International  •  Party & Programme  •  Theory

A year of war in Ukraine

01 July 2023

Resolution adopted by the L5I Congress, 24 June 2023

1. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine marks a decisive change in the world situation. The antagonism that has been developing for years between the “old” Western imperialist powers, first and foremost the USA and its allies, and China and Russia as new imperialist powers and global competitors, opens up a new stage in the struggle for the redivision of the world.

2. At present, this is being fought mainly on the soil of Ukraine and in the form of an economic war by the sanctions regime initiated by the G7 states. Russia’s reactionary invasion, the open violation of the Ukrainian nation’s right to self-determination, indeed Putin’s denial of its existence, as well as his barbaric conduct of the war, undoubtedly constitute an act of imperialist aggression that has strengthened Ukrainian national consciousness.

The character of the war

3. Thus, taken in isolation, the struggle against the Russian invasion is a justified war of national defence—regardless of the reactionary political character of the Kyiv regime, summed up in its pro-Nato and pro-EU position. But ,for Marxists, the character of the  political regime of a semi-colony, when under attack, is not the decisive factor in characterising a war. For example, the defence of Iraq or Afghanistan against imperialist invasion was justified and worthy of support despite the extremely reactionary character of the regimes in Baghdad and Kabul.

4. However, to determine the character of a war independently of the international situation would also lead to a serious error. Many on the left today have concluded that because the invasion of a semi-colonial country like Ukraine by an imperialist power, with the aim of making it a colony of Russia or at least annexing large parts of its territory, is reactionary, therefore Nato’s support for Ukraine, in the form of unprecedented economic and military assistance, must be justified and progressive.

5. This ignores the fact that Nato’s intervention is motivated not by democratic ideals but by a desire to weaken Russia as its imperialist rival on the world stage and thus render it incapable of challenging the USA in theatres like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Other motives of Washington are to sabotage the economic links of the EU with Russia and to send a warning to China of its undiminished military might and continued economic dominance. In short, Nato’s democratic rhetoric is only cynical camouflage to justify actions motivated exclusively by its own imperialist self-interest.

6. The developments that led to the reactionary invasion by Russia, confirm in several respects that at its core this is not solely a war of national defence, but that the political, economic, and military influence of NATO itself is also a decisive factor and could lead to an inter-imperialist war of unparalleled destructiveness for humanity.

Why Ukraine?

7. The fact that the struggle between the West and Russia has come to a head over Ukraine is no coincidence. Rather, it is itself the result of developments since the collapse of Stalinism, the attempt to establish a new world order and the sharpening conflict with Russia since its reconsolidation as an imperialist power under Putin.

8. The escalation around Ukraine since the 1990s can only be understood in this context. Like the Balkans before 1914, this conflict has long been developing as a powder keg for potential inter-imperialist war. Both as a multi-ethnic state with a large Russian-speaking minority in the south and east and through the continuing links of its economy with Russia, Ukraine after 1991 had initially found itself dependent on the newly established Russian imperialism—which was also reflected in a fragile system of western and eastern Ukrainian political forces and oligarchs.

9. Ukraine was too weak economically and militarily to become an imperialist power itself (especially once it gave up the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons stationed on its territory). Its ‘choice’ was to become a semi-colony either of Russia or of the European Union and the USA. From the point of view of resistance to Russian domination, joining Nato like the other former Warsaw Pact states was the security side of this western orientation. For two decades Ukraine swung between governments pursuing one or other of these orientations, culminating in the 2014 Maidan movement.

10. By then, a strong nationalist movement had emerged, especially in western Ukraine, which wanted a “pro-Western” orientation and a break with Russian dominance. It had an extreme right-wing and fascist wing, Svoboda/Right Sector etc. This ultimately led to civil war when the regime of Yanukovych, representing the previous pro-Russian compromise, called off negotiations for an EU association agreement. This led first to the Euromaidan movement which the regime tried to crush by force. But when Maidan protesters were shot down, the right wing and fascist forces on the Maidan spearheaded a coup which overthrew Yanukovych. The national oppression of the Russian-speaking minorities in Eastern Ukraine created what is effectively a civil war within Ukraine following the 2014 Maidan coup. These minorities also have a legitimate right to national self-determination, further complicating the national question in modern-day Ukraine. The national feelings of the people of these regions has been part of Russian imperialism’s justification for launching this reactionary invasion.

