Clare Lemlich summarizes Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and what is at stake in this conflict, arguing the socialist position that neither Russia nor the US-EU imperial sphere can be trusted to protect ordinary Ukrainian people. Rather, there must be an end to all military aggression in and around Ukraine, and its people must decide their own fate — free from the cynical interests of all imperial warmongers.
The world woke up on Thursday morning to the news that Russia had launched an all out war on Ukraine. While tensions have brewed for months, this marks a sharp escalation and potentially the greatest violence in the region since the NATO bombings of former Yugoslavia. It is the largest ground invasion since World War Two. The war is part of a wider imperial conflict between two geopolitical blocs, Russia and NATO, and has trapped Ukraine in its crosshairs.
Most on the left (myself included) predicted a slower development of disaster and the possible annexation of Luhansk and Donetsk, much like Crimea in 2014. These are predominantly Russian-speaking regions in the east and south of Ukraine with strong economic and cultural ties to its eastern neighbor. But they are also extremely economically and strategically important to Russia — Crimea is Russia’s naval foothold in the Black Sea; Luhansk and Donetsk (often collectively called the Donbas) are heavily industrial coal mining regions, and their deepening ties in the Russian sphere this past decade is viewed as a threat to Ukrainian sovereignty and an incursion into wider Europe.
Russia annexed Crimea during the last major conflict in the region in 2014, but Luhansk and Donetsk have operated for almost a decade in a gray zone as breakaway states, with Russian backing and interference, and administered by Russian-backed separatists. Earlier in the week Putin did indeed recognize Luhansk and Donetsk’s independence, but he has now dramatically accelerated the disaster by bombing sites across Ukraine, including its capital and cities in the west of the country, which had until now largely avoided the worst of the fray.
Russia’s damage is catastrophic and its human cost will get worse in the coming days unless and until a ceasefire is reached. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky reported that the first day of war cost 137 lives and left more than 300 wounded. In the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Russian bombs panicked the city, causing traffic jams and road closures as civilians tried to escape. In Kharkiv, subway stations have been transformed into makeshift bomb shelters. In Lviv, in the far west of the country, air raid sirens played for the first time since the Second World War. A new wave of refugees are moving into Poland and other neighboring countries to Ukraine’s west.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for invasion, announced in a thoroughly unhinged speech on Thursday morning, claimed a Ukrainian genocide against its Russian-speaking communities and went so far as to assert that Ukraine is the real aggressor which seeks to invade Russian territories — something that is simply impossible given Russia’s far greater economic and military capacity compared with Ukraine. Putin also obliquely posed the threat of nuclear war if NATO retaliates against Russia militarily.
Putin’s speech repeated a common refrain: he plans to “denazify” Ukraine, a reference to the presence of far right militias and organizations in the Ukrainian national movement. To be sure, the presence of neo-Nazis in the movement for Ukrainian sovereignty is extremely dangerous. They draw on a complicated history of Ukrainian nationalism and Nazi collaboration during the Second World War, and their presence is a very real current in the more moderate discussions of Ukrainian self-determination.
But Russia routinely overstates the role of fascists in Ukraine as a propaganda point, not to mention the fact that Russia itself has sent fascists into the Donbas to stoke separatist tensions and famously cracks down on anti-fascist organizing at home. Fascist groups are unfortunately present on all sides in this conflict — but war won’t address that, in fact it will enflame the nationalist passions that fascism feeds on. Russia’s invasion will only serve to strengthen and entrench the Ukrainian far right, giving them an enemy, propaganda with which to radicalize more people, and more arms with which to generate more violence.
Alongside Putin’s more outlandish claims about Ukraine, his core reasons for invasion have to do with NATO and the West’s encroachment on what he considers to be a rightful and historic part of a greater Russia empire — something people living in these now-independent states strongly reject. During the Cold War, we lived in a bipolar imperial world split between the Soviet Union and its sphere, versus the US and its allies. The collapse of the Soviet Union left behind a unipolar imperial arrangement with the US at its head. Ever since then, NATO has worked to coax Russia’s former colonies and allies into the Western sphere of geopolitical influence. But today the US empire is in decline. Certainly, it is still the world’s major superpower, but it has lost war after war — the latest being Afghanistan — chipping away at its imperial hegemony. The rise of China now threatens the US’s economic hegemony as well.
