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Five Theses on the War in Ukraine

The outbreak of the war in European territory a year ago has animated key debates on the left. Here, we go back to some of our central conclusions on the war and the necessity for the working class to chart an independent path forward.

Sou Mi

February 27, 2023
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Ukrainian solders and the Ukrainian flag.

The war in Ukraine that began with the Russian invasion last February marked the escalation of ongoing tensions between NATO and Russia to the military field and, with it, a significant shift in the geopolitical situation at large. What looked like it would be be a short-lived campaign — a “special military operation” of the precision bombing of military installations across Kiev and other cities against the threats of NATO expansion in Ukraine — has turned into a prolonged war of attrition with moments of stalemate as Ukraine has been able to match Russian firepower, having been armed to the teeth by U.S. and NATO with state-of-the-art military equipment and training. 

The war has been a boon to U.S. imperialism in particular, as it has been able to revitalize its position in the global order and use that position to lead one of the largest military rearmament in recent years across NATO countries. The conflict has also breathed new life into a NATO alliance that has not only provided Ukraine with billions in military funding, but has also significantly expanded its influence in the region, advancing the very situation Russia was aiming to avoid: its encirclement. 

Far from fighting for “self-determination,” the Zelenskyy regime has subordinated the interests of the Ukrainian masses to the interests of U.S. imperialism. Now, as the stalemate draws out, it continues to threaten new and violent confrontations as a way to break the impasse. In the immediate aftermath, over a million people have been displaced, causing a refugee crisis in Europe, while thousands have died. The economic fallout of the war has slowed global economic recovery following the pandemic, deepening the cost of living crisis, and marking a new period of crisis for the capitalist world order that, above all, exacts a heavy toll on the working class, not just in Ukraine and Russia, but the world over.

The outbreak of war in Europe has once again animated key debates on the Left, with a sector calling for more imperialist arms to Ukraine in the name of Ukrainian self-determination and, thus, strengthening U.S. and NATO imperialism, and another that calls for the military defense of Russia. Sectors of both tendencies, in different capacities, have also called on a negotiated solution out of this war, leaving the task of resolving this crisis on the very forces that got us here in the first place. This tendency towards either camp misses the larger picture of the war, the geopolitical tensions at its foundations, and ultimately marks further dead ends for the working class that needs to build an independent path forward. On the war’s anniversary, we return to some of the fundamentals of this conflict.

1. The War Marks a Shift in the Geopolitical Situation on a World Historic Scale

After thirty years of uncontested U.S. hegemony following the fall of the Berlin Wall that, on the military field, used its strength to penetrate new markets and impose its model of “democracy,” the war in Ukraine has opened up a new phase of global confrontation. It has reactivated some of the most violent tendencies of interstate confrontation that emerged in the 20th century and has brought back the tendencies of wars between Great Powers. 

The war confirms a renewed epoch of crises, wars and revolutions, and marks the escalation of the crisis of neoliberalism to the military field. Unlike the last thirty years of the neoliberal consensus, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, this conflict marks a shift in the aims of interstate warfare. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. led all of the other “imperialisms” behind it towards a period of capitalist expansion amid globalization to incorporate states into the circuits of production. This was aided by the restoration of capitalism on the other side of the Iron Curtain, especially in China, which offered new avenues of growth for capitalism. This policy of world integration (or globalization), as Emilio Albamonte and Matias Maiello write, is what is continued by U.S. imperialism and NATO in the war in Ukraine. 

Conversely, however, the war raises the crises of this period of imperialist expansion, and marks the first acute expression of the crisis of the unipolar order. It betrays this growing tendency, particularly expressed through the emergence of two power blocks that in some ways recreate the factions of the Cold War, with a Western alliance led by the U.S. through NATO, and the strengthening of strategic allies such as Australia and Japan on one side, and an uneasy yet persisting alliance between China and Russia on the other, along with a number of major regional powers such as India who have conflicting interests in the war. 

Behind the backdrop of these geopolitical tensions lies the larger crisis of neoliberalism which erupted with the Great Recession, and which has been deepened by the pandemic and ongoing war, with rates of productivity and profitability yet to bounce back to pre-2008 levels. These tensions reveal the tendencies towards exhaustion within this cycle of capitalist accumulation. The war, on a world scale, marks the deepening of these tendencies, bringing forth the crisis of globalization and, with it, of global value and supply chains. Coming on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic that had already rocked supply chains, it has delivered a huge economic shock, stunting recovery globally and deepening a cost of living crisis, particularly in Europe and the Global South. According to the OECD, the war in Ukraine is going to cost the global economy over $2.8 trillion in lost output by the end of 2023, highlighting the magnitude of the economic fallout following the war. The combination of severe economic sanctions on Russia and the disruptions in the supply of commodities — particularly of Russian oil, gas, and fertilizers — has had a domino effect on a post-pandemic recovery, and intensified the structural crisis of neoliberalism. 