11. Putin’s annexation of Crimea was the Russian response. Then, separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk drove out the Kyiv government forces and proclaimed autonomous “people’s republics”. While the EU leadership around Germany and France sought to defuse the conflict through Minsk 1 and 2 Agreements (2014 and 2015), this was sabotaged by both Moscow and Washington, with the help of Ukrainian nationalists in the Rada who opposed any concessions (autonomy, language rights) to the Russophone minority. Putin’s takeover of the ‘republics’ means that the war has continued with greater or lesser intensity ever since.

Interests of the Western powers

12. Why did such an obvious difference arise between the US and Britain on the one hand and Germany and France leading the EU, on the other? For the latter, an integration of Russia, its enormous raw material potential, and military capacities, has always been a strategic option to gain a certain more independent role vis-à-vis declining US hegemony. The EU’s policy aimed at freezing the Ukraine conflict, similar to that in Yugoslavia, at the level of agreements and trade relations, so that tensions with Russia would ultimately be kept in check. For the USA, on the other hand, Ukraine was a strategic point of attack on the Russian-Chinese alliance, which it had long identified as a dangerous main competitor in the world order. The USA also sees Ukraine as an opportunity to isolate Russia from European markets, simultaneously weakening Russia while furthering European economic and political dependence on itself.

13. Due to the poor performance of the Ukrainian army in 2014, the USA and Britain began to systematically build up a powerful Ukrainian armed force in 2016. Ukraine, a country that has been practically bankrupt since 2015, heavily indebted and languishing under a debt regime of IMF packages, spends a large part of its income on military expenditure and also received billions in annual military aid from the West (from the beginning of 2022 alone until the start of the war, armaments worth 5 billion US dollars). This has not only made it possible to proliferate important weapons systems (drones, missiles, armour-piercing weapons, air defences, etc.) with appropriate training, but has also created an infrastructure of support, from communications to reconnaissance (satellite systems) to strategic-tactical command.

Effects of Nato involvement

14. This also makes it clear that the war in Ukraine differs substantially from those of imperialist armies against semi-colonies, such as the USA against Iraq or the UK against Argentina. It is not a helpless army, hopelessly inferior in weaponry, that is facing a thousand times militarily superior imperialism. Rather, it is an army systematically prepared and equipped by Western imperialism for this war, which has to fight for the interests of its financial backers. With the outbreak of war, their support has multiplied again. This is not only in terms of arms deliveries, but also reconnaissance, training, strategic advice and economic aid.

15. Even if the majority of the Nato countries are not openly deploying troops to participate in the fighting, they have long been involved as arms suppliers, trainers, and financiers. A major restraint, limiting Nato to using Ukraine as its “proxy” is, of course, the danger of the war expanding into a direct Nato-Russia confrontation, which could also involve the use of nuclear weapons. Russia on the other hand has several times threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons, to pressure Nato to limit its involvement. For this reason, the war has been mainly fought on Ukrainian territory. However in recent weeks there seems to be a shift in this (border raids by Ukrainian equipped Russian militias, mysterious drone attacks in Moscow, etc.). The response from western governments was mixed: While the global hegemon (the US) called for caution, at least one minor but important power (the UK) said that Ukraine had a “right to project force beyond its borders”.

16. The way in which the prevailing “democratic” war narrative of Nato now downplays the danger of an expansion of the war, and the confrontation of the blocs, serves to justify an increasingly offensive and direct intervention in Ukraine—ultimately with the aim of defeating Russia militarily and politically. However, the transition to a limited intra-imperialist war cannot be ruled out either. After all, the logic of the expansion of warfare is directly inherent in the current conflict. In this sense, too, this war cannot simply be regarded as an isolated conflict.

An auxiliary or essential part of the inter-imperialist conflict?

