Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to widespread outrage, but also debates on the left about how best to respond to the wider political issues that the war raises. rs21 member Colin Wilson argues for an opposition to the war that avoids siding with the West’s rulers.
Anti-war protest, central London 6th March 2022. Photo by Steve Eason.
In the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, millions of people have been appalled by the loss of life and other human suffering. Thousands of people have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes. But we’re also seeing the Tories trying to use the war to push their own agenda, and some on the left taking positions which don’t help us resist that Tory offensive. So, as well as demanding an end to the violence, we need to take a step back from the war and look at how global politics works in general.
Capitalism is based on competition, and we’ve reached a stage in the development of capitalism where economic competition between capitalists for markets has become intertwined with military competition between states for territory and resources. This is what we mean by imperialism. The whole world is divided between capitalist states, a small number of which dominate the others.
As Pete Cannell argued on this website recently, America is the greatest imperialist power, though it has been in economic decline for decades. China is a rapidly rising power. Russia is a second level power, with an economy smaller than Italy’s but still possessing nuclear weapons. The Russian government has invaded Ukraine in a bid to assert itself as a major power after its political and economic decline in the 1990s.
Both Western and Russian media focus on Putin’s personality, which plainly has some importance, but isn’t the main issue here. Much more important is the historical process Tony Wood describes in his book Russia without Putin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, eastern European governments were keen to join the neoliberal order, which they assumed would lead to prosperity, and that meant joining Nato and the EU. By 2013, ten countries were members of both.
The Russian ruling class had assumed that they would get to join Nato too – as late as 2013, a Russian foreign policy statement described the country as ’an integral and inseparable part of European civilization’ and stressed the importance of ‘relations with the Euro-Atlantic states’. But the presence of a large and nuclear-armed country like Russia in Nato would threaten American dominance of the alliance, so this wasn’t something the American government could consider.
The Russian government thus found itself isolated, with four Nato countries on its borders, and the possibility that Ukraine, a much larger country, would also become a Nato member. Western leaders as recently as last month were stressing that this was a possible outcome – ‘Ukraine can join Nato if it wants to’, in the words of Boris Johnson. (Johnson, ever the shameless opportunist, has since changed his position to ‘there’s no way Ukraine is going to join Nato any time soon’.) Lacking the ability to apply economic pressure to the Ukrainian government, the Russian regime invaded in the hope of installing Ukrainian rulers who would reject any attempt to become Nato members.
The starting point of a socialist response to this must be to reject imperialism and capitalism as a system. We don’t accept that rival imperialist states have the right to fight over resources and use workers as cannon fodder to do so. We don’t try to work out which imperialist is slightly less evil than the others. We take an internationalist position which wants to see imperialist ruling classes on all sides emerge weakened and discredited from their adventures in war, and which builds links between workers internationally.
Anti-war protest, central London 6th March 2022. Photo by Steve Eason.
It’s straightforward to apply these principles when imperialist powers fight each other directly. But in many conflicts since World War Two, the risk of nuclear war meant that superpowers fought via proxies, in smaller countries, sometimes colonies or former colonies. Because we want to see imperialist ruling classes weakened, we support anti-colonial struggles – and more generally, we welcome countries refusing to accept imperialist domination. We don’t forget that the small country is also a capitalist power – we argue that the more genuine democracy exists in that country, the more workers control that struggle, the more successful it is likely to be.
How does this apply to Ukraine? There are two aspects to the war. Firstly, Russia’s invasion is an act of imperialist aggression. We condemn it, we demand the withdrawal of Russian forces and we hope that the failure of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine weakens an authoritarian regime which oppresses millions of people in Russia. We stand in solidarity with the courageous people of the Russian peace movement. The Ukrainian people have the right to decide on their own future.
But secondly, the longer the war goes on, the more it becomes a proxy conflict between rival imperialists. After all, Nato countries are providing weapons to the Ukrainian forces on a massive scale, going as far as they can without provoking Russia into open – possibly nuclear – war. So as well as condemning Russia, we need to condemn Nato. When we see TV news about the suffering in Ukraine, reporters don’t put those horrors into the context of international politics over the last thirty years – we need to be aware of both the current suffering and the context which led to it. Nor can we accept the uncritical support for the Ukrainian government we’re seeing from many politicians and much of the media.
