Socialists and the war in Ukraine

01 July 2023

Political Committee Statement 01/07/23

FOURTEEN MONTHS of terrible suffering for the civilian population of Ukraine since Russia’s reactionary invasion of the country found its most recent expression in the deliberately targeted attack on a pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk, in which 12 people, including children, were killed. The town saw even worse last year, when a missile struck its railway station killing 63 people, including nine children, and injuring over 150.

Since then Russia has continued to use its huge stock of ballistic missiles, plus swarms of drones, aimed at terrorising the population into submission. These attacks are a sure sign of an imperialist ‘great power’ at work.

Now ensconced behind a multi-layered fortified line over 2,000 km long, which it will be difficult for Ukrainian forces to breach without enormous casualties, the war is set to drag on for the foreseeable future. Putin hopes that the US and Nato will not have the resources for another ‘forever war’ like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that he will be able to extract territorial concessions.

Putin sees Ukraine as part of Russia’s rightful empire; assembled under the Tsars from the 16th to the early 19th century by conquest and colonisation. No wonder Lenin — whom Putin hates and cannot stop attacking in his speeches — called it ‘a prison of the peoples’. For hundreds of years Ukraine was the jewel in the crown of this empire. After the briefest period of autonomy under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Stalin subjected it to a national oppression every bit as cruel as that of the Tsars, including the purges which liquidated the ‘nationalist’ intelligentsia, followed by the famine induced by forced collectivisation which decimated the Ukrainian peasantry.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 its population voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Russia. Since then, nearly all Russian politicians, liberals as well as right wing conservatives, have viewed this as a blow to Russia as the great power it had been under the Tsars, and in the post-WW2 order under the degenerated Stalinist regime which usurped control of the USSR after the death of Lenin. In 2005 Putin called the territorial disintegration of the USSR ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’ and has since then repeatedly denied Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and indeed its very existence as a separate nation.

Great power conflict

Ukraine is, in global terms, a small nation caught between two imperialist power blocs who look on it greedily, due to its natural resources, its educated workforce that is ripe for super-exploitation by multinationals, and its geo-strategic position. Its governments and bourgeoisie vacillated between Russia and the West for 30 years since the restoration of capitalism.

However, the last 10 years marked a decisive change in the world situation. The antagonism between the ‘old’ imperialist powers — the USA and its allies — and the new imperialist competitors — China and Russia — has deepened, opening up a new phase in the struggle for the redivision of the world.

Ukraine exploded into violence with the Maidan movement and subsequent coup in 2014, followed by the open seizure by Russia of Crimea and its support for pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, the predominantly Russian speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine collectively known as the Donbas. A substantial part of the population of this region had been alienated by the deployment of Western Ukrainian forces and fascist militias in the wake of the Maidan coup, in which the latter played a key part.

Following this the remainder of Ukraine became a semi-colony of Western imperialism. Nato began arming Ukraine, and Ukraine began lobbying Nato and the EU for membership. This gave Putin a propaganda pretext he could sell to the Russian population to justify the eventual invasion.


The Ukraine war has caused confusion on the left because of its combination of a justified war of national defence from the perspective of the Ukrainians; a war of imperialist aggression from the perspective of Russia; and US and Nato’s use of Ukrainian forces as a proxy in its inter-imperialist rivalry with Russia.

Stalinists, and even some self-designated Trotskyists, who consider the USA to be the only serious imperialist power, still see any state that opposes it as somehow ‘anti-imperialist’. This has led to denials of the legitimate right of Ukrainians to defend themselves from the invasion. On the other side you have renegade ‘socialists’ like Paul Mason, who have swallowed Nato’s propaganda that it is a crusader for democracy, supporting its launch of a New Cold War, its expansion into Scandinavia, and its huge rearmament drive.

Neither of these perspectives represents the independent working class position that should be adopted by revolutionary communists.

Workers Power and the League for the Fifth International recognised from the beginning Ukraine’s right to defend itself against the Russian invasion, and to drive its forces out of their country if they could. At the same time we condemned Nato’s undeclared war on Russia, the G7 economic sanctions, and the huge arms build up in Eastern Europe.

Nato’s real goal is to weaken Russia as an imperialist rival on the world stage and thus render it incapable of challenging the USA in theatres like the Middle East and subsaharan Africa. Other motives are to sabotage the economic links of the EU with Russia and send a warning to the USA’s main rival 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.

Internationalists worldwide must resist being drawn into any of the imperialist camps, either by their claims to represent democracy, or anti-imperialism. In all the imperialist powers we maintain a strict policy of revolutionary defeatism, working to build a mass working class anti-war movement to expose the war aims of the imperialist bourgeoisie. We seek to develop the class struggle into social revolutions within these powers, smashing the capitalist state apparatus and replacing this with a workers’ government on the basis of the democratic organisations of the working class. For the workers of these countries, the main enemy is at home.

Our position

In invaded or occupied semi-colonial countries, such as Ukraine, defence of the right to self-determination must include the right to receive weapons and other forms of aid necessary to wage a military struggle — for as long as such a war remains a just war of national defence, and is not a war waged in alliance with and on behalf of the predatory wars of conquest by the great powers. We do not in any sense support the present political leaderships of these states. Socialists recognise that in the present system of imperialism in which many small states and nations are oppressed and exploited by a handful of great powers, Ukraine cannot achieve real economic independence. That is why, for revolutionary socialists, the struggle to defend Ukraine’s political independence must be connected to the struggle for permanent revolution — the expropriation of the oligarchs, nationalisation of land and industry, and a social revolution, which is the only basis for securing real self-determination and independence for all the peoples of Ukraine and Russia.

At the beginning of the war, the League for the Fifth International and Workers Power took an inconsistent position when, despite recognising Ukraine’s justified resistance to the Russian invasion, we did not recognise the right of Ukrainians to receive weapons from the Nato powers. This position would have weakened the self-defence of the popular masses, and would also have weakened the struggle for working class leadership of the defensive struggle in Ukraine.

At our recent Congress, after a democratic internal discussion, the League has recognised and corrected this error. We now make it clear that it was inconsistent on the one hand to support Ukraine’s defence while failing to recognise its right to receive arms from whatever source.

Of course, this does not mean that we politically support Zelensky or his plans to join Nato and the EU, which would make the country completely dependent on US and EU imperialism. We stand for 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’ in the Donbas. We stand for revolution in Ukraine and in Russia, for the dissolution of Nato and Russia’s equivalent in Eurasia, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Our goal is a Socialist United States of Europe, the only final guarantee of peace on the continent.

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