Once Again on the Debates Regarding the War in Ukraine

Matías Maiello

March 31, 2022

It has been more than a month since the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. What should an independent political position of internationalist revolutionary socialists consist of?

It has been more than a month since the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and Russian troops are continuing their attacks in different parts of the country with varying degrees of intensity. There are attacks around Kyiv, the capital, as well as in the east in Kharkov, but the most concerted efforts are in the south of the country, in the city of Mariupol, which is key to establishing a corridor across the Sea of Azov from the Russian-controlled Crimean peninsula to the Donbas region. The sanctions on Russia have also continued — now resulting in the country’s inability to obtain dollars with which to pay the interest on its debts — as have NATO’s shipments of weapons and resources to Ukraine. Meanwhile, negotiations between the governments of Ukraine and Russia seem to be advancing, although their outcome remains uncertain.

In this complex scenario, debates have erupted throughout the Left over what positions to take regarding the war. In a previous article, I addressed some of them in the context of the possibility of waging an effective struggle against the war, for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and NATO from Eastern Europe, and against imperialist rearmament. I wrote that the starting point for an independent policy and appealing for an international mobilization is the integration of the national question for Ukraine, which Russia’s invasion has brought to the fore, and the struggle against NATO and imperialism. The necessary political independence of an anti-war movement depends on this integration.

In a later article, Mercedes Petit of Izquierda Socialista (IS, Socialist Left) and the Unidad Internacional de los Trabajadores – Cuarta Internacional (UIT-CI, International Workers’ Unity – Fourth International) current to which it belongs, criticized this position set forth by the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS, Socialist Workers Party), Left Voice’s sister organization, and our international organization, the Trotskyist Fraction – Fourth International (FT-CI). She wrote that despite starting with “a correct initial slogan (‘Russian troops out of Ukraine!’),” it fails to openly support “the military camp of the Ukrainian people” and demand more weapons for Ukraine. This is not an isolated stance. Several Left organizations internationally level, have expressed similar positions; they include the Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores – Cuarta Internacional (LIT-CI, International Workers League – Fourth International), of which the main organization is the Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado (PTSU, United Socialist Workers’ Party) of Brazil and — with differing degrees of emphasis and formulations — the Argentine Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST, Workers’ Socialist Movement). These perspectives condemn NATO’s role in the conflict but characterize it as a secondary factor without major implications for establishing an independent policy. At one extreme of this political spectrum, the declaration of the “United Secretariat of the Fourth International” — whose member groups have nonetheless expressed varying positions — enthusiastically calls for the provision of weapons to Ukraine and the application of sanctions against Russia, although it rejects sanctions that “hit the Russian people more than the government and its oligarchs.”

What are the implications of these debates for a political position against the war in Ukraine? What problems are involved in the conflict itself? What should an independent political position of internationalist revolutionary socialists consist of? Izquierda Socialista’s critique provides an opportunity to elaborate on some ideas that I believe are essential to addressing these questions.

The Continuation of Politics by Other Means

Defining the kind of war with which we are dealing is undoubtedly a fundamental starting point. A war between two imperialist blocs — that is, a war for the distribution of the world or a portion of it, for the oppression of other nations, in which the independent political position would be to adopt a defeatist policy toward both sides — is not the same as a “just war” of national liberation. In the latter, an oppressed country is fighting for its independence, and revolutionary socialists must side with the military camp of the oppressed country. In her article, Mercedes Petit criticizes the PTS and the FT-CI for “postulating a ‘confrontation between the Russian occupation and imperialist domination.’” In her view, this leads to an “incorrect definition of the military camps in the conflict,” resulting in an “insoluble contradiction.” She specifically states:

Its first (correct) slogan is: “Russian troops out of Ukraine,” but it denies the actual existence of the military camp waging an armed struggle for this cause, and that it must be supported in its efforts to expel Putin’s troops, in order to succeed. In that camp there are only Ukrainian men and women, with Zelenskyy’s bourgeois and reactionary government, the bourgeois army, and the Ukrainian people. The FT-CI acknowledges this when it says that there are no troops from NATO countries “in a direct military confrontation with Russian forces.” But it denies that Ukrainian men and women in the army, militia members and civilians are leading a national military struggle to get Russian troops out of their country. And we, as revolutionaries, have the obligation, from a totally independent political position, to provide our unconditional support to this military camp.

