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Socialists Should Not Support Imperialist Weapons Shipments to the Ukrainian Government

As war rages in Ukraine, NATO countries are sending billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the Zelenskyy government. These weapons shipments are incredibly popular in Western countries — even among a sector of the Left.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced millions of people to flee their homes, and it has killed thousands of Ukrainians and Russians. The Ukrainian military has managed to thwart a swift Russian victory, but as the war drags on, Russia has resorted to more brutal tactics, including the shelling of civilian areas and the taking of hostages.

The Western imperialist powers have opposed the invasion, yet have so far avoided a direct military confrontation with Russia. Instead, NATO governments, and the United States in particular, have been sending billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the Ukrainian government. This is part of an effort to further shore up their political and strategic alliance with the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Many working people in the U.S. and Europe, including many on the Left, support this military aid — according to surveys, 60 to 70 percent of people in the main NATO countries are in favor of these policies. But this is not something that socialists should support. As socialists, we oppose Putin’s reactionary invasion, but that does not mean we support Zelenskyy’s pro-imperialist government. We have to put forward an independent working-class orientation.

Working people around the world, including the Russian working class, must organize for an immediate end to the war, against the interests of our own governments. But in the famous words of Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, war is just the continuation of politics by other means. If we want to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine, we must oppose all the imperialist policies that led to it, including the further expansion of NATO and the semicolonization of Ukraine via imperialist institutions like the IMF.

This also means opposing further weapons shipments to the region — including direct actions to stop transports, be it Russian supplies arriving by rail across Belarus or U.S. Javelin rockets arriving through Poland and Romania.

Confusion on the Left

Among the masses, support for weapons shipments is understandable. We see horrific images of Russian troops bombing apartment buildings and families huddling in subway stations. People want to do something, anything, to end this wanton destruction. There is one single option presented by the bourgeoisie’s governments and media: send weapons.

But the Left should be able to see through such claims — weapons shipments are, above all, a massive subsidy for Western arms manufacturers. NATO has never been interested in guaranteeing democracy or self-determination for the people of Ukraine. Quite the opposite: they have led a decades-long campaign to bring Ukraine under their control.

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Nonetheless, a socialist intellectual like Gilbert Achcar, while he opposes direct military intervention and is neutral on the question of sanctions, has said, “We are without hesitation in favor of the delivery of defensive weapons to the Ukrainian resistance.” This position is shared by different socialist tendencies, including Tempest magazine in the United States1The formulation from Tempest is rather oblique: “We must advocate the right of Ukrainians to secure arms from wherever they can to defend themselves.”, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, as well as the UIT-CI, LIT-CI, and MST-LIS from Latin America.2The LIT-CI, for example, has explained at length why they believe socialists should support weapons shipments and even certain sanctions.

Proponents of sending weapons to the Ukrainian army like to quote a particular passage from Leon Trotsky’s essay “Learn to Think,” written in 1938, in which he sketches a hypothetical case:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists — not proletarian revolutionists.

He expressed the same thought with a different hypothetical case in a different essay from 1939:

If Hitler tomorrow were forced to send arms to the insurrectionary Indians, must the revolutionary German workers oppose this concrete action by strikes or sabotage? On the contrary they must make sure that the insurrectionists receive the arms as soon as possible.

On the eve of the Second World War, Trotsky was stressing the centrality of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles for the world revolution. The coming war was not a confrontation between democracy and fascism — rather, it was a war between different imperialist powers to divide up the world. Trotsky was demanding that the working class in imperialist countries support national liberation movements unconditionally — even if these movements were forced to accept some limited support from reactionary governments.

Trotsky understood that any victory against a colonial power would weaken imperialism’s grip on the entire world. If a colony were able to break free from French or British imperialism, this would end up weakening Italian and German imperialism as well. Thus, hypothetical help from Hitler to the Indian independence movement would end up weakening Nazi Germany. (This is, incidentally, why the cases Trotsky described remained completely hypothetical. The German and Italian governments gave virtually no support to movements against British or French colonialism — the fascists understood that any anti-imperialist victories would eventually harm their own interests.)

Now we can ask: Does this analogy apply to today’s war in Ukraine? Zelenskyy is being compared to Che Guevara (on a magazine cover that looks like Star Wars), and some leftists have said their demands for arming the Ukrainian government are just like those made 50 years ago, when anti-war movements called for weapons for the Viet Cong.

But one person would surely object to such comparisons: Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself. Late last month he announced the prohibition of all parties even vaguely leftist or socialist. Openly fascist and Nazi groups, meanwhile, remain part of the Ukrainian national guard. Zelenskyy’s program has long been to integrate Ukraine into imperialist structures like NATO, the European Union, and the IMF. The country’s riches are already being ruthlessly exploited by imperialist capital. Zelenskyy, the representative of a handful of oligarchs, wants to intensify that subjugation.

