The first casualty of war is truth. This is also the case of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Marxists need to be able to cut through the fog of lies and war propaganda and analyse the real reasons behind the conflict; what has caused it; and the real interests that lie behind the excuses and justifications of the different parties involved. Above all, we must do so from the point of view of the interests of the world working class.
While we oppose Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, we do so for our own reasons, which we will explain here, and which have nothing to do with the scandalous hue and cry of the prostitute media. It should go without saying that our first duty is to expose the disgusting lies and the hypocrisy of the US and western imperialism.
They loudly denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that it violates “national sovereignty” and “international law”.
These statements reek of hypocrisy. US imperialism and its European lackeys are precisely the ones with a long and bloody history of violating national sovereignty and so-called international law.
In pursuing their imperialist aims, they have never balked at bombing and invading sovereign states (Iraq), slaughtering civilians (Vietnam), organising fascist military coups (Chile) and political assassinations (Allende, Lumumba). They are the last people on Earth to be entitled to deliver lectures on the virtues of peace, democracy and humanitarian values.
All the talk of Ukrainian sovereignty is contradicted by the fact that the country has been under growing domination from the US since the victory of the 2014 Euromaidan movement. All the key levers of economic and political power are in the hands of a corrupt oligarchy and its government, which, in turn, is the puppet of US imperialism and a pawn in its hands.
The IMF dictates the economic policies of Ukraine, and the US embassy plays a key role in the formation of her governments. In fact, the current war is to a large extent a US-Russia conflict, being played out in the territory of Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was severely weakened in the international arena. Despite all the promises to the contrary, US imperialism took advantage of this fact to push towards the east, enlarging NATO right up to the borders of Russia.
In this context, US imperialism felt itself to be all-powerful, with the men in Washington proclaiming a “New World Order”. US imperialism intervened in former Soviet spheres of influence, like Yugoslavia and Iraq. Russia had to suffer the humiliation of NATO’s war on Serbia. This was followed by a constant series of “colour” revolutions to install pro-Western governments; the deployment of troops in Eastern Europe, accompanied by military exercises near Russia’s borders; and countless other provocations.
But all things have their limits. There came a point at which the Russian ruling class, whose interests Putin represents, said enough. That point was reached in 2008, with the war in Georgia, which was planning to join NATO.
Taking advantage of the fact that US imperialism was bogged down in Iraq, Russia waged a short, sharp war against Georgia, destroying its army (which had been trained and equipped by NATO) and then withdrawing, having secured points of support in the Abkhazian and North Ossetian Republics, which broke away from Georgia.
The Euromaidan overthrow of the Yanukovitch government in Ukraine marked a further advance of US and NATO interests – this time, in Russia’s historical borderland. That was a provocation too far, and Russia reacted in 2014 by carrying out the annexation of Crimea – which is mostly inhabited by a Russian-speaking population, and is home to the Black Sea fleet of the Russian navy, harboured in Sevastopol. They also provided military assistance to the rebels in the civil war between the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas and the right-wing nationalist regime in Kiev. The West protested, implemented sanctions, but there were no serious consequences for Russia.
In 2015, after it was clear that the US was not prepared to commit ground troops in Syria, Russia intervened on Assad’s side and determined the outcome of the civil war. Syria was important for Russia as it harbours her only naval base in the Mediterranean. The outcome was a serious setback for US imperialism, in a region which has strategic importance for them.
Now, Putin has sensed another opportunity to reassert Russia’s power. The US has just suffered a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan. Russia was able to broker peace in the Azerbaijan-Armenia war in 2020; intervened to back Lukashenka in Belarus in 2020-2021; and then intervened militarily in Kazakhstan at the beginning of 2022.
A fatal role was played by the heightened provocations coming from the Zelensky government. After the 2014 overthrow of Yanukovitch, the Ukrainian government had been pushing the questions of NATO and EU membership. This was then enshrined in the Constitution in 2020. Zelensky, the comedian-turned-president, had been elected in 2019 on the strength of being an outsider, someone who was going to clean up politics, deal with the oligarchs and at the same time make peace with Russia.
