Debates on the War in Ukraine

Matías Maiello

March 10, 2022

The war in Ukraine has opened a militaristic chapter in the broader capitalist crisis that began with the great recession in 2008. The international Left is divided over what policy to adopt on the Ukrainian question. The following is a necessary debate with the Argentinean Left regarding the ongoing war and the politics that revolutionaries should adopt.

War has once again descended on European territory. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, has already caused more than 1 million displaced persons.1Translator’s note: At the time of publication of this article in English, the number has exceeded 2 million. The United States and several European countries have committed to supplying arms to Ukraine, and have also enacted tough sanctions on Russia. The trend toward larger-scale military conflicts that we could see, for example, in Ukraine itself in 2014 or early 2020 in Iran, has been exacerbated. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, some predicted the end of nation-states or of “classical” wars in the undisputed dominance of U.S. imperialism — which would act as a kind of world policeman in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and other places . They were wrong. Warmongering and capitalism remain blood brothers. Now, to the 2008 economic crisis, the wave of revolts across the globe, and the environmental crisis (with Covid emerging from it), we can add the eruption of militarism on a new level, marking the decline of the stage of bourgeois restoration and the reactivation of the deepest tendencies of the imperialist epoch of crises, wars, and revolutions.

In this complex scenario, two main tendencies have developed with the outbreak of war in Ukraine. On the one hand, most of the Center Left at the international level is bowing to the propaganda promoted by the great majority of the Western media, which are trying to use the just and massive repudiation of Putin’s reactionary invasion of Ukraine to present NATO as the defender of peace and democracy (created in 1949 to oppose the USSR in the context of the Cold War, NATO was the mainstay of U.S. domination and has a history of imperialist interventions). This goes hand in hand with the rearmament of imperialist powers such as Germany and the quest to consolidate the eastward expansion of NATO, which since 1999 has added 14 countries.

On the other hand, on a smaller scale, the propaganda promoted by some Communist parties, chavismo, and other populist currents throughout the world seeks to present Vladimir Putin — and a bloc with China — as some sort of alternative to imperialism, and the invasion of Ukraine as necessary for “national defense” against NATO. The truth is that Putin is the head of a Bonapartist regime that, in the best traditions of Russian czarism’s national oppression, has intervened in Belarus and Kazakhstan to support reactionary governments challenged by popular mobilizations, intervened to crush the Chechen people militarily, and intervened to support regimes like that of al-Assad in Syria.

At the same time, an intermediate position between these two narratives has been set forth by sectors of European neoreformism that oppose sanctions and arms shipments and appeal for diplomacy. This is the case of Mélenchon,2Translator’s note: Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the current presidential candidate in France of La France Insoumise (LFI, Unbowed France or Unsubmissive France), a social-democratic populist party he founded in 2016. who advocates a policy that better corresponds to the “national interests” of France. It is also the case of a sector of Unidas Podemos in the Spanish State — it must be made clear that its ministers acquiesced to the economic sanctions and sending of arms and soldiers to Eastern Europe — expressed most fully by Pablo Iglesias,3Translator’s note: Unidas Podemos (United We Can) is an electoral alliance in the Spanish State formed by Podemos (a left-wing populist party), United Left, and other left-wing parties. Pablo Iglesias is one of the founder of Podemos, and joined the bourgeois government after liquidating Podemos as an ostensibly anti-capitalist party. who maintains the illusory proposition that the solution will come from pressuring governments to seek diplomatic channels, strengthening the independent role of the European Union, and convening a peace conference between the combatants.

In the framework of the complex scenario that the war poses, differences have arisen among the Argentinean Left and among those of us who make up the Frente de Izquierda4Translator’s note: Frente de Izquierda de los Trabajadores — Unidad (Workers Left Front — Unity) is an electoral alliance of four Trotskyist parties in Argentina: Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS, Socialist Workers Party), Left Voice’s sister organization; Partido Obrero (PO, Workers’ Party); Izquierda Socialista (IS, Socialist Left); and Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST, Workers’ Socialist Movement). regarding the position to take on the war and how to characterize it. Here I address these differences around two axes: Russia’s dispute with NATO, and the national question of Ukraine.

Beyond the Division between the “Pro-Russian” and “Pro-NATO” Camps

Of course, the first question in a war is to know what kind of war we are facing. This is more complex than it may seem at first glance, and it involves a long history of debate in Marxism. In fact, as World War I opened, the Second International split over the argument that the “homeland” was “under attack.” Most of its parties’ leaderships stood behind their own imperialisms, arguing that their governments were waging a defensive war against external aggression. However, the position of revolutionaries in a war cannot be defined by who is tactically on the offensive or defensive.

