Ivo Georgiev, head of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s office in Ukraine, interviewed Taras Bilous, editor at Commons and member of the NGO Sozialnyj Ruch (Social Movement).
Ukrainian leftists are demanding arms supplies from the West
With your letter to the left in Western Europe , you have initiated important debates in recent weeks. In it you appealed to the Western European left to change their minds and stop blaming NATO for the Russian invasion. Do you get feedback on this letter and if so, what does this feedback look like and what does it mean for your future work?
Many people have written to me, thanking me for my “letter” and expressing their solidarity. The text has been translated into several languages, even Chinese, which surprised me. But I still don’t understand what it means for my further work and the work of our magazine. I’ll think about that after the war, now we have more important things to do. I’m now with the Territorial Defense Volunteer Associations, so I have little time to work on the Commons editorial board or on my own writing.
In Germany, many have read the interviews or texts by editors of Commons . They argue that the left in Western Europe has misjudged or downplayed Russia’s neo-imperial intentions, and in some cases even borrowed the justification for the troop deployment from Russian propaganda. The criticism has been received and has triggered a debate within the German left, for example. However, the position is also taken that the processing of the mistakes in relation to Russia’s aggression should not be carried out right now, because the timing is inappropriate and a critical debate about it could lead to the weakening of the international left-wing movement. How do you feel about this?
I understand that war divides left movements and can weaken them. The Ukrainian left already experienced this in 2014. But an uncritical debate weakens the movement even more than the absence of one. A misjudgment of the war is also a problem because it discredits the socialist movement. A good example of this are the statements of the International Department of the Democratic Socialists of America or the British campaign Stop the War, which did not help the left movement. Even before our critiques of the western left were published, their statements were heavily criticized in western mainstream media. Our opponents worldwide have taken these texts as an opportunity to condemn all anti-capitalist leftists. It would be naïve to hope that our class enemies would not take advantage of stupid declarations from the left.
I don’t have enough time to follow the international left debate in detail and I’m not very familiar with the situations in different countries. For example, I am better informed about the situation in the USA than about Western Europe. In the first days of the war, I observed how some leftists tried to justify bloc thinking, as for example in the article by David Broder that prompted my letter to the western leftists. Such a position is wrong, it can only fuel the marginalization of the radical left. Criticisms of the hypocrisy of Western elites sound unconvincing when the critics defend obviously wrong policies. We must distance ourselves from the “anti-imperialism of idiots” and honestly acknowledge our mistakes, as I wrote in my letter . A good example of such recognition is Daniel Marwecki’s article , for which I thank the author.
I understand that it takes time to discuss issues that are difficult to agree on. Especially in those moments when this time would be necessary for more useful things. I am aware that polemics that are far too sharp can provoke conflicts in the left movement that will weaken them. But how the necessary discussion about the war should be conducted without sinking into internal conflicts can only be determined in the concrete circumstances.
How did the Ukrainian left deal with the war in Donbas in 2014 and after?
In 2014 I was not yet a leftist, I felt torn inside because of the Donbas war. I found the public polemics of the Ukrainian left on this question very exciting. This helped me become a leftist.
The experience of the Ukrainian left shows that it is extremely important to keep a certain level of polemics. Unfortunately, this is difficult when your country is suffering from a war. That is why the excess of polemics also contributed to the fact that the Ukrainian left was severely weakened. It is now clear that some of the splits of the time could have been avoided. We should have continued the dialogue with some opponents, but we should have distanced ourselves from others. Especially by those who now openly support Putin or deny the massacres in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, or otherwise disseminate Russian propaganda.
After all the mistakes and divisions of 2014 and 2015, the vast majority of the Ukrainian left (especially those whose positions deviated from mainstream society) avoided debate about the war. And even when they did enter into the discussion, it was usually not in public, but in a closed format intended to facilitate dialogue. That’s how it was with the organization Sozialnyj Ruch, with which I am involved. Even one of our most supportive activists for Ukraine kept saying, “Let’s not argue about issues over which we have no control.” Those for whom the Donbas was a particularly important topic, including me, because I lived there until 2014, only dealt with this issue outside of our organization, there was no internal discussion. But when it became clear that another war was possible, we had to change our policy quickly. When I published that in early January Initiating an anti-war statement, I faced resistance from some members of our organization who wished to further avoid the issue.
