Ukraine - The war in Ukraine prelude to major conflict?

spring 2022

Translated from the journal of our French sister organisation: "Lutte de Classe" #223, April 2022

While European and American political leaders pour arms into Ukraine and glorify the population's resistance, they insist at the same time that "there is no question of deploying Nato troops or planes" on Ukrainian soil. They may have been responsible for the spiralling situation which led Putin to invade, but the last thing they want is a direct confrontation with the Russian army. For all that, if the next world war has not yet begun, humanity is certainly moving a little closer to it. War is, after all, encoded into the genes of capitalism. And this war in Ukraine is already serving as a dress rehearsal for future wars, while at the same time exacerbating all of the contradictions of this unjust social order.

The great American game against Russia - played with Ukrainian lives 

Putin's decision to launch the bloody and fratricidal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February may have surprised even well-informed European generals. However, Western leaders can hardly claim that the decision was made on a whim. Putin is, after all, the architect of the restoration of a strong Russian state after the disintegration of the Yeltsin decade, a state in the service of bureaucrats and oligarchs who mostly pledged their allegiance to him. And he has been denouncing the imperialist leaders' double-dealing for many years. Just after annexing Crimea he justified that action in a speech on 18 March 2014, saying:  "They have lied to us on several occasions, they have taken decisions behind our backs, they have presented us with a 'fait accompli'. This happened with the expansion of NATO to the East, as well as with the deployment of military infrastructure on our borders". He was referring, in particular, to the promises made by US Secretary of State James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 in Moscow, during the discussions surrounding German reunification, when Baker promised that "NATO's current military jurisdiction will not extend an inch eastwards".

The United States soon reneged on this commitment. Taking advantage of Yeltsin's political weakness, the economic crisis in Russia, and the demands of the new governments of Eastern Europe, in 1997 the US began the process of bringing six of the former Warsaw Pact countries (part of the erstwhile Soviet Bloc) and the three Baltic States into NATO membership. After 2001, under cover of the war in Afghanistan, they established permanent military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and temporary ones in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. The so-called Rose and Orange "revolutions" in 2003-2004 gave the US a foothold in Georgia and Ukraine respectively. 

    Then in February 2014, pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych was overthrown during the "Euro Maidan", occupation of Kiev's Maidan Square. Protesters came from diverse backgrounds, but the movement was quickly hijacked by reactionary politicians, with the backing of EU and US advisors (and finance) and with the open intervention of the Ukrainian Far-Right. Not only was there a strengthening of US influence in Ukraine, but the new government under the oligarch Petro Poroshenko immediately implemented anti-Russian decrees and Russo-phobic policies, providing further pretext for the mainly Russian-speaking Donbas to secede and for Putin to annex Crimea. This was when the war in Ukraine really began. Since then, 15,000 people have been killed. Between 2014 and 2021, the US has provided some $2.7 billion (£2.1bn) in aid to the Ukrainian military. In addition to weapons, drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, it has sent instructors to train and mentor regular soldiers as well as ultra-nationalist militias engaged in the Donbas. Within the space of just a few years, the US and its Nato allies had reconstituted, modernised and equipped the Ukrainian army, readying it for all-out war.

    In fact Nato staged large-scale military manoeuvres as early as 2016; its Operation Anaconda in Poland and the Baltic States involved 30,000 soldiers, including 14,000 Americans. Since 2017, the Pentagon has quadrupled its spending in the region, notably to deploy four multinational battalion-size battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, on a rotational basis. This US military interventionism on Russia's immediate borders could only be perceived as a threat by Putin. A French army officer wrote as early as 2015: "In Ukraine, today's Russia can in no way accept to back down before Washington, on pain of reproducing the spiral of renunciations that led to the implosion of the USSR. (...) This shows that the Kremlin will always choose escalation rather than run the risk of seeing Kiev win. (...) Very clearly, the United States is taking a risk by seeking to win an arms race by using Ukraine against Russia to defeat it, especially in its neighbourhood". And while Ukraine's Nato membership had in fact been put on indefinite hold after its invitation to join in 2008, in June 2021, Anthony Blinken, Biden's Secretary of State, reiterated a US commitment to bring it into the fold. 

    Putin's military aggression against Ukraine a crime against its population, but also against all Russians is the fruit of this imperialist policy. Whether or not the US leadership was surprised by this cynical and brutal manoeuvre, they were well-prepared for it. Less than 48 hours after the Russian invasion, the US military was shipping some 17,000 anti-tank missiles stored in Germany to Ukraine. And Biden was providing a further $350m (£275m) credit. 

