Ashley Smith reviews the ongoing Left debates about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the continuing need to defend Ukrainian resistance as the starting point for rebuilding international solidarity from below.
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine with the expectation of a quick victory over an outgunned army and unpopular government and a successful installation of a puppet regime in the capital, Kyiv. Instead, Ukraine’s military, volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, and mass popular resistance stopped Russia in its tracks.
Humiliated, Russia has retreated from Kyiv as well as the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv, and adopted a new goal—the seizure of Donbas in Ukraine’s east to form a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, followed by a planned partition of the country. The U.S. and NATO, which like Moscow expected the Russian invasion to quickly win, have increased shipments of heavy weapons for the new phase of the war.
[T]he international Left now more than ever must organize solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance, defend its right to secure arms, support the Russian Left and its anti-war movement, and oppose direct U.S. and NATO intervention.
Sections of the Left have seized on this aid and declare that the war was always or has become an inter-imperialist one. As a result, they often find themselves supporting the establishment’s calls for the US to broker a ceasefire and negotiate a settlement. They are mistaken about the nature of the war, misunderstand the current phase of it, and in the process betray Ukraine’s struggle for national liberation from Russian imperialism.
Against such betrayal, the international Left now more than ever must organize solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance, defend its right to secure arms, support the Russian Left and its anti-war movement, and oppose direct U.S. and NATO intervention. Only the Ukrainian resistance, with the support of international solidarity, can secure a just peace with any prospect of retaining basic democratic rights for the country’s multiethnic people of that country.
Russia’s war of imperialist aggression
It is essential to correct the distortions made by some sections of the Left about the nature of this war: it is one of imperialist aggression by Russia to re-impose its rule over its oldest former colony, Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin has made that abundantly clear in all his speeches. He dismisses Ukraine as an artificial invention of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and, in his view, a product of their mistaken commitment to an oppressed nation’s right to self-determination.
Putin aims to recreate Russia’s pre-Soviet empire. The nature of his colonial project is visible in those parts of Ukraine his forces have already seized; he has imposed puppet governments, switched the currency to the ruble, mandated education in Russian, arrested and detained anyone that resists, and forced them to record confessional videos testifying their loyalty to Moscow.
Putin’s justification that he is carrying out the de-Nazification of Ukraine is laughable. Putin’s regime is itself neofascist, and has formed alliances with far right reactionaries throughout the world from Donald Trump to Narendra Modi, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and Marine Le Pen, to name only a few.
Ukraine, by contrast, is not ruled by a Nazi regime, but instead a democratically elected Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Of course, the far right is a serious problem in the country, including in its military, but it is minuscule compared to Russia where the far right in the form of Putin rules the country.
Equally fallacious is Putin’s claim that he is liberating Russian speakers. In reality, Russian speakers, regardless of their legitimate grievances against Ukraine’s government and its language policies, do not support the invasion and have been at the forefront of the resistance in the country’s south and east.
Finally, and most importantly, Putin’s claim that his war is fundamentally in response to the U.S. expansion of NATO was always an alibi for his aim of rebuilding the Russian empire. The last wave of NATO expansion was over a decade ago and Ukraine was not on course for membership before the invasion.
Of course, NATO expansion is part of Washington’s imperialist strategy for hegemony over Europe. That said, we must understand that the states in the former Eastern Bloc joined it out of fear of their longtime imperial overlord, Russia. Indeed, Russian aggression has been the key trigger for them to join.
Case in point: Finland and Sweden applied for membership after Putin’s invasion, not before. And, underscoring the secondary status of NATO expansion to Putin’s imperialist project, he did not threaten them with military attack, but just diplomatic rebuke and suspension of Russia’s small energy exports to both countries.
In reality, Putin’s invasion is part of his attempt to reclaim great power status in the world, whip up domestic nationalism, put down revolts against his regional allies, and crush his domestic opposition. With increasing ferocity, he has intervened in Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015-), Belarus (2022), Kazakhstan (2022), and now most dramatically Ukraine for a second time.
Ukraine’s fight for self-determination
Against this imperialist invasion, Ukraine has waged a national popular struggle for self-determination. It is fighting for its right to exist as a nation with its own government, a fundamentally democratic aim and one that deserves the full support of the international Left.
Zelensky’s government has led the official military resistance, winning the support of the vast majority of the population. Workers have joined the volunteer Territorial Defense Units en masse, and unions have played a pivotal role, delivering aid to people in need, evacuating people, and ensuring that military supplies reach the troops.
