By Murray Smith
The Russian invasion of Ukraine which began on February 24 is not only the biggest armed conflict in Europe since 1945. It is the first attempt of this magnitude to redraw the map of Europe by force. And it is on the initiative of Russian imperialism, not second-rank powers like Turkey or Serbia. It is too early to learn all the lessons and see all the consequences. But we can already say that nothing has happened as Russia had envisioned. We will not list here the weaknesses and mistakes on the Russian side. But the fundamental factor that thwarted Putin’s calculations was the strength of the Ukrainian resistance
The nature of the war
Some people argue that we should oppose the present war, as Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others did in 1914. But this is not 1914.
Wars follow one another and are not always alike. The First World War that began in 1914 had the specificity of being essentially an inter-imperialist war. It is the only war up to now that we can thus characterize so clearly. Those who tried to approach the Second World War as if it were simply a continuation of the First got into serious trouble.
Consider the period 1939-41 in Britain. In 1939 the war took the form of a conflict between German imperialism on the one hand and Franco-British imperialism on the other, each with its allies. An inter-imperialist war. So, revolutionary defeatism as in 1914? Let’s see.
Take the situation in May 1940. After the German blitzkrieg in Western Europe only Britain was left standing against Germany. What should have been the attitude of internationalists? On one side was the Communist Party of Britain (CPGB). After having made anti-fascism its identity since 1935, the CPGB received new directions from the Communist International following the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Anti-fascism was no longer the priority, the war was imperialist. Not only that, but the main enemy was not Nazi Germany, which had made an agreement with the Soviet Union, but ” reactionary, anti-Soviet England .” The CPGB carried out the somersault demanded by Moscow, not without some resistance. After June 22, 1941, it would perform a somersault in the other direction, with less resistance, it must be said.
At the same time that the CPGB was defending this line, young men in Britain were volunteering for the army. And not only them. Tens of thousands of Irishmen (70,000 in the course of the war) came to join them (Ireland maintaining neutrality). There were also Poles, Czechs, French and other survivors of the Nazi occupation of their countries. And they immediately took up arms again. In particular they contributed whole squadrons to the Royal Air Force to conduct the Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffe, whose victory removed the imminent danger of an invasion
So, who was right, these young people ready to fight against Nazism or the CPGB? Who was the most internationalist? To ask the question is to answer it.
The lesson is not only that one should not allow one’s policy to be dictated by any international centre. But that we must not approach a new reality by repeating the analyzes and watchwords of another period, however correct they were at that time. Nothing replaces the concrete analysis of a concrete situation. In this specific case, the main thing was not that Germany was imperialist, but that it was Nazi. And therefore that its victory would have led to the establishment of a dictatorship: suppression of all democratic rights, dissolution of unions and parties, fierce repression. And it was necessary to fight against it, even under the flag of the British Empire. The main enemy is not always in our own country.
Even the First World War was not 100% inter-imperialist. Firs of all, among the main combatants there were two empires (Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman) which cannot be characterized as imperialist and which would be definitively shattered by the war. Secondly, Lenin, who strongly opposed the imperialist war, also strongly supported national revolts in the colonies and in Europe. Notably the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. And in October 1914 he made a speech where he compared the oppression of Ukraine by the Russian Empire to that of Ireland by the British Empire. And concluded with a call for the independence of Ukraine. So not only are wars not all alike, but they can take place on several levels. In the Second World War there were also movements of revolt in the colonies, although the great upsurge of national liberation movements took place after 1945.
We must insist on the nature of the war in Ukraine. What started the war was the Russian invasion, not NATO. This is a war of national defence of Ukraine in response to this invasion. And it’s a war of the whole people, not just the army bit the territorial defence units, and the trade unions in particular. So, no revolutionary defeatism on both sides, only on the Russian side. Ukrainian side, national defense. And for internationalists in other countries, solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance and the anti-war movement in Russia. And especially with leftist, political, trade union and feminist forces in both countries.
The fact that Ukraine obtains weapons from NATO countries and elsewhere does not fundamentally change this. In a war situation you find weapons where you can. The Irish rebels in 1916 to Germany to seek arms. Countries threatened by the United States turn to Russia. And Ukrainians look above all to NATO. This does not change the nature of the Russian war in Ukraine. And even if the conflict were to spread, it would not change its fundamental nature. Any analysis that reduces the war in Ukraine to just one facet of an inter-imperialist conflict only serves to weaken solidarity with Ukraine.
