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The War over Ukraine: National Defence or Imperialist War?

Markus Lehner, Neue Internationale 264, May 2022

For all their rejection of the imperialist aggression represented by the Russian attack on Ukraine at the end of February, Marxists must ask themselves deeper questions about the background to the conflict, the answers to which will also open a long-term class perspective for resolving the underlying contradictions. As the German Chancellor also proclaimed, the Ukraine war is a „turning point in time“, as was once the case with the fall of the Berlin Wall or September 11, 2001.

Turn of the times and ideologisation

US President Biden recently declared in Warsaw that this is the prelude to a long, global war „for democracy and Western values“. This „narrative“ is repeated daily in the Western media with reports of barbaric Russian warfare and heroic Ukrainian resistance „for our cause“. Any relativisation of this view or even a too hesitant partisanship for the cause of Ukraine’s „defence of the fatherland“ is immediately suspected of „appeasement“ or even treasonous capitulation.

Russia, only a few years ago a G20 „partner“ that was integrated into the development of global capitalism through its wealth of raw materials and large financial magnates, suddenly becomes a „totalitarian system“ that threatens freedom and world peace with its striving for great power.

NATO, on the other hand, is a „purely defensive alliance“ that has only extended its military power closer and closer to the borders of the Russian Federation because of the justified concerns of the Eastern European countries and the Baltic states.

This ideologisation of the NATO-Russia conflict and downplaying of the explosive power of Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU and NATO and its significance for the genesis of the war ultimately results from the concealment of the actual character of the „West“ and its „values“. These are the big capitals (monopolies) in North America, Britain, the central EU states, Japan and Australia – states that comprise about one fifth of the world’s population but hold up to 80% of the world’s wealth.

This wealth establishes a certain „liberality“ and a regime that allows social and ecological contradictions to at least be kept smaller because of the extra profits. These are achieved in particular through a global regime of exploitation that is still best described and understood by the term imperialism. Only the form of the division of the world has changed from colonialism to a complex network of semi-colonies and their control through capital flows by the international financial, economic and political institutions. In this context, the military superpower of the USA and its alliances in particular plays the role of „defence“ of precisely this „value“ order.

New players

Since the 1990s, at least two new players have emerged in this global order: China and Russia. China, in particular, was decisive in temporarily overcoming the over-accumulation crisis of the old US-led imperialism and in setting in motion an upswing period labelled „globalisation“. The fundamental contradiction of this period was that on the one hand it stabilised the profit rates of the „western“ imperialists, but on the other hand it further weakened the previous hegemon, the USA, in relation to its competitors (industrially, in world trade, institutionally, etc.). In the aftermath of the great recession of 2008/2009, the development of profits even in the USA got worse and worse due to growing debt problems and weak foreign trade development.

The further rise of China and more unstable political conditions in the USA led the latter to turn away from the policy of globalisation and to an increasingly confrontational policy towards Russia and China. As Lenin puts it in his writing on imperialism: The division of the world by the great monopolies, which is only reflected in the policies of the great powers, leads at some point through the „tectonic“ shift of economic relations to an intensification of contradictions in the imperialist system, which can only be resolved „by force“. Whatever the political actors before 1914 or 1939 wanted to achieve or what their „democratic“ or „totalitarian“ intentions were – it was ultimately the enormous contradictions and crises of the existing „world order“ that forced them into a war for the redivision and reorganisation of the world. It is not the intentions of the political leaders that are decisive, but whether the only class that can put an end to this capitalist world disorder – the working class – will oppose this development with determination.


