes both the narrative that NATO's eastward expansion, and among other things a "lack of sensitivity" towards Russia, are the reasons which led to war. But it also includes the "plan" that a peace solution with Russia via an agreement with the Western powers on the "security architecture" in Europe could sustainably defuse the conflict. On the one hand, this kind of solution ignores the fact that this is really about the struggle for spheres of influence by imperialist powers, which is still very far from a resolution like the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies.

What is passed over in silence is the fact that this war is also about the self-determination of countries like Ukraine, which are actually subjugated by one or the other semi-colonial system within the framework of such "security architectures". The question here is not whether joining an alliance or "neutrality" accompanied by security guarantees would be the best way out. Only an anti-imperialist movement in Ukraine and Russia and in the working classes of the rest of Europe and the USA could ensure an end to enforced integration into whatever spheres of influence, military alliances or economic unions the rivals set up.

No agreement between the EU, Russia and the USA on the future order in Europe can lead to a progressive outcome for the exploited and oppressed majorities of all these states and nations. Only the struggle for a United Socialist States of Europe through social revolution from below can establish a real peace on this continent.

2. A war of self-defence
The second essential aspect is that of a war of national self-defence on the part of Ukraine. It is one of the poorest countries on the continent, which is at the same time rich in mineral and agricultural raw materials. Throughout Europe, Ukrainian labour is exploited to the hilt. The country itself is ruled by an extremely corrupt oligarch capitalism, which hides its exploitative grimace behind democratic phrases and the pose of national defence.

All this is not unusual for exploited semi-colonies all over the world. In the case of an attack by an imperialist power that wants to annex this country, there is a clear impulse among the masses to defend the democratic right of self-determination of their own state, despite all their alienation from its leadership. In particular, Ukraine has been oppressed by its neighbouring states for centuries, not only by Russia, but also by the Poland-Lithuanian state and the Habsburg monarchy and then Imperial and Nazi Germany. Although now derided by both Putin and the Ukrainian nationalists, it was Lenin and the Bolsheviks who first linked the struggle against Tsarism and the Habsburgs, not only to the international class struggle but also to self-determination for Ukraine as for all others in the Tsar’s “prison house of nations”.

Thus, for the first time in centuries, a Ukrainian state was formed after the civil war, even though its sovereignty was later rendered largely fictional in Stalin’s Soviet Union. But, thanks to its distinct status as a republic, in the turmoil of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine voted overwhelmingly to become an independent nation state. Even though it is itself a multi-ethnic state, there is a large majority population that feels a sense of Ukrainian identity and refuses to be subordinated to another nation state again. Socialists must respect this democratic desire for national self-determination, as they have always done in the freedom struggle for Ireland or Kurdistan and countless colonies.

Despite all the class divisions in Ukraine, it will hardly be possible to win the workers over to their independent class interests if socialists do not at the same time join them in their struggle against all national oppression, which seems to them to be a precondition for being able to wage their very own class struggles on their own terrain. With all necessary criticism of the corrupt, pro-imperialist leadership of the defensive war, we call, at least until independent fighting units are built, for entry into the existing defence structures (as long as they are not openly fascist units).

There, too, we have to point out the treacherous and anti-class character of the political leadership as well as the danger of misusing the defence war for Western imperialist interests, that is, for continuing the struggle even after repelling the Russian attack. However, this criticism cannot lead to a defeatist position - i.e. the acceptance of Ukraine's defeat by Russia. This would worsen the conditions of struggle of the Ukrainian workers and make it practically impossible to detach them from their illusions in the nationalist regime.

In this respect, we reject the pacifist positions towards the justified struggle of the Ukrainians for their self-defence as well as the attempts to characterise the defence forces of Ukraine as a whole according to the image of the Azov regiment. Even though we reject the units that echo Stepan Bandera's Nazi collaborator troops and do not accept them as "comrades-in-arms", we refuse to equate them with the Ukrainian struggle as a whole. In the Palestinian resistance, too, it is inevitable to stand on the same barricades alongside, for example, Hamas. This means that revolutionaries defend the right of Ukrainians to resist the Russian occupation, but without giving any form of support to the Zelensky government.