Moreover, it is necessary to underline the limits of the armament of Ukraine by the West. First of all, it only started in 2017. Then, until the start of the invasion the Ukrainians only had light anti-tank weapons and at the last moment rudimentary surface-to-air weapons (Stingers). Because the Americans and the Europeans initially thought that the war would not take place. And then that Ukraine would be beaten after a few days and then it would be a guerrilla war: therefore, no need for sophisticated and/or heavy weapons. It was in the belief that Kyiv would fall within 48 – 72 hours that Wester governments moved their embassies to Lviv, pushing Zelensky and his government to also leave the capital, which they fortunately did not do.
And then to the astonishment of everyone, from the Russians to the Americans, Ukraine resisted, Kyiv resisted and we know the rest. At that point the Americans began to believe that the Ukrainians could repel the Russians or at least inflict significant losses on them, weaken them. And that this would serve to ward off the danger of Russian aggression against NATO’s eastern flank. Therefore, it is only now, belatedly, that Ukraine is receiving heavy weapons.
The role of NATO
There is probably no disagreement about the nature of NATO, including on the left in the East. It is an imperialist military alliance, or more exactly an alliance of 30 countries dominated by the main imperialist countries and above all by the hegemonic power, the United States. This alliance is said to be “encircling” Russia. Let’s look at the map. Russia is big. It is bordered to the south by Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and to the North by the Arctic Ocean where it is very much present. Where is the encirclement? It consists in the West of three small countries with a total population of 6-7 million (the Baltic states) plus Poland, with further away countries which have common borders with Ukraine.
NATO’s eastward expansion was the product of two factors. First, the United States wanted to consolidate the achievements of their victory in the Cold War by bringing these countries into the alliance. This, we know: it is part of the usual discourse of the left. What is little talked about is the second factor, the support not only of the elites but of the peoples of these countries for membership. To link their countries closely to Europe, with a view to joining the European Union. And as protection against Russia. The closer they were to Russia, the more this last factor weighed. In addition, these are countries with a long history of being attacked, occupied, annexed or subjugated by Russia.
It is against this background that the question of NATO must be understood today. This is not just a problem for the left in the East. It is clear that our objective (which can be widely shared, in the East as well as in the West) is the dissolution of NATO and its replacement by a system of collective security. It should be obvious that this is not a short-term perspective. And in the meantime, talking about the dissolution of NATO as an immediate objective, as part of the Western left still does, does not make sense. It is even irresponsible, because it would leave the countries of the East, but also the Scandinavian countries, defenceless. We must answer the question posed by the populations of these countries : if we are not part of NATO, who will defend us against Russia? And this question deserves a concrete answer: therefore, neither a perspective of a collective security system at an unspecified date in the future, nor a general discourse on peace, negotiations, etc. In the absence of a credible alternative, we must accept the status quo. This does not prevent us from fighting the increased militarization of our countries, as the Danish comrades of the Red and Green Alliance are currently demonstrating.
If Russia opposes NATO enlargement, it is not for strictly military reasons. These countries do not have nuclear weapons on their soil. NATO’s nuclear weapons are in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Scotland and Turkey. And Russia is a nuclear power. And no country possessing nuclear weapons has ever been invaded. What bothered the Russians was that these countries had turned to the West and therefore moved out of what Russia considered to be its sphere of influence. Especially the countries of the former Soviet Union and above all Ukraine. In Putin’s project to rebuild a Russian empire, Ukraine, by its size and proximity, is the keystone.
The issue of weapons
The issue of arms delivery to Ukraine, which is a source of disagreement in the Western left and the anti-war movement, is not fundamentally an East-West opposition. First of all, it is a question of logic. If we consider that Ukraine has the right to defend itself, it must have the means to do so. So it needs weapons. Otherwise it will quickly be crushed by Russia. It is obvious.
The difference is that if you live in the East, in Ukraine, of course, but also in Poland, the Baltic states or Romania (and even Finland), you cannot avoid the issue. It is a burning question. In the West this is not the case. We can discuss, we can say that delivering arms only prolongs the war, that we must favour diplomacy and negotiations, and so on. And again and again, from some people, we hear the old campist refrain: it is NATO that is really responsible for the war. All this does not go down very well in the East. Of course, people don’t want to prolong the war any longer than necessary, they have nothing in principle against negotiations. But they understand that the withdrawal of Russian troops is the prerequisite for a lasting peace agreement. Any negotiated deal imposed on Ukraine with part of its country still occupied would not only be unfair, it would not even bring peace . Just a ceasefire that would last one, two, three years, while Ukraine prepares to take back the occupied territories. As the Black movements in Britain and the United States say, “No justice, no peace”. That goes for peoples too. Without justice for Ukraine, there will be no peace.