According to this reasoning, Petit sees only two alternatives. One is to call for Ukrainian forces to “shoot at the Russians as well as Zelenskyy’s reactionary government and NATO,” an argument which she appears to say could be attributable to the FT-CI. The other is the UIT-CI’s position: “We must fight together to expel the Russians, without trusting Zelensky or NATO.” This argument raises two considerations, the implications of which are relevant to this discussion. The first is that the politics of revolutionary socialists would appear to be limited to a kind of target practice, in which the question would be “who should we shoot?” The second is that in both formulations, “correct” and “incorrect,”  there are but two sides of the conflict: “the Russians” on the one hand and Zelensky’s administration and NATO on the other. That would seem to contradict the initial proposition that NATO is not intervening. The UIT-CI’s slogan “We must fight together” — only militarily and with no confidence — leaves NATO in an unspecified position within the “military camp.”

The common denominator here is a militaristic reductionism of the phenomenon of war in general and of the war in Ukraine in particular. It may seem commonplace to say that Lenin’s appropriation of Clausewitz’s view of war as a continuation of politics by other means is fundamental to Marxism. But, as is often the case with common sense, it is sometimes less common than it seems. What are the implications of that famous formula? That in order to analyze a war (especially if an independent policy is to be derived from the analysis), it is necessary to examine all the previous politics of the various actors that are “continued” in the conflict “by other means.” Let us take a look.

Very briefly, the politics that Putin is “continuing” with the invasion of Ukraine consist of recreating Russia’s status as a military power through the reconfiguration of its army and the development of its weaponry, and increasing the national oppression of the people of bordering countries, in line with the what the czarist and Stalinist regimes did. Some past milestones of this reactionary Russian nationalist policy include the war with Georgia for the control of South Ossetia, the offensive against the Chechen people, and, more recently, the interventions to support reactionary governments in Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The politics continued by NATO, which have been called into question by “realist” theorists such as John Mearsheimer,1Translator’s note: John Mearsheimer, a political scientist and international relations scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago, is a critic of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy and is known for his theory of “offensive realism,” which describes the drive to achieve regional hegemony on the part of great powers functioning in an anarchic international system. He blames the United States for the crisis in Ukraine, as this New Yorker article explains. is its expansion toward Eastern Europe to “encircle” Russia after the fall of the USSR. In 1999, it expanded to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic; in the new century’s first decade, to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, and Croatia; and then to Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. These politics have also included its interference in the “color revolutions,” seeking to capitalize on revolts against authoritarian regimes to expand its imperialist influence. These included the “orange revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 and its continuation in the Maidan uprising of 2014.

The politics of Zelenskyy’s government, as well as the political process that has been unfolding in Ukraine for decades, are incomprehensible outside of this scenario. The political situation in Ukraine has followed a pendular trajectory, marked by the confrontation between its local “pro-Russian” and “pro-Western” capitalist oligarchies. The history of the current scenario can be traced back to 2004 and the presidential election that pitted the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko against the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, which led to accusations of fraud, sparked the “orange revolution,” and resulted in Yushchenko taking office. Yanukovych then won the 2010 election, and in 2013–14 there was a revolt against his government that came to be known as Euromaidan (because its epicenter was located in Kyiv’s Independence Square — the transliteration of “square” in Ukrainian is “maidan” — and its core demand was that Ukraine join the European Union). The uprising was brutally repressed and was increasingly taken over by reactionary and far-right pro-Western forces. After the fall of Yanukovych, pro-Russian armed groups took over the governments of Donetsk and Lugansk and the parliament of Crimea, a region that was later annexed by Russia.

These confrontations deepened the divide in Ukrainian society, fueled by the divergent interests of the different sectors of the local oligarchy and their business dealings with Russia or the West. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that the country has a significant Russian-speaking minority, comprising about 30 percent of the population located in the east and south. The rise of extreme right-wing nationalist groups was part of this process, as was the exaltation of historical figures such as Stepan Bandera, an ultra-nationalist Ukrainian leader and Nazi collaborator. A low-intensity civil war has been ongoing since 2014. The Russian-speaking minority has been the target of oppressive measures, including restrictions on the use of their language and attacks by far-right groups supported by the state. Zelenskyy’s government is a true product of this scenario. His right-wing politics are aimed at subordinating Ukraine to Western powers, and his base includes some of these far-right groups. These are the politics that are being continued during the war.

In short, we have Putin’s politics characterized by a reactionary nationalism that oppresses the people of neighboring countries; NATO politics of expansion toward the east and “color revolutions”; a low-intensity civil war, with the existence of a Russian-speaking minority comprising a third of the population and the rise of extreme right-wing groups; and Zelenskyy’s government, which is pro-imperialist to the core. In this context, it seems fruitless to reduce the problem of an independent political position to the question of which side to shoot at. The idea is to be in the “military camp of the Ukrainian people,” but in what part of this “camp,” which is divided by an existing civil war? Demanding “arms for the people,” but for which militias? For the Donbas separatist militias? For the far-right militias such as the Azov Battalion? Putin already armed the former, and NATO the latter by NATO, both as a “continuation” of their respective politics “by other means.” The reality is a little more complex than what the IS-UIT’s calls, as well as those of other leftist organizations that support a similar political position, seem to suggest.