    Yet while they may have lit the fuse, Western leaders are unwilling to engage in war themselves. The United States refused even to allow Poland to provide Ukraine with the Mig 21 aircraft requested by President Zelensky. It is increasing its military aid budget, sending sophisticated weapons, maintaining and probably increasing the number of its military advisers, but it does not want to risk being seen as "belligerent" by Russia nor as provoking a direct confrontation. Even Ukraine's membership of Nato, which Blinken encouraged nine months ago and is one of the main factors in Putin's invasion, is no longer on the agenda. Cornered by his American sponsors who are clearly seeking a negotiated outcome to the war, Zelensky said on 15 March: "We have heard for years that the doors of Nato were open, but we understood that we could not join. This is the truth and we have to recognise it". In short, Western leaders threw the Ukrainians into the bear pit and then closed the exits. In the face of Russian bombardment, they now praise the Ukrainians' courage and patriotic commitment, but leave them to fight alone. 

    Obviously, this caution is not the result of a sense of responsibility on the part of Western leaders, because they wish to avoid starting a nuclear war, as the media keep repeating. Time and again, in the past as well as in the present, from Iraq to Yemen, from Libya to Afghanistan, they have been capable of destroying entire countries, massacring whole populations and resorting to "weapons of mass destruction", directly or through regional allies. And their prudence today can quickly turn into a warmongering headlong rush tomorrow. In Ukraine, the approach of the West depends on many factors: the duration and evolution of the war, its possible extension to other territories, notably those of the former Soviet Union, the impact on the world economy of the fighting and sanctions against Russia, the progress of negotiations, the attitude of Putin, the bureaucrats and oligarchs who surround him...

    To date, by waging war on Putin through Ukraine, and by taking advantage of a stronger than expected Ukrainian resistance, the US is achieving its objectives: to weaken Russia, to reinforce the domination of its trusts in Eastern Europe as well as in the world, to strengthen its military-industrial capitalists, but also to reaffirm its supremacy over its European allies in a world economy in crisis. 

Europe and the US 

The war in Ukraine shows once again that the US is the chief policeman of the world. The media have made much ado about the European Union's (EU) decision, described as "historic", first to take 450 million euros and then finally a billion euros from the so-called "European Peace Facility" (sic) budget to share the cost of arms sent to Ukraine. But at the same time, the United States has increased its military and economic aid to Ukraine to $14bn (£11bn). As for economic sanctions, European leaders have excluded gas and oil to date, given their dependence on these (and other) raw materials and their commercial interests located in Russia... French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz, the representatives of the two main EU powers, may have tried to gain Putin's ear, but in the end, they have no choice but to follow Biden's policy. 

    If the governments of the Eastern European countries have turned to Nato and the United States for their defence, and not to the EU, it is because the latter remains a collection of competing countries that do not have a common army. After years arguing about this, EU countries announced the adoption of a "strategic compass" with the aim of harmonising European defence and perhaps creating a rapid reaction force or even a single command. The clue being in the term "compass", it has produced nothing concrete and is unlikely ever to do so. At the end of the day, European leaders are dependent on American decisions and there is nothing they can do about it. 

   War being the continuation of politics by other means, the divergent interests of French, German and British imperialism prevent them from agreeing on a common army; even the collaboration to jointly construct fighter planes has given rise to acrimonious negotiations and highlighted national rivalries. So the 100 billion euros (£84bn) just announced by Olaf Scholtz to re-equip the German army will pay for F-35 aircraft from the American Lockheed Martin, to the great displeasure of Dassault, (which expected to sell him their Rafales) and also the displeasure of the Franco-German-Spanish consortium, comprising Dassault, Safran, Airbus and Indra, which is meant to be producing a new pan-European military aircraft, the Scaf. 

The arms race 

On this terrain, as on so many others, the war in Ukraine reshuffles the cards and stimulates appetites. Militarism and the hypertrophy of defence budgets have been responses to the crisis of the capitalist economy for years (often termed the "permanent arms economy"). According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, by 2020, in the midst of the Covid pandemic (!), global military spending reached almost £1,682 billion, or the equivalent of £200 for every human being on the planet, including infants! NATO countries alone spent £863 billion. The current war will increase further the scale of these budgets.