In the Commons editorial team, too, we have gradually begun to approach this topic very cautiously. We checked every word and fine-tuned our texts so that wrong interpretations could be ruled out as much as possible. With all other topics we didn’t put such a focus on the linguistic fine-tuning, but we either published very well formulated texts about the war – or nothing at all.
This strategy allowed us to resume our work after the difficulties of 2014 and 2015, but it did not protect us from mistakes. So today it is obvious that we, too, underestimated the danger posed by Russia and did not pay enough attention to Russian imperialism. That was my fault too. We were so used to dismissing all post-Soviet politicians as cynics interested only in power and wealth. Now we realized how wrong we were.
My criticism also concerns the strategy of Socialnyj Ruch and Commons in the times of the “half-frozen” conflict. Today, however, the circumstances are very different and the international left can no longer remain silent about Russia’s war(s).
However, it is more important not to discuss old mistakes now, but to redesign one’s own policy and to support the struggle of the Ukrainian people for their freedom. We are not just victims, we have our own ideas about how our country should be and we are ready to fight for it.
Recently, the National Security Council and President Volodymyr Zelensky banned eleven political parties in Ukraine. They are all accused of having ties to Russia. Legally, the ban is covered by martial law, but is this ban helpful in the current situation? We see, for example, that parts of the parliamentary party “Opposition Platform – For Life”, which is now banned, are actively involved in national defense and are fighting together with the “pro-Ukrainian” forces against the invasion. How do you see this ban?
Of all the banned parties, only the “Opposition Platform – For Life” party was represented with a parliamentary group. In fact, it united two groups of oligarchs: on the one hand, the Boyko and Lyovochkin groups, which journalists often dubbed “gas people” because gas extraction and trading played a very large role in their businesses, and on the other hand, the Medvedchuk group that was close to Putin. A Rada MP from the opposition platform, Ilya Kyva, who was stripped of his MP status after the outbreak of war, recently took to social media to call on the Kremlin to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
With the Russian invasion, the alliance with Medvedchuk has become toxic for Boyko and Lyovochkin. According to information from the leading mass media Ukrainska Pravda, the leaders of this group have been looking for solutions to the problem. They were even happy when their party was banned because it allows them to create a new party project, as they did back in 2014 after the collapse of previous Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s party, the Party of Regions.
The other banned parties have not had any particular influence in Ukraine, some have had only a few dozen members. Six banned parties have positioned themselves as leftists, mostly meaning that they exploited Soviet nostalgia for their own ends. In reality, some of them were quite conservative or even openly racist. For example, in the 2000s, Natalia Vitrenko’s “Progressive Socialist Party” closely cooperated with the Eurasian Youth Union of neo-fascist thinker Aleksandr Dugin.
Basically, however, this ban is rather pointless and unproductive. In the future, it can cause additional problems for Ukraine. It damages the social unity that emerged in the first days of the war. Luckily, as far as I can see, this move hasn’t had any major impact so far. More importantly, it provides additional “arguments” used in Russian propaganda and damages international solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
At the moment, the distinction between «pro-Russian» and «pro-Ukrainian» political forces, which has played a major role in Ukrainian politics over the past eight years, also seems to be glaring given the daily routine of war and the extreme emergency in which the country finds itself to have lost importance. How is Ukrainian society changing in this war? Is there more solidarity, more willingness to unite in the face of the threat of occupation, more cooperation between different parties and social movements? Or is anti-Russian resentment on the rise?
Of course, anti-Russian sentiment is growing, and will persist long after the war is over. Given the situation, that is understandable. And of course solidarity has grown, many old conflicts have lost their topicality. But how society will continue to change will depend on the struggles. If Ukraine has to make painful compromises in the course of negotiations, scapegoats will be sought and revanchism in society will increase. However, should Ukraine win, the joint victory could overcome the old political divisions in society and open up the political debate in Ukraine.
