The New Left Review editorial describes five aspects of the war as ‘different types of conflict—civil, defensive- revanchist, national-resistance, imperial-primacy, Sino-American.’
‘The fourth type of conflict, then, is the one being waged by the Biden Administration. A former CIA chief describes it as a proxy war . . . Leon Panetta, ‘It’s a proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not’, (Bloomberg tv, 17 March 2022) . . . Yet the goal of Biden’s sanctions was not just to put an economic chokehold on the invasion of Ukraine; their aims, the Economist explained, are more sweeping— ‘to impair Russia’s productive capacity and technological sophistication’ and deter China.’
‘The character of the Biden Administration’s conflict with Russia is unambiguously ‘imperialist’, in the sense that it aims at regime change and the assertion of American hegemony over the Eurasian continent . . . In another sense, the Ukraine war is a massive distraction from the Democrats’ real priority: domestic revival to ensure American primacy in the strategic rivalry with China, where the US also hopes to see another type of regime installed in due course.’
This is where ‘the spectre of a fifth type of conflict intervenes, over-determining Washington’s reactions to Ukraine: the coming battle with Beijing.’
This analysis of the war as involving five, perhaps six conflicts; possibly seven if the ‘big gain in soldering Europe to Washington’ is included, is inspired by Ernest Mandel’s analysis of the various conflicts in the Second World War. His analysis, however, involves separation of the war into distinct wars identified by their political character. At its most simple, the New Left Review editorial identifies only three: a civil war within Ukraine, a war of national defence by the Ukrainian state and an imperialist war.
The conflict long ago (in 2014) left the terrain of a civil war and the war of ‘national-resistance’, which, in the language of NLR, might be described as ‘overdetermined’ by the US struggle to significantly cripple Russia–itself ‘overdetermined’ by the struggle against China–is therefore subordinated to the objective of ‘American hegemony over the Eurasian continent.’ This necessarily also entails subordination of Europe to US hegemony, achieved mainly through sanctions but spectacularly demonstrated by the almost certain US-determined sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines.
New Left Review argues that its five wars create an escalatory dynamic. This has included the scuppering of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in March and April by the United States, acting through Boris Johnson, of all people. This has been denied by supporters of Ukraine for whom the purity of its cause rivals that of the immaculate conception, made all the more luminous set against the evil of Russia.
Despite its turbulent and conflicted history and its renowned corruption, its cause is unblemished either by its internal politics or all this external realpolitik context. To defend such a position an alien power can only be responsible for the tragedy on whose door all blame can be laid. These defenders of the Ukrainian state thereby claim that ‘Russian diplomacy was always a smokescreen’ and nothing it says can be taken at face value.
Their argument is derived from the assertion “that the logic of Russia’s behaviour regarding Ukraine and the ‘collective West’ more broadly is driven by territorial expansion and the opportunistic use of violence.” From this vantage point nothing Russia has done, or can do outside of capitulation, can be trusted and all actions can only be interpreted with this intent. An argument is thereby offered, which doesn’t prove that Russia has been insincere, but simply commits to no proof being necessary.
So, ‘Russia’s insistence on implementing the Minsk II Accords in Donbas’ was not ‘proof of [a] preference for diplomacy, and accepting it is only to make the mistake of taking ‘the Kremlin’s statements at face value.’
While it is claimed that support by Russia for the Minsk agreements was false, it is also claimed that ‘they weren’t a magic recipe for peace, but a tool of Russian military-diplomatic pressure whose meaning and use changed over time.‘
‘While in 2014-2017 the implementation of the Minsk Accords could have led to a negotiated reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine under international supervision, the international situation and Russia’s intentions have changed.’
Nowhere is it acknowledged that Ukraine had repeatedly rejected these agreements in practice and continued to treat the separate regions as the consequence of simple terrorism, hence its anti-terrorist operation to recapture them.
It is claimed that ‘the Ukrainian leadership pursued a ceasefire in Donbas from the summer of 2020’ while ‘the Kremlin used it as a bargaining chip to put pressure on Zelensky’s government and to create a flimsy pretext for an invasion.’ In fact the ceasefire was temporary and both separatist and Ukrainian forces carried out attacks, which increased just before the invasion.
The apologists for the Ukrainian state continue: ‘Zelensky’s last-ditch attempts to return to the negotiations in late 2021 were rejected by Putin, who tore up the Minsk Accords by recognising the independence of the breakaway regions.’ This claim may be a reference to the purported offer reported by Reuters, here and here for example, but which Russia has denied.
The authors state that before the invasion ‘the US and Europe made efforts to take Russia’s security preoccupations seriously, agreeing to make concessions in the areas of arms control and limitations on military exercises. Additionally, Joe Biden promised Putin that no missiles would be placed in Ukraine . . .’
Given the pre-history of NATO expansion; withdrawal from existing arms control treaties; the commitment of Ukraine to NATO membership; the endorsement of Ukrainian security policy by the US; increased participation of Ukraine in NATO exercises; a history of lying about NATO interventions in Eastern Europe and also, for example, in Libya; it is not credible to claim that at this late stage these US statements demonstrate that the war was avoidable through western good intentions.
The US claimed to know that the invasion would take place and made preparations for it; it cost nothing and was completely cynical to promise diplomatic talks involving concessions. On the Russian part, it was equally cynical then to demand NATO concessions it knew would not be delivered and to deny that an invasion was planned. Both were simply setting out positions just before war; nothing unusual in this.
Socialists need to cut through the lies of bourgeois diplomacy, not embroider it with nonsense that NATO ‘didn’t have a mechanism’ to agree steps that would prevent the invasion, or didn’t have time to do it. This war was a long time in the making; that it was preceded by a propaganda war is how every such war commences.