Lenin, adopting an alternative approach, took up Clausewitz’s famous statement that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” He used it to point out that the key was to define the policies that the war was continuing, which were none other than the policies of the different imperialisms that were fighting over how to divvy up control of the world. Hence he proposed “defeatism” of both imperialist sides, and transforming the inter-imperialist war into a civil war (revolution). In turn, with respect to national liberation (an oppressed, colonial, or semicolonial country against an imperialist power), and regardless of who initiated military action, Lenin defined it as a “just war” and that revolutionaries should be in the military camp of the oppressed country. Of course, there were quite complex variations from one case to another. For example, faced with the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ultimatum and subsequent invasion of the Kingdom of Serbia, which began World War I, the Serbian socialists refused to vote for their own government’s war credits because they considered that doing so would imply alignment with the opposing imperialist side, the Allies.

As for the current war in Ukraine, different positions have been put forward within the Left Front in Argentina, of which we are part. Izquierda Socialista (Socialist Left) — and the UIT, the international current of which it is a part5Translator’s note: Unidad Internacional de los Trabajadores — Cuarta Internacional (UIT, International Workers’ Unity — Fourth International). — begin from the fact that what we have is “the invasion of a semicolonial country (Ukraine) by an imperialist country (Russia).” It maintains, in turn, that “there are no NATO troops or bases on Ukrainian soil, nor does U.S. President Biden state that they will enter into an armed conflict with Russia in Ukraine. On the contrary, Western imperialist governments are announcing that they will be content with economic sanctions against Russia, and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy complains in video recordings, with a sad expression on his face, that the West has abandoned them.” Were this the case, to fight for an independent policy against the Russian invasion of Ukraine would not require that we worry so much — yes, some worry, but not too much — about Ukraine’s instrumentalization by NATO, as that would be a secondary element. In fact, in its agitation, Izquierda Socialista relegates denunciation of NATO to the background. Its central slogans are only “Down with Putin’s and Russia’s invasion! Support the resistance of the Ukrainian people!”

But the truth is that while the Russian army invades Ukraine from Crimea, Belarus, and its own border, and shells and advances on or near the main cities east of the Dnieper River, the NATO powers are sending weaponry and logistical support to the Ukrainian government and deploying NATO troops in the countries of Eastern Europe, and they have implemented harsh sanctions — such as disconnecting Russia from the international SWIFT payment system — aimed at collapsing the Russian economy, which will be felt first and foremost by Russia’s working class and its poorest population. At the same time, German imperialism is breaking with the policy it has had in place since the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. The German chancellor has announced an increase in the country’s military budget of 100 billion euros, with the goal of bringing current military expenditures up to 2 percent of GDP. It is the most stunning example of a rearmament policy that is beginning to come into sharper view as it courses through the imperialist countries.

Partido Obrero (PO) takes a different approach. While it calls for the “cessation of Moscow’s bombing and military incursion” and for an “independent, united, and socialist Ukraine,” its position is centered on NATO’s objectives. PO states, “We are facing a new chapter in a conflict for which imperialism is, first and foremost, responsible. Ukraine has been turned into a colony of the Western powers, primarily the United States.” And PO adds, “The ultimate objective of imperialism is to complete the colonization of the former Soviet space with the penetration of the monopolies and with economic and political subordination to imperialism that leads to a dismemberment of Russia, as happened in Yugoslavia.” PO draws as its conclusion: “The element that explains the present military clash is, therefore, imperialism’s offensive policies.” While, indeed, many of the elements to which PO points correspond to the strategy that the United States has been carrying out for some time now, its approach leaves to the background a central element of the current war: a semicolonial country invaded by a military power such as Russia.

In the extreme case, if the invasion of Ukraine was today part of a third world war, we would probably be closer to the situation the Serbian socialists faced with the Austro-Hungarian invasion in 1914. In fact, there are those, such as PO leader Jorge Altamira, who argue that an “undeclared imperialist world war” is underway. But this is not yet the case, and the nature of the current period as well as the concrete analysis of a given concrete situation are always key to defining an independent policy. Yes, there is a tendency in the world situation toward greater military confrontations, including confrontations between powers — even more so considering that every war can become untethered from its political objectives because it has its own grammar and is prone to “accidents” and escalation. But this is not yet a reality, and it is precisely what we socialists have to fight to prevent it from becoming humankind’s destiny. Russia today, even with all the contradictions raised by its process of capitalist restoration, including the unfinished project of its own semicolonization, is today a capitalist country. And although Russia is not imperialist in the precise sense of the term (insofar as it does not have a significant international expansion of its monopolies and export of capital; it essentially exports gas, oil, commodities, etc.), although it does act as a sort of “military imperialism” in its zone of influence.