What can the people of Germany and Western Europe do to support Ukraine and especially the Ukrainian left in this war situation?
The western left can support the Ukrainian left by providing humanitarian aid and providing assistance to the refugees. Many leftists in Europe are already doing this. But it’s not enough. The international left must at least support the struggle of the Ukrainian people with their statements, but it would be better if they endorsed arms deliveries to Ukraine.
Many leftists cling to the dogma that arms deliveries would only prolong the war and thus increase the number of victims. For us, however, this is clearly not a justifiable position. Because the international left needs to see what a Russian occupation means. The more territory occupied by the Russian army, the more civilians will suffer or even be murdered under Russian repression. Conversely, the more missiles fired by our anti-aircraft defenses, the fewer people will be killed by them. Anyone who thinks that the cancellation of arms deliveries will force Ukraine to capitulate is wrong. Most of Ukrainian society will not accept surrender, so a surrender by the current government to Russia would throw the country into chaos. The situation can be compared to Ireland. More people died in the civil war that followed the peace agreement with Great Britain than in the War of Independence itself. I do not wish Ukraine to develop like that. It is therefore a shame that some Western leftists are calling on Ukrainians to surrender and end resistance to Russian imperialist aggression. The West cannot and must not determine when Ukrainians should give up the resistance and what compromises we should make. That is our decision alone. that some Western leftists are calling on Ukrainians to surrender and end resistance to Russian imperialist aggression. The West cannot and must not determine when Ukrainians should give up the resistance and what compromises we should make. That is our decision alone. that some Western leftists are calling on Ukrainians to surrender and end resistance to Russian imperialist aggression. The West cannot and must not determine when Ukrainians should give up the resistance and what compromises we should make. That is our decision alone.
I understand the fears that the guns could fall into the wrong hands. But I also observe that nowadays the Ukrainian state controls the situation much more strictly than in 2014. In the first days of the war, when it was absolutely unclear how the situation will develop, in some cities the machine guns were distributed to almost everyone who have reported. After that, however, the state quickly came to its senses and took everything back under control. Also, anti-aircraft systems, which we need a lot, are unlikely to end up on the black market, unlike machine guns.
I would also like to say to the left in the west: If you are not convinced by our words, please at least listen to the Russian anti-war left, who support the arms sales to Ukraine. Please note the analyzes of Russian intellectuals Greg Yudin and Ilya Budraitskis on the fascization of the Putin regime.
In the western left it is sometimes discussed that the war in Ukraine is also in the interest of NATO in order to weaken Russia and that arms deliveries should therefore be rejected. How do you think the left should position itself in this inter-imperialist conflict?
I think the logic according to which, if we are against strengthening NATO, then we must not support Western arms deliveries, is wrong. It would be much more important to weigh up the potential consequences of this war and the options for ending it. If Russia should win, the imperialist duel will be intensified again and the arms race will be accelerated. Given the real dangers posed by Russia, countering militarization will be very complicated. We see that in the example of Ukraine over the last eight years. Should our country win, however, this will create the conditions for stopping militarization and making a global nuclear arms disarmament policy possible.
But as far as I survey the Western debate, many Western leftists still see their job as criticizing the rivalry between the West and Russia, which is why they think of a de-escalation between the two power blocs. But since the Russian invasion, this approach has become less important for us.
In the existing situation, some interests of the international socialist movement do indeed coincide with those of Western governments, as happened, for example, during the Second World War. Of course, every situation is unique and Putin’s Russia is not a revenant of the Third Reich. But I want to emphasize that the coincidence of interests is rather accidental. If we look at the global situation, it becomes clear that we, the left, have no interest in a strengthening of the USA, for example. We see that today’s Putinian regime is China’s junior partner. While we unequivocally condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine and demand arms supplies to Ukraine, we remain committed to de-escalation in the US-China conflict.