    This unprecedented arms race can only mean one thing: that the imperialist leaders, the governments, their generals and their diplomats are preparing for future butchery. It is significant that the invasion of Ukraine was greeted on the stock market by a surge in the shares of Thales, Dassault, Lockheed Martin and other arms dealers. Almost all countries have promptly announced an increase in their defence budgets, which they want to inflate, one after the other, to at least 2% of their GDP. Denmark, for instance, wants to join the European defence community and is also increasing its military budget.

    Europe is not the only continent from which these drum-beats come. Under pressure from the United States at the end of 2021, Japan announced a doubling of its defence budget. By deploying its naval air armada in the China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, the US is exerting the same kind of military pressure on China that it has exerted on Russia.

    During the UN vote to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, China abstained, which earned it the wrath of the West. It was urged to choose sides. But as both competitor and partner of the imperialist countries, Xi Jinping's China will do everything to avoid this. It has no interest in breaking with either the United States or Russia. Western sanctions against Putin may allow China to increase its trade with Russia. But on the other hand, the war in Ukraine is a factor of instability that aggravates the world economic crisis and thus weakens the Chinese capitalists. 

Workers and the war 

For Ukrainian workers, the war is a cataclysm that directly threatens their existence. The brutality of the Russian invasion, the destruction of homes, places of refuge and even hospitals are pushing even the most Russophile Ukrainians into the arms of the nationalist militias.

    As for the effect of the war in Russia, first and obviously, its conscripts and soldiers are sent to risk and lose their lives in the interests of the ruling bureaucracy and the country's privileged layers, against their own interests. The police dictatorship imposed against all those who oppose the war has been strengthened. The effects of the Western embargo mean that the tens of thousands of people who worked for Western companies are laid off; there are shortages of goods and prices are sky-rocketing. 

    And then in the wider world, hundreds of millions of people in poor, grain-importing countries can no longer afford their daily bread: the war in Ukraine is already causing the wheat price to soar and with this comes the threat of starvation. Part of the price surge has been caused by speculation by the quartet of multinationals that control 90% of the world grain market. Within a few weeks of war, the price of a tonne of wheat rose from £235 to £319. In Egypt, which imports 80% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, the price of flour has already risen by 50%. 

    Speculative operations by war profiteers in the energy and agri-food sectors have also sharply increased already rising prices for the workers in the West. By aggravating the disorganisation of the economy which was caused by Covid, not to mention the ongoing and competitive war waged by the big capitalist groups to monopolise the maximum amount of profit, the social war that big business is waging against the workers is exacerbated. The disruptions of supplies caused by the fighting in Ukraine or by the sanctions against Russia are already being used to impose periods of unemployment, and cuts in working conditions. 

    This war is being used by all governments to try to rally their populations behind them, in the name of defending "democratic values" against Putin's dictatorship, in the name of peace and against the threat of a nuclear war. The understandable emotions people feel when they see the images of death, destruction and escaping refugees, their solidarity and urge to help, to the point of volunteering to go and to fight in Ukraine, are used to try to create a sense of "national unity" at home... and to prepare minds for the idea that it is legitimate to defend one's own country and be ready to die for it. 

    This sense of national unity is far from being achieved. In France, it is hindered by the distrust and even hatred towards Macron, expressed during the Yellow Vests movement, and which continued over the two years of authoritarian pandemic management used to keep workers in line. A whole fraction of the French working class, because of its links to the Maghreb, Africa or the Middle East, is rightly affronted by the different way in which Ukrainian refugees and those from the elsewhere are treated. These workers are aware of the responsibility of imperialism and its allies in the destruction of Iraq, Libya, Yemen or Syria. This rejection of imperialism, when it is not based on class consciousness, leads some of them to see in Putin, quite wrongly, an anti-imperialist champion. 

    However, in some sections of society, including among workers, there have even been calls to bring back compulsory military service. Sweden has just reintroduced it; in Germany, the governing parties are discussing it. The International Legion for Ukraine created by Zelensky seems to have found recruits, and not only among ex-military or far-right militants in search of adrenalin. There is no massive influx and we are still far from a general militarisation of the population. But one of the aims of Western governments, which praise the heroism of the Ukrainians and martial law, which prohibited all men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving Ukraine, is precisely to prepare people for war. Two years ago, General Burkhard, the current Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces, noted that young officers in the French army were "not hardened enough". A training officer at Saint-Cyr regretted that "French society has distanced itself from tragedy and history". Indeed, the war in Ukraine is being used by these bourgeois officers to give crash courses in "tragedy and history"!

