Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine is the most important geopolitical development since the end of the Cold War. It is a turning point in world history that will shape all relations between states in the imperialist system as well as the class and social struggles within them.
The Left and antiwar movement must rise to this occasion and lay out clear positions and demands. We must condemn Putin’s horrific war, build solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance and the Russian antiwar movement, and oppose the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) powers turning this conflagration into an inter-imperialist war between nuclear armed powers.
Criminal and Catastrophic War
Nearly two weeks ago, Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine with the expectation that they would be welcomed as liberators from a government he claimed was not popularly supported. He promised a quick victory. Clearly, his expectations were catastrophically wrong, and they led him to deploy an inadequate number of troops and insufficient weaponry to quickly conquer and subdue the country.
Ukraine has waged a heroic military and civilian resistance against Russia’s invasion. Forced to regroup by the resistance, Putin and his generals seem poised to turn to the scorched earth strategy they used in their previous wars in Chechnya and Syria, putting millions of people’s lives in jeopardy.
Already the Russian invasion has driven 2 million Ukrainians to flee their country in search of safe havens in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and beyond. The nearly 40 million who remain in the country face a humanitarian catastrophe. Russia is bombing civilian areas, putting in jeopardy access to water, food, medicine, and electricity.
The United States and NATO powers have responded with everything but direct military intervention. They have launched an economic war against Russia, imposing sanctions on trade and the country’s financial system. While the United States has placed an embargo on Russian oil and gas, the European Union (EU) has not, as it remains heavily dependent on Russia for its fuel.
The sanctions do not just target Putin, his state bureaucracy, and the country’s ruling class, but the entire economy. They will have a devastating impact on the country’s working class and oppressed, which already suffer from extreme inequality amid the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the oligarchs.
The United States and NATO powers have also rushed troop deployments to member countries that border Ukraine and Russia and increased shipments of military aid to Ukraine. State after state is preparing to increase their military budgets to equip themselves for great power rivalry, with Germany leading the way and promising to double its war spending next year.
International Resistance to Putin’s War
The hope amid this horror is the emergence of international antiwar resistance from below. The most important component of it is, of course, the Ukrainian resistance in all its military and popular forms.
That resistance has inspired antiwar organizing throughout the world, most significantly in Russia itself. There, antiwar activists have defied government repression, protesting in the thousands throughout the country. Already more than 13,000 people have been arrested and subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of Putin’s political police. In the face of such intimidation, hundreds of thousands have signed a petition against the war, artists have risked their careers at government-funded institutions to speak out against Putin, professors at Moscow University have come out against the war, and members of the parliament have called for it to stop.
Such antiwar sentiment will be further inflamed as Russian conscripts lose their lives, limbs, and sanity in a war of imperial conquest. That will stoke antiwar action in the country and even among the troops.Faced with Ukraine’s military and civilian resistance, soldiers are seeing through Putin’s lie that the invaders would be welcomed as liberators. Already there are reports of troops refusing to fight, sabotaging their own equipment, and some defecting.
On top of the Ukrainian and Russian resistance, an international antiwar movement has begun to emerge against Putin’s war. They have varied in size and composition, but some have reached into the thousands, with one in Berlin topping 100,000.
The Politics of the War in Ukraine
This international resistance is politically heterogeneous, with all sorts of currents putting forth ideas both good and bad. The key question for socialists is what positions we should adopt to educate, orient, and build the movement.
Since, as Carl von Clausewitz famously argued, “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” we must first understand the politics of this war and its different combatants.
Russia is conducting a war of imperial aggression. As Putin has made abundantly clear in speech after speech, he aims to rebuild his state’s former empire in Eastern Europe and sees Ukraine as a stepping-stone in that project. He intends to install a puppet regime over the entire country or partition it, retaining Russian control over Ukraine and the breakaway statelets of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Ukraine is engaged in a war of national self-determination and indeed national liberation against an invading, occupying imperial power. The struggle encompasses military and popular dimensions, which will continue as an ongoing insurgency even in the event of Russian victory.
The United States and other NATO powers aim to defend their sphere of influence, which they have expanded since the end of the Cold War deeper and deeper into Eastern Europe. Washington has made it clear that it is banding its allies together for great power rivalry with Russia—and behind it, and far more importantly, with China—to buttress its hegemony over the global capitalist system.
Against Faux Anti-Imperialism
In this war, there are three traps that the international Left and antiwar activists must avoid at all costs. First and foremost, we must not adopt the politics of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and support Putin’s Russia as some kind of anti-imperialist state.
While bizarre sounding to most people, this position is actually held by sections of the Left. These are small in number but have outsize influence on wider layers of antiwar activists who rightly despise U.S. imperialism.