Politics and War

In this context, we have not one but two central problems that must be addressed from an independent political position: the one posed by the Russian invasion with respect to the self-determination and independence of a semicolonial country such as Ukraine; and the one posed by NATO’s interference as a continuation of its imperialist politics in Ukraine and Eastern Europe as a whole, which so far has been put into practice only through economic sanctions against Russia and the shipment of weapons, without directly involving its military forces in the war. The combination of both problems adds to the complexity of the war in Ukraine.

For several decades now, especially since the First Gulf War (1990–91), we have seen wars of imperialist aggression prevail under U.S. hegemony — so much so that some people (one of the most popular being Tony Negri2Translator’s note: Antonio “Toni” Negri is an Italian Marxist sociologist and political philosopher and a principal theorist of autonomism. He is the coauthor, with Michael Hardt, of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), which theorizes that modern imperialism is being replaced by a postimperialist order — “the Empire” — in which conflict between nations is no longer relevant and in which the leading countries, international organizations, multinational corporations, and various NGOs rule.) mistook this for the end of imperialism and its replacement by an empire whose military actions were directed by a global police power. In the first war against Iraq, under the guise of “protecting” Kuwait from an invasion, the United States enlisted the imperialist powers and many other countries behind its military action, including Russia. This also occurred with the coalition created to invade Afghanistan in 2001, which was supported by Russia and resulted in its rapprochement with NATO. The first cracks in the U.S.-led war bloc became evident in the Second Gulf War of 2003, which both France and Germany opposed. Russia aligned itself with their position, but made sure not to get in the way of the U.S. offensive.

These are three clear examples, though certainly not the only ones, in which the struggle to defeat an imperialist attack and the victory of the oppressed country were the basis of any independent and anti-imperialist position. This meant supporting the military camp of the Afghan and Iraqi people, while rejecting any sort of political support for their reactionary governments. A similar analysis can be made in the case of the Malvinas War. This was an adventurist undertaking launched by the genocidal Argentine dictatorship to help overcome its internal crisis. However, it pitted a semicolonial country against the United Kingdom, an imperialist power supported by the United States and other great powers — despite the illusions that the United States would defend Argentina held by Leopold Galtieri, the president and leader of the military, and his henchmen. Argentina’s defeat reinforced the imperialist chains that bound the semicolonial country and determined the character of the transition up to the 1983 elections as the product of an agreement between the military junta and the country’s main political parties. It was also key to strengthening Margaret Thatcher’s position in her bid to defeat the British working class and launch the neoliberal offensive on a global scale.

Trotsky explained this type of position in an interview with Mateo Fossa, using the following example:

In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally — in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to the national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat.

Since then, imperialism’s politics have become more sophisticated. It no longer exchanges one fascist for another, but pushes for “democratic transitions” designed to protect imperialist interests by reinforcing the chains of national oppression. I return to this point below.

During World War I, Lenin analyzed a very different scenario than the one discussed by Trotsky in terms of the relationship between an oppressed nation and an imperialist offensive, namely, the case of Polish independence. In that instance, the country’s independence was opportunistically supported by the czarist regime after Poland had been taken from it by Germany. Lenin asked, “How can we help liberate Poland from Germany!” Is it not our duty to help in this?” And he answered,

Of course it is, but not by supporting the imperialist war of tsarist, or of bourgeois, or even of bourgeois republican Russia, but by supporting the revolutionary proletariat of Germany … All those who want to stand for the freedom of nations, for the right of nations to self-determination, not hypocritically … but sincerely, must be opposed to the war because of the oppression of Poland … Those who do not wish to be social-chauvinists in deeds must support only those elements in the Socialist Parties of all countries which are frankly, directly and immediately working for the proletarian revolution in their own countries.

Lenin thus rejected the demagoguery over Poland’s independence expressed by czarism, which oppressed peoples like the Ukrainians, the Finns, and so on. An undeniably staunch defender of Polish self-determination, he was opposed to this slogan in the hands of the czarist regime. And in response to the question of how to help Poland liberate itself, he called for support for the German revolutionaries, while in Russia he called for the independence of all nations oppressed by czarism. It was undoubtedly a more complex question than the mere determination of where to shoot.