3. An Internal Civil War
The third aspect is that of the internal Ukrainian civil war. The shifting balance between pro-Western and pro-Russian economic and political elites in Ukraine, as well as the balance between the nationalities in the multi-ethnic state of Ukraine, was overturned by the Maidan “revolution” in 2014. At that time, President Yanukovych, who was leaning towards Russia, was replaced by a clearly pro-Western government. In order to secure power, this government used many of the extreme right-wing nationalist forces, that had spearheaded the final struggle on the Maidan, into its administration and security forces and also made political concessions to them. This presaged what became an armed clash with the population groups whose minority rights were threatened, especially in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The struggle for minority rights and autonomy that began there was certainly justified and had to be defended by socialists in the sense of the right to self-determination. However, it was ultimately suborned by Russian imperialism for its intervention and annexation policy.

In the current situation, this question is therefore subordinate to that of Ukraine's right to self-defence. On the other hand, no solution to the conflict can avoid settling the status of the Donbas (the Donets Basin), Luhansk and Crimea. In this context, the hypocrisy of all "defenders of international law" who emphasise that Ukraine must be restored to its original borders at all costs, including the conquest of Crimea, becomes clear. In the aforementioned regions, there are historical and ethnic reasons why the population there should be able to determine for itself within which borders it wants to live in the future - whether in Ukraine, Russia, as an autonomous region within one of the two, independently, etc.

The fetishisation of existing borders is no solution and has never proven to bring peace to border regions ravaged by nationality conflicts. It is also quite hypocritical when international law is brought into play today against the separation of Crimea from Ukraine, but not in the (equally justified) case of Kosovo against Serbia. Ultimately, this shows that Western imperialism is not concerned with the right of self-determination of the peoples concerned, but with the victory of its nationalist proxy regime at the cost of brutal repression of the Russian minority. Therefore, revolutionaries in Ukraine must make it clear that the future of the so-called People's Republics and Crimea must not be decided by the Ukrainian nationalist regime, Russia or NATO. We therefore advocate the recognition of Ukraine as a state and the complete withdrawal of Russian troops! At the same time, we defend the right of self-determination for Crimea and the "People's Republics".

4 Western imperialism

The fourth aspect of the war is the massive support of Western imperialism for Ukraine, which makes it a de facto proxy war. Starting with the USA, all its allies also speak of a "war of democracy" against "authoritarianism". So, if for certain reasons there is no direct involvement of NATO troops or aircraft , both the economic war against Russia and the extent of economic, logistical and weapons support are of unprecedented scale in such a conflict.

Ukraine, which was virtually insolvent before the war, received aid packages and weapons amounting to two-thirds of its national product in the first year of the war, virtually the same amount of support every day as was invested annually in Afghanistan at its peak. It even dwarfs USA support for Israel. Yet it is not simply arms that are being supplied. The Ukrainian army has been, and is being, systematically trained in new weapons systems, both technically and tactically, just as the most modern communication systems for combat support are obviously being made available without further ado.

Intelligence on Russian movements is passed on to Ukraine quite openly, and tactics and strategy are coordinated with military advisers from NATO headquarters. Through a system of exchanges, the arming of Ukraine is clearly included in the armament programmes of all NATO countries, including the Federal Republic of Germany. In combination with the economic sanctions, which are supposed to have an effect similar to Britain’s long time tactic of the "Continental Blockade", one can justifiably speak of Western imperialism using the Ukrainian defensive war to decisively weaken Russian imperialism by means of a proxy war. This corresponds to the long-term global strategy of the USA, which was developed against China and Russia as its main global competitors. The war in Ukraine was seized on as a favourable opportunity to make the EU imperialists pledge to play a role in this confrontation and to banish Russia as China's main ally to the second rank for years to come.

But it also seems that the USA is not prepared to give unlimited support to Ukraine. The controversial remarks by US Chief of Staff, Mark A. Milley, that Ukraine could not win the war can probably be understood as reflecting the Pentagon’s strategy. If the US wanted to, it could of course provide such military support that would have ended the war long ago, but that is probably not its intention. Obviously, they do not want to turn Russia completely into a candidate for Iraq-style disintegration because of its geostrategic importance and, on the other hand, they do not want new military rivals to emerge in Europe. In this respect, the Pentagon is probably happy to accept a protracted, bloody war of position in Ukraine, which would weaken both Europe and Russia as global rivals in the long run.