This position sees the United States as the only imperialist state in the world and supports any and all states, however repugnant, like Putin’s Russia and Bashar al Assad’s Syria, that purportedly oppose it. In the process, its adherents explain away and/or excuse these states’ manifold crimes, including wars and counter-revolutions, as the realpolitik of what they call anti-imperialism.
In reality, this position has nothing to do with anti-imperialism. It supports in the case of Russia or China states that exploit workers, oppress other nations and peoples, and aspire to become great powers.
On Russia’s war on Ukraine, such faux anti-imperialists adopt various stances. Some support Russia’s war, others soft-peddle criticisms of it, and still others reduce the tasks of the antiwar movement to only criticizing the United States and NATO.
Whatever its form, faux anti-imperialism fundamentally compromises an antiwar position on Ukraine. It does not squarely oppose Russia’s invasion and occupation of the country.
Even worse, their refusal to oppose Russia’s war violates solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance. It sees it instead as just a proxy war under the control of Washington.
It also violates solidarity with the Russian antiwar movement. Faux anti-imperialists have long dismissed such domestic opposition within so-called anti-imperialist states as “color revolutions” entirely orchestrated by the United States.
Fundamentally, faux anti-imperialists violate working-class internationalism and support of oppressed nation’s right to self-determination. They see the world as divided up between states alone, and support those they believe to be anti-imperialist, even as they exploit workers and oppress peoples.
Adoption of such faux anti-imperialism will fundamentally compromise the antiwar movement. It will alienate people, especially Ukrainians, who have poured into the streets in opposition to Putin’s war and tarnish the Left as apologists for it.
Against Support for U.S. and NATO Intervention
The second, and perhaps more dangerous trap, is for the Left and antiwar movement to support the United States and NATO as means to stop the war and secure the liberation of Ukraine. That would lead the movement to side with the world’s biggest imperialist power, whose aims are entirely predatory.
No one should forget Washington’s long, bloody history from the Spanish-American War through two imperialist world wars, Vietnam, its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and its current support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. This track record led Martin Luther King Jr. to call the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
Washington’s NATO alliance is part of that imperial history. The United States set it up, as its first Secretary General Lord Ismay famously said, to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” in Europe. In other words, it is a vehicle of U.S. imperial domination of European capitalism.
Most of the other NATO and EU states have a sordid history of colonialism of their own. And many have been accomplices to Washington’s wars, most recently in Afghanistan, where NATO played a large role in “pacifying” the country, committing numerous war crimes in the process.
Moreover, the decision by the United States and European powers to expand NATO and the EU into Eastern Europe is one of the causes of the war in Ukraine. It triggered Putin’s growing determination over the last decade to reclaim Russia’s lost sphere of influence.
The United States and the EU offer no alternative to Ukraine but subjection to its imperial interests and neoliberal economics. In fact, through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the United States is one of the oppressors of Ukraine.These international financial institutions have locked Ukraine in debt that now exceeds $129 billion. The country’s workers and oppressed have paid an enormous price to service these loans.
Like they have throughout the Global South, the international financial institutions have required Ukraine to cut social programs, privatize state industry, layoff state workers, and cut workers’ wages and benefits in return for further loans. Ukraine’s annual payments siphon off billions of dollars that would otherwise go to much needed social reforms to improve the majority’s abysmally low standards of living.
The United States and NATO aim to defend and in fact expand their military rule over Eastern Europe and enforcement of neoliberal economics. They have no solution to the plight of the majority of Ukrainians fighting for their liberation.
Despite all of this, many people horrified by Putin’s war are mistakenly demanding that Washington and Brussels intervene directly or set up a no-fly zone. That would lead to military confrontations between the United States/NATO and Russia, risking World War III between nuclear powers.
For Peace, Not Pacifism
The third trap is adopting a position of pacifism, of opposition to all war and violence. While understandably attractive amid Putin’s invasion, it is a mistaken position that would lead to betrayal of solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance.
Pacifism elevates nonviolence to a principle for all circumstances. In reality, however, not all forms of violence and war are reactionary. They can be means of liberation from oppression.
The Vietnamese liberation struggle, which defeated French and U.S. imperialism, was a progressive use of military force that secured the country’s independence. The U.S. Civil War, which involved both the Union army’s conquest of the South and general strike of enslaved people, ended chattel slavery in the United States.
It would be a profound mistake to equate the violence of the Vietnamese and U.S. imperialism or the violence of slave owners and of people who were enslaved and judge both to be bad. One side is for the maintenance of violent systems of oppression and the other side for their abolition.
In place of abstract morality, which can lead to a frankly immoral position of neutrality in the struggle between oppressors and oppressed, we should approach the question of violence and war politically and as a tactical question. We should oppose wars that enforce domination, oppression, and exploitation, and support wars that free people from those structures.