The country’s multi-ethnic, multilingual majority has joined the struggle. As Ukrainian socialist Denys Pilash observes, the resistance includes “Russian speaking-people, Ukrainian speaking people, people from even the most deprived, discriminated minorities and communities like the Roma people.”
This national struggle has swept the country except in the so-called People’s Republics and Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014. Russia rules these autocratically either directly or through its far right puppets.
Ukraine has been oppressed by Russia for centuries, is under invasion and partial occupation, and is in the midst of a fight for its existence and freedom as an independent nation state. Its people would have fought for these aims whether or not the U.S. and NATO backed it. With all its contradictions, Ukraine is engaged in a struggle for national liberation.
Not an inter-imperialist war
This war is between Russia and Ukraine, not between Russia and the U.S. It is not an inter-imperialist war. Of course, there is an inter-imperialist conflict behind the war.
The U.S. and European powers have expanded NATO and the EU eastward into Russia’s former imperial and Soviet colonies. On top of that, Trump’s National Security Strategy announced a new policy of great power rivalry with Russia and China, an approach that Biden has expanded and deepened.
The U.S. hopes to use Ukraine as a proxy to ensure that Russia suffers “strategic failure” in its attempt to rebuild its empire. In the process, Washington wants to rehabilitate its reputation (so badly damaged by its barbaric occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan), revitalize NATO, cohere its European allies behind its confrontation with Russia and China, and thereby enforce its hegemony over Europe and the world.
But the U.S. does not want to engage Russia in direct warfare. Thus, while the U.S. and its allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, they have restricted their role to supplying Ukraine with weapons, intelligence, and financial backing.
All the Western imperialist states are worried about the economic and geopolitical impact of a wider war on global capitalism and corporate profits. That’s why discussion of how to limit and conclude it was featured at the World Economic Forum, the annual soirée of foreign policy establishment and corporate elite.
[T]he U.S. does not want to engage Russia in direct warfare. Thus, while the U.S. and its allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, they have restricted their role to supplying Ukraine with weapons, intelligence, and financial backing.
This worry also explains why: The U.S. and NATO have ruled out deploying troops in Ukraine; the U.S. rejected Poland’s suggestion of providing fighter jets to Ukraine; and the U.S. and NATO have refused to impose a NATO no-fly-zone, all to avoid direct military confrontation with Russia.
It is therefore a mistake to contend that U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine has turned its liberation struggle into an inter-imperialist war, just as it was a mistake to claim the Soviet Union and China’s far greater support for Vietnam in the 1960s turned the Vietnamese people’s liberation struggle into a war between the U.S. on one side and Moscow and Beijing on the other.
Reformists support imperialism
The Left and antiwar organizations have been profoundly disoriented by Russia’s war with many adopting mistaken positions. The reformist Left and liberals, while rightly supporting Ukraine, have uncritically fallen in line behind the U.S., NATO, and their increased militarization of Europe.
They forget that the U.S. remains, in Martin Luther King Jr’s profound words, “the greatest purveyor of violence in our world today” and that the U.S., its international financial institutions, the IMF and World Bank, and the EU are one of Ukraine’s oppressors. They have used debt to enforce neoliberal structural adjustment on the country, reducing it from one of the most developed countries in Europe to its poorest.
Moreover, as noted above, the U.S. and NATO want to use Ukraine for their own imperialist project to reinforce Washington’s neoliberal hegemony, which has impoverished Ukraine. The last thing Ukraine needs is another overlord.
Even worse, the reformist Left and liberals for the most part accept Biden’s framework of a “global struggle between democracy and autocracy” and have signed up with the U.S. and its allies in their rivalry with Russia and China. They are handmaidens to Western imperialism.
Faux anti-imperialists and geopolitical reductionists betray Ukraine
The faux anti-imperialist Left has made the polar opposite mistake of supporting or legitimizing Russian imperialism. Groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Workers World Party, as well as publications like Monthly Review, recycle verbatim Putin’s propaganda—Ukraine is headed by an unpopular Nazi regime, Russia is intervening in the country’s civil war to de-Nazify the country and liberate oppressed Russians, and Russia is defending its sphere of influence against U.S. and NATO aggression.
While they might criticize Russia for this or that atrocity, they blame the U.S. and NATO for the conflict, justify Russia’s war as one of self-defense, and portray Ukraine as a puppet of U.S. imperialism. Their position is neither anti-imperialist nor anti-war; they support Russian imperialism and its war.
