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Understanding the Global Context of the Ukrainian Conflict: A Response to Our Critics

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the massive rearmament of Europe that followed mark a new stage in a growing conflict that has become a proxy war between the imperialist states of the US and NATO on one side, and an emerging alliance between Russia and China on the other. While some on the Left see this new pole of Russia and China as a check against US imperialism, neither country is anti-imperialist, and neither has anything progressive to offer working people.

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Image: Washington Post

One year after Russia’s disastrous invasion, the war in Ukraine remains a subject of intense debate on the Left. With rare exceptions, the arguments put forward in these conversations inevitably lead toward one of two positions: either support for the NATO-backed Zelenskyy government or defense of the reactionary Russian invasion. Left Voice and our sister organizations in the Trotskyist Fraction (FT) have from the start rejected this false choice. We have made it clear since even before the 2022 Russian offensive, that there are no progressive sides to the conflict in Ukraine, and that the only solution is through the revolutionary action of the working classes of all the states involved — including Russia, Ukraine, and of course, the United States and its NATO allies in Europe. 

As revolutionary socialists organizing within the heart of global imperialism, Left Voice recognizes that our program has to start by denouncing the bloody role that the United States and its NATO allies have played in the Ukrainian conflict. To this end, we have consistently opposed U.S. and NATO sanctions against Russia and arms shipments to Ukraine, and continue to support the use of working-class methods of struggle to end or block the shipment of U.S. and NATO weapons to the Zelenskyy government. The reactionary Russian invasion in 2022 has been a disaster for the working people of Ukraine and Russia alike, and we therefore also continue to call for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, and urge our working class siblings in both countries to turn their weapons against their own bourgeoisie. 

But this war is bigger than just Russia and Ukraine and it is impossible to fully understand the implications of the war without looking at the totality of the situation. The 2022 invasion and the massive rearmament of Europe that followed have marked a new stage in a growing conflict that has become a proxy war between the imperialist states of the U.S. and NATO on one side, and an emerging alliance between Russia and China on the other. While some on the Left see this new pole of Russia and China as a check against U.S. imperialism, neither country is anti-imperialist, and neither has anything progressive to offer working people and the oppressed. A military victory for either side would have disastrous consequences for the working class in the countries involved in the war, including Ukraine.

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In the spirit of open and comradely discussion, we recently published a series of articles in debate with our position on the conflict. Among those was a recent polemic by Rob Lyons and Scott Cooper that, among other points, strongly criticizes our position on the war. Lyons and Cooper argue that our position, particularly around the reactionary nature of the Russian invasion, is theoretically and historically confused. According to the authors (who astoundingly engage with only one line of one article by Left Voice), our description of the Russian invasion of Ukraine endorses the imperialist discourse of the United States and NATO and contributes to the undoubtedly anti-Russian chauvinism of much of the U.S. populace, and that this is part of the failure of the majority of the U.S. Left to oppose NATO and to build an anti-war movement. In their article, they take specific issue with our characterization of the beginning of the current war:

The unsigned Left Voice article referenced above opens with: “It’s been nearly one year since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, starting a war that has brought death and destruction and displaced millions.” This is wrong as history, as theory, and as revolutionary politics practiced within the leading imperialist power of the world. And by attributing its “start” to Putin, it lends credence to the talking point of Western imperialism: that the war in Ukraine is “Putin’s war.”

In our view, the authors are forcing a polemic based on a single sentence without engaging with any of the actual analysis, politics, and program that the Trotskyist Fraction and Left Voice have been putting forward since the war began. This would hardly be worth refuting, since anyone can look for themselves at the dozens of articles that have been published in Left Voice on the war since the Russian invasion. Unfortunately, this is the least of the problems with the argument. More disconcerting is the fact that the article as a whole obscures one of the crucial aspects of the current war by downplaying Russia’s agenda, politics, and objectives in invading Ukraine, and by lacking a class analysis of Russia’s role in the contemporary world order. This failure to fully understand the totality of the situation of the war in its global context ultimately leads Lyons and Cooper to a campist position toward Russia, a nationalist position toward the Russian-fueled war in the Donbas, and a decidedly confused application of Lenin’s theory of revolutionary defeatism that necessitates a thorough response.