17. In addition to the military escalation of the inter-imperialist conflict the situation also has a direct economic aspect. The economic sanctions imposed by the West (exclusion from SWIFT, freezing of the international foreign exchange reserves of the Russian Central Bank, suspension of the activities of Western corporations in Russia, far-reaching trade restrictions, etc.) are indeed of a magnitude never seen before in history (not even in the previous world wars). The degree of Western support is thus not merely an accessory with regard to the war, but an essential ‘moment’ decisive for its character. Of course, in numerous wars of a semi-colony against an imperialist power or an imperialist alliance of states, we often find an intervention of a competing power on the side of the oppressed nation. But this usually has only an episodic, subordinate character that does not change that of the war.

18. However, this is by no means a subordinate aspect of every war between an imperialist power and a semi-colony. It is when a direct inter-imperialist war breaks out that this is most evident. For example, in the case of the Balkan countries in WW1, there was no doubt that once the war had broken out, the otherwise justified national defence of Serbia against the attack by Austria became a subordinate moment. It would have been reactionary to have taken a position of support for Serbia’s protectors and allies, the Entente powers (France, Russia and Britain). It was not possible, as long as the imperialist war lasted, to take a separate position of support for Serbia.

19. In the war over Ukraine, we are not dealing with an openly declared war between Russia and the Nato countries, but the Western powers, above all the USA, have a major influence on the conduct and aims of the war in Ukraine. It would be mechanical to conclude from the fact that Nato troops are not directly and openly active in the country that their intervention is of secondary importance (see above). However, for Ukraine and its workers and farmers the war is primarily a war of self-defence against an invading oppressor state. Outside of Ukraine the conflict between Russia and Nato has a reactionary character that socialists have to oppose.

20. Thus the war, and huge “Western” support for Ukraine, has given the conflict a multiple character – a war of aggression waged on the territory of Ukraine, to which has been added the aspect of a proxy war between the imperialist powers by Nato’s materiel and strategic information plus a Cold War by sanctions of the G7 states against Russia. The course of the war has confirmed this assessment and political conclusion. At the same time, we must note that revolutionary politics in this war is taking different forms in Russia, in the Western Nato countries and in Ukraine itself.

For the defeat of Russian imperialism

21. Russia is an imperialist power engaged directly in an attempt to occupy Ukraine in whole or in part. Thus the policy of revolutionary defeatism applies here most clearly in Russia. Russia’s defeat and setbacks can stimulate revolution and shake Putin’s rule. The decisive goal is the transformation of the reactionary war into a class war for its overthrow and the establishment of a workers’ government. Immediately, this is what is at stake in Russia:

22. Putin’s decision to annex the districts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson with pseudo-referendums, together with the partial mobilisation of 300,000 reservists in Russia, is a reactionary act of desperation that at the same time expresses his weakness.

23. Due to the military defeats, the threatened conscription of hundreds of thousands who are to be used as cannon fodder in Ukraine, and the precarious economic situation, the situation in Russia will come to a head. But this also depends to a large extent on the extent and strength of the nationalist propaganda, or whether it is called into question by political, military and economic upheavals. The support of anti-imperialist, internationalist forces in Russia is essential to advance the building of a revolutionary organisation in the country.

24. While our overarching goal in Russia is the overthrow of the Russian government by a democratic anti-war movement and the building of a wider socialist movement preparing itself for power, we do not see Putin’s overthrow as a precondition of Russian defeat. Rather, the quicker Russia’s forces are militarily defeated, the greater the prospects for the overthrow of Putin. In the context of Ukraine’s resistance to imperialist aggression, we are for the military defeat of Russian forces and their withdrawal from Ukrainian territory.

Revolutionary politics in Ukraine

25. Here the situation is probably the most difficult—both for the masses, the victims of the invasion, and for tactics, because, on the one hand, the inter-imperialist conflict also plays a formative role and, on the other hand, there is also the important element of real national oppression. This means that revolutionaries should defend the right of Ukrainian workers and farmers to resist the Russian occupation, but without giving any form of support to the Zelensky government, and without sowing any illusions in the motives of the Nato imperialist powers. Actually, the core of the “national self-determination” of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie consists in subordinating the country to the EU-US political-economic and security apparatus. It is no coincidence that its war aims are essentially congruent with those of the West and above all of the USA—including the fact that it accepts the danger of a development into a full imperialist war, and even demands it.