The [geopolitical reductionists] ostensibly defend Ukraine’s right to self-determination, but they oppose its right to secure arms from NATO, and therefore its ability to defend itself against invasion and occupation.
Another equally mistaken response from the Left is geopolitical reductionism. This position, advocated variously by people like Noam Chomsky and groups like British Socialist Workers Party, also reduces the war to one between the U.S. and Russia, and claims therefore that the task of the Left is to oppose both.
They ostensibly defend Ukraine’s right to self-determination, but they oppose its right to secure arms from NATO, and therefore its ability to defend itself against invasion and occupation. Even worse, they back actions like those taken by Greek and Italian Stalinists to block arms shipments to Ukraine, actions that amount to direct support for Russia’s invasion.
Thus, the faux anti-imperialists and geopolitical reductionists deflect attention from opposing Russia’s war, misorient the Left on opposing an inter-imperialist war that is not happening, and in the process betray Ukraine’s liberation struggle. Even worse, they discredit the Left in the eyes of Ukrainians, making it easier for U.S. imperialism to appear as their only ally.
The final source of confusion on the Left is pacifism. Pacifists, who oppose violence on principle, condemn Russia’s invasion, but they also oppose Ukraine’s military resistance as well as U.S. and NATO arms shipments in support of it.
Given their abstract moralistic position, they often draw on the faux anti-imperialist and geopolitical reductionist’s political frameworks to justify their positions. Pacifist formations like Code Pink oppose Ukraine’s right to secure arms and the arms shipments themselves, instead calling for the U.S. to broker a ceasefire, engage in diplomacy, and secure a negotiated settlement.
Such calls ignore Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Ukraine alone has the right to decide when and on what terms to stop fighting and negotiate a settlement. Its government and its people have made clear that they remain committed to resisting Russian occupation.
They know that any settlement will be determined by the balance of forces on the battlefield, and if one is brokered at this point it would ratify Russian conquest and partition of the country. Thus, the pacifist position ends up betraying Ukraine’s national liberation struggle and rewarding Moscow’s violent aggression.
Has the new phase of the war changed its nature?
In the wake of Ukraine’s victories, Russia’s retreat to seizing Donbas, and the U.S. and NATO’s increased shipments of weapons, advocates of these mistaken positions have doubled down on their arguments.
Reformists have uncritically joined U.S. imperialism’s bandwagon for a global fight between democracy and autocracy.
The faux anti-imperialists have used Western weapons shipments to claim they were right all along that the U.S. is the imperial aggressor, while the geopolitical reductionists contend the new phase has changed the war into an inter-imperialist one. And both join the pacifists in calls for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement.
In reality, the nature of the war has not changed at all. It remains a Russian imperialist invasion, confronted by Ukraine’s struggle for national liberation, which is supported by the U.S. and NATO. What has changed is that Ukraine has scored victories, defeating Putin’s attempt to seize the whole country and impose a puppet government.
Russia has now retreated in pursuit of a new goal—the expansion of the so-called People’s Republics (which neither involve the people nor are they republics) to all of Donbas and the establishment of a land bridge to Crimea, potentially extending that to Transnistria, a territory in Moldova that Moscow seized in 1992. With that partition accomplished, Putin hopes to declare victory and reach some kind of land for peace settlement.
[T]he nature of the war has not changed at all. It remains a Russian imperialist invasion… What has changed is that Ukraine has scored victories, defeating Putin’s attempt to seize the whole country and impose a puppet government.
This new phase of the war has changed combat from guerilla resistance to an invasion into a war of position between Ukrainian and Russian troops backed by howitzers, rockets, and fighter jets on both sides. Russia has an enormous advantage over Ukraine in such heavy weapons and air power and has used them with terrible effect just as it did in Syria, blowing up whole cities and towns in Donbas in a scorched earth campaign to claim territory.
To defend their country against conquest, Ukraine has demanded heavy weapons to stop Russia’s attempt to seize Donbas. The U.S. and NATO have responded by supplying them along with other military aid and financial support.
The U.S. has promised to provide advanced rocket systems on the explicit condition that they are not “ for use beyond the battlefield inside of Ukraine” to avoid expanding the war into Russian territory. And they continue to refuse deployment of U.S. and NATO troops and reject Ukraine’s appeals to implement a no-fly-zone.
Imperialist pressure on Ukraine to accept concessions on land for peace
The faux anti-imperialists and geopolitical reductionists also point to the increasingly bellicose rhetoric in particular from the U.S., Britain, and various Eastern European states. Biden went so far as to call for regime change in Russia, when he declared “for God’s sake this man can’t remain in power,” giving the appearance that they are intent on using Ukraine as a proxy for an offensive war.