However, under pressure from the far right, and egged on by Washington, he pursued the opposite policies.
The issue of NATO membership was again placed high on the agenda and was being forcefully pushed. Russia rightly sees this as a threat. One could say that this is not so, and that other countries that share a border with Russia are already part of NATO. But this misses the point entirely. The present situation is precisely the result of decades of western imperialism pushing to encircle Russia, which is now pushing back.
Was the invasion inevitable?
Dialectically, quantity changed into quality. To use the language of physics, a critical point had been reached where the outbreak of hostilities was clearly on the agenda.
However, there are always different options, even in wars. If Putin could have gained his objectives without going to all the trouble of invading, with all the risks and costs that would entail, he would obviously have preferred to take that course. Such a possibility certainly existed in the first instance, and it seemed to us to be the most probable hypothesis.
There were some indications that the US would be prepared to make certain concessions. And why not? After all, Biden said publicly that the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership was off the agenda for the foreseeable future. But in the end, events took a different path.
Putin was using the threat of military action (while denying he would carry it out) in order to force US imperialism to the negotiating table. His demands were clear enough: no NATO membership for Ukraine, an end to NATO’s eastward thrust, and security guarantees in Europe.
These demands corresponded precisely to the interests of Russian capitalism, and thus were diametrically opposed to those of Washington. US imperialism was therefore not prepared to give an inch to Russia’s demands. But neither was it prepared to commit ground troops to the defence of Ukraine. The threats of sanctions, not being backed up by military action, naturally did nothing to deter Putin.
Things have their own dynamic. When Putin did not get the anticipated concessions, he was left with no alternative but to act. The time for playing games was over.
What was the reason for the stubborn refusal of US imperialism to make any concessions? They could not be seen as giving in to threats. That would have further undermined the authority of US imperialism on a world scale. But the same was true from Putin’s point of view.
The obstinate refusal of the West to even consider Russia’s demands placed him in a position of either acting on his threats or having to climb down. That determined the subsequent course of events.
Like a man playing a game of chess, Putin had already taken into account the unwillingness of western imperialism to intervene directly with troops in Ukraine, and he had already discounted the cost of sanctions. With a formidable force of 190,000 troops already assembled on the borders of Ukraine, his next move was predetermined.
Any war of aggression always requires some justification. For the consumption of public opinion in Russia, Putin used the excuse of the Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk, which he characterised as “genocide”. That is an exaggeration, but it should not be so lightly dismissed as it has been by the imperialists.
The vicious oppression suffered by the Russian-speaking people of Donetsk at the hands of the Ukrainian army is not in question. In the last eight years, around 14,000 people have been killed in that conflict, and the great majority have been civilians from the Donetsk region. It is estimated that 80 percent of the shells have been fired by the Ukrainian army.
Putin threw down the gauntlet by recognising the Donbas republics and sending in troops to back up his decision. That was the signal for launching a military attack on Ukraine.
What are the reasons for Putin’s actions?
In all of this, Vladimir Putin is naturally pursuing his own interests. By whipping up nationalist fervour he hopes to recover the popularity he has lost in recent times due to the economic crisis, the attacks on workers, pensions, democratic rights, etc.
This worked in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and he thinks he can repeat the trick.
He wants to appear as a strong man, standing up to the West and defending Russians wherever they are. He poses as the defender of the Russian population of the Donbas. That is false. Putin does not care for the plight of the people of the Donbas.
He has used the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics as small change to achieve his aims in Ukraine. That was the true meaning of the Minsk agreements.
In reality, he has illusions of imperial grandeur. He sees himself in the role of a kind of tsar, following the line of the pre-1917 Russian Empire and its reactionary great Russian chauvinism. The idea that such a man can play any kind of progressive role in Ukraine is utterly ridiculous.