Therefore, we in the Western imperialist states must protest against this abuse of the justified defensive war of the Ukrainian people and its bloody perpetuation as a proxy inter-imperialist war. We must also expose our governments' arms deliveries to Ukraine and the economic sanctions against Russia, which cannot be separated from NATO's rearmament programmes and the global conflict that is being waged here with the help of Ukraine. On a global level, this aspect is the dominant element, although this does not mean that the struggle for self-defence in Ukraine is therefore unjustified. All arms deliveries from the US or its allies, whether direct or indirect, are on the one hand clearly linked to their own arms projects, the expansion of their own arms industries and their profits and, on the other hand, tied in to the US strategy to defeat its Chinese and Russian global rivals. Likewise, we must warn the Ukrainian workers that the ever greater aid from "the West" will not come without a heavy cost to them. The bill eventually will be presented to them and the poorest will pay for it with super-exploitation by the Western imperialists in special reconstruction programmes for their new semi-colony.

5 The potential for a world war and the relation of the different dimensions of war to each other

Finally, the fifth aspect of the war is that it has the potential to escalate at any time into a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO - that is, into an open world war. The nature of the West's support for Ukraine sets this up, but it has not yet become a reality. The Ukrainian leadership and some Eastern European and Baltic states are in favour of a "final solution to the Russian threat" per se and are doing much to increase the support for this in the West. On the other hand, the Russian leadership is also already portraying the West as a belligerent party and hinting at the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the event of an unfavourable course of events, which would probably quickly lead to counterattacks.

This possible escalation is also cited by some leftists as a reason for de facto advising the Ukrainians to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible. A cynical position: in this respect, in every conflict with imperialist powers, one would have to capitulate immediately, because otherwise a world or nuclear war might be imminent. In view of the global intensification of imperialist antagonisms and the approaching struggle for the redivision of the world, pacifism proves to be hopelessly disorienting. Only international class struggle to smash and disarm the owners of these murderous arsenals, expose and fight the predatory intentions of all sides, can actually avert the threat of world war.

To determine the character of a war independently of the international situation would lead to a grave error. Many leftists today conclude that the invasion of a semi-colonial country like Ukraine by an imperialist power with the aim of making it a colony of Russia, or at least annexing large parts of its territory, is reactionary and therefore NATO's support for Ukraine in the form of unprecedented economic and military aid must be justified and progressive.

This ignores the fact that NATO's intervention is not motivated by democratic ideals but by a desire to weaken Russia as its imperialist rival on the world stage, thus rendering it incapable of challenging the US in theatres such as the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Washington's other motives were to sabotage the EU's economic relations with Russia and to send a warning to China about its undiminished military power and continued economic dominance. In short, NATO's democratic rhetoric is merely a cynical cover to justify actions motivated solely by its imperialist self-interest.

The developments that have led to Russia's reactionary invasion confirm in several respects that, at its core, this is not only a justified war of national defence, but that NATO's own political, economic and military influence is also a decisive factor and could lead to an inter-imperialist war of unprecedented destructiveness for humanity.

In the face of a world situation in which multiple crises and the increasing struggle to redivide the world are giving rise to many such complex situations as the Ukraine war (e.g. Taiwan), it is necessary for the left to find a programmatically clear, socialist, anti-war position. This cannot consist in abstract general formulas and must include both the current world situation and the concrete analysis of the war situation. This must centre on the agency of the Ukrainian and the Russian working class as well as the labour movements in the NATO powers.

At the present moment, this means recognising Ukraine's right to self-defence while opposing the intervention of Western imperialists who are using this conflict to defeat their competitor, warn off China and subordinate German and French imperialism into the bargain. The basic lines of such a position must therefore include:

• Supporting the anti-war opposition in Russia and transforming the war into the revolutionary civil war to overthrow Russian imperialism.
• Defending Ukraine while exposing the reactionary nature of the leadership of the struggle, refusing any political support for its misuse as a proxy war; supporting Ukrainian socialists and trade unionists' defence of their democratic rights.
• Condemning and opposing the policy of rearmament in the NATO countries and the misuse of arms supplies to Ukraine as a means of waging a proxy war;
• Building an international anti-war movement to oppose the growing danger of a new world war as nuclear arsenals continue to grow.