In this context, Russia has worked to restore its imperial status, including the brutal crushing of the Chechen independence movement in the late 1990s, its 2008 war with Georgia, its 2014 annexation of Crimea, its recent crackdown on popular protests in Kazakhstan, and its involvement in propping up the murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Russia has always worried about Ukraine, its buffer zone between the Russian Federation and Europe, and one of its few former territories that has not yet joined NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is the battleground and it bears the bloody brunt of this latest invasion, what is really being fought is an ongoing imperial war between the US-Europe bloc and Russia.
It is difficult to say what Putin’s immediate goals are. Some predict total Russian occupation, others envision the installation of a pro-Russian government in Kyiv that can guarantee Ukraine won’t join NATO. But these options would be difficult to orchestrate and unpopular internally, especially in the west of the country that has greater cultural, political, and economic ties to the West, not to mention the international outcry it would cause.
When Putin says that Russians and Ukrainians are brothers, he is not wrong. Most Ukrainians are bilingual, they have mixed ancestry, and they have family on both sides of the Russian border. A testament to the common interests that ordinary Russians and Ukrainians have in uniting against another war, Russians have courageously taken to the streets for anti-war demonstrations in Moscow, St Petersburg, and several other cities. Cultural figures, scientists, and even municipal workers have signed open letters against the war. These are encouraging signs in a very bleak situation. Protestors have been met by violent police crackdowns, but it remains to be seen how easily Russia can contain domestic anger about the invasion.
Putin is an neoliberal, authoritarian war monger and an enemy to all working people in Russia, Ukraine, and all around the world. His onslaught on Ukraine should remind anyone on the left who is confused about imperialism that just because Putin is an enemy of the US and the EU, does not mean he is a friend. At the same time, although the first shots were fired by Russia and there is no defense for Putin’s actions, we have to understand this conflict in its wider political context and competition between geopolitical blocs, neither of which genuinely have the interests of ordinary Ukrainians in mind.
US president Joe Biden says he will not intervene militarily in the conflict unless a NATO member state is invaded. Instead, US (and NATO) strategy is to impose sanctions on Russia. The goal, they say, is to economically isolate Putin — indeed the Russian Ruble has plummeted to its weakest ever. But the sorts of sanctions the West is imposing are not as threatening to Putin as Biden claims in his press briefings. Putin has significant currency reserves and has weathered targeted sanctions before. He is also getting some support from China, which is similarly against NATO expansion (this is a union socialists must watch very carefully in the coming months, as it threatens to unite the US’s two main imperial enemies and could spell more major escalations).
Greek economist and politician Yanis Varoufakis pointed out on Democracy Now that there is one sanction that really could stop Putin: ending European gas purchases from Russia. But Europe, especially the wealthier core nations of the EU like Germany and France, are heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas, much of which flows through Ukraine into the rest of Europe. The EU doesn’t care about finding peaceful solutions to the crisis for Ukrainians, but it wants to avoid getting wrapped up in a costly war that would shut off Russian energy supplies and threaten their economies.
The point here is not that we need stronger sanctions — they have stoked wars before and they can trickle down to impact regular people rather than the elites they are aimed at. The point is that sanctions are not only ineffective at stopping war, they also facilitate it. One major demand that we can and should make of Western governments is to cancel Ukraine’s IMF debt, a call which is backed by labor unions inside Ukraine. When Russia’s war ends, there is no reason ordinary Ukrainians should suffer the West’s austerity and neoliberal restructuring while they rebuild.
As in Europe, an escalating war has domestic ramifications for Biden. His approval ratings are spiraling for many reasons, but a major blow came when he withdrew US troops from Afghanistan. His ratings have not moved back up above 50% since the day the Taliban took Kabul in August 2021. He cannot afford to lose a war with Russia. There is also partisan division among US political elites, with some in the right of the Republicans echoing Trump’s famous isolationist attempts at withdrawal from international conflicts, soft stance on Putin’s aggression, and stirring panic about rising local gas prices.