Russia is not a weak country dominated by imperialism. Far from it. Russia is a regional power, whose policies can only be described as imperialist. The real reason for Russia’s war in Ukraine is the attempt to secure spheres of influence and the national security interests of Russian capital.
A hopeless formalist might object that Russia does not possess all of the features laid out by Lenin in his celebrated book, Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. Maybe so, but that does not at all signify that Russia is not imperialist. The answer to that objection can be found in Lenin’s same book.
Lenin describes Russia as “a country most backward economically, where modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed, so to speak, in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations.” But at the same time, he includes tsarist Russia as one of the five leading imperialist nations. This in spite of the fact that tsarist Russia was economically backward and never exported a kopek of capital.
Russia today is no longer the same backward, undeveloped country it was before 1917. Now it is a developed industrial country where there is a high degree of concentration of capital, where the banking sector (itself highly centralised) plays a key role in the economy.
This is not altered by the fact that gas and oil play a key role in Russia’s economy. Moreover, these resources are not under the control of foreign multinationals, but are in the hands of Russian oligarchs. Russia’s foreign policy is to a large extent driven by the need to ensure markets for its energy exports (particularly Europe) and the means to deliver them.
It is true that Russia cannot be placed on the same plane as the United States. The US is still the world’s dominant imperialist power by several degrees of magnitude. By comparison, Russia is a small or medium-sized imperialist power. Its economy is not in the same range as that of the US and not even that of the European imperialist powers.
But no sensible person can deny that Russia is a regional imperialist power with ambitions in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Russia inherited from the Soviet Union a nuclear arsenal and has in recent years invested heavily in modernising its army. It ranks amongst the five biggest military spenders in the world, its military expenditure has grown by 30 percent in recent years, and it is the third country in the world in terms of military expenditure as share of GDP (4.3 percent).
Russia’s war in Ukraine is a reactionary imperialist war that we cannot support. It will have the most negative effects in Ukraine, Russia, and internationally. It is for these reasons that we oppose Russia’s war on Ukraine.
This war generates national hatred between peoples who have long been united by close ties of brotherhood, further fuelling moods of reactionary Ukrainian nationalism on one side, and reactionary great Russian chauvinism on the other, sowing monstrous division in the working class along national, ethnic and language lines.
The main guarantee against this nationalist poison is that the Russian workers maintain an intransigent attitude of proletarian internationalism, standing firm against the chauvinist poison and opposing Putin’s reactionary policies, both at home and abroad. The position adopted by the Russian section of the IMT is a model in that respect.
For their part, while resisting Russian aggression, the workers of Ukraine must understand that their country has been shamefully betrayed by those who claimed to be their friends and allies. The western imperialist vultures deliberately pushed them into a war, and then stood back and watched with arms folded as Ukraine sank into a bloody morass. In so far as they have subsequently promised limited supplies of arms, but no troops of course, it is a cynical attempt to keep the conflict going as a means of bogging the Russian forces down and causing maximum casualties on both sides, as a means of scoring cheap propaganda points against Russia.
The talk of sanctions, the bellicose rhetoric about “fighting to the end”, while refusing to commit a single soldier of their own to fight in Ukraine, the crocodile tears about the sufferings of the poor Ukrainians, etc. – all this cannot hide for one moment the plain fact that Ukraine has been treated as a pawn in a cynical game of power politics.
Ukrainians! Open your eyes and understand that your country has been sacrificed on the bloody altar of imperialism! And realise that your only true friends are the workers of the world!
Consequences in world affairs
The war in Ukraine will have profound repercussions on a world scale. The USA is the world’s dominant imperialist power and the most counterrevolutionary force on the planet. But the present crisis has exposed the underlying weakness of US imperialism.
Its might has been gradually eroded by the general crisis of world capitalism, which is expressed in colossal instability, wars and upheavals, which drain such huge quantities of blood and gold that are impossible for even the wealthiest nation on earth to sustain.