If we’re to take Ukraine seriously we need to appreciate the complexities of its history, its instability since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the repressive nature of some recent initiatives, such as closing TV stations and banning opposition parties – the Ukrainian left organisation Sotsialnyi Rukh (The Social Movement) has issued a statement expressing concerns about this. And, while we shouldn’t exaggerate the influence of fascists on Ukrainian society and the government, it’s also clear that we can’t ignore it either.
Here in Britain, we have to be wary of attempts by our rulers to use the war to push their own agendas. Some of these attempts are so crude as to be counter-productive, as when Johnson on Saturday compared those fighting the Russian invasion in Ukraine to people who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum. Liz Truss has argued that the war should make us forget struggles against racism or transphobia – or as she put it, ‘ludicrous debates about languages, statues and pronouns’. The Tories will be happy to see the war divert attention from ‘partygate’ or from Covid, especially as infection and hospitalisation levels rise.
In the longer term, the Tories will be hoping to rehabilitate ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a pretext for war. Western rulers regularly claimed that their wars were motivated by humanitarian concerns – for example, to liberate Afghan women. After the disasters caused by Western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, such claims lost credibility, so that Cameron’s attempt to intervene in Syria in 2013 was voted down in parliament. Now support for Nato and Western intervention is back on the agenda – and as part of their attempt to reclaim the ground they lost in 2003, the government and Tory press have launched attacks on the Stop the War Coalition, which has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the start.
Those attacks have been aided, of course, by Keir Starmer, eager to demonstrate to the British state that he can be trusted with its armed forces. Anyone tempted to believe the Tories’ expressions of humanitarian concern for Ukrainian people should remember that, three weeks into the war, arrangements for Ukrainian refugees coming to Britain are still a shambles. Even more alarming is that this rehabilitation of war – including Germany doubling its military spending – is taking place in the context of growing inter-imperialist rivalry between the US, along with Britain and EU members, and China.
The left, then, should take the position that we condemn both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Nato’s longstanding isolation of Russia, which provided the context for that invasion. The last thing we should do is to trust a lying narcissist like Johnson or believe he takes any interest in the wellbeing of the Ukrainian people. Our slogan must be “Russia Out of Ukraine – Britain Out of Nato”.
This means that we can’t agree with the positions put by some other left organisations and commentators. For example, authors such as Paul Mason and George Monbiot have repeatedly conflated any criticism of Nato with support for Russia. The numbers on the left actually supporting Russia, explicitly or otherwise, are in fact tiny. Their logic is that you have to take sides, and mustn’t support your own rulers, so you support the other ruling class instead – which is why supporters of Russia are more numerous, regrettably, on the American left than they are here.
Mason has gone even further in giving wholehearted support to Nato. He argues that, if not defeated in Ukraine, Russia will seek to occupy ‘Moldova, Poland, the Baltics and possibly Finland’. When the Russian army is in enough trouble in Ukraine, it’s hard to see how this can happen. Mason also claims that the left has a chance to reshape Nato as a ‘democratised alliance’ – but, again, provides no explanation of how a democratic movement can take control of forces including the US army.
Finally, if we oppose both the Russian invasion and Nato, what does that mean in practice? If we argue against a no-fly zone, if we don’t want to see Nato bases in the Baltic states on Russia’s borders, what concrete, military solution do we propose instead? We have to respond that we don’t command states or armies, and it would be absurd to answer as if we did, or as if we were playing a computer game involving a fantasy scenario where we command Nato or Russian forces. We don’t offer a military solution, but a political one.
We call for the war to end and Russian forces to get out of Ukraine.
We stand with the courageous people in Russia who have publicly opposed the war.
We hope that the outcome of the war weakens Putin, and encourages Russian people to organise against their corrupt, neoliberal ruling class.
We demand that Ukrainian refugees be allowed to enter Britain without visas – and that refugees from any other country can do the same.
We call for the cancellation of Ukraine’s debt so that resources can go towards rebuilding the country.
We don’t for a moment trust Johnson’s government when it has taken donations from Russian billionaires and given Evgeny Lebedev a seat in the House of Lords.
We don’t look to Nato forces to stop war when Britain and America have killed thousands in Afghanistan since 2001 and now left the country to starve. We call for Britain to leave Nato, and for Nato to be abolished.
We should urgently increase the share of Britain’s energy supply we get from renewables, keeping the carbon in the ground and reducing imperialist conflicts over access to gas and oil, and oppose any moves to reinstate fracking or restart North Sea oil or gas drilling.