That said, the possibility of an effective struggle against the war, for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and NATO from Eastern Europe, and against imperialist rearmament must, as its starting point, be able to integrate an independent policy on the national question posed in Ukraine — which is posed by the Russian invasion and the fight against NATO and imperialism — and an appeal for international mobilization against the war. The absence of such an articulation would forfeit the necessary political independence of an anti-war movement.

The National Question and the Independence of Ukraine

The national question was and is another central issue that drives multiple polemics and that has been discussed extensively within revolutionary Marxism. The struggle against national oppression and for the right to self-determination is one of the great democratic engines of the revolutions in the colonial and semicolonial countries. Without raising those banners, the working classes of these countries would be incapable of mobilizing around themselves sufficient forces among the oppressed to carry forward a socialist revolution. In the Russian Revolution itself, before the bureaucratization and rise of Stalinism, the right to national self-determination was one of the key banners of the Bolsheviks for all the peoples dominated by “Great Russia” under czarism. In fact, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922 was the result of this policy.

Leon Trotsky, who after all was himself a Ukrainian, pointed out the importance of that policy of self-determination:

The Bolshevik Party, not without difficulty and only gradually under constant pressure from Lenin, was able to acquire a correct approach to the Ukrainian question. The right to self-determination, that is, to separation, was extended by Lenin equally to the Poles and to the Ukrainians. …

In the conception of the old Bolshevik party Soviet Ukraine was destined to become a powerful axis around which the other sections of the Ukrainian people would unite. It is indisputable that in the first period of its existence Soviet Ukraine exerted a mighty attractive force, in national respects as well, and aroused to struggle the workers, peasants, and revolutionary intelligentsia of Western Ukraine enslaved by Poland.

Today, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation is very different. It is, however, important to highlight these elements in order to size up the importance of this problem for revolutionaries, and why it is key to account for it when approaching the policy debate in the face of Putin’s current invasion of Ukraine. The question we must ask ourselves at this point is, What would constitute a consistent struggle for the national independence of Ukraine in the concrete situation that now exists, given all the elements spelled out above?

According to the analysis of Izquierda Socialista and the UIT: “Those who see a war in Ukraine between U.S. imperialism, which seems to support the independence of the Ukrainians, and ‘anti-imperialist’ Russia, and avoid defending the right of Ukraine to self-determination under this dirty ideological cloud they created, should consider what kind of opportunist façade they will adopt against the Kurdish people when they apply these arguments to Iraq and Syria — because it will not be difficult to predict the logical consequences of their positions in Kurdistan.” In addition: “Those who define themselves as Marxists should first advocate the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian people, who brought Zelenskyy to power with more than 70 percent of the vote, instead of accusing them of being pro-Western.”

Indeed, Putin is not “anti-imperialist,” and NATO does not support Ukrainian independence. But this does not imply that imperialism does not intervene in Ukraine, or that Ukrainian self-determination can be won without an open struggle against U.S. and European imperialism. The case of Iraq was very different; specifically, the main imperialist power in an alliance with others invaded and occupied the country without the existence, on the other side, of a rival imperialist bloc aligned with the government of Saddam Hussein. Further, as what has unfolded in Syria shows, as does the entire Arab Spring that broke out in 2010, separating the struggle for democratic rights and the anti-imperialist struggle is a dead end for the mass movement (as we have discussed, for example, here and here). Now these discussions are expressed in the case of Ukraine, invaded by Russia.

Judging by the siege on Kyiv and his calls for the Ukrainian generals to oust Zelenskyy from the government, one of Putin’s original intentions was to provoke regime change in Ukraine favorable to his interests; another objective, suggested by the efforts to establish a corridor between Crimea (under Russian control) and the territories of the Donbas region and by the advance from the Russia’s eastern border, is for Russia to establish a zone of its own along its border with Ukraine and control over the Sea of Azov. All this aims to condition and control Ukraine by trampling on the country’s sovereignty. To confront the invasion, a policy independent of the pro-imperialist Zelenskyy government and the reactionary nationalist forces is not a minor component or “afterthought,” like Izquierda Socialista’s call for the right to self-determination,6Such an approach can be interpreted as the application of Nahuel Moreno’s theory of democratic revolution to the problem of national self-determination. Moreno tended to separate the struggle for certain democratic demands, in this case self-determination, from the democratic-structural problems that necessarily imply, in the semicolonies, a consistent struggle against all imperialist oppression. According to Moreno, to confront fascism and “counter-revolutionary regimes,” it is necessary “to make a revolution in the political regime: to destroy fascism to regain the freedoms of bourgeois democracy, even if in the arena of the political regimes of the bourgeoisie, the bourgeois state” (Nahuel Moreno, Revolutions of the XX Century (1986; English translation 2014). Translator’s note: Moreno (1924–1987) was a Trotskyist leader from Argentina. but is directly linked to it.