Although Russia’s defeat now serves the interests of both Western governments and the socialist movement, our positions differ from those of Western governments on who should pay for the war. Western governments are still striving to shape the struggle in such a way as to minimize the losses of Western capitalists. The left, on the other hand, should demand that the capitalists bear the costs of the war and not the working class.
The international left must therefore use the situation to realign its politics. A good example of this is Thomas Piketty’s team’s proposals for sanctions against rich Russians and an international financial register as a prerequisite.
But I’m not an economist, so I can’t recommend anything on economic issues myself. I am just a historian forced by life to concern myself with questions of war and international security. I have written several times about the need to reform and strengthen the UN for de-escalation of armed conflicts. I don’t think that the UN will significantly influence the situation in Ukraine, but I think that the war in Ukraine can be used to democratize the UN and strengthen its role in peaceful conflict resolution.
A first step in this direction would be the deployment of UN blue helmets to protect the nuclear power plants in Ukraine and the establishment of humanitarian corridors, even against Russia’s will. They could also support the idea of an international tribunal to investigate Russian war crimes. It is to be feared that the USA and Great Britain will not approve of this project, so that no precedent is created that could be used as a model for setting up a tribunal on the Iraq war. In addition, leftists worldwide must support the Syrian opposition, which is demanding that the Syrian issue be dealt with by the UN General Assembly rather than the UN Security Council, as stipulated in the UN General Assembly resolution Uniting for Peaceis required. This resolution was used for the first time in 40 years to deal with Ukraine’s case at the UN special session since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Such a practice would weaken the privileged position of the permanent member states of the UN Security Council, including the USA, Great Britain and France. The left must seek to weaken the UN Security Council and instead strengthen the UN General Assembly.
That would be the answer to the problem of inter-imperialist conflicts. The left must not support the strengthening of other imperialisms, for example the Chinese against the West. Rather, it is about us having to work to strengthen the influence of small and poor states. The UN would be a suitable instrument for this. It is what African states have been demanding for a long time.
How do you expect Ukraine to develop after the war? Is it conceivable that after the war issues of social justice and welfare statehood will play a greater role than before the war?
Unfortunately, the issue of social justice in Ukraine has been pushed into the background by the war. The last restriction of workers’ rights on March 15, 2022 showed that the government continues to pursue neoliberal policies, even if it is detrimental to the Ukrainian economy during the war. However, there is a chance that the situation could improve after the war. But it will depend on many factors, primarily on the outcome of the war.
The lost war in Donbas in 2014 provoked resentment among the politicized section of society and promoted revanchism in the country. The conflict, which has been half-frozen for a long time, has given the politically inactive parts of society a feeling of apathy, ultimately increasing the atomization of society and people’s distance from politics. This development formed the basis for Zelensky’s victory in the 2019 elections.
If the current war, like 2015, ends with a painful compromise for the Ukrainian side, it is likely that the consequences will be similar to those of that time. However, if the war ends with a clear victory for Ukraine, there will be a chance that the situation in Ukraine will improve. History knows several examples in which politics was made more socially just after wars. Especially in cases of “people’s wars” in which, as in today’s Ukraine, broad masses of the population have been mobilized by the war. As a result, people learn to fight in an organized manner, and after the war they expect their lives to improve.
In addition, the campaign to “de-oligarchize” was launched last year. In the autumn, the conflict between Zelenskyy and the richest Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov escalated, as a result of which Akhmetov’s companies were taxed more heavily. Shortly before the outbreak of the war, the flight of the oligarchs from the country was a big topic in the media. All this has strengthened class hatred.
We do not know how events will develop further, it will depend on many factors. A factor in this is also the politics of the European left. In 2014, the inadequate response of much of the western left to the Donbas war contributed to discrediting the left in Ukraine. If the international left would play its part in Ukraine’s victory this time, it could change the situation for us. “The future of the socialist movement in Ukraine depends on international solidarity,” we wrote as Sozialnyj Ruch in our anti-war statement in January 2022. Ultimately, the future of the global socialist movement may also depend on the position of the international left now on Russia’s war against Ukraine.