The Challenge of an Independent Anti-Imperialist Policy in Ukraine: A Response to Achcar and Kouvélakis

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked considerable discussion about what a consistent anti-imperialist policy should look like today. It is a debate of tremendous importance.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has provoked considerable discussion about what constitutes a consistent policy of anti-imperialism today. Deep differences have been revealed in an exchange between Stathis Kouvélakis and Gilbert Achcar for the journal Contretemps. 1Translator’s note: Stathis Kouvélakis is a socialist philosopher, reader in political theory at King’s College, London, and a frequent contributor to Jacobin. He was the main theoretician of the Greek left party SYRIZA. Gilbert Achcar is a socialist, professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the University of London, fellow at the International Institute for Research and Education, and also a frequent contributor to Jacobin. He is associated with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. A debate on anti-imperialism is particularly important; this is our contribution to that debate.

The texts of Achcar and Kouvélakis reflect some of the current disagreements within the French Left and Far Left concerning the war in Ukraine.2In France, the vast majority of the Left has correctly denounced the Russian invasion. But the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), for instance, is divided between a “nuanced” defense of sanctions, neutrality on sanctions (which is Achcar’s position), and outright opposition to all sanctions. The Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière (LO) also opposes all sanctions. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, a social-democratic party, opposes sanctions “against the Russian people” but defends sanctions against the oligarchs and the Putin regime. The same sorts of divisions exist when it comes to providing the Zelenskyy government with military aid. Mélenchon completely rejects that, as does LO and part of the NPA, but Achcar and the rest of the NPA support such aid. Mélenchon, like the CGT trade union confederation, also calls on the United Nations to propose a diplomatic solution to the war. If in their richness these texts offer deep insights into the situation and the questions it raises, at the same time they are — as we see it — missing a perspective of independent politics for the working class and the oppressed, which is the only perspective that can open a path to real self-determination for the Ukrainian people. Instead, the debate seems to be stuck in a logic of “lesser-evilism.” We propose a way out of that impasse.

The Nature of the War in Ukraine

One of the central concerns both authors address is the nature of the war itself. Both authors condemn the Russian aggression. Achcar calls it an “imperialist war of invasion” and Ukraine’s response a “just war,” while Kouvélakis insists on the war’s “inter-imperialist character” as part of the more general conflict between Russia and NATO, and despite the absence of direct confrontation between powers. Countering Achcar, he insists that the unification of the Western imperialist camp behind Ukraine embeds the war “in the inter-imperialist contradictions between the West and Russia.”

In fact, the Russian offensive has had the effect of closing NATO’s ranks around the Zelenskyy government, which French president Emmanuel Macron described last December as “brain dead.” Troops have been sent to NATO countries that border Ukraine and Russia, the European Union has released 450 million euros to provide military assistance to Ukraine, and U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken announced a $10 billion U.S. aid plan. Even though this intervention is indirect because of the real risks of escalating the war to a global conflict,3For the past two weeks, NATO’s military aid has been accompanied by sanctions that have reached a crescendo. The reserves of the Russian central bank have been frozen; the airspace over many countries has been closed to Russian airlines; some Russian banks have been withdrawn from SWIFT, the international payment system; many Western companies have halted all activity in Russia, including Visa and Mastercard; and the United States and the United Kingdom have decided to implement an embargo on Russian oil and gas. Quite quickly, these sanctions precipitated a fall in the value of the ruble and very high inflation. this situation is fundamentally different than the imperialist invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Moreover, as Kouvélakis notes, the war is inseparable from the policy NATO has pursued for the past four decades. After the fall of the USSR, the “NATO perimeter” has been moving ever closer to Russia. Once an anti-Soviet alliance, NATO has clearly become an anti-Russian alliance. The revanchism and bellicose irredentism of Putin and his regime can only be understood as the reactionary products of the post-Cold War world, entirely dominated by Western imperialism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The March editorial of Monthly Review correctly recalls the origins of this policy aimed at “precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor,” as well as the role of Ukraine as a “geopolitical pivot” in this reconfiguration of U.S. grand strategy.