26. In Ukraine, however, this policy of the regime in no way excludes supporting the struggle against occupation. It would be absurd to declare that the question of Russian tanks and planes flattening entire cities has no meaning. We recognise that Ukraine, despite its bourgeois leadership and despite Western influence, has a right to self-defence against Russian occupation. This includes recognising Ukraine’s right to acquire the necessary weapons to do so.

27. But this support from the western imperialists does not come for free. As the Ukraine was practically bankrupt already before the war, it was receiving in the first war year an amount of military and economic support that was about the size of a pre-war yearly GDP. The economic aid was provided via credits that have to be paid back with interest. In March 2023, the IMF has announced a new $15.6 billion programme (one of the largest in its history) that is combined with far reaching demands for the future of a post-war Ukraine. Western commentators have stressed that the participation of the IMF in the Ukraine-aid is essential for having its “experience in rebuilding” a bankrupt state. It is quite clear that this form of western “support” is the preparation of a semi-colonial future of Ukraine with terrible consequences for the workers and peasants. President Zelensky already held speeches in front of bankers from JP Morgan, Goldman-Sachs and others in which he promised unlimited returns for their “generous investments”. It is essential to build resistance against this increasing grip of western finance capital on the Ukraine, by demanding the cancelation of debts, the rejection of any “economic advisors” coming alongside western aid and the development of democratic control over the aid delivered until now. Ukraine has to be enabled to acquire and produce weapons by itself, without being dependent on western deliveries – and the consequential transformation into a semi-colony of western imperialism!

28. On the other hand, progressive forces in Ukraine must not give any support to Zelensky’s goal of military and economic integration of Ukraine into the “West” (Nato membership or ‘neutrality’ with Western security guarantees) as well as the forcible integration, at the cost of a protracted war, of the so-called People’s Republics and Crimea, into a “one and indivisible” Ukraine. These regions must have the right to freely express their own self-determination, without the presence of occupying forces from either Moscow or Kyiv.

29. In the factories and the workplaces, it remains vital to defend the living and working conditions, and trade union and democratic rights, of the workers. This is not counter-posed to the defence against the Russian attackers. Rather it strengthens the resilience and morale of the ordinary people. We defend their rights against the anti-union measures adopted by Zelensky. This defence must include the rights of volunteers in defence units and the regular armed forces against right wing nationalist and fascist commanders and forces. The last months have expressed the anti-working class and pro-imperialist character of the Ukraine regime even more clearly. However, this does not mean that the self-defence of the country has lost its meaning. As long as the national struggle maintains a just character against the Russian invasion, it would be self-defeating for revolutionaries to abandon this struggle. It would mean to leave a powerful weapon for rallying the masses in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionaries rather need to combine support of the national self-defence with fighting for working class independence and exposing the reactionary character of the Ukrainian regime and its imperialist backers.

30. The League correctly stressed the key role of the inter-imperialist conflict from the beginning. At the same time, it recognised that the “justified response against national oppression, which is a key obstacle for the advance of the Russian troops, deserves the support of revolutionaries. The Ukrainian masses have the right to defend themselves and their country against Russian occupation.” But we did so in an inconsistent way when we did not recognise the right of the Ukrainians to receive the means for his end. We correct this error, which would not only have weakened the self-defence of the popular masses, but also would have weakened the struggle for working class leadership in the Ukraine.

31. Revolutionaries in Ukraine must pursue the class struggle even if this today has above all a politically preparatory character. Central elements of revolutionary politics must include the following:

32. On this latter point, we must make it absolutely clear that the future of the so-called People’s Republics and Crimea must not be decided by the Ukrainian nationalist regime, nor by Russia or Nato. We therefore advocate the recognition of Ukraine as a state and the complete withdrawal of Russian troops. At the same time, we defend the right of self-determination for Crimea and the “People’s Republics” (including their right to join Russia or to become independent state). However, only a socialist federation of workers’ states can stop the various nationalist ruling classes inflaming hostilities in their own interests.