The faux anti-imperialists and geopolitical reductionists are confusing braggadocio with reality. The U.S., Britain, and the rest of NATO have done nothing beyond increase military aid, which Ukraine needs for its defensive fight against Moscow’s attempt to annex Donbas.
While a faction of the Western establishment, represented by figures like George Soros and right-wing hawks like Lindsey Graham, calls for expansion of the war against Russia, they remain a loud minority. A growing chorus in the elite, most notably in western Europe, is actually calling for a ceasefire, Ukrainian concessions of territory to Russia, and a diplomatic settlement, which would betray Ukraine’s struggle.
Multinational capital is increasingly worried about a long war that would further weaken the world economy and cut into their profits with increased inflation in gas and food, geopolitical instability, and the further interruption of global supply chains. They have found partners in the corporate media and political class in the U.S. and Europe.
A growing chorus in the elite, most notably in western Europe, is actually calling for a ceasefire, Ukrainian concessions of territory to Russia, and a diplomatic settlement, which would betray Ukraine’s struggle.
Thus, The New York Times joined the ageless war criminal Henry Kissinger in warning the U.S. not to use Ukraine as a proxy for war with Russia. They both explicitly advocate a land for peace settlement.
Germany, France, and Italy have also made it clear that they are against any further escalation and advocate a negotiated settlement. They are worried about the harm done to their economies by increased inflation, geopolitical instability caused by the interruption of Ukrainian food exports, and a consequent rise in migration.
Given that the U.S. aim is to gather its allies together for confrontation with Russia and China in a struggle for global hegemony, the Biden administration will be hypersensitive to such pressure from its European allies. Thus, there is a real danger that Western imperialism could force Ukraine into a rotten deal that ratifies the Russian partition of the country.
For internationalist anti-imperialism
Given that the war has not fundamentally changed, socialists should uphold the original stance of internationalist anti-imperialism staked out at the start of the war. Especially with Russia laying waste to Donbas, we must redouble our opposition to Russian imperialism’s invasion of Ukraine.
Now more than ever we should build solidarity with Ukraine’s resistance and defend its right to secure arms including from the U.S. and NATO to free itself from Russian occupation. That does not mean uncritical support of Ukraine. We should back the country’s Left, and its social and trade union movements, in their struggle against the government’s oligarchic capitalism, suppression of union rights, and political freedoms as well as its campaign against the country’s far right.
Likewise, solidarity with the Russian Left and its anti-war movement is essential. Facing incredible repression, they are building resistance to the Russian neofascist regime and its imperialism. They will be key allies in our global campaign against great power conflict.
As part of that, we must oppose direct U.S. and NATO intervention that would turn the war into an inter-imperialist one. That entails protesting against any attempt by Western imperialist powers to put pressure on Ukraine either to carry out a fight beyond its will and human capacity or to stop fighting and accept partition.
[W]e have a responsibility to expose U.S. imperialism’s sanctimonious hypocrisy in criticizing Russia for violating an oppressed country’s right to self-determination…In particular, we must oppose Washington’s use of the war to further expand NATO, increase military expenditure…and intensify imperialist rivalry with Russia and China.
In that effort we have a responsibility to expose U.S. imperialism’s sanctimonious hypocrisy in criticizing Russia for violating an oppressed country’s right to self-determination and committing war crimes in process. The invader of Iraq and Afghanistan, the supporter of Israeli colonialism and apartheid, and the accomplice in Saudi Arabia’s murderous war in Yemen is in no position to lecture any other state on human rights.
In particular, we must oppose Washington’s use of the war to further expand NATO, increase military expenditure in the U.S. and Europe, and intensify imperialist rivalry with Russia and China. Instead, we ought to demand the abolition of NATO and similar military alliances as well as massive cuts to military budgets and the redistribution of all the saved money to redress the multiple crises in each of our countries and around the world.
In that spirit, we should escalate the campaign for the U.S. and the international financial institutions to cancel Ukraine’s debt as part of a larger fight to get them to do the same for all developing countries. That will enable Ukraine to escape debt peonage to Western capital and use money that would otherwise go to interest payments on loans to invest in their own people.
That is a principled and clear way for the Left to oppose both U.S. and Russian imperialism, stand in solidarity with Ukraine and other oppressed nations’ struggle for liberation, and build international solidarity from below. Now is the time for internationalist anti-imperialism.