Neither NATO Nor Putin

Among the majority of the U.S. Left there are effectively two conflicting positions on the war. On the one hand, there are groups such as the Tempest collective, which have capitulated to NATO interests and argue that the war in Ukraine is a war of national liberation against what they mistakenly characterize as Russian imperialism. This tendency argues that it is necessary for socialists to support US-led NATO interventions and, in the most extreme cases, to demand even more weapons and funding for the Ukrainian army from the countries that are part of the alliance. In this way, they are calling for the triumph of the pro-NATO Zelenskyy government. 

On the other hand, groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and to some extent, the International Committee of the DSA, see Russia’s invasion as a largely defensive action, often ignoring or downplaying the country’s obvious strategic and economic interests in Ukraine. The most extreme positions in this camp, such as that of the Internationalist Group, believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents a sort of anti-imperialist resistance to the designs of NATO and U.S. imperialism and call for working people to, as one article puts it, “Defend Russia and China Against War-Crazed U.S. Rulers.” This sector tends to focus exclusively on NATO’s warlike and expansionist policy, without regard to Russia’s disastrous role in the larger global conflict that is unfolding. 

While Lyons and Cooper claim at the end of their polemic that there is no progressive side in the war, their analysis of the “causes” of the current invasion, and their inaccurate depiction of the larger Russo-Ukrainian conflict, end up downplaying Russia’s agenda, politics, and interests, and hence misunderstand the character of the war. This deep confusion about the nature of the Putin regime and its relationship to Ukraine also invariably lends credence and support to the arguments of those in the pro-Russian camp who see the Russian invasion, and the pro-Russian separatist movements in the Donbas, as somehow a challenge to global imperialism. 

Indeed, reading the article it would appear that the authors believe the current war has little to do with Russian aggression, but is, simply put, an inevitable product of “U.S. imperialism’s ongoing war against Russia.” Employing a decidedly mechanical application of historical materialism, they trace the conflict between the United States and Russia all the way back to the U.S. purchase of Alaska and the U.S. intervention in the Russian Civil War, and only later discuss the period of NATO expansion directly following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the capitalist restoration of the former Soviet Republics. For Lyons and Cooper — who make no distinctions between the Russia of the Tsarist regime or the former Soviet Union, and the capitalist Russia of today — it is historic U.S. Russophobia and NATO’s ongoing expansion that are the exclusive drivers of the current war, while Putin’s reactionary invasion last year is treated as little more than an anecdote. 

A Proxy War Amidst Imperialist Decay

The problem with the article is not only what they argue, however, but also what they leave out. Ignoring Trotsky and Lenin’s method of understanding war, they completely omit that the current conflict in Ukraine is taking place in the context of 1) the crisis of neoliberalism and globalization and the historical decline of U.S. hegemony and 2) the growing confrontation between the United States and China as an emerging capitalist power that is challenging the world order that prevailed during the decades of neoliberalism. Even if the article goes backwards in an attempt to periodize the relationship between Russia and the United States since 1867, it remains a rather ahistorical argument that does not take into account the specificities of the context in which the Ukrainian tragedy is currently unfolding. 

In other words, the analytical method of the article is flawed from the beginning, since it fails to take into account the totality of the situation, without which reaching any correct conclusions about how the working class should respond is impossible. In contrast, our analysis and the analysis of the FT are guided by the dialectical methods of Lenin and Trotsky. One such example of this method can be seen in Trotsky’s analysis of the invasion of Czechoslovakia during the prelude to the Second World War in 1938: 