Don’t give NATO a foothold

33. In the Western imperialist states and their supporters, it is important to prevent the further escalation of the conflict into an openly declared inter-imperialist conflagration, any deepening of the new cold war, and also to struggle against the imposition of a global sanctions regime. Our objective is not only to raise the question of costs, attacks on democratic rights, etc., but also to explain why the Western states are not defending “democracy” and human rights, but are pursuing their own imperialist interests.

34. It is essential to reject sanctions, rearmament, NATO mobilisation to the eastern borders, massive arms deliveries or “limited” no-fly zones. Pointing out that Nato policies, rearmament and sanctions are expensive leaves a bad taste when the claimed war aims of Nato countries— defence of the oppressed—seem just. Therefore, the war aims and class character of imperialist policy must also be exposed. While NATO’s existence (or expansion for that matter) will not be challenged on the battlefield in Ukraine, the outcome of the war is of primary importance for the global balance of power between the West and Russia (and China). In the parliaments, the members of working class parties must vote against all arms deliveries and military support, because these—whether intended or not—would be tantamount to a political legitimisation of the war aims of the Nato states and their allies.

35. While we reject a sabotage of the Ukrainian war effort, which includes not opposing arm shipments going into Ukraine, we must be clear about what NATO mobilisation to its eastern borders as well as militarisation (which is most pronounced in Eastern Europe) and ring trades mean. In view of the close intermingling of arms deliveries to Ukraine and NATO rearmament, e.g. via the system of ring exchanges and the replacement of old weapons stocks with modernisation of army stocks, workers and trade unions must demand the disclosure of all deliveries. We fight for worker’s control over the transport sector so that our class can distinguish between arm shipments going to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and arms shipments for troop deployment, militarisation and ring trades and thus decide, which transports are to be allowed through and which are to be stopped.

36. The Western and Nato powers are not only supporting Ukraine politically, financially, and militarily in order to pursue their own geo-political and economic interests. They also have started economic warfare in order to put Russian imperialism on rations. Economic sanctions have become a key instrument of the US and other powers to impose their goals vis à vis other countries. For this, they are not only prepared to make the workers of their own country pay for the economic crisis and inflation triggered by it, but also the workers, peasants and poor in the global south.

37. The western imperialists are not only involved in large armament /arms-delivery programmes and an economic warfare against Russia – they are also waging a big ideological campaign. After the “war on terror” the western imperialists are now in a universal “war for democracy”. NATO is presented as a new kind of “Anti-Hitler” coalition – and anybody who is critical of any NATO extension/super-armament or any further escalation in the conflict with Russia, or even China, is either declared to be a “Putin puppet” or at best as a naïve appeasement-idiot. This is not only a mighty ideological campaign in the western imperialist countries, but also extends to political pressures on semi-colonial governments to decide which side they want to be on (and that is then also combined with economic pressure). The hypocrisy of this democratic pose is revealed by the recent lifting of the veto by the (not particularly democratic) Nato-member Turkey of Finland and Sweden joining the military alliance, in exchange for formal cooperation in the Erdogan administration’s fight against Kurdish oppositionists in the PKK and YPG, which it labels as terrorist organisations. The whole history of Nato shows that it is an essential part of the repression of any democratic movement that might be against the interests of the USA and its main allies (see Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc.). We stand firm in the rejection of NATO and similar institutions of “democratic imperialism”, as the “democracy” they defend is one of a privileged minority on the globe that in the end only defends the democracy of the 1% of the richest persons in the “western democracies”.

38. Central slogans in the western imperialist states are:

39. This is crucial not only for the class struggle in the imperialist countries and other Nato countries. At the same time, the progressive movements and organisations in Russia as well as in Ukraine must be strengthened by making it clear that the working class is pursuing an independent policy that recognises the main enemy in its own bourgeoisie.

Further developments

40. The further development of the war in Ukraine will be a decisive factor for world politics in the coming months, if not years.

