- Russian troops out of Ukraine
- No to NATO expansion to the East
- For a mass international movement against the war
- Self-determination for the Russian-speaking provinces of Eastern Ukraine
In the early morning hours of Thursday, February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine from all possible directions: East, North and South. This can develop into one of the worst military confrontations in Europe for decades.
It is not yet clear how far Putin’s regime intends to go. It is possible that this massive offensive may be primarily aimed at “dismantling” the resistance capability of the Ukrainian army so as to make it easier for Putin to march and occupy the Southeastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. In other words, the actual invasion could essentially be limited to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But this is far from certain. If Putin’s plans go beyond this and aim to occupy large parts of the country then he has lost all sense of balance – a country of this size cannot be kept subdued by any invading army. Such a move would create a hotbed of war and of huge destabilization for a whole period of time.
These developments clarify the picture as to whether Putin did indeed care about the Russophone populations of Eastern Ukraine, as he has been claiming: Putin is simply serving the interests of Russian imperialism and Greater Russian Chauvinism.
At this moment it is important to strengthen the voices, especially on the Left, against war and to keep clear distances both from Russian and Western imperialism; revealing not only the barbarity of Russian capitalism but also the hypocrisy of the West (US, EU, NATO) which only remembers human rights, democracy and international law when they serve its own interests.
The new “cold war”
The latest move by the Russian regime represents a serious escalation in the already extremely tense relations between Russia and the US/EU/NATO partners. It is the latest episode in the new “cold war” that is under way, which involves not only Russia and the West but includes China, which is rising economically to threaten the US’s domination of the global economy. Russia and China have been building a common block against their common adversary, despite their differences.
The expression “cold war” was originally used after World War II, and illustrated the struggle between two competing economic systems: capitalism in the West and the nationalised planned economies of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Today’s “cold war” has no ideological aspects, it is plainly a reflection of the competition between rival capitalist powers.
At the root of it is the fact that domination of the globe by the US (and its allies) is weakened and under threat. China represents a threat for the US on the economic level – threatening to displace it from its position of the most powerful economy even before the end of the current decade. Russian imperialism has been expanding its spheres of influence using its military power at the expense of US imperialism and its allies. It has already demonstrated this in the Middle East, particularly in Syria in the latter part of the past decade, while its close (though contradictory) relations with the Turkish regime of Tayyip Erdogan, has become a major headache for the West, as Turkey is a member state of NATO.
The Western capitalist block is fighting a major battle to contain the expansion of its competitors – Russia and China. But it is a rearguard battle.
Despite its relative economic weakness, Russia remains a superpower as regards military might. The West has not been able to seriously undermine its military potential. China’s economic rise cannot be stopped – it may only be slowed down to a certain extent (that is not possible to accurately predict) through the efforts of the US and its allies. The main thing, and this is the key point, is that there is no way the US economy can launch forward leaving China further and further behind in their mutual competition. Russia’s cooperation with China increases the combined power of the two, representing a serious threat to the Western alliance on all levels on a long term basis.
American hegemony was presented triumphantly as the “Pax Americana” of the “end of history” back in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thirty years later, it is in full retreat and facing an “identity” crisis. The US’s humiliating withdrawal from Syria and the Middle East in general, followed by the latest fiasco in Afghanistan, are illustrative examples of that. At the same time, the challenge posed by the rise of China in the global economy, is way more important than these geopolitical defeats.
The Western powers took full advantage of the extremely weak position in which Russia found itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western influence expanded in every possible way, absorbing the former Eastern Bloc countries in the Balkans and Central Europe. The West expanded economically and militarily, integrating many of these countries into the EU and NATO – 14 countries joined NATO to the East, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the 2010s, an attempt was made to integrate Ukraine into the western block. In 2013, an uprising that started as a reaction to poverty, corruption and social crisis, was supported and eventually controlled by the West with the active intervention of neo-fascist organisations. This led to the fall of the then pro-Russian government, opening the way to Ukraine tightening its links to the Western powers. This uprising became known as the Euro-Maidan movement.