It is ridiculous to describe Zelenskyy’s policies as “anti-imperialist.” He is explicitly pro-imperialist. If any analogy to Vietnam is possible, then the Ukrainian government is like that of South Vietnam — which also got countless weapons from the United States.

As we argue in a debate with Stathis Kouvélakis and Gilbert Achcar, a victory by Ukraine would weaken Russia, but it would also strengthen NATO and thus strengthen imperialism. Achcar himself has admitted that the United States is seeking to make Ukraine a “vassal state,” or puppet regime, of U.S. imperialism, and a Ukrainian victory would lead to this “vassalization.” In a classic case of social patriotism, Achcar argues that Western dominance is preferable to “enslavement” by Russia.

In the two hypothetical cases that Trotsky mentioned, he was referring to genuinely anti-colonial movements. Let’s imagine another hypothetical case in which the “insurrectionary Indians” were National Socialists fighting to make the country a German colony. Does anyone think Trotsky would have supported them? Trotsky’s main slogan to secure freedom for Ukraine was

The complete independence of the proletarian party as the vanguard of the toilers!

This remains central today. Nonetheless, socialists in favor of weapons shipments are expressing their complete support for their governments’ central policy.

Character of the War

The Left is confused because this war is complex. It is not a simple interimperialist conflict, and not just because NATO troops are so far refraining from any direct confrontation with Russia. It is, moreover, misleading to include Russia and the NATO powers in the same category of “imperialism.” The U.S. military budget is 10 times greater than that of its Russian counterpart — and the total military spending for all of NATO is more like 15 to 20 times greater than Russia’s.

NATO forces have been responsible for reactionary wars all over the world, including the attacks on the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, while supporting Saudi Arabia’s ongoing massacre in Yemen. Russia’s reactionary interventions, in contrast, are limited to its periphery, mostly in the former Soviet Union. Putin’s forces have held up reactionary dictatorships in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Syria. But its far weaker military prowess is on display with its inability to vanquish the inferior Ukrainian forces after a month of fighting.

Russia’s economic weakness is much more dramatic, as has been shown by its vulnerability to Western sanctions. The Russian economy depends on technology and finance from the West, and the country’s main exports consist mostly of raw materials. Thus, in the struggle to control Ukraine with investments, Russia cannot compete with U.S. and EU capital, and this is what made Putin believe that a military invasion was in the country’s strategic interest.

NATO aggression has expanded the alliance’s perimeter right to the Russian border. Yet imperialist politicians have tried to present themselves as if we were all under imminent threat by Russia. A high point of hypocrisy comes from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who spread lies about “weapons of mass destruction” to justify the murderous invasion of Iraq. She has condemned the invasion of Ukraine as a “war crime” — as if she was not personally responsible for far greater crimes.

Now imperialist countries are using Putin’s reactionary war as an excuse for historic increases in military spending (even though these were planned before Putin’s invasion). The German government wants to spend an additional 100 billion euros on the Bundeswehr, whereas Biden’s new budget calls for $31 billion more in military spending. Socialists must oppose all forms of militarism — “not one man and not one penny,” as Wilhelm Liebknecht used to say. Weapons for Ukraine’s government are serving as a gateway to sell militarism to an otherwise skeptical population.

The Left Case against Military Aid to Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is inexcusable and should be resisted and condemned by socialists everywhere. Regardless of NATO’s actions, there is no excuse for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those who apologize for the invasion, those who blame NATO exclusively or claim that Russia had no choice, those who claim that socialists should support Russia against NATO or Ukraine — such people only confuse the interests of working people with those of their governments. And they blind themselves to the fact that the struggle against imperialism is fundamentally a struggle of the working classes for a socialist solution to the horrors perpetrated by their governments.

Likewise, socialists must condemn the provocations of NATO expansion and the attempts, of the United States in particular, to use conflicts in countries like Ukraine to weaken Russia and to make Ukraine an appendage of U.S. imperialism. And this includes rejecting the false idea that working people should support any of the actors in this conflict, politically or militarily. Supporting weapons shipments to Ukraine may seem like the best way to help the Ukrainian people resist Russia’s invasion, but such arguments obscure the real source of the conflict and the real solutions that actually are available to the working people or Russia and Ukraine.

For the United States and NATO, military aid to Zelenskyy’s government has nothing to do with Ukrainian self-determination or protecting civilian lives, and everything to do with advancing U.S. interests in the region. The United States has been seeking to make Ukraine a puppet regime since at least 2014, and the more than $13 billion in aid recently passed by Congress — about half of which is in the form of direct weapons shipments — is effectively a down payment on that purchase. As a form of warfare by other means, this military aid will not help Ukrainians but will instead only strengthen the interests of U.S. imperialism by simultaneously making Ukraine more dependent on U.S. support and weakening Russia as a regional power. As Biden’s most recent speech in Warsaw made plain, this is Washington’s war as much as it is Ukraine’s.