If Kouvélakis’s argument aims to highlight the internationalization of the war in Ukraine and NATO’s role, it is still insufficient to define the war as a simple “inter-imperialist conflict” and even less so to call it an “undeclared imperialist world war,” as others have claimed.4Translator’s note: For further rebuttal of the perspective of Jorge Altamira in the linked article, see Matías Maiello, “Debates on the War in Ukraine,” Left Voice, March 10, 2022. In this respect, Achcar is correct to point out that an inter-imperialist war is “a direct war, not a proxy war,” but he is mistaken in refusing to see the undeniable international dimension of the war in Ukraine. To account for the complexity of the war in Ukraine, we think it is necessary to analyze it as a specific type of reactionary war of national oppression, characterized by an alignment of most imperialist powers behind the oppressed nation. It is a different scenario than what we saw in the Falklands War in 1982, in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, an in Afghanistan in 2001, to mention only some examples.

This specific characteristic distinguishes the war in Ukraine from “just wars,” as Lenin defined anti-colonial and anti-imperialist wars in which revolutionaries consider the military victory of the oppressed nation as progressive. If there is a just resistance to the Russian invasion and for the self-determination of the Ukrainian people, it has at present been “captured” by Western imperialism. Therefore, defining a revolutionary policy against Russian aggression requires calling for complete independence from NATO.

Before we return to this issue, let’s explore some of the differences in how the Russian aggressor is being characterized.

On Russian Power

Achcar’s minimization of NATO’s role, the political consequences of which we shall see, is explained in part by an overestimation of Russia’s potential role and the nature of its offensive. If Russia is indeed the aggressor, Achcar considers that Putin is waging an “imperialist war of invasion” and that a “successful Russian takeover of Ukraine would encourage the United States to resume its path of world conquest by force in a context of exacerbation of the new colonial division of the world and the tightening of global antagonisms.” With such logic, one could deduce that Russia is waging a form of struggle for world hegemony against the United States, with the domination and seizure of part of Ukraine’s territory as the first step.

This observation is linked to the idea, shared with Kouvélakis despite important differences in nuance, that Russia is an imperialist power. Yet if certain characteristics of the Russian state create the “illusion of a superpower,” they mask the fact that Russia is actually subordinated to a typical case of “uneven and combined development.” It has inherited from the Soviet Union and the Cold War a huge nuclear arsenal and dominant positions in several international institutions. Putin has also restored and strengthened state power after the debacle of the Yeltsin years, while consolidating and deepening Yeltsin’s pro-capitalist efforts.

Nevertheless, the Russian economy is based almost exclusively on the export of raw materials (especially oil and gas, metals, and agricultural products) and is still highly dependent on Western technology and finance. Russia’s capacity for international influence remains largely limited to the former borders of the USSR, despite partial successes in the Middle East and Africa. In sum, Russia is becoming more of a regional power, with genuine international influence remaining limited.

In this framework, the war of oppression waged by Russia in Ukraine aims first at regaining, by force, the influence it lost in the country in 2014. This is something Russia has not been able to reverse after more than eight years, despite a tactical victory in Syria — which Putin hoped he would be able to use in an eventual negotiation over Ukraine with the Western imperialists (especially the United States). Ukraine is, indeed, fundamental to Russian strategic defense interests, which are essentially based on the oppression of the various states that emerged from the former Soviet Union. To point this out, though, is not to align with Putin’s ultra-reactionary regime, and even less to absolve him of the Russian army’s atrocities in Ukraine, which include the bombing of civilian populations. It is an observation that allows for underlining the contradictions of Russia and its invasion, as have been noted by many international analysts, such as Patrick Cockburn.