The crux of the argument is over the collapse of the deal negotiated in April in Istanbul, of which these defenders of the Ukrainian state say: ‘we might never know what would have happened had it not [collapsed].’ In their long description of the context of the negotiations there is no rebuttal of the particular point they set themsleves to refute: that Johnson made Ukraine know of western opposition to the deal and it was thereby taken no further by it.
That Russia later conducted the war is also offered as proof of the argument that it was determined to have it in the first place; something of a non sequitur. Like the Zelensky regime itself, these Ukrainian leftists conclude that they didn’t want this peace deal anyway – ‘It isn’t just any peace Ukrainians want.’ We are thus given to simply accept that no deal was possible because you can’t trust Russia: ‘Russia’s approach to the March negotiations likely wasn’t genuine.’
Since the war started the regime in Ukraine has taken part in negotiations, then walked away at the threat of a withdrawal of NATO support; has claimed it will not negotiate and then promised to pass a law enforcing this decision; then made a number of statements claiming it would negotiate on terms that it knows Russia will not accept.
The upshot of all this is the argument of the Ukrainian state that the war cannot end except through victory but that the cause of its continuation is not its fault in any way. This position can only be embraced by socialists if they also embrace the Ukrainian state and its allies, which is why abstract principles are applied to the first and the second ignored.
The more and more obvious leverage that the US and NATO have over Ukraine makes it obvious that they will have a big say over the end to the war and cannot be ignored.
The most publicised element of support from western imperialism has been its provision of arms, which undoubtedly have played a significant role. How significant is a matter to be determined. Supporters of Ukraine, and Ukrainians themselves, have been keen to assert their own agency in this war, although not so keen to assert it in its creation. It is Ukrainians who are fighting and dying, albeit with the support of Western military personnel to an undisclosed degree. The quality as well as the quantity of military support has been denigrated by observers, but the greater demands of the Ukrainian state cannot be satisfied without certainty of serious escalation.
More important than this has been the financial support without which the Ukrainian state would be collapsing to an even greater extent than it is; its economic contraction is currently estimated as a reduction in GDP of around a third this year. This points to the importance of the political support without which the Ukrainian state could not but accept it had no possibility of winning the war. Without the potential for a political home within western imperialism there would be no alternative but agreement with Russia. It is not enough to claim the right to self-defence in some physical sense when politically there is no viable project within which it could be effected, the alternative political resolution is therefore an agreement with the enemy.
Western imperialism, which currently means the United States, will determine how long the Ukrainian state continues to fight and for what objectives. Ukrainians are therefore prisoners of the US, which means their leftist supporters are no less tied to it. Ironic for a group constantly parroting the demand for self-determination.
New Left Review ends its editorial by noting that theoretically Europe could have balanced against the US but that ‘after fifty years of sapped sovereignty, European states lack the material and imaginative resources for a counter-hegemonic project.’ It concludes that ‘In the 2020s, the Europeans are wide awake, smiling and cheering, exulting in their ‘strategic autonomy’ as they are frog- marched towards the next global conflict for US primacy.’
The concern with the power of European countries to stand against the US is touching for a journal that is so committed to Brexit and opposition to the EU. Does it really believe that a continent of independently organised states would have the material resources and thus the ‘sovereignty’ to counter US hegemony? Does it believe that Brexit has allowed Britain to play a more independent role against the US?
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In the meantime, the Ukrainian state doesn’t cease to be capitalist and recognises that the war will end at some point. It therefore continues to implement its reactionary policies while its people fight for its defence. So New Left Review describes how Zelensky has pushed forward removal of labour protections from up to 70 per cent of the existing work-force. The unity of Ukraine celebrated by the Ukrainian left and its supporters in the west, and the former’s call for social peace, results in a one-sided suspension of the class struggle.
As ever, prosecution of national war entails subordination of its working class, an example of what Marx meant when he said in the Communist Manifesto that ‘the working men have no country’, better rendered as the working class has no fatherland. It should be recalled that during the Second World War British workers went on strike (in almost 9,000 stoppages between September 1939 and April 1945), but I’m pretty sure many would no doubt be aghast at such a suggestion today. Just like the Daily Mail, which has described them as revealing a ‘disgusting lack of patriotism’, such suggestions would be regarded as the parroting of ‘Russian talking points’ by ‘Putin stooges.’
The New Left Review editorial describes five aspects of the war but says nothing about any independent role for the working class. This is not a question of recognising that at present it plays no independent part but of identifying the role that it should play and the political basis on which this should rest.
Obviously, those supporting the self-determination of the Ukrainian state leave no role for it except cheering on the vehicle of its newly-adopted cause, while studiously avoiding any uneasiness at it also being the vehicle for the designs of western imperialism. Similarly, those favouring a victory for Russia, as a defeat for the main enemy, have left no role for the working class since this is a job that can only be achieved by the Russian state. I’m not sure these people will ever get around to removing such duties from the other enemies of the working class and in the meantime I assume they would oppose Russian workers taking action to stop the war being conducted by their state.
For socialists in the West, the task is to oppose the war, to seek its end and to oppose the interventions of its own states. This means opposing the supply of weapons and the sanctions from which they are suffering, through campaigns and any direct action that workers can collectively organise.
The role of socialist analysis is to expose the wretched treachery of those who would proclaim that the Ukrainian capitalist state, supported by Western imperialism, is engaged in some progressive struggle that the working class should not only support but for which it should make extraordinary sacrifices.
The main enemy is at home. It is always at home and hasn’t suddenly become our vicarious ally.
Back to part 2