The escalation around Ukraine since the 1990s can only be understood in this context. Like the Balkans before 1914, the conflict around Ukraine has long been a powder keg on the fuse for imperialist war. Both through its character as a multi-ethnic state with a large Russian-speaking minority in the south and east and through the continuing links of its economy with Russia, Ukraine after 1991 had initially found itself dependent on the newly establishing Russian imperialism – which was also reflected in a fragile system of West and East Ukrainian political forces and oligarchs. In contrast, a strong nationalist political movement, extending to the extreme right, had emerged, especially in western Ukraine, which wanted to promote a „pro-Western“ orientation to break with Russian dominance. This ultimately led to civil war when the regime of Yanukovych, representing the previous compromise, was overthrown in 2014 by the „Maidan movement“ over the issue of EU association. The annexation of Crimea and the separation of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics were the result. While the EU leadership around Germany and France sought to defuse the conflict through a „settlement“ in the Minsk agreements, the USA and the nationalist leadership in Kiev were against such a new compromise with Moscow or the representatives of the Russian minority from the very beginning – and have continued the war on frozen frontlines unabated ever since.

Why did such an obvious difference arise between the US, and by extension Britain, and the rest of the EU? For the latter, an integration of Russia, its enormous raw material potential and military capacities, has always been an option to gain a more independent role vis-à-vis the weakening US hegemon. EU policy assumed that the Ukraine conflict, similar to that in Yugoslavia, could be frozen at the level of agreements and trade relations so that tensions with Russia would ultimately be contained. For the USA, on the other hand, Ukraine was a strategic point of attack on the Russian-Chinese alliance, which it had long identified as a dangerous main competitor in the world order. Due to the poor performance of the Ukrainian army in 2014, the USA and Britain therefore began to systematically build up a powerful Ukrainian armed force since 2016. Ukraine, a country that has been practically bankrupt since 2015, heavily indebted and languishing under a debt regime of IMF pacts, spends a large part of its income on military expenditure every year and also received billions of dollars in military aid from the West every year (from the beginning of the year alone until the start of the war, there were goods worth another 5 billion US dollars). Not only was it possible to distribute important weapon systems (drones, missiles, armour-piercing weapons, air defences, etc.) with the corresponding training, but an infrastructure of support was also created, from communication to reconnaissance (satellite systems) to strategic-tactical command.

Inter-imperialist aggravation

This also makes it clear that the war in Ukraine is essentially different from those of imperialist armies against those of a semi-colony, such as the USA against Iraq or the UK against Argentina. It is not the helpless army of a semi-colony, hopelessly inferior in terms of weaponry, that is confronted with a thousand times militarily superior imperialism. Rather, it is an army systematically prepared and highly armed by Western imperialism for this war, which has to fight for the interests of its financial backers. With the outbreak of war, their support has multiplied again. This is not only in terms of arms deliveries, but also reconnaissance, training, strategic advice and economic aid.

When the German Chancellor says that he does not know when arms deliveries make a country a party to the war, he is unconsciously saying that purely formal criteria are not sufficient to determine whether NATO countries are already at war (or whether this would only be the case when, for example, Ukrainian jets take off from NATO airfields). De facto, the NATO countries have long been a party to the war and are clearly involved in the Ukrainian warfare. The only reason why Ukraine is acting „vicariously“ here is, of course, the danger of the war expanding into a direct NATO-Russia confrontation, which could also involve the use of nuclear weapons.

The way in which the prevailing democracy-war narrative now downplays the danger of nuclear war serves to justify increasingly offensive and direct intervention in Ukraine – ultimately with the aim of upgrading it to the point where it can more or less openly intervene to defeat Russia militarily and politically. Of course, a more limited inter-imperialist war cannot be ruled out in principle. However, the logic of the expansion of warfare is directly inherent in the current conflict.

The escalation strategy of the Ukrainian leadership and its supporters in the Pentagon makes such an escalation more likely – including the danger of its escalation into a Third World War. In this sense, too, this war cannot simply be regarded as an isolated Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Similar to Serbia in 1914, the path from regional conflict to world war is a very short one here. And, just as the leftists in the Second International did back then, we must clearly give greater weight to the question of averting such a devastating world war than to the question of defending the semi-colony under attack – which is why we also clearly oppose arms supplies to the Ukrainian army and advocate their prevention.