Russian capitalism felt to be under immediate threat: not only because Ukraine would be connected to the West economically, but also because it would allow the West to place missile bases in Russia’s “backyard”. In this way the West would achieve a massive military advantage in their confrontation with Russian capitalism.
Expecting Russia to sit back and just watch these developments would be naive, especially as a very large percentage of Ukraine’s population is Russian-speaking (at least 30%- even more according to other sources) while some areas in Eastern and South-Eastern Ukraine are solidly Russian-speaking and with a strong Russian national identity.
The annexation of the Crimean in 2014 was Russia’s first response to the West’s attempt to place Ukraine in its sphere of influence. In addition to this, an uprising in the eastern part of the country, where the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are located, led to the declaration of their independence in the same year.
This act of independence was recognised by Russia on Monday, February 21, cancelling two international agreements (Minsk I and Minsk II which provided for autonomy and ceasefire) which were never respected by anyone anyway. This was followed by the full-scale attack we witnessed on Thursday 24.
The West responded to the annexation of Crimea with sanctions which were still in place until February 21 – new sanctions have been imposed since then. Since 2014, the West has been investing in Ukraine, while the country’s president, V. Zelensky, kept referring to Ukraine entering NATO – a project which was warmly supported by NATO. At the same time, the US was constantly maintaining a confrontational attitude and heightened tensions with the Russian regime, which they describe as “a threat for peace and democracy”.
This description of Russia’s regime is quite accurate, but actually the US and NATO are not really in a position to give lessons on democracy and peace.
The national question in Ukraine
The fact that a very large percentage of Ukraine’s population (which is 44 million in total) is Russian-speaking and a significant section of them (reports speak of up to 50% of Russian speakers) feel of Russian national origin, provides a huge advantage for Putin.
People speaking different languages does not of course represent a problem per se – quite the opposite. The problem is that the forces clashing within Ukraine and the dynamics which are being created are instrumentilising the national question in order to serve their purposes.
National tensions arose all over the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc after the collapse of Stalinism – this has been a central feature of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and it was at the heart of the nightmarish civil war in former Yugoslavia etc and other wars in central Asia. The reason is basically that the new capitalist classes which emerged in the former Stalinist states, on their road to the creation of new nation states (under their control), had to dress this with an ideology. The only ideology which serves this purpose in capitalism is nationalism (along with some topping of religion, wherever circumstances allow). Nationalism went hand in hand with the fracturing of the Eastern block and the wars that followed.
The ethnic issue that blew up in Ukraine with the declaration of independence by the Donetsk and Lugansk counts so far 14,000 dead and almost 1.5 million refugees. Putin’s side is calling it a genocide, Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, and his Western allies refute it – as if so many dead and displaced are an insignificant collateral damage.
An important “detail” here, however, is that the annexation of Crimea went hand in hand with a referendum in which a massive majority voted in favor of leaving Ukraine. Referendums were also held in Donetsk and Lugansk, again with massive majorities in favour of independence. Even though the right of nations to self-determination in today’s world is nothing but empty phrases, people within the revolutionary Left, who hold up to their values regardless of different circumstances, do not have the right to neglect it.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was thus characterized by two main elements: on the one hand it was an expression of the imperialist-expansionist tendencies of Russian capitalism/imperialism, but on the other hand it reflected the expressed will of the people of Crimea to self-determination and secession from Ukraine. Both these elements need to be taken into account.
Something similar applies to the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces today. Putin’s sending troops to the two provinces and starting the war with Ukraine, is a reactionary plan integrated to serve the interests of Russian imperialism. However, the rights of the inhabitants of eastern Ukraine also need to be kept in the picture.
