The editorial of the most recent New Left Review covers the war in Ukraine. It attempts to ‘throw some light’ on the war through an analysis similar to that of Ernest Mandel’s examination of World War II.
Mandel claimed that the war could be defined as falling into five categories : an inter-imperialist war between the US, Japan, Germany and Britain; a war of a degenerated workers’ state – the Soviet Union – against German imperialism and its allies; a war of the Chinese people led by Mao Zedong against Japanese imperialism that also involved a social revolution against the Chinese nationalist regime; wars of national liberation in the colonies of European imperialist powers, and lastly wars of resistance against Nazi occupation waged in Yugoslavia etc.
All these involved imperialism on at least one side and were primarily the result of inter-imperialist competition arising from the forces of capitalist accumulation breaking out of existing national limitations. It is therefore correct to state that the war was an imperialist one in which the Soviet Union, certain European workers and peoples in the colonies found themselves fighting it in various forms.
New Left Review begins by stating that ‘there is no avoiding the question of the civil conflict within Ukraine itself. On its own, this could not have generated an international war; yet the fighting could not have escalated without it.’
This is already an uncomfortable analysis for left supporters of Ukraine for whom there is only one type of Ukrainian – the pro-western one – with the pro-Russian minority usually ignored. Their prime justification for support can’t allow that the nationalist demand for Ukrainian self-determination must exclude self-determination for this minority, since the Ukraine it supports is fighting against any such right that it claims only for itself.
It is of course argued, not least by anti-Russian Ukrainians, that their struggle is existential – the very existence of their country is under threat. This, however, does not address the problem that the self-determination they seek does not allow for equal rights to its minority.
The potential for a Ukrainian polity that did so was excluded even before the invasion of 24 February through its rejection of the Minsk Accords. This view also fails to recognise that Russia invaded with far too small a force to occupy all of Ukraine. It would not be in Russia’s interests to attempt an occupation of such a large country and this has clearly not been its aim; clear anyway to those not seeking any and every argument to support the Ukrainian state.
This does not mean that this Ukrainian view has no validity; the war has, like all wars, changed the coordinates of all the parties to it through imposing its own logic. Ukraine is the weaker party in any struggle against Russia and within these parameters would be expected to be unable to withstand the imposition of a new partition of the country demanded by Russia. In this case the existence of the remaining Ukrainian state would not be in question and Russia would require only that it be militarily neutral.
The intervention of the US and NATO has given Ukraine the belief that it can win, despite the devastation caused by the war including mass emigration; the occupation of nearly 20 per cent of its territory; economic catastrophe and effective bankruptcy staved off only by western finance, and the nightmare of the loss of electricity in the coming winter caused by damage to the power system by Russian missiles and drones.
This belief has meant Ukraine rejected a peace deal brokered by Turkey and has followed the advice, if that is the right word, of western imperialist backers that it should fight on to victory. This has meant a rejection of any negotiations with Russia and the setting of preconditions that it knows are unacceptable (such as regime change). The US has, however, now become concerned that this weakens support around the world for its client and is seeking to modify this appearance of intransigence.
Like its fervent left supporters in the West who also seek ‘victory’, the Ukrainian state is claiming – according to The Guardian newspaper – that ‘Ukraine [is] winning the war and therefore to sit down at the negotiating table now would be “nonsense”.
The Guardian reports that ‘Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podalyak, told Radio Svoboda, that Ukraine will only negotiate with Russia once Russian troops have left all of Ukraine’s territory, including those it occupied in 2014. The secretary of Ukraine’s security council said on Tuesday the “main condition” for the resumption of negotiations with Russia would be the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Oleksiy Danilov said Ukraine also needed the “guarantee” of modern air defences, aircraft, tanks and long-range missiles.’
In relation to any call for “genuine negotiations”, President Zelenskiy is reported as saying that ‘Ukraine had repeatedly proposed such talks, but “we always received insane Russian responses with new terrorist attacks, shelling or blackmail”. He went on to say that “Once again – restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the UN Charter, compensation for all damages caused by the war, punishment of every war criminal and guarantees that this will not happen again. These are completely understandable conditions.”
What is clear is that these war aims and conditions for negotiation guarantee only continued war. It would appear this approach is supported by many Ukrainians because they believe they can win, which in turn is a consequence of western imperialist support. The Guardian nevertheless records that ‘Kyiv would fight on even if it is “stabbed in the back” by its allies’.
In stating that the war is existential the Ukrainian leadership is unnecessarily making it so. It would be impossible for Ukraine to win the war without Western assistance and they have so far been unable to do so with it, regardless of the over-hyped gains made in recent months. The Russians have learned that they could not win it with the forces they initially employed so have carried out a ‘partial mobilisation’ of a reported 300,000 reservists with which they hope to establish what they would consider victory.
Since Russia long ago made it clear that a Ukrainian state as a part of NATO was unacceptable, victory would now be a buffer zone composed of annexed territory with enough local support to make it a relatively stable part of the Russian Federation. This is its solution to the political divisions within Ukraine, which is no more than a mirror image of the Ukrainian one.
It would be a relatively hollow victory if the remaining Ukrainian state was to become the base for a western imperialist threat, and the end-of-the-war conditions proclaimed by the Ukrainian regime involve precisely that; even excluding recovery of all territory lost since 2014 this would not be acceptable to Russia. The declared aim of “modern air defences, aircraft . . . and long-range missiles’ would establish exactly what Russia invaded to prevent. An effective air defence along with long-range missiles, which could only be pointed at Moscow, is what opposition to Ukrainian membership of NATO has always been about. Even now, in the middle of the war, the US has so far refused to supply long-range artillery shells.
The conditions set by Ukraine therefore imply that the objectives set by Russia can only be achieved by reducing the rest of the Ukrainian state unoccupied by Russia to one either incapable of representing a threat, with all the devastation that this would entail, or Ukraine declares its military neutrality and abjures any