During the critical year in September, we have been told, voices were heard even at the left flank of socialism maintaining that in case of “single combat” between Czechoslovakia and Germany, the proletariat should help Czechoslovakia and save its “national independence” even in alliance with Benes. This hypothetical case did not occur – the heroes of Czechoslovakian independence, as was to be expected, capitulated without a struggle. Even irrespective of its international ties Czechoslovakia constitutes a thoroughly imperialist state. Economically, monopoly capitalism reigns there. Politically, the Czech bourgeoisie dominates (perhaps soon we will have to say, dominated!) several oppressed nationalities. Such a war, even on the part of isolated Czechoslovakia would thus have been carried on not for national independence but for the maintenance and if possible the extension of the borders of imperialist exploitation. It is impermissible to consider a war between Czechoslovakia and Germany, even if other imperialist states were not immediately involved, outside of that entanglement of European and world imperialist relations from which the war might have broken out as an episode. A month or two later the Czech-German war – if the Czech bourgeoisie could fight and wanted to fight – would almost inevitably have involved other states. It would therefore be the greatest mistake for a Marxist to define his position on the basis of temporary conjunctural diplomatic and military groupings, rather than on the basis of the general character of the social forces standing behind the war. We have repeated hundreds of times the priceless thesis of Clausewitz that war is but the continuation of politics by other means. These politics from the very first day of the creation of Czechoslovakia had an imperialist character.

The conflict described by Trotsky here is, of course, not the same as that between Russia and Ukraine. What matters, however, is his method. Only by looking at the totality of the conflict — the “entanglement of European and world imperialist relations” — and the class nature of the various hypothetical combatants is he able to arrive at a clear understanding of the invasion of Czechoslovakia and its relation to the broader struggle of working-class revolution. Applying this same method to the current war in Ukraine is crucial if we wish to fully understand the situation and avoid the mistake of rushing to directly or implicitly endorse either side in this proxy war.

While we agree with Lyons and Cooper that the war in Ukraine did not develop out of thin air, and that Putin’s invasion was quite obviously not the beginning of the conflict (an argument they attribute to us by a willful misreading of one line in one article), we strongly disagree that the war is merely the mechanical continuation of previous hostilities between the United States and Russia. In contrast, we understand that the Russian invasion of Ukraine marked a qualitative shift in the conflict. And this shift has been determined as much by the world historic situation of economic crisis, the decline of U.S. imperial hegemony, Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture as a regional power, and the rise of other global economic and military powers like China, as it has by the ongoing conflict with Russia over NATO expansion, which is merely one part of a much more complicated story. As Claudia Cinatti explains: 

In short, the international dimension of the war is central…[and] the involvement of the great traditional imperialist powers and emerging powers — with the United States and NATO on one side and China and Russia and their various allies on the other — in the conflict shows the potential outlines of future confrontations in the global dispute for hegemony. 

Within this context, the Ukrainian war is best understood not as an inter-imperialist war, or simply a war of NATO aggression, but as a proxy war between competing capitalist alliances, in a period of economic crisis and imperialist decay. 

During the years of the neoliberal boom after the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism managed to maintain its military hegemony through a series of local conflicts disguised as “humanitarian interventions” or “wars against terrorism.” But the crisis of neoliberalism and the decline of U.S. hegemony that followed has brought war to a new scale. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, driven by the interests of an entrenched oligarchy which has picked clean the bones of the former workers’ state, marks the beginning of a new type of war, concomitant with the global crisis in which we find ourselves. This is the first military challenge to the U.S.-led multilateral global order of neoliberalism. In this context, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not secondary but an event that poses a qualitative change in the current geopolitical tensions. 

By challenging NATO’s post-war borders, Russia has precipitated a military crisis whose scope is still difficult to predict. Most importantly, behind Russia, a new emerging power, China, with strong imperialist features — evidenced by its increasing influence in Africa and Latin America — is challenging U.S. economic and military hegemony, raising the specter of greater confrontation in the future. While Russia sees the war and its increasingly close relationship with China as an opportunity to reestablish itself as a global power, the U.S. and NATO see the conflict as a way of strengthening their hand against China and weakening Russia. The various gradients of the “campist” Left, including the soft campism evident in Lyons and Cooper’s article, objectively lead to the recreation of the idea that China and Russia would represent a “progressive” multipolar order. They are blind to the fact that however much the Russia-China alliance challenges U.S. hegemony, it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, challenge the imperialist system. 

Based on this characterization, for us the current war has a reactionary character, and there is no progressive camp. Therefore the international Left cannot align itself either with the United States and NATO nor with Russia or China as if they represented the lesser evil.

Politics by Other Means 

As Matias Maiello argues, understanding the nature of the current war involves understanding the politics behind the military plot: 

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 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, 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.