Economic war

In addition, the intra-imperialist escalation of the situation also has a direct economic aspect. The economic sanctions imposed by the West (exclusion from SWIFT, freezing of the international foreign exchange reserves of the Russian Central Bank, suspension of the activities of Western corporations in Russia, far-reaching trade restrictions, etc.) are indeed of a magnitude never seen before in history (not even in the previous world wars were they so extensive). They are so severe that some business newspapers, even in the USA, puzzled over whether Russia or the West would suffer severe crises under their economic effects first. This is also indicated by a weighty exception: Oil and gas deliveries from Russia were not stopped, but allegedly only reduced in the long term.

In fact, central EU economies in particular will probably slide into severe recessions within a short time due to the burden of the already high energy prices. Clearly, the USA is much less affected by this problem and, with the help of its allies in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, is pushing all the harder for an energy turnaround in its favour. However, China is much more affected by the sanctions policy and the „redivision of markets“. Like India, it has not directly joined the sanctions policy, but it is acting cautiously in view of the fear of secondary sanctions. China fears the loss of high investment in Ukraine and the EU and a growing tendency to reorient Western supply chains away from Chinese capital influence. On the other hand, China’s need for energy and raw materials, as well as its competitive situation with the USA, mean that it must necessarily continue to expand its business in Russia. For it, a collapse of the Russian regime carries enormous risks and could even prove to be a political catastrophe. Therefore, it will rather have to support Putin and his system of rule, even if Beijing may regard Moscow’s policy as adventurism. In view of the economic and political crisis development in China itself, the danger of an expansion of the inter-imperialist conflict to this Asian superpower is therefore quite possible (keyword: South China Sea).

Self-determination, war and imperialism

As Lenin described it in his writings on the national question in the imperialist epoch: On the one hand, with the division of the world among the great powers, the age of „defence of the fatherland“ has come to an end in the developed capitalist nations – a war between imperialist powers is a predatory, inhuman one for the preservation of spheres of influence and profits, no matter who is aggressor or defender.

On the other hand, the struggle for democratic and national self-determination seems to become all the more important for the (neo-)colonised remaining countries of this world in relation to these great powers. In the face of occupation by an imperialist power, an attacked (semi-)colony therefore very much has the right to self-defence and must be supported for this even if there is no progressive leadership of the defence.

But, as Lenin makes clear, these questions of imperialist war and national self-defence are in dialectical tension. In the imperialist epoch, capital and its laws of movement constitute a global totality. Therefore, they also determine the form of movement of this contradiction. In every struggle of an oppressed nation against imperialism, there are naturally elements in which the oppressed nation is supported by an imperialist competitor. Even for Iraq, there was some strengthening by Russia (even with insufficient weapons) against US imperialism. But this was a minor, insignificant aspect.

On the other hand, imperialist wars are interspersed with wars of national liberation (Serbia in World War I is just one of many examples). Also, one often merges into the other – for example, in civil wars or anti-colonial struggles during and after the end of the last two world wars. The question of the weighting of the imperialist or national character of a war is ultimately decided by the concrete world situation or the history of the conflict within it.


As we have shown, in today’s war, Ukraine is a central site of competing imperialist powers for the redivision of the world. It is therefore not only, not even in essence, the invasion by an imperialist power (Russia) of a semi-colony (Ukraine), but the influence of the NATO countries themselves forms an essential moment of the war. The inter-imperialist conflict – including the danger of a world war – are so predominant that the question of the defence of Ukraine against Russia is pushed into the background. This is not to say that we should tell Ukrainian workers to sit back and wait for Ukraine’s surrender, or even to pursue its defeat. Where it is possible to resist the occupation independently of its reactionary pro-imperialist leadership, this is of course justified, especially to fight the attacks of whatever army. Also, anti-militarist work would have to be done in the army or the regional defence units, so as to lay the basis for the transformation of the imperialist war into the revolutionary civil war.

But it is also crucial to build an anti-war movement both in the West and in Russia – with the aim of overthrowing the imperialist warmongers on all sides, transforming the war into a class war against the „own“ bourgeoisie. Only this can ultimately stop the slaughter in Ukraine and the threat of a new world war!


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