In a context marked by cracks within NATO, increased U.S. hostility after its debacle in Afghanistan, a new U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific region, and also Kyiv’s rapprochement with the Western powers, Putin’s strategists no doubt determined that the time had come to act before the window of opportunity closed. Russia first sought to pressure Biden into negotiating, with Macron certainly playing the role of intermediary. But U.S. refusal to cede even the slightest geopolitical advantage that had been gained through NATO’s expansion to the East — notably in Romania and Bulgaria, from which Putin demanded the withdrawal of NATO troops — led Putin to take a dangerous gamble.

Russia’s military intervention does not mask its weak position vis-à-vis the Western imperialists, as evidenced by its difficulties achieving its objectives in Ukraine. Russia is in a more than delicate situation because it seems to lack the financial, military, and — above all — political means to occupy, let alone annex, Ukraine. The Russian army invaded Ukraine militarily, but as a police operation aimed at extracting concessions quickly in order to avoid a costly occupation. If Russia does not achieve its objectives in the next few days, the invasion will require more and more forces and could lead to a real stalemate, as well as to an ever more deadly escalation for the Ukrainian people.

Generally speaking, Putin’s reactionary regime, which is not only anti-democratic and repressive but also deeply pro-capitalist and oligarchic, has nothing to offer the Ukrainian workers and masses. This also explains why a large part of the Ukrainian population looks with hope at the promises of prosperity made by the Western imperialists. This division has existed for years, as we saw in 2004 and again in 2014, during movements whose backdrop was conflict involving anti-Russian nationalism and the interests of the “orange” faction of the Ukrainian oligarchy, linked to the West rather than to Russia. The latter has offered nothing more to Ukrainians than its pro-Russian counterparts, which again underlines the need for a policy independent of NATO.

The Need for an Independent Policy

Kouvélakis highlights not only NATO’s reactionary role globally, but also the risk of military escalation and world war in the short term that would be implied by greater NATO intervention in the conflict — especially the “no-fly zone” demanded by Zelenskyy. In this sense, he explains why it is impossible to support the various forms of intervention by Western imperialism.

Achcar takes offense that even the slightest complacency with respect to NATO is being imputed to him, insisting his “hostility to NATO” is self-evident. His proposed orientation can nonetheless lead to confusion. He writes that a Russian victory in Ukraine would contribute to a “deterioration of the world situation towards the unrestrained law of the jungle.” For him, consequently, defeating Russia is the top priority for anti-imperialists, so much so that they should defend NATO and the EU sending “defensive” weapons to Ukraine. He also advocates neutrality regarding sanctions against Russia, even though the working classes of Russia and the world are the main victims of these sanctions — which do nothing to slow the Russian military offensive and only exacerbate tensions against the Russian populations in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world by fanning a scandalous Russophobia that places the blame for the crimes of Putin and his oligarchic caste on all people of Russian origin.

In clarifying his position, Achcar goes even further. Criticized by Kouvélakis for overlooking the negative global impact of Ukraine’s subservience to the transatlantic bloc, he replies that it would be preferable to subjugation by Russia: “If Ukraine managed to throw off the Russian yoke, it would be vassalized, argues Kouvélakis — more than likely in fact. But what he fails to mention is that if it did not succeed, it would be under Russian bondage. And you don’t need to be a medievalist to know that being a vassal is incomparably preferable to being a serf!”

Achcar thus openly assumes a policy of “lesser evilism” that leads him to side with NATO “vassalization” against Russian “bondage.” Of course, an authoritarian puppet state in Ukraine is a deeply reactionary prospect for the Ukrainian people, as is the ongoing invasion. As Trotsky wrote after the German conquest of France in 1940, there is no doubt that “of all the forms of dictatorship, the totalitarian dictatorship of a foreign conqueror is the most intolerable.” This is even more true in the case of Ukraine, which is not an imperialist power like France was in 1940, but a nation historically oppressed by Great Russian nationalism. However, this can in no way lead us to position ourselves on the side of the NATO vassalization of Ukraine. This logic of the “lesser evil” tends to embellish the semi-colonial status of Ukraine, which is bound to deepen in the case of a victory under the aegis of NATO, and is based on an erroneous appreciation of international dynamics and on skepticism regarding the possibility of an independent outcome in Ukraine.