The disastrous outcome of the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have laid bare this weakness for all to see. That was one of the elements that persuaded Putin to launch a war in Ukraine. He calculated that the Americans would not intervene militarily, and he was not wrong.
Following defeats in a series of foreign adventures, which were ruinously expensive and solved nothing, public opinion in the US no longer has any appetite for military adventures. Biden’s hands were effectively tied.
This will be duly noted by China, which has now emerged as a powerful rival to US imperialism. It has confronted the USA in many parts of the world, and is regarded in Washington as a far greater threat than Russia.
China is no longer the weak, economically backward, dominated nation it was in 1949. It has a powerful industrial base and it is now a formidable military power. It does not conceal its designs on Taiwan, which it says it desires to reunify with China through peaceful negotiation, but if that is not possible, it may do so by military means.
The Ukrainian affair has been a useful lesson to Beijing of the limitations of US military power. And although it did not wish to provoke its trading partners in the West by openly backing Russia – thereby abstaining in the vote in the UN Security Council – it has made it quite clear that it blames the US for pushing Ukrainian membership of NATO.
China has clearly reached a deal with Russia to offset the effects of sanctions (another reason why they will fail). The Ukrainian affair will undoubtedly lead to a closer bloc between the Russian and Chinese imperialists in the coming period – a development that Washington must fear as the Devil fears holy water.
Splits between US imperialism and its European allies
The conflict in Ukraine between the interests of the US and those of Russia has also brought to the surface the splits between Washington and its European allies, particularly France and Germany. Traditionally, the French bourgeois always tried to maintain a pretence of having a certain independence, developing its own nuclear weapons and cultivating its own sphere of imperialist influence in Africa and elsewhere. In this conflict, Macron tried to play an independent role. Partly, he was motivated by the forthcoming presidential elections. But the position of Paris and Berlin is also based on economic interests.
Europe is heavily dependent (40 percent) on the import of Russian gas. This is particularly the case for Germany, which imports 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia as well as having important investments there. This is the real reason behind Germany’s reluctance to take any steps that would aggravate the conflict, and her reluctance to implement sanctions on Russia.
The moment the present conflict ends (as, one way or another, it must), these sanctions, and many others, will be quietly dropped, since the harmful effect on the European economy – in the first place on Germany – would be too painful to bear. Despite all the claims to the contrary, Germany cannot find suitable alternative sources for oil and gas at sustainable prices.
Germany is an imperialist power in her own right, and her foreign policy is dictated by the interests of German capital, which do not necessarily align with those of US capital. German capital controls Europe through the mechanisms of the EU. For 30 years it has had a policy of expanding its influence to Eastern Europe and the Balkans (playing a decisive role in the reactionary breakup of Yugoslavia) and her foreign trade links her closely with China.
Having been defeated in World War II, there were limits imposed on how much Germany was allowed to rebuild her military. The German ruling class was always careful not to be seen as playing a direct role in foreign imperialist military adventures, though Germany was part of NATO. That reluctance was broken some time ago. Germany, under a Green Foreign Minister, sent troops to Yugoslavia in the 1990s. While it opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it did send troops to Afghanistan.
Now, German capital has used the excuse of the war in Ukraine to embark on a massive programme of military spending. It is inevitable that any imperialist power will need to match its economic might with a corresponding military might.
Of course, the main enemy of US imperialism is not Russia, but China and there has been a clear pivot-to-Asia policy on the part of Washington. In this conflict, China has sided with Russia. At the same time China’s interests are not exactly the same as those of Russia. Chinese imperialism defends the interests of Chinese capitalists, including protecting their export markets in the West. For this reason, China does not want to appear publicly as being responsible for Russia’s actions, though of course it supports them.
There is absolutely no question of a new world war between the United States and Russia, nor between the US and China, in part, precisely because of the threat of nuclear war, but also because of the resolute opposition to such a war on the part of the masses. The capitalists do not wage war for patriotism, democracy, or any other high-sounding principles. They wage war for profit, to capture foreign markets, sources of raw material (oil), and to expand spheres of influence.