While Russia is the clear aggressor in this scenario and deserves every bit of condemnation it gets, all those concerned about the crisis must be careful not to fall into the trap of backing our own ruling elites. Although Putin launched the offensive, NATO has been amassing troops and weapons — far more troops than Russia — around Ukraine for months, knowing full well that this is Russia’s greatest grievance in the region and that similar incursions have led to war before. To the protestations of Zelensky’s pro-Western Ukrainian government, the US in particular has been whipping up rhetoric on the possibility of war with Russia for many weeks.
We must also skeptically assess the West’s crocodile tears. Recently the media has obsessed about Russia’s “kill list” — its plans to strategically target individual Ukrainians for murder. The US would know a thing or two about this, given it famously has its own kill lists. Every single thing they accuse Putin of, they themselves have done with either the explicit or tacit support of all the rest of the “democratic” countries, including unprovoked invasion, as was the case in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. It is also hard to take the EU’s overtures about protecting Ukraine seriously, given how it treats poorer, weaker periphery member states on its southern and eastern edges as pools of cheap labor, peoples to bleed dry with austerity, and places to outsource their brutally anti-refugee border regime.
Pointing out the track record and cynical interests of the US is not an exercise in “whataboutery,” “bothsideism,” or distraction from what Putin is doing. The point is that we can trust these Western imperial elites about as far as we can throw them. The US is still the world’s greatest purveyor of violence and war. They dropped over 7,000 bombs last year alone. Regardless of what they say in their press conferences, the NATO countries care about their own economic and political power, not about the lives of ordinary Ukrainians.
No to all war, no to all imperialism
All anti-war people must demand the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops, a ceasefire of all hostilities, and a return to diplomatic negotiations. It is not too late for Putin to end this violence before it kills and maims many more people. At the same time, we must be clear that greater NATO troop buildup, increased militarization on Ukraine’s western borders, and aggressive sanctions will only inflame tensions and prolong the war.
This is a bleak, terrifying, and disorientating situation, we cannot pretend otherwise. For so long, the US has been the main instigator of war around the world and we are used to calling on our own government to withdraw troops, arguing that the main enemy is at home. For many Eastern Europeans, the situation is not so clear-cut: faced with the threat of renewed Russian imperialism (something they still remember very well), many look towards the West as an alternative. This is the bind of imperialism. Ukraine under Russian attack is a nuanced and complicated situation, one that demands we flex all of our anti-imperialist muscles.
The inter-imperialist conflicts we see between NATO and Russia (or the US and China, as well as many smaller conflicts) are ultimately rooted in national economic competition, which itself is an outgrowth of the competition inherent to capitalism. To finally wipe out the drive to war means ending capitalism altogether. But that is no excuse for an abstract position that the only thing we can do now is call for revolution, as some on the far left are doing. War enflames national divisions and is most damaging to working people. It needs to be resisted and ended immediately. It is the end of wars, especially when opposed from below, that can open space for continued class conflict and the further struggle for socialism in Ukraine and beyond.
There are practical demands we can raise in the here and now. We need humanitarian aid to all Ukrainians suffering. Every city and town across the United States needs anti-war demonstrations demanding full self-determination for the people of Ukraine, free from the self-serving motivations of both Russia and the US. The anti-war movements in the US and Russia should stand in solidarity with one another. Here in the US, because of our position in the heart of the empire, we have a responsibility to oppose NATO and US military involvement. It is not “whataboutery” to remind those objecting to Russia’s war on Ukraine to also condemn Biden’s continued funding of the Saudi war on Yemen, and US imperialism in Latin America, and around the world. Crucially, we must demand open borders for not only the newly created Ukrainian refugees, but all refugees currently displaced by war.
Ukraine is a battleground deeply scarred by more than a century of occupation, annexation, subjugation, famine, war, and genocide. From Moscow to Washington DC, Ukrainians deserve our unwavering support to build a country free from all these things.
Watch the discussion about this crisis from Monday February 28 with speakers from Marx21 as well as our sister organizations in Britain and Russia. Watch the recording on YouTube here.