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The Imperialist Role of Weapons to Ukraine — a Debate with Workers’ Voice

The question of sending NATO weapons to the Ukrainian government has divided the Left. What position should leftists take on this issue, and what does a perspective for the national independence of Ukraine look like based on the concrete situation?

Sam Carliner

September 1, 2022
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Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk region of the country attend the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment in Kiev on November 15, 2018.
Image: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

As the war in Ukraine continues to affect the international working class, it is essential for socialists in the United States to clarify an anti-imperialist position, one that supports neither the reactionary Russian invasion nor U.S. and NATO imperialism, which is using this war to reimpose itself. Left Voice is debating this issue with a coalition of revolutionary socialist groups and putting forward a working-class, independent policy. The following is a debate with Workers’ Voice, another group in this coalition that holds a contradictory position on the question of NATO’s sending weapons to Ukraine.

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More than six months since the proxy war in Ukraine broke out, the debates on the Left are far from settled. In the context of a complex and devastating scenario, a debate has opened up on how the Left and the working class, particularly in NATO countries, should relate to the war and support the workers most affected by this conflict.

As we’ve elaborated, much of the Left around the world has taken positions that either overtly or implicitly support the interests of NATO, which is using the war to expand and rearm itself, or positions in support of Russia against NATO or Ukraine.

Beyond a simple division between pro-U.S. and pro-Russia camps, positions in favor of sending arms to Ukraine, supposedly as a way to arm the Ukrainian resistance, seemingly propose an independent policy. But they open up larger debates on how to characterize the war and the reality in Ukraine. One example of this is the position taken by the socialist group Workers’ Voice.

The clearest articulation of Workers’ Voice’s stance on weapons to Ukraine can be found in an article they published in May titled “Imperialism’s Role in the Ukraine War.” In it, Erwin Freed and Florence Oppen write, “The U.S. government’s purpose in sending arms and supplies is not to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty but rather to further bring the country under its influence and militarily weaken Russia.” The same article calls on socialists to warn Ukrainians about the real goals of NATO aid and to “not trust their imperialist ‘allies.’” The article also acknowledges that the Left should not support the Zelenskyy regime because it is a capitalist government acting in service of Western imperialism. Freed and Oppen deserve credit for addressing the imperialist intentions of the United States, NATO, and the Zelenskyy regime.

But the paragraph that correctly calls for socialists to warn Ukrainians about NATO’s intentions begins by saying that “socialists should continue supporting the Ukrainian resistance and defend its right to ask and receive U.S. and NATO military aid.”

But what exactly makes a relationship in which Ukraine “asks for and receives” military aid from the United States and NATO different from a relationship in which the United States and NATO provide the Ukrainian government with military aid?

The idea that socialists ought to defend the right for the “Ukrainian resistance” to secure arms is hardly an isolated stance. Several left-wing organizations and publications around the world have expressed similar positions, from Tempest to Unidad Internacional de los Trabajadores — Cuarta Internacional (UIT-CI, International Workers’ Unity — Fourth International) and even Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores — Cuarta Internacional (LIT-CI, International Workers League — Fourth International), the international tendency of Workers’ Voice, which goes as far as arguing that Western imperialist countries are not sending enough weapons to Ukraine.

As recently as July 14, the LIT-CI published an article that argues,

It is a duty of the organizations of the workers’ movement that support the Ukrainian resistance to denounce the deficient shipment of arms by imperialism, to demand more arms for Ukraine, and to denounce the ineffectiveness of the imperialist sanctions, which only go as far as the interests of the imperialist countries. It is fundamental to demand the embargo of oil and gas imports as well as the immediate suspension of their payment.

One of the main justifications groups like Workers’ Voice put forward for their support of arms shipments is that “the use of U.S.-supplied war materiel does not change the character of the war, which is a national liberation war against Russian imperialist aggression.”

As mentioned above, Workers’ Voice characterizes the war in Ukraine as one of “national liberation” against “Russian imperialist” aggression. These are not passive definitions, since they have important implications and offer a starting point for understanding this group’s positions.

Among revolutionary Marxists, the logic behind supporting national liberation movements is that revolutionaries ought to be in the military camp of the oppressed country fighting for its independence (regardless of who initiated the war), be it an oppressed, colonial, or semicolonial country against an imperialist power. The idea is that any victory against an imperialist power would weaken imperialist domination. As Freed and Oppen write, “A victory — even a partial one — in the war against Russia’s invasion would be a major blow to imperialism everywhere. It would show the capacity of subordinated nations to win the struggle against so-called ‘stronger’ powers.”

Looking at the case of Ukraine, whose government is subordinated to U.S. imperialism, a military victory, even a partial one, would not only exacerbate the historical tensions between NATO and Russia, which are currently being played out indirectly in Ukraine, but would also strengthen Western imperialism’s objectives in the region and around the world. Russia’s partial defeats have so far led NATO to expand and imperialist states to massively increase their military spending, strengthening the pro-imperialist sector of the Ukrainian state.

These perspectives condemn NATO’s role in the conflict but characterize it as a secondary factor, without acknowledging the active role of NATO interference in denying Ukrainian self-determination. And this is where our characterization of the historical tensions between NATO and Russia and Russia’s status in the world also becomes important. While there is no doubt that Russia’s offensive in Ukraine is reactionary and horrendous, modern Russia is not imperialist. It’s a country that expresses a profoundly unequal and combined character. On the one hand, it has nuclear weapons and a powerful army, largely inherited from the USSR and built up buy its oil wealth. On the other hand, Russia’s economy is subordinated to Western capital because its productive forces were decimated after capitalist restoration, turning it into a primarily oil-exporting country.