But a nuclear war would signify the mutual destruction of both sides. They have even coined a phrase to describe this: MAD (mutually assured destruction). That such a war would not be in the interests of the bankers and capitalists is self-evident.
Another important aspect of the question is the impact of the war in Ukraine and western sanctions on Russia on the world economy.
Already, at the end of 2019, the world economy was moving towards a new slump. As we return to some sort of normality after the shock of the pandemic, the situation is extremely fragile. Not all countries have yet recovered their pre-pandemic levels of production. The world economy is riddled with many contradictions. Any shock can tip it into recession.
The crisis in Ukraine has already led to a sharp increase in energy prices, which could become even worse. This adds to inflationary pressures on the world economy and to other factors already working towards a perspective of stagflation, that is economic stagnation combined with high prices. Some bourgeois economists calculated that this conflict could knock 0.5 percent off GDP growth in the Eurozone and the UK in 2023 and 2024. This at a time when the forecast for growth is already meagre.
The situation could become much worse very quickly. Sanctions are already hitting the Russian economy. The latest reports indicate a steep fall in the value of the rouble, which has forced the central bank to raise interest rates. There has been a sharp increase in inflation, and crowds of anxious people are withdrawing their money from the banks. The Moscow stock exchange was also closed.
These results were greeted with elation by western commentators, who ignored the fact that their own stock markets were registering big losses, and prices were soaring here too. However, the immediate effects on Russia will soon wear off, and something resembling equilibrium will be restored. The same cannot be said of the world economy.
But sanctions are a double-edged weapon. We can confidently expect that Russia will retaliate for the sanctions. It will use the threat of cutting off gas supplies to Europe, and Medvedev has already threatened to expropriate western interests in Russia.
The position of the labour movement
War puts all tendencies of the labour movement to the test, and as was to be expected, the reformists and social democrats have hurried to join their own ruling class, being the most ardent defenders of sanctions against Russia. The left reformists in the West have split into different camps: some openly join the ruling class, under the slogan of “hands off Ukraine”; others have fallen into impotent pacifism, calling for a return to a mythical rule of “international law”, and hoping that “diplomacy” can prevent war.
In Russia, the Communist Party leadership, as was to be expected, has capitulated to their own ruling class and fully supported Putin’s imperialist intervention. Others on the left have tail-ended the liberals, representing another section of the ruling class.
The position of revolutionary Marxists should be clear: a principled class-based stand on the lines of “the main enemy of the working class is at home”. No trust whatsoever should be placed on NATO and the western imperialist gangsters, and that is particularly true for workers and socialists in the West.
The task of fighting against the reactionary gang in the Kremlin is the task of the Russian workers alone. The task of revolutionaries in the West is to fight against their own bourgeoisie, against NATO, and against American imperialism – the most counterrevolutionary force on the planet.
We cannot support either side in this war, because it is a reactionary war on both sides. In the final analysis, it is a conflict between two groups of imperialists. We do not support either of them. The people of poor, bleeding Ukraine are the victims in this conflict, which they did not create and do not desire.
The only alternative to the carnival of reaction and the suffering of war for the Ukrainian workers and youth is a policy of class unity against the Ukrainian oligarchs, as well as against US and Russian imperialism. The national question in Ukraine is extremely complicated and any attempt to rule the country on the basis of nationalism (be that Ukrainian or pro-Russian), will inevitably result in the breakup of the country, ethnic cleansing and civil war, as we have already seen.
Ultimately, capitalism, in its epoch of senile decline, means war and economic crisis. The only way to put an end to its horrors is through the working class taking power, in one country after another, and sweeping away this rotten system. For that, a revolutionary leadership is needed – one which is firmly based on the principles of socialist internationalism. The most urgent task of the day is therefore, the patient work of building the forces of Marxism, of building the International Marxist Tendency.
London, 28 February 2022