41. The fact that the international economic isolation of Russia by Nato and the G7 is meeting with massive difficulties and that not only China but also large semi-colonial economies are refusing to go along fully with the embargoes has several causes. First, support for sanctions and a proxy war against Russia is much weaker, if it exists at all, in the semi-colonies. The democratic-imperialist ideology of the West is much less effective there. Secondly, however, it also expresses the shaking of US hegemony and a shift in the global balance of power. This is why the sanctions against Russia could turn into an economic boomerang, especially for the EU states. However, given the importance of the war over Ukraine and the economic war against Russia, that either side will relent and compromise is anything but certain, despite these obvious difficulties.

42. On the other hand, the war, the sanctions and tendencies to fragment the world market, make a deep economic crisis very likely in the coming months, which will manifest itself in the form of price increases, impoverishment and, in the semi-colonial countries, even the threat of famine. The war and struggle for the re-division of the world will massively intensify these crisis tendencies—creating waves of class struggle, pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations. This puts the need for the building of revolutionary parties and a new revolutionary International firmly on the agenda.

43. There are several options for the further development of the war.

– One immediate likely development is that both sides will further increase their war efforts. For Ukraine this would mean more armaments and economic support from the West. This would go hand in hand with massive building of NATO and also introductions of elements of a war economy. Russia already has restructured its economy in that direction. The sanctions of the West and the war have revealed the weakness of Russian imperialism, but it has also made it much more dependent on China, as the economically and, over time, also militarily more powerful imperialism. China on the other hand cannot afford an open Russian defeat.

– But, since it is unlikely that either side would gain a sweeping military victory, this would either lead to a war of position for a longer period, costing the lives of another tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. If one side were to lose on the other hand, this could lead to further, desperate actions and an escalation of the war beyond Ukraine.

– However, it could also lead to a different scenario, where the imperialist war gives way to an imperialist peace. The war and its economic effects have not only affected Russia, but also the whole world economy. It has hit the semi-colonial world, but also the Western powers. Whilst they want to contain and isolate Russia, a collapse and disintegration of Russian imperialism is not what they want, given the instability this would add to the world. Secondly, there are also massive economic and social costs for the West, which are difficult to absorb in a period of global crisis and increased rivalry with China rather than Russia.

– Therefore, at some point, a freezing of the war may occur in the coming year. It would probably take the form of imperialist imposed peace talks (possible with some UN cover or involving some of the more powerful semi-colonies like India, Turkey or Brazil as “independent” forces). Such a “peace” would be at the expanse of the Ukrainian workers and peasants in the first place. It would probably lead to a division of the country and it would lead to the class struggle taking on new forms.

Whilst clearly the working class has no interest in a war of attrition over years, it must also reject a “peace” imposed by the imperialist powers for several reasons. Firstly, it might include some concessions on Russia’s territorial conquests, freezing not only the conflict with new expanded boundaries, but the deep national oppression of Ukrainians, Ukrainian and Russian speakers alike, who now live under an open, chauvinist dictatorship that denies them their identity, national rights (education, cultural freedom etc) and of the hundreds of thousands who have fled the occupation to become refugees. Secondly, while it may well find support from the Ukrainian government and the oligarchs, it will be a disaster for the masses – making Ukraine an impoverished semi-colony of Western imperialist powers who will themselves struggle over their share of the wealth (both natural resources and labour power) of the country.

Such a development will change the forms and priorities of the class struggle in all countries – putting on the agenda the struggle against an imposed, unjust peace to the benefit of the imperialists and the Ukrainian ruling class. It would also put on the agenda the need for a joint struggle against the exploitation of the country by global capital and for a united European movement to resist it – a movement which would need to combine the struggle for self-determination and against capitalist exploitation with the struggle for a United Socialist States of Europe. This puts the need for the building of revolutionary parties and a new revolutionary International firmly on the agenda.

Revolutionary Marxists should advocate ending the Ukraine war on a just and democratic basis: Russia out of Ukraine, no to the inter-imperialist cold war, and self-determination for the Crimea and Donbas republics. This in the longer-term perspective of an independent socialist Ukraine, since nothing short of that would bring a just and lasting peace.

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