For its part, the MST and its international grouping, the LIS,7Translator’s note: Liga Internacional Socialista (LIS, International Socialist League). in the framework of further denouncing NATO’s attempts at instrumentalization, also seems to suggest the idea of stages or semi-stages when it writes, “Only a radical left socialist turn in Ukrainian and world politics will give the workers of all countries the preconditions to gain control of their own destiny. … But now, the most urgent tasks are to confront a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine and that this becomes a new bloody war in the service of imperialist interests.”

The truth, though, is that the crack in Ukrainian society has been consolidated ever since the so-called Orange Revolution (after the colors of the pro-Western party Our Ukraine), and even more so since the Maidan Square revolt broke out at the end of 2013 — which led to the brutal repression of the (pro-Russian) government of Yanukovych and the takeover of the opposition movement by reactionary and ultra-right-wing pro-Western forces. It has been developing since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of right-wing nationalism, especially against the Russian-speaking minority, which comprises about 30 percent of the population in the east and south of the country. After the fall of Yanukovych in 2014, pro-Russian armed groups seized the Crimean parliament in Simferopol as well as the governments of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia went on to annex the Crimean peninsula. Zelensky’s government has been particularly repressive toward the Russian-speaking minority, even to the point of taking steps to minimize use of the language.

In this framework, an independent policy that consistently addresses the national problem in Ukraine would imply not only the struggle against the pro-imperialist sectors but also include the right to self-determination of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Russian-speaking population. Without this, it would hardly be possible to achieve the unity of the Ukrainian working people capable of defeating Putin’s invasion without it going hand in hand with NATO (which has other interests), and fight for an independent Ukraine. This implies as well opposing the occupation in the pro-Russian regions and fighting Putin’s demagogic claim that they are being “protected.” For the struggle against the invasion and for true self-determination, an independent policy is fundamental — a policy that overcomes the division between the various leaderships subordinated to Putin and to U.S. and European imperialism, which is the pendulum that has swung back and forth across Ukrainian policy since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that functions in the interests of the capitalist oligarchies on both sides of the rift. In this sense, as the history of the last 100 years shows, the struggle for national self-determination of the Ukrainian people is closely linked to the perspective of a working-class government and a socialist, united, free, and independent Ukraine.

Internationalism and the Struggle against the War in Ukraine

In Germany on Sunday, February 27, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Berlin against the war in Ukraine. On a smaller scale, there were demonstrations in other European cities. In Russia, despite Putin’s ironfisted repressive control, repudiation of the invasion also began to be expressed, and thousands of people have been imprisoned for demonstrating. But in the movements against the war that are beginning to emerge, a tough fight is arising against the movement being used by imperialist militarism. In fact, on the same day of the Berlin mobilization, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced German imperialism’s rearmament. In the European countries in particular, the site of growing mobilizations against the war, there is enormous pressure from the mass media and the political establishment directed against anyone who dares to denounce NATO — doing so means being attacked, almost automatically, as a supporter of Putin, if nothing else. The struggle for an independent policy, as is being raised here, is a central issue.

War and armament have returned to the center of the world scene. The misery of what is possible under capitalism as professed in the discourses of the neoreformists, “Left populists,” and the “post-neoliberals” is increasingly miserable and less possible. Today, we must return to the best internationalist traditions of the socialist movement — such as the Left of the Zimmerwald Conference, which, in response to World War I, raised its voice against all imperialist sides8Translator’s note: The Zimmerwald Conference, held in Switzerland in early September 1915, brought together reformist and revolutionary socialist parties opposed to the war and militarism. Some details on the anti-war discussions and actions the conference discussed can be found here. — and constitute a pole against the war in Ukraine that raises the international unity of the working class with an independent policy, for the withdrawal of Russian troops, against NATO and imperialist armament. Faced with a system that offers only more war, misery, and destruction of the planet, it becomes increasingly necessary to activate the “emergency brake” to put an end to capitalist barbarism.

First published in Spanish on March 6 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Scott Cooper


Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).