Ukraine’s president Zelensky has, since 2019, banned the use of any language other than Ukrainian in secondary schools, high schools and universities. He is also imposing severe restrictions on their everyday use. The language mainly targeted is Russian, although the bans also apply to other languages such as Hungarian, Romanian, etc. For years he has refused to negotiate with the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, he is only interested in suppressing their rebellion with the force of arms.
Faced with this reality in eastern Ukraine, not supporting the right of the insurgent regions to self-determination, means, in practice, supporting, or at least tolerating, their repression by the government of Ukrainian nationalism.
Having said that, however, it is also necessary to note that real self-determination is impossible to achieve in capitalism. In other words, Donetsk and Luhansk will essentially be subordinate to either Kiev or Moscow. Moscow’s recognition of their independence will not turn them into a land of peace, democracy and prosperity, and the fact that the local population is apparently in agreement with it, is irrelevant for that matter. These areas will remain in a state of war-tension for a long time. Ethnic suspicion and hatred will be inherited from one generation to the next.
On “international law”, “democracy” and other similar myths
The violation of national rights and the suppression of Russian-speaking communities in eastern Ukraine is a reality, and Zelensky cannot pretend to be the innocent dove of peace and democracy compared to Putin’s hawks. At the same time, the West cannot pretend to be peace-lovers and democrats opposed to Putin’s indeed authoritarian regime. Their hypocrisy is pretty evident for those who have eyes to see. One has only to look at their practices in the Middle East: intervening bloodily in countries which oppose them, like Iraq and Syria, ditching people’s just demands and rights like those of the Kurds, turning a blind eye to the reactionary character of regimes that are friendly to them, like that of Saudi Arabia.
The West is often citing “international law” against its opponents, but this hypocrisy can provoke nothing but bitter laughter. Putin is, indeed, a reactionary representative of Russian capitalism, but so are the alleged “democrats” of the West. Both sides are prepared to drown peoples in blood, only in order to defend their own interests. Ukraine is not a case in which one side is “bad” while the other “good”, one side is right and the other wrong; both sides are reactionary.
What should the Left stand for?
Attempting to defend one side or the other in the conflict currently unfolding in Ukraine, is futile and vain for any part of the Left and the working class internationally. This is a conflict between imperialist powers and their interests. The popular masses in both Russia and the Ukraine have nothing to gain from this conflict, they will only suffer, live in horror and pay in blood. The problem will be there for decades to come.
In order for the Left internationally to be consistent with its values and principles, it needs to defend the rights of the working class people in the warring countries, against the conflict between their governments and the imperialist superpowers. Hard as this may be, given the current balance of forces, there is no other way forward.
Mass campaigns are required, to demand:
- An end to the war, for an international peace movement against the war in Ukraine
- Russian troops out of Ukraine
- No support either to Putin or to the West
- Defend the interests of working-class people, the youth who will be called to waste their lives as “cannon fodder”, and the popular masses both in Russia and Ukraine, particularly in the war zones
- No to Russia’s annexation of any territory, no to NATO’s expansion to the East
- Dissolution of both military coalitions: the West’s NATO alliance and the Russian CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization)
- Defend the democratic rights of all nationalities and minorities – no bans on their language, education, culture, history and security
- Defend the right to self-determination (up to the right of secession) for ethnic groups that pursue it, through democratic and free referendums
It is impossible to achieve all the above demands within the framework of the capitalist system. This is true not only in the case of Ukraine but any region with serious national problems or strong interimperialist antagonisms.
Peace, democracy, and the welfare of the popular masses can only be achieved through the common struggle of the working classes against the national antagonisms of their corresponding ruling classes.
In order to achieve this aim, it is necessary to build new organisations/parties of the Left on an international level, based on the above values and with the ultimate goal of social transformation, the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by a society of equality, justice and solidarity, a socialist society based on democracy and freedom. This is the only way to solve the national problems, but also to cancel all inequalities, poverty and wars that condemn the peoples of the planet to poverty, misery and the nightmares of wars.