Now, the conditions of the ongoing war in Ukraine do not fully coincide with those of either of these two “typical” cases and, in my opinion, to attempt to reduce it to them would be a mistake. It is not a war in which all of imperialism is on one side, with the oppressed nation on the other (as in the examples discussed above of the two Gulf Wars, which have some differences between them, as well as Afghanistan and the Malvinas War). On the one hand, there is Putin’s reactionary invasion, with Russia acting as a kind of “military imperialism” (although it does not qualify as an imperialist country in the precise sense of the term, given the low level of expansion of its monopolies and capital exports on a global scale; it essentially exports gas, oil, and commodities, etc.). On the other hand, we have the semicolonial nation of Ukraine, which is being used as a proxy by the biggest imperialist powers of the West in their confrontation with Russia. But it is also not an open interimperialist war, as in the Polish case analyzed by Lenin. So far, Western powers have been intervening essentially through economic sanctions and the supply of weapons, trying to avoid becoming fully involved. The effort to portray this confrontation as the product of an internal division of the Ukrainian people themselves, a third of whom have strong linguistic and cultural ties with Russia, is another aspect that must be added.

Hence, an independent political position, in my opinion, should also seek a coherent combination of the elements discussed in the examples analyzed by Trotsky and Lenin. To oppose the Russian invasion from such a political position means not only “denouncing” NATO, but also including it as an active factor in the conflict itself against the self-determination of the Ukrainian people. And in this respect, as in Lenin’s analysis, it means calling for international mobilization, both in the “West” and in Russia, is crucial to supporting the struggle for Ukraine’s independence. The development of an anti-war movement that does not succumb to NATO militarism is essential. 

Having a consistent political position regarding the national question in Ukraine also means supporting the right to self-determination of Donetsk and Lugansk and of the Russian-speaking population. At the same time, it means fighting against the occupation of pro-Russian regions, whose population has the ability to undermine all of Putin’s demagoguery. No matter how many weapons are circulating, only the unity of the Ukrainian working people, overcoming the divisions promoted by the oligarchies on both sides of the rift, can defeat Putin’s invasion without trading one set of chains for another and continuing the pendular trajectory (between Russia and NATO) that has characterized the country’s politics during the past few decades.

The Goals of an Independent Political Position

Of course, the degree to which an independent political position is needed depends on the goals pursued by whoever establishes that position. For example, the United Secretariat concludes its declaration, “Only the international working class, fighting together with all oppressed and exploited people, for peace and against imperialism, capitalism and war, can create a better world.” From this point of view, its defense of the sanctions against Russia and the shipment of weapons in general could be more or less contradictory depending on what is meant by a “better world.” From a socialist and revolutionary internationalist perspective, things are clearly different. And this is also important in terms of the debate on the question of national self-determination and anti-imperialist struggle with those who, like the UIT, the LIT, and the LIS,3Liga Internacional Socialista (LIS, International Socialist League) is the international current to which the MST belongs. aspire to a particular type of revolution called a “democratic revolution.”

In relation to the perspective I have spelled out here, Mercedes Petit writes:

This approach [of the PTS and the FT] is directly defeatist and, if applied, would simply and immediately favor Putin’s invasion. It is no coincidence that the FT-CI’s declaration refers to the 2011–16 struggle against Assad. At that time, they also adopted a nefarious position. As they themselves now point out, they claimed that there was “a reactionary war with no progressive camps” in Syria and rejected any military support for the massive mobilization and military struggle against Assad. They were thus complicit, along with the majority of the left worldwide, with dictator Assad and mass murderer Putin, by whom the mobilization was brutally crushed.

Although it cannot be likened to the current war in Ukraine, there are some points of convergence with the Syrian conflict, if we consider the entire process from the “orange revolution” of 2004 to the Maidan uprising in 2014 and the subsequent confrontations. The origins of the war in Syria date back to the 2011 revolt, which was an expression of the people’s outrage against Bashar al-Assad’s Bonapartist regime and part of the Arab Spring. The government resorted to fierce repression and incited an interreligious confrontation. At first, the army was divided horizontally between sectors of the troops and the officers. However, this would soon turn into a vertical division in which the elements of self-defense of the “citizenry” and the “people” (though not a class-based self-defense) were relegated to a secondary position and regimented and subordinated to the structure of the Free Syrian Army. This army was sponsored from the outset by Turkey and later supported by U.S., British, and French imperialism, although with some distrust due to its links with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movement. The conflict passed through different phases, leading to a reactionary civil war. A progressive element of this war was the development of the struggle of the Kurdish people. Their independence, however, subsequently became diluted in the context of military alliances with the United States and later with Assad against Turkish attacks.