Revolutionary communists and the war 

This militaristic conditioning is supplemented by the agitation by various political currents calling for arms for Ukraine, including those on the left, who distance themselves from Nato. For example, in a yellow and blue leaflet dated 8 March, Clémentine Autain's party, Ensemble! [a red-green alliance claiming to be anti-capitalist, socialist and which involves former Trotskyists] wrote: "We say yes to the deliveries of defensive weapons requested by the resistance and the government of Ukraine". The groups in the tradition of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) take the same position: "Solidarity and support for the armed and unarmed resistance of the Ukrainian people. Delivery of arms at the request of the Ukrainian people to fight against the Russian invasion of their territory". Of course, Biden, Macron and other Western leaders did not wait for Ensemble! or the USFI to deliver arms! They are supplying them limitlessly to the army of Zelensky, a "democrat" whose face fits so well in the portrait gallery of corrupt presidents who have ruled Ukraine for more than twenty years. Not to mention alongside the Ukrainian territorial militias, largely under the control of the extreme right. 

    To demand "arms for Ukraine" without distinguishing between the opposing social interests in this vast country, is to make out that the Russian invasion has eliminated all class differences and class struggle in Ukraine. It means equating the interests of millions of workers, agricultural workers in the privatised former kolkhozes, steelworkers from Azovstal to Mariupol, miners from Donbas, tram workers from Kiev or Kharkov or pensioners with miserable pensions, with those of the Ukrainian oligarchs, who transformed from being pro-Russian one day to pro-Western the next. If we are unable, from afar and without any implantation there, to propose a class policy to the workers of Ukraine, we can state its basic aim: to address the Russian soldiers so as to detach them from Putin and the generals who are organising this fratricidal war, by insisting on the multiple personal, family, economic and cultural links which still unite Russians and Ukrainians, rather than exacerbating Ukrainian national feelings; to refuse any alignment behind Zelensky, by underlining his dependence on the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and oligarchs and his relations with the far-right territorial militias and, naturally, with the imperialist powers which have prepared the present catastrophe. 

    Revolutionary communists are not pacifists. Workers struggling to defend their right to exist, against foreign occupying armies or against their national exploiters, will have to find ways and means to arm themselves. But the question of arms is linked to that of power. Some, including the Green Environmentalist and self-styled humanitarian Yannick Jadot (who stood in the Presidential election), compare the situation in Ukraine in 2022 to Republican Spain of 1936, which was fighting against Franco's troops, to justify sending weapons. But in Spain at the time, it was not weapons that were most lacking, but a revolutionary policy. Before Franco's military victory, the Spanish workers and peasants were politically disarmed by the republicans, socialists and Stalinists, who refused to ratify the expropriation of the big landlords and capitalists, who refused to proclaim the independence of Morocco and who took back by force the control of the workers' militias and the international brigades, submitting them to the command of republican army officers. Such measures, had the working class been able to implement them, would have been a powerful lever against Franco, just as they were during the Russian revolution of 1917. Long before they take up physical weapons, workers need political weapons: the awareness that they must organise themselves separately, defend their class interests, and take power over the whole of society. This is true in times of peace and it remains true when war breaks out. 

    The invasion of Ukraine by Putin's armies has pushed the world into an era of accelerating militarism and perhaps also, a march towards all-out war. Faced with the militarisation of the whole society, in all countries of the world, just before the Second World War, Trotsky's Transitional Programme of 1938 proclaims: "Not a man, not a penny for the bourgeois government! No armaments programme, but a programme of public works! Complete independence of the workers' organisations from military and police control!" But it also says, "Military training and arming of workers and farmers under direct control of workers’ and farmers’ committees; creation of military schools for the training of commanders among the toilers, chosen by workers’ organisations; substitution for the standing army of a people’s militia, indissolubly linked up with factories, mines, farms, etc..."

    Workers and young people must not allow themselves to be trapped into submitting to the control and influence of officers and non-commissioned officers who try to inculcate in them obedience to the hierarchy, love of the fatherland and a few other "virtues", such as hatred of foreigners, machismo or alcoholism... If they have to learn how to handle weapons, this must be carried out at their place of work or study and by teachers they have chosen. But they must keep in mind that in wars between imperialist brigands or between powers that are ready to throw their people into war to preserve their access to markets and raw materials, "the main enemy is in their own country"

21 March 2022