2. There Are No Progressive Camps in This War

The war in Ukraine also marks an escalation of more prolonged historic tensions between Russia and the U.S. and NATO. Over the last decades, a strategic objective of the U.S. and NATO has been to encircle and contain Russia. It has done so in two ways: first, by expanding NATO territories with the incorporation of erstwhile states of the Eastern bloc, and second, by interfering in and diverting the democratic revolts expressed through the so-called “color revolutions”, using the momentum against authoritarian regimes towards expanding U.S. influence. In terms of the latter in particular, the strategy to contain Russia by installing proxy regimes under the influence of western imperialism has been the policy of the U.S. and NATO in Ukraine from 2004, to 2014, to now. A year in, the war remains a proxy war between Russia, the United States, and NATO being played out geographically within Ukrainian territory.

Although the U.S. and NATO have not yet intervened actively with boots on the ground, they have had a tremendous influence on the course of the war, leading to one of the largest rearmaments in recent years. The U.S. and NATO countries have, over the course of the year, armed the Ukrainian military to the teeth with state-of-the-art military technology that has been able to match — and often even best — the numerically stronger Russian forces. Since the war began, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with over $76 billion in aid, with over $46 billion (61%) going to defense spending alone. Germany, a key NATO partner, passed a historic defense budget in 2022, ramping it up from €45 billion to over €100 billion — over 2 percent of the country’s GDP. 

In addition to the latest military equipment that has been able to stave off a Russian challenge, the U.S. and NATO have also led an international alliance to provide training and strategic counsel to the Ukrainian forces, who have been successful in recovering over half the territory they lost in early days of the war. These don’t just have the aim of helping Ukraine militarily defeat Russia, but have behind it the broader strategic goal of subordinating the region to the U.S.’s interests. Through the year, furthermore, the U.S. and NATO have violated their own “red lines,” testing their own limits, and thus threatening more violent confrontations and “accidents.” This is particularly evident with the recent escalations in the war, with the U.S. and Germany sending M1 Abrams tanks and Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. And although they are still maintained as “red lines” by the White House, defense officials in the U.S. have also begun to entertain Zelenskyy’s ambitions of using the current momentum towards recapturing Crimea, or giving audience to his pleas for fighter jets, even if they come with risks of more escalation. 

Zelenskyy’s offensive, however, has little to do with protecting the Ukrainian masses or fighting for their self-determination, and everything to do with protecting the interests of the Ukrainian oligarchy and its allies in Western imperialism. Although Zelenskyy has been painted as the hero of this war, he has, over the past year, advanced major attacks on the working class to prepare the ground for Western imperialist penetration. “Your money is not charity,” Zelenskyy said in an address to the U.S. Congress in December last year, “It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.” This democracy is only the expansion of the brand of bourgeois democracy championed by U.S. imperialism, one that is interested in subordinating the interests of the Ukrainian masses to its own needs, transforming it into a semi-colony and a sphere of its influence. 

Indeed, since the war began, the Zelenskyy regime has invoked nationalism and patriotism to build national support behind his agenda, and has waged a number of attacks on both civil and labor rights, marking a significant reaction against the working class in Ukraine. Since last February, he has not only used this consensus to ban and censure political opposition, but has also signed into law multiple bills that severely expand the Ukrainian state’s authority, giving it more control over media and undermining press freedom. 

The Zelenskyy regime has also advanced a number of labor laws that significantly attack the Ukrainian working class and its independent organizations. These include legislations that will deprive over 73 percent of workers in Ukraine the right to union protections and collective bargaining, as well as laws that now allow employers to extend the work week to 60 hours, shorten holidays, and cancel vacation days. These measures by Zelenskyy have nothing to do with fighting against the reactionary Russian invasion: they are but examples of the rank opportunism on the part of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie to use the war to maneuver and advance a series of liberalization and privatization measures that would ultimately create the grounds for its own growth, and make Ukraine more attractive to Western capital, investment, and influence.

And while we have outlined that the conflict in the region needs to be observed through a larger strategy of encirclement by NATO of Russia, it is necessary to note that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine was not a defensive measure — it was an offensive move, with the firepower of the largest military in Europe. As Claudia Cinatti notes, although Putin terms the fall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” he longs not for the elements of the workers’ state, but the geopolitical firepower of the USSR. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia lost much of its political, territorial, and economic weight, but held on to its military and nuclear apparatus developed through the arms race during the Cold War. It is this mammoth apparatus that has since served to advance the interests of the Russian oligarchy which has built a thoroughly capitalist system on the ashes of the workers’ state. 