A significant part of the Left, inspired by the theory of democratic revolution, viewed the Syrian civil war as a revolutionary war, more or less overlooking the complexity of the process, which included imperialist interference and inter-religious divisions. In doing so, it adopted in its own way the positions of Nahuel Moreno,4Translator’s note: Moreno (1924–1987) was a Trotskyist leader from Argentina. who argued that to confront fascism and “counterrevolutionary 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.” 

In the same way, they viewed the 2013–14 Maidan uprising as a “victorious democratic revolution.” In the Izquierda Socialista’s own words at the time: “We are witnessing the triumph of a revolution similar to the revolutionary uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that led to enormous revolutions overthrowing their oppressive governments. In Ukraine, a democratic revolution has also taken place, resulting in the fall of the reactionary and pro-Russian Yanukovych.”

Although the uprising took place against the backdrop of the hardships faced by the Ukrainian people and their outrage against Yanukovych’s repressive and corrupt government, the IS characterization overlooked the actual development of the process itself. It disregarded the movement’s program (with its core demand that Ukraine join the imperialist European Union) and its leadership, consisting of a front ranging from pro-Western liberal opposition parties to the extreme Right, including neo-Nazi groups. In line with their shared views, one of the first measures this front enacted when it came to power was to repeal the law that protected non-Ukrainian minority languages. Izquierda Socialista thus took to the extreme the theory of “democratic revolution,” according to which “it isn’t necessary for the working class and for a revolutionary Marxist party with mass influence to direct the process of democratic revolution to socialist revolution” given that, according to Moreno, every revolution (resulting from the catastrophic state of capitalism) is in itself “unconsciously socialist.”

It is difficult to develop independent politics on the basis of such a theory. The fact is that since Moreno’s original formulation, inspired by the processes sparked by the mass uprisings in the 1970s known as the “transitions to democracy” (in Portugal, the Spanish State, and Greece, and then later spreading to the semicolonial world), none of these processes of so-called “regime revolutions” followed a trajectory like the one he predicted. On the contrary, they resulted in reconfigurations that allowed the bourgeoisie to regain its hegemony. Thus, under the banners of an idyllic bourgeois democracy, of the supposed defense of human rights and “freedom,” the neoliberal offensive spread across the globe. Today we see the remnants of those politics in the decline of U.S. hegemony. Evidence of this was the “orange revolution” in Ukraine and the course of the Maidan uprising in 2014 that led to the rise of the pro-Western oligarch Piotr Poroshenko. The outbreak of a reactionary civil war in Syria is another example.

What has become increasingly clear in these processes is the profound connection between the realization of democratic demands and a consistent anti-imperialist struggle. From his first formulations of the theory of permanent revolution, Trotsky maintained that even in a country where the proletariat was a minority, as in Russia, its hegemony was a condition for the “complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy,” which is necessarily linked to structural (and in many cases anti-capitalist) transformations. The developments of the last decades expanded the meaning of that thesis. Imperialist oppression increased spectacularly during the neoliberal offensive, rendering inconceivable any fundamental and lasting democratic conquests in semicolonies without their emancipation from imperialism.

In Ukraine, amid the complexity of the war, this is also an essential question. The interests of the Ukrainian workers and poor are diametrically opposed to those of the different sectors of the local oligarchy linked to Putin and Western imperialism. In the fight against the Russian invasion, no true independence can be won under the influence of NATO, which is why this fight is inseparable from the most resolute anti-imperialist struggle. As Trotsky pointed out in his time, the prospect of Ukraine’s independence is inextricably linked to the fight for workers’ power. This conclusion is undeniably relevant today, in the difficult conditions created by the Russian occupation, and is intertwined with the struggle for a socialist Ukraine run by its working class. When we discuss the need to adopt an independent political position, we do so from the perspective of these objectives.

First published in Spanish on March 20 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Marisela Trevin


1 Translator’s note: John Mearsheimer, a political scientist and international relations scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago, is a critic of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy and is known for his theory of “offensive realism,” which describes the drive to achieve regional hegemony on the part of great powers functioning in an anarchic international system. He blames the United States for the crisis in Ukraine, as this New Yorker article explains.
2 Translator’s note: Antonio “Toni” Negri is an Italian Marxist sociologist and political philosopher and a principal theorist of autonomism. He is the coauthor, with Michael Hardt, of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), which theorizes that modern imperialism is being replaced by a postimperialist order — “the Empire” — in which conflict between nations is no longer relevant and in which the leading countries, international organizations, multinational corporations, and various NGOs rule.
3 Liga Internacional Socialista (LIS, International Socialist League) is the international current to which the MST belongs.
4 Translator’s note: Moreno (1924–1987) was a Trotskyist leader from Argentina.
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).