This analysis helps us understand what led to the current conflict. Ukraine is being used as a proxy by the biggest imperialist powers of the West in their confrontation with Russia. Since the fall of the USSR, NATO has launched an aggressive policy to confront Russian influence in eastern Europe through its expansion. This has included NATO imperialism’s interference in the “color revolutions,” like the “orange revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 and its continuation in the Maidan uprising of 2014, seeking to capitalize on revolts against authoritarian regimes to expand its influence.

Thus, to uncover the complex reality of the war’s causes, we have to see Putin’s aggressive and reactionary policy within the framework of NATO’s escalations and provocations. These growing tensions, which can be seen most clearly in Ukraine today, have deeply divided Ukrainians, expressing the anti-Russian and anti-Western sentiment perpetuated by both sides. As a result, Ukraine lacks a progressive movement in the struggle for its independence from both reactionary blocs in action. In the war itself, the struggle for “self-determination” is channeled by nationalist and neo-Nazi currents and their reactionary, externally funded militias on both sides. That doesn’t mean a progressive movement can’t emerge, but it’s important to clarify the reality of the situation when talking about Ukrainian resistance.

Throughout their piece, Freed and Oppen mention the “Ukrainian resistance” without clearly stating what they understand this resistance to be. But a piece published by Oppen on April 2 provides more clarity. Oppen writes, “While we support the right of the Ukrainian government to arm itself, we must state that the Zelenskyy government is a capitalist and pro-NATO government. We want arms to go to working people, to the existing independent workers’ militias, so they can develop their influence in the resistance movement.” As Oppen sees it, NATO sends weapons to the Ukrainian government, which then gives weapons to workers. From there, the Ukrainian working class is armed and has the material support it needs to lead a resistance that fights the Russian invasion and breaks with U.S. and NATO imperialism.

Maybe this is an option if the state really is giving weapons to “existing independent workers’ militias.” The problem here is that there are no existing independent workers’ militias. None of the militias in Ukraine are independent, working-class institutions. This is why the Ukrainian state is comfortable giving weapons to these volunteer forces.

Many of Ukraine’s militias are made up of civilian volunteers, and they are taking up a unique role in fighting Russia’s invasion. These militias have a more localized structure, which enables civilians to defend their communities. But the militias are not an example of class independence or workers’ self-organization. Known formally as the Territorial Defense Forces, these militias are an official branch of the Ukrainian military tied to the interests of the Ukrainian state and its Western imperialist backers.

The influence of the Ukrainian state leaves no room for workers within the militias to put forward their own strategy of resistance. To receive weapons, civilians must undergo a background check from Ukrainian police. In May, Zelenskyy replaced the head of the Territorial Defense Forces without giving a clear reason. Whatever the reason, the move shows that the Ukrainian state decides who is in control of the militias. It is not up to volunteer workers. Since the war began, there has been no independent resistance of the Ukrainian working class to the Russian invasion, and Zelenskyy’s attacks on left-wing political organizations and workers unions has only further subordinated the Ukrainian war effort to the Ukrainian state.

For an Independent Working-Class Resistance to the War

In this context, only the unity of the Ukrainian working class, against the divisions promoted by oligarchies aligned to both sides of the struggle over Ukrainian influence, can both defeat Putin’s invasion. And only a unified working class can chart an independent path to ending the back-and-forth trajectory that has defined Ukrainian politics and subordinated the country to either Russia or NATO. In other words, an independent Ukraine is incomprehensible outside of the struggle of the independent working class to reject all foreign intervention, break the chains of dependence, and establish an independent, socialist, workers’ Ukraine.

As the war continues, it remains possible that an independent working-class resistance can develop. The international Left should encourage such a development and encourage the self-organization of workers in whatever processes of struggle that may arise. Here and now, we can promote solidarity with Ukrainian and Russian workers alike, who are both bearing the brunt of NATO and Russian militarism. We can do so by also putting forward the question of Ukraine among the processes that are developing here in the United Ststes, such as the incipient struggle for grassroots unionism, which is challenging the traditional U.S. labor movement and its chauvinist tendencies.

At the same time, we can support the development of independent working-class action around the world. Workers in western European countries and in countries allied with Russia have used the tactic of blocking weapons shipments to Ukraine. Italian airport workers blocked NATO weapons shipments to Ukraine, Greek railroad workers blocked U.S. tanks to Ukraine, and Belarusian rail workers sabotaged Russian supply lines. All these workers understand that the weapons being sent into Ukraine are being sent by capitalists for capitalist interests.

In particular, the role of solidarity from workers in NATO countries is key, but that means understanding that the role U.S. and NATO weapons shipments are playing in this war actually undermines Ukrainian independence, subordinating the war effort to U.S. and NATO control. We must also clarify that the Ukrainian state is not fighting for national independence if it is not opposing the influence of U.S. and NATO imperialism. And we must clarify that Ukrainian militias are not fighting for independence while acting in service of the Ukrainian state’s war effort.

Ukrainian and Russian workers alike are suffering from this proxy war. Workers of all countries must unite against our real enemies, the capitalist powers that always pit us against one another in their wars. No more weapons to Ukraine! No NATO imperialism and rearmament! Russian troops out of Ukraine! U.S. troops out of Europe!

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Sam Carliner

Sam Carliner is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about US imperialism. He also tweets about imperialism as @saminthecan.

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