For Ukraine, the consequences of greater imperialist domination by the West would be catastrophic. The country is already one of Europe’s poorest, with an entire slice of its population having left since the 1990s to escape poverty and, since 2014, war. After the 2014 crisis, the country received several billions of dollars in loans from the World Bank ($8.4 billion), the IMF ($17 billion), and the European Commission ($13 billion), bringing the country’s debt to 78 percent of GDP. Regardless of the war, Ukraine is expected to repay $14 billion this year. But it’s not just about repayment; the money was lent under economic, political, and social conditions and constraints that reinforce the country’s submission to Western capital, including neoliberal reforms in the agricultural and energy sectors, in the labor market, and with respect to unemployment insurance, along with privatizations.

A NATO victory would not end tensions with Russia; the situation would only worsen. For revolutionaries, therefore, the slogan of self-determination for the Ukrainian people implies rejecting not only the Russian invasion and its will to subjugate Ukraine, but also a perspective under which Ukraine would not even be a formally independent country but instead would become a sort of protectorate of Western imperialism. The “independence” of Ukraine after 1991 was a temporary exception. It was made possible by the “imperial vacuum” left by the collapse of the USSR at a time when imperialist expansion to the East, the first step of which was German reunification under the imperialist leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was only in its infancy. 

Today, Ukraine finds itself once again, as it has been throughout its history, the object of conflict between the Western powers and Russia. This situation leads to the oppression of the Ukrainian people. But the Ukrainian working class and the oppressed do not have to choose between one of two oppressors — instead, they must develop an independent policy.

Achcar seems convinced that a NATO victory would play a peacemaking role in the international situation when he notes: “A Russian victory would greatly strengthen warmongering and the push for increased military spending in NATO countries, while a Russian defeat would provide much better conditions for waging our battle for general disarmament and the dissolution of NATO.” This assertion, already partially belied by the historical rearmament underway in Germany, is based on a false analogy to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, to which Kouvélakis correctly responds. 

Contrary to Achcar’s assertion, a Russian defeat would strengthen Western imperialism’s interventionist ambitions in a situation of global crisis, marked by the sharpening of tensions. Far from being a “strong deterrent on all world and regional powers,” as Achcar claims, it could establish the vassalization of Russia by the Western bloc. Such an outcome would offer respite to the neoliberal restoration, moribund since 2008, while isolating China. This could lead the Asian giant to seek an accommodation with imperialism, so as not to suffer the same fate as Russia; or conversely, it could exacerbate a disposition toward confrontation, including armed confrontation, on the part of the Chinese Communist Party’s capitalist bureaucracy. It is difficult to see any “deterrent” effect here.

For an Independent Anti-War Policy

Rejecting all NATO interference in Ukraine does not mean setting aside the Ukrainian national question and the legitimate resistance of Ukrainians to the Russian invasion. On the contrary, it means affirming that the struggle against Russia’s oppression cannot be carried out under the aegis of NATO, which, as an imperialist alliance, has never allowed any people to achieve true independence.5The example of Kosovo is quite revealing in this respect: today, it is not a truly independent state, but a country that has been entirely subjugated to NATO since the 1999 military intervention. In this sense, the emancipation of the Ukrainian people is inseparable from the perspective of socialist revolution and, consequently, under the difficult conditions of the current war, from an independent policy that advances toward the only progressive outcome: an independent working-class and socialist Ukraine. However, this issue is absent from the article by Kouvélakis, despite its many fair criticisms of NATO’s role.

This limitation in the ability to formulate an independent policy in Ukraine is reflected in the perspectives offered internationally. Kouvélakis defends “an anti-imperialism and internationalism of the oppressed,” which should take “the form of a broader mobilization for peace, for the democratic sovereignty of peoples, and for a break with the logic of blocs, military alliances, and “‘areas of influence.’” He then adds that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Jeremy Corbyn and the Stop the War coalition, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), as well as “progressive sectors of the Catholic and Protestant churches and other forces” would all adhere to this line.