Apart from the current of which the European Solidarity Network with Ukraine is a part, that is to say the current of solidarity with Ukraine, there are two main currents of opinion on the left on the war . First, there is what you might call the movement of non-solidarity with Ukraine. It is the current which does not call for the withdrawal of Russian troops, which does not take sides in the conflict, which demands and sometimes agitates for the prohibition of arms deliveries to Ukraine, which considers NATO as responsible for the war. Its forces, or part of them, assembled in Rome on April 3. There was a fairly complacent account of this meeting on the site of Transform ! Among other things, it mentioned the presence of a representative of the Rot Front of Russia, described as “a small left-wing organization which shares the positions of the Russian Communist Party”. Without specifying that this party (the KPRF) loudly supports the war. It is difficult to know to what extent all the participants in this meeting were representative of their parties. But in the case of the representatives of the Communist Party of Spain, it is clear. There is no doubt about the orientation of this party.
The second current is more ambiguous. It was expressed at the Madrid Peace Conference on April 22. Looking at the declaration adopted, and even more in the interventions, the opposition to the sending of arms is clear. The statement begins “We call for an immediate ceasefire and support negotiations for a full and lasting peace.” This could be reasonably interpreted as calling for negotiations while Russia still occupies part of Ukraine. But in the next paragraph, it is noted, with approval, that “President Zelensky has indicated the two essential conditions for peace”: the withdrawal of Russian troops and the neutrality of Ukraine. All of this is a bit confused, ambiguous; but it is not the same as the first current and there is space to debate and even act together, provided there is a clear agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops. It must also be said, as the British journalist Paul Mason remarks, that the organizers of the Madrid conference (especially Podemos) carefully ruled out the presence of representatives of the first current, whom Mason designates as “tankies”. This is a reference to the minority in the British CP who supported the Russian tanks in Prague in 1968. And by extension everything that is most retrograde in the communist movement.
Where is Russia going?
We must ask ourselves the question of what Russia is and where it is going. Before the war I would simply have said that Russia was the most reactionary country in Europe, the most repressive at home and the most aggressive abroad. When a Finnish comrade characterized it as fascist in a meeting at the beginning of February, I thought she was exaggerating. Today the discussion is wide open and the terms fascist and fascistic are becoming commonplace. Not only do wars call many things into question. Sometimes they provide answers.
Two things must be connected. First, there is a series of documents, articles, interviews from Putin and his circle. Putin’s lengthy text in July 2021 sought to justify refusing to recognize Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state, as did his speech three days before the invasion. The text by Sergueitsev, which can only be characterized as fascist, outlined a 25-year plan whose objective is to destroy the Ukrainian nation. Biden talked about genocide. That is not entirely accurate. The project does not aim to physically exterminate the Ukrainian population. The correct description would be national or cultural genocide. Because the objective is to destroy Ukraine as a national, political and cultural entity. Then there is the practical application. When we look at the number of cases of killings of civilians, signs of torture, rapes, it cannot just be reduced to excesses committed by individuals among the occupying forces. When we add to that the filtration of populations, kidnappings, deportations to Russia, this clearly corresponds to the project of destruction of Ukrainian society. When we look at things from this perspective, Russia is not just an imperialist country in the abstract, but an imperialist country that is falling into barbarism. The United States, through Secretary of Defense Austin, is making it clear today that the goal is to weaken Russia. It is clear that this would be in the interest of the United States and NATO. But frankly, it would also be in the interest not only of Ukraine, but of all countries in the region, and ultimately of the Russian people themselves.
It is also necessary to better define the contours of Russian imperialism. Overall, in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, but also in Syria, geopolitical and strategic considerations predominate. But not only. In Ukraine, for example, it is also about getting their hands on rich agricultural land and industrial centres like Kharkiv. Elsewhere, economic interests take precedence. Russia is present in about three quarters of African countries. In a dozen of them the mercenaries of the Wagner group, whom we now see in Ukraine, watch over its interests.