While it is undeniable that NATO’s ongoing encirclement of Russia and its attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit are an important element of the current conflict, this is hardly the end of the story — as Lyons and Cooper would have us believe. Russia’s invasion in 2022 was not only a response to NATO expansion, but was an escalation of its own ongoing politics toward Ukraine — a politics designed to retain the country, particularly the industrial regions of the East, as a semi-colony under Russian control and influence. 

Since the completion of the capitalist restoration of the former Soviet states, Ukraine has been subject to exploitation by both Russian and Western capital. The Ukrainian oligarchs have in turn tried to balance their own interests amid these competing forces, politically vacillating back and forth between the two in a reactionary way that has divided and weakened the working class, and has exacerbated the differences between the East and West of the country. The Putin regime, the United States, and the European Union have all, unsurprisingly, used these growing cleavages to their advantage, at the expense of the Ukrainian people. Europe, for instance, with the help of U.S. money and influence in the form of “pro-democracy” NGOs, has sought to impose debt peonage and liberal reforms upon the Ukrainian economy from abroad, and have used their influence to promote pro-western leaders and political organizations, even those with unsavory nationalist or neo-Nazi politics. Meanwhile, Russia has used the threat of economic and military violence to impose its own debt upon Ukraine, has openly interfered in elections, and — after the overthrow of the Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in the euromaidan protests of 2014 — promoted, trained, and armed separatists in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, an act that led to almost a decade of war in the Donbas and eventually to the larger Russian invasion in 2022.

Strangely, Lyons and Cooper spend an inordinate part of their article arguing that the reactionary war in Donbas is one of national liberation, rhetorically counterposing it to claims from groups like Tempest about Ukrainian national liberation from Russia. For them, though they do not say so directly, the war in Donbas is the “real” war of liberation, arguing that it is from out of this conflict that a revolutionary defeatist movement might arise. But this is little more than a fairy tale, since it is clear that the few, often right-wing Russian nationalist or even Nazi-aligned militias that have actually participated in the war are now entirely beholden to Russian power and control. Like many others before them, they seem to have fallen for the fringe propagandists of the Putin regime and the campist Left, who have argued that the separatist statelets in the East were defending anti-fascism or were proto-socialist. But as any socialist should be able to clearly see, the idea of national liberation —whether Ukraine’s so-called war of liberation against Russia or the Russian-managed separatist war in Donbas — has been used by both Russia and NATO as a mere pretext for continuing their struggle for influence and control of Ukraine and its people — that is, as a continuation of politics by other means. Since 2022, NATO has poured at least $80 billion into weapons for Ukraine to supposedly defend the country’s national sovereignty. Meanwhile, Russia has sent thousands of troops and heavy weapons into the Donbas since the Euromaidan in 2014 in a clear effort to use the grievances of the Russian-speaking minority of Ukraine to permanently destabilize the country, ensuring that Ukraine’s bids to join NATO or the EU would be impossible thanks to a lack of territorial integrity.

For an Independent Internationalist Working Class Solution to the War in Ukraine

Whoever wins the war in Ukraine, the consequences will be disastrous for workers and the oppressed. The Russian invasion against a semi-colonial country, infinitely less well-armed than Russia itself, is not beneficial for the working class of either country. NATO’s offensive, its territorial expansion, and the historic rearmament of all its members — in particular Germany — won’t bring liberation to our siblings in Ukraine. These acts of war by our oppressors mean only more hardship for the masses of Europe and the world. More violence, more death, more refugees, and more economic and environmental crises. Add to this the growing threat of future conflicts and proxy wars between the United States, NATO, Russia, and China, and it is clear that the working classes of the world must confront the war at home in all of its manifestations, responding to these wars and crises with revolutions of our own.

To this end, Left Voice and the Trotskyist Fraction support the building of anti-war movements in Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and Europe to end the manufacture and distribution of weapons for imperialist wars and to confront our own national bourgeoisies with a program of revolutionary action. Among its demands, such a movement must fight for the abolition of NATO, an end to the rearmament of Europe and all weapons shipments to Ukraine, for the cessation of sanctions against Russia, for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian territories, and for an independent policy in Ukraine to confront both the Russian occupation and imperialist domination.

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Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

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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