We share a priori the idea of an anti-imperialism and internationalism of the workers and oppressed, but we must make clear that this is not really what Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Jeremy Corbyn, or DSA propose. While delimiting themselves from NATO — which leads them to be accused of being “pro-Putin” by warmongers such as Jadot of EELV and Hidalgo of PS in France6Translator’s note: Yannick Jadot is the leader of the Greens in France. Anne Hidalgo is the mayor of Paris and a member of the Socialist Party. and the Labour Party leadership in Britain — they all advocate a diplomatic solution to the conflict. In the French National Assembly, Mélenchon championed “a truly anti-globalist diplomacy.” He also calls for sending a UN intervention force to Ukraine to secure the nuclear power plants. Jeremy Corbyn calls for a return to the Budapest and Minsk agreements and says that Russia and Ukraine must “cut out the fighting zone and go straight into the talking zone” and “start talking” — which is already partly the case, since the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers already met in Antalya, Turkey, on Thursday, March 10, without agreeing on a ceasefire. DSA also calls for diplomacy and de-escalation to resolve the crisis.

But aren’t these calls for diplomacy and de-escalation just wishful thinking, as long as there is no political force capable of bringing about an end to the logic of blocs and a lasting solution to the war and the Ukrainian crisis? Since agreements and treaties are only the expression of a balance of power at the military and political level, diplomacy alone cannot bring about a progressive outcome to the war. If this war shows one thing, it is that diplomacy has not made it possible to resolve the Ukrainian question, as the Minsk agreements never offered a real answer to the question of Ukraine’s status.

Diplomacy can only lead to ratifying a de facto situation or freezing a conflict, while in no way ruling out future, even more violent confrontations. Historically, diplomatic solutions have been systematically detrimental to oppressed peoples. Any mediation by the UN, as Mélenchon and the CGT call for, is also illusory and utopian. The UN is an institution inherited from the Cold War and has never, on its own, resolved any conflict or put a halt to any case of national oppression, as the Palestinians can testify. The presence of Blue Helmets can also prove problematic, as in the wars in Yugoslavia and the Central African Republic.

If diplomacy and the UN do not represent a credible alternative to the logic of blocs, only a workers’ and people’s alternative is capable of breaking with this logic. The organizations of the workers’ movement may be weak and divided, but the working class and the youth still have enormous potential strength throughout the world. In Ukraine, as we have pointed out, an independent working-class policy is essential to create a framework for the self-determination of the Ukrainian people. It would also make it possible to formulate demands distinct from those of Zelenskyy, to unify the different peoples of Ukraine, defending real self-determination for the Donbas and the eastern regions of Ukraine that wish it. This is central to countering Putin’s chauvinist and Great Russian propaganda. An independent policy would also be the condition for an alliance of the Ukrainian masses with the Russian workers and the oppressed, a strategic ally to defeat Putin.

Anti-war protests continue in Russia despite the ultra-repressive regime. That is why Putin has issued a decree ordering up to 15 years in prison for opponents of his war. It is also why he has imposed a social media blackout. Authoritarian, violent power against a population is power that struggles to ensure its hegemony by other means, and the contradictions within the Russian regime are very important. Only a small group of advisors around Putin was aware that a real war was being prepared. The workers and the Russian people have a decisive role to play in overthrowing the Putin regime. They must be defended against the policies of Zelenskyy and NATO, which make all Russians responsible for the war and prevent the fraternization that would hasten the resolution of this reactionary war.