While the eruption of war has been terrible for Ukrainians (and not very good for working-class Russians, either), it has been great for NATO. The war has not only strengthened frayed ties between NATO countries such as Germany and the U.S., but it has also given the organization a renewed legitimacy in the eyes of many Europeans. In fact, several countries that previously rejected NATO membership, including Sweden and Finland, are now warming to the idea of joining.

Further, contrary to the pragmatic hopes of some on the Left, such aid is likely to do very little to end the war in Ukraine’s favor. Flooding the country with advanced U.S. weapons, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, may cause more Russian casualties, but it will not make Russia any more inclined to negotiate a ceasefire. On the contrary, an endless supply of weapons will only lead to a bloody stalemate. That is not in the interest of Ukrainians or working-class Russians — but Western powers will have greater geopolitical influence, while arms manufacturers will see their stocks skyrocket.

Those who support providing weapons to Ukraine would argue that without Western support, Ukrainians would be defenseless. Such arguments, however well-intentioned they may be, play into the idea that the working class has only two options here: either to side with Russia or to side with Ukraine. But this is not the case. We can side with the working people of both Ukraine and Russia while simultaneously rejecting the interests of the U.S., Ukrainian, and Russian states. Of the many possible outcomes, there simply is no “less evil” result that can be achieved by supporting military aid, sanctions, or other forms of Western intervention.

Consider, for instance, what those who support a Ukrainian victory would call a best-case scenario: that is, a swift Russian defeat and retreat that quickly ends the war. First, such an outcome is highly unlikely and even more unlikely to be determined by arms shipments alone. Even if this decidedly unlikely scenario were to happen, it would only embolden the U.S. to further militarize Ukraine as a forward position of U.S. interests in Eastern Europe, leading to further expansion of NATO and more conflict with Russia and surrounding states.

In such a scenario, Ukrainian working people would become increasingly subject to Western control in the form of further IMF and World Bank debt and debt restructuring that would lead to more exploitation of working-class Ukrainians. In other words, there are no good outcomes that can be created by arming the Ukrainian government. The only actual solution to the conflict that is in the interests of working people is one that involves revolutionary action of the working people across the world, a solution that rejects both Russian and U.S. interference in Ukraine.

For Independent Working-Class Action

Of course Ukrainians have a right to resist Russian invasion and to protect their families. Of course Ukrainians have a right to their own sovereignty, free from Russian violence and political interference. (These rights to democratic self-determination also, naturally, must apply to people in Donbas and Crimea.) But as horrible as the war is, there is currently no military solution that is in the true interests of the Ukrainian people or the Ukrainian working class.

Real self-determination is possible only by expelling Russia, NATO, and all imperialists. This can be accomplished only by the working class, cutting across national borders. Workers in Ukraine, Russia, and the imperialist countries need to constitute themselves as an independent political force, fighting for a socialist perspective. As Trotsky said on the eve of the Second World War,

The program of independence for the Ukraine in the epoch of imperialism is directly and indissolubly bound up with the program of the proletarian revolution.

Socialists who support weapons shipments say that they support “self-determination” for Ukraine. But how can there be self-determination in a country ruled by oligarchs, exploited by imperialist capital, and controlled by a reactionary military alliance? Real self-determination will be accomplished only in an independent socialist Ukraine that expropriates the capitalists.

The working class, even if it is currently disorganized, can play a role in this war. Recently, there have been reports of railway workers in Belarus going on strike to sabotage Russian logistics. And airport workers in Italy recently refused to load weapons disguised as humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

On social media, many leftists criticized this workers’ action — “aren’t these workers sabotaging the defense of Ukraine?” they said. But the fact is that the working class has other, and more effective, means to oppose war than supporting the interventions of its “own” governments. Giving more weapons to the right-wing government of Zelenskyy (including the Ukrainian state’s openly fascist units) will do nothing to bring peace. Instead, the working class needs to organize international solidarity, encourage fraternization with the demoralized Russian soldiers, and build strikes to interrupt the war machine.

As socialists, we demand the immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, as well as the immediate withdrawal of U.S forces from Europe and an end to NATO expansionism. Such a perspective includes organizing working people and their organizations in Russia to mobilize with mass strikes and demonstrations against the war and the Bonapartist regime of Vladimir Putin. And it means building a revolutionary political alternative in Ukraine that denounces nationalism, fights the reactionary Ukrainian Right, and rejects both Russian and NATO interference.

Notes[+]

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

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James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

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