This does not mean that we should support any and all violence in pursuit of victory. We should support only means that organize and enhance the collective struggle of the oppressed majority. And that can only be judged in the concrete circumstances of a given war.
Principled Socialist and Antiwar Positions
So, what positions should socialists and antiwar activists adopt on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? This war combines three elements—Russia’s imperial conquest of Ukraine, Ukraine’s fight for self-determination, and an inter-imperial conflict between Russia and the United States, the world’s hegemon.
Our guiding slogan must be “Neither Washington Nor Moscow But International Solidarity From Below Against War and Imperialism.” We should support the Ukrainian right of self-determination and its struggle for national liberation from Russian occupation. We must advocate the right of Ukrainians to secure arms from wherever they can to defend themselves—even as we must point out to Ukrainians the strings that will come attached to any weapons and support they seek from the United States and other imperial powers.
We should support progressive forces—the Left, feminist organizations, unions—in the Ukrainian resistance that advocate the rights of the country’s oppressed national minorities, its Russian speakers, Jewish population, and others. Only unity among Ukrainians against any and all oppressions can knit together the resistance against Russia’s attempt to divide and conquer the country.
We must stand in solidarity with the Russian antiwar movement. If it manages to expand in size and scope, it can give confidence to the Russian troops to refuse to fight and thereby bring an end to the invasion.
Out of that resistance can be born an even more radical struggle for a challenge to Putin’s autocracy. Remember, Russian military defeats have historically led to revolutions: its war with Japan led to the 1905 revolution; World War I led to the Russian Revolution in 1917; and Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the political revolutions of 1989 to 1991.
As we oppose Russia’s war, we must not call on the United States and NATO powers to intervene. We should not support their sanctions, which in this case are war by other financial means. They represent the collective punishment of the working class and oppressed already suffering from extreme inequality for the crimes of their rulers.
This sanction regime is utterly hypocritical. The United States opposes sanctions on Saudi Arabia, despite its genocidal war in Yemen, and on Israel, despite upholding apartheid and its decades of occupying Palestine. The United States uses or refuses to use sanctions to advance its imperialist interests.
Sanctions on Russia are designed to lock in U.S. hegemony, sending a message to China and other states about Washington’s geopolitical and economic power and the risks to anyone who defies its edicts. They intensify inter-imperial and regional rivalries for dominance over global capitalism.
We must also oppose calls for the United States and NATO to impose a no-fly zone, which would transform Russia’s invasion into an inter-imperial war between nuclear powers, putting the world at risk of atomic Armageddon. We should similarly come out against the new militarization of the United States, NATO states, Russia, and other countries to prepare for great power rivalry and world wars.
Instead, we have to raise demands that address the immediate humanitarian crisis. Most importantly, we must call for the world to open its borders to all Ukrainians fleeing their country and also to all other migrants, especially African and Arab ones that, in plaintly racist terms, have been thrust to the back of line and denied entry to the EU and NATO states.
Finally, we must call on the United States and its international financial institutions to cancel Ukraine’s debt. Only then, if Ukraine manages to liberate itself from Russian occupation, will it be able to escape the West’s financial shackles and rebuild however it sees fit.
Rebuilding Working-Class Internationalism
The Left and antiwar movement must rise to the challenge of Putin’s war. It will shape world politics for the next generation, impact every single domestic issue, and affect all class and social movements.
The war has already rocked the world economy. It has sent stock markets around the globe into sharp contractions, dramatically increased inflation, especially in gas and food, and is forcing central banks in country after country to raise interest rates.
These will in turn compel governments to enact austerity measures on social programs and state employment, even as they increase their military budgets. They will sacrifice our butter to pay for their guns.
Their military preparations will exacerbate tensions in the world state system. Each state will attempt to protect their sphere of influence, tearing at the structures of global capitalism. And they will all double down on securing reliable stores of fossil fuels, leading to even greater global heating in the process.
These dynamics will intensify each and every country’s pre-existing political polarization. With the establishment presiding over crisis, cuts, and war preparations, the right and Left will both have the opportunity to offer alternative paths forward.
This will happen amid a likely rise in class and social struggle, inflamed by our rulers’ austerity measures. For example, in the United States, bosses will say in every contract negotiation with unions that inflation and raised interest rates make it impossible for them to grant increased wages and benefits and still ensure profitability, triggering potential strikes.
In this historic moment, the Left must grasp the opportunity, oppose both Moscow and Washington, build class and social struggles, and do our best to connect those to similar battles for social and economic justice throughout the world. More than ever before, we have to build and rebuild the politics of working-class internationalism and organize a fight for a world that puts people before empire and profit.
Featured Image Credit: Protests against war in Ukraine, February 24, 2022, Moscow. Photo by Акутагава; modified by Tempest.
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Ashley Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.