The turmoil that the invasion of Ukraine, including atrocities and bombings of civilians, has provoked around the world, shows that the response to this war is anything but indifference. Many people want to do something to help the Ukrainians, and many fear the prospect of world war or nuclear catastrophe, as evidenced by the demonstrations that have taken place across Europe against the Russian invasion . These protests, motivated by indignation against the war, are for now notably the work of the so-called middle classes, and do not for the most part express an anti-imperialist perspective. Their leaderships are sometimes openly pro-NATO, notably in France.

However, the seeds of an independent orientation exist in various countries, including Germany, Italy, and Great Britain, where the slogan “Neither Putin nor NATO” has been put forward in a number of demonstrations. The working classes and the labor movement joining these mobilizations against the war could give rise to alternative slogans. 

After two years of a particularly poorly managed pandemic, which is still not over, there is widespread discontent. The war and the sanctions are also causing an increase in the cost of living at a time when wages are low. This fear has led Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice chancellor and economics minister, to warn that an embargo on Russian gas, oil, and coal would endanger “social peace” in Germany. It is a fear widely shared in the European ruling class, beginning with France, where concerns over the return of a movement like the Yellow Vests are strong in a context of rising gasoline and energy prices.

By linking the issue of the cost of living to the demand that Russian troops leave Ukraine, while also opposing all NATO interference and sanctions, a mobilization against war and rearmament could give rise to a real working-class and people’s dynamic, not only in France but also globally. This would be the best proof of solidarity to bring to our class brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Russia. The slogans and possible actions for peace, for the full independence of Ukraine, the cancellation of its debt, and against the high cost of living, are easily generalized and intrinsically internationalist. They can be applied even in Russia, where a victorious strike has already taken place at the Gemont factory in Tatarstan, mainly carried out by Turkish workers demanding wage increases to cope with the fall of the ruble’s value as a result of economic sanctions.

The main obstacle to a progressive alternative to this reactionary war, however, is belief in the imperialist countries’ rhetoric about their support for Ukraine’s “democracy” and “freedom,” which seems to have become the conventional wisdom. By not opposing NATO’s policy in Ukraine head-on and considering it a lesser evil at a time when it is strengthening its warlike features, Achcar’s approach is not helping independent forces develop in Ukraine, Russia, Western Europe, or the United States.

Indeed, the debates over the war in Ukraine raise the question of what politics we need for the convulsive period ahead. With important differences in nuance, Achcar and Kouvélakis see the current period through the prism of a “new Cold War,” a definition we do not share.7While we do see the constitution of two antagonistic blocs in this war, we believe it is erroneous to think that we are witnessing a new Cold War, a term that Achcar and Kouvélakis both use, but not in exactly the same way. While there remains a nuclear threat, today’s world is no longer bipolar, as it was during the Cold War; instead, it is entirely dominated by Western imperialism. Russia, China, India, and most of humanity are still in a subordinate position to Western imperialism. The USSR and China before Deng were much less dominated by imperialism than Russia and China are today. Moreover, during the Cold War and until the IMF’s structural adjustment plans in the 1980s, many of the so-called Third World countries had partially state-run and planned economies, which created barriers to the penetration and omnipotence of transnational capital. They are now fully integrated economies, open to the four winds, in what is called globalization. The situation of dependence of the so-called “emerging countries” such as Russia, China, and India also explains, to a large extent, why they are dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. This is why today there is, even more notably than ever, little real basis for campism: Russia and China do not embody anything even remotely progressive. Nevertheless, we can agree with them that the war in Ukraine is increasing the tendency toward conflict at the global level. If the response to the Ukrainian situation constitutes a decisive test for the entire period to come, the position formulated by Achcar seems to us to lead to a dangerous alignment behind NATO, while that of Kouvélakis is limited by his underestimation of the role that could be played by the workers and oppressed on the political scene. From our perspective, the workers and the oppressed are the ones who must play a central role in “waging war on war” in the eruptive period now beginning.

First published in French on March 19 in Contretemps and Révolution Permanente.

Translation by Scott Cooper


Juan is an editor of our French sister site Révolution Permanente.
Philippe is an editor of Révolution Permanente, our sister site in France.