Although Russia is still a second power and not yet imperialist, especially given its dependence on the export of commodities such as fuel, gas and fertilizer; a reliance on a global marketplace for its goods; and the relative weakness of its financial apparatus, it is a grave mistake to underestimate the position Russia holds in the region, both militarily and economically. A regional power, the Russian military offensive is not simply a reaction against NATO aggression, but is also ultimately intended to advance the interests of the Russian oligarchy and its influence in the region. Since the start of the war, Putin — a member and a representative of this oligarchy — has not only relied on the repressive state apparatus to quell any dissent against his offensive, but has also used Bonapartist measures to escalate the conflict, first announcing a partial mobilization of reserve forces, and then declaring the annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporiyia (even though the Russian military lost significant ground in the latter). The cost of this war has been borne deeply by the Russian masses, between the repression and economic uncertainty, the thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands who have left the country to avoid conscription. 

3. The War Has Revitalized and Strengthened the Institutions of U.S. Imperialism Globally

Last week, to mark the anniversary of the war, Joe Biden visited Ukraine and other European allies to reassure the U.S.’s unflinching support to fighting against Russia. Amid years of decline of U.S. hegemony, especially following the period of Trump’s isolationist policies where he pulled or threatened to pull the U.S. from international diplomatic institutions (including NATO), the Biden administration has been able to use the Russian offensive to significantly recover, at least in the short to medium term, the United States’ position in the geopolitical order. This is first and foremost expressed through the revitalization of NATO behind U.S. leadership following a period of fraying homogeneity within its ranks. While other member countries such as Germany and France still have strategic goals towards the resolution of the war that don’t completely align with the U.S., especially given their dependency on Russian energy, they have, so far, fallen in line behind U.S. interests. 

Along with the rearmament, Biden has been able to lead a broad diplomatic alliance to impose crippling and escalating sanctions on Russia, which are not only squeezing the Russian working class, but, coupled with other supply chain disruptions owing to the war, are also having far-reaching consequences on the masses globally. The U.S. has also been able to exclude Russia from the international financial system, weaponizing the dollar against its enemy. Furthermore, although the question of Ukrainian membership does not yet seem likely, NATO will undergo one of the largest territorial expansions since the fall of the Berlin Wall with the likely membership of Sweden and Finland. If Finland’s membership is ratified, its 800-mile border will become NATO’s longest border with Russia, marking a significant defeat for Russia.

But the U.S.’s ability to recover its position isn’t just limited to Europe. In fact, it has been able to use the revitalization of NATO and American leadership to advance strategic partnerships across the globe, particularly with Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific. For the latter two, it has declared its priority to be backing American leadership, especially towards protecting Ukrainian sovereignty and demanding meaningful costs off Russia. In line with the U.S. and NATO’s line, these countries have not only provided military aid to Ukraine, but have also imposed sanctions on Russia. Last October, both countries also met to agree to cooperate on energy security, especially given the disruptions in energy supply during the war. These advances are particularly significant, especially in the face of the bigger and more strategic confrontations that lay ahead of U.S. imperialism in this next period.

4. The Strategic Confrontation with China Underpins the Logic of This War

Beyond these tactical objectives, the war is part of a growing strategic confrontation between U.S. imperialism and China. The crisis of neoliberalism and the decline of U.S. hegemony coincides with the emergence of new threats to the top. The restoration of capitalism in China had introduced a billion-strong workforce to the world’s proletariat and, during the period of globalization, the country was fertile pasture for imperialist plunder and formed an integral part of this cycle of capitalist accumulation. The influx of foreign capital had simultaneously spurred technological and industrial advances in China which lay the foundations for Beijing to emerge as a strategic competitor to the United States. 

As American capital faced a slow recovery after 2008, China emerged as a key force, using its relative stability to play a role in recovering the global economy, penetrating new markets particularly in Africa in the Middle East, and now using monetary investments, geopolitical and even defense partnerships to position itself as a key partner. In Russia, China has found a key ally and, although wary of the Putin regime’s more adventurous tendencies within this war, it continues to advance defense exercises as well as other strategic partnerships in building a zone of influence around itself. Now, a year in, China is also positioning itself to lead global diplomacy, as we see with China’s recent efforts towards negotiating a peace plan between Russia and Ukraine. Although the U.S. still remains the global hegemon, in order to have a favorable outcome for itself in the midst of the exhaustions of this cycle of capitalist accumulation, it has to find ways to contain the challenge that Beijing poses.

And indeed, it is this geopolitical task that has been central for the U.S. over the last decade, from Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” in 2011, to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, to the current war in Ukraine. Indeed, the war in Ukraine has been a key test for U.S. imperialism to be able to recover itself and restore Washington’s leadership in this confrontation. As Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said last year, the task at hand is to lead an international bloc opposed to Russia’s invasion into a broader coalition to contain China, which the U.S. regime sees as a more serious and long-term threat. For the United States, the strengthening of alliances with Europe has also fostered the ability to build alliances in the Asia Pacific. This has helped, as mentioned earlier, to advance strategic partnerships with countries like Australia and Japan that also give the U.S. opportunities to expand its influence and presence in the South China Sea.

5. The Working Class Must Carve an Independent Way Out of the Crisis

So what about the working class in Ukraine and across the world? As previously outlined, the war in Ukraine has opened up a new historical period in the geopolitical situation that makes the great battles between men and machinery real again. Far from being the “end of history,” or the development of an ultra-imperialism behind the U.S. where American imperialism leads the world forever, the crisis of neoliberal globalization betrays the crisis of capitalism in this phase of development — one which hurls the war towards more violent confrontations. U.S. hegemony is no longer going undisputed, and key challenges to the unipolar order have emerged. On the one hand, this is manifested in the ascendancy of China and the coalition it leads, particularly with Russia and other regional powers that want to break with the interests of U.S. imperialism to advance their own goals. On the other hand, it is also expressed in tendencies with countries like Germany and France who, while falling behind Washington, still want to carve out an independent imperialist policy. These features, of which the current war is one expression, make the political situation far more unstable, and lead to a tendency towards greater confrontations. Borrowing from the Prussian military general Carl Von Clausewitz’s definition that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” the war in Ukraine marks the shift of these political tendencies among capitalist powers to the battlefield

These interstate wars, aimed towards the redistribution of the world’s territories and resources amongst its great powers, have nothing to do with the interest of the working class. Indeed, the current war is a symptom of capitalism in its present stage of development. As the war continues, the cost of living crisis continues to get more dire, deepening the structural crisis of neoliberalism across the globe. In Europe, particularly in France and UK, as well as in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, the eruption of uprisings and revolts have put this crisis of neoliberalism on center stage. Yet, without charting an independent path out of this crisis as a class, recovering our institutions, and forging our organizations of combat, we’re only going to be left with more violent and deadly confrontations.

In the early months of the war, workers in Greece and Italy went on strike to oppose NATO arms shipments to Ukraine, refusing to move military cargo. Similarly, workers in Belarus sabotaged Russian military equipment meant for the war. These examples are essential for us to take up across the globe, mobilizing our class power and using every crisis fostered by this prolonged war to fight back. For the working class across the world, it is necessary to use our power to fight for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, and also fight against NATO intervention, the rearmament of imperialist powers, and the crippling sanctions imposed on Russia. 

Within Ukraine, it is important to turn this interstate war into class war, tied to the fight for an independent, socialist Ukraine, thus fighting not only against the Russian invasion, but also against NATO and its own bourgeoisie that subordinates the interest of the Ukrainian working class to that of NATO Imperialism. For workers in Russia, It is necessary to fight against Russian invasion and against the war effort, and use it as a starting point to ring the death knell on Putin’s reactionary regime with a revolutionary perspective. Mass movements across the world that support such a perspective can not only change the balance of forces in the war, but can also support the development of important revolutionary processes that can put to question the whole imperialist order.

A year in, while we’ve seen incipient protests in some countries, importantly raising slogans against both NATO intervention and Putin’s offensive, we haven’t seen the development of an anti-war movement that can challenge these powers. Yet, while these tendencies may not exist on a significant scale, the strategic importance of taking up a class independent, revolutionary perspective, cannot be substituted. Such vacillations not only delays the construction of independent organizations of combat of the working class that can carve a way out of this crisis, but also strengthens the imperialist apparatus that continues to grind its boots over our necks. 

For the working masses, there is no lesser evil. As the crisis of neoliberalism continues to deepen, it will tend to breed more and more violent confrontations that threaten to draw the rest of the world behind it. As socialists, the task to break our class away from the conflicts of the ruling class, to chart an independent path that not only stops workers around the world from having to pay for this crisis, but also brings an end to this violent, exploitative, and oppressive system, grows more dire. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote

This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.

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Sou Mi

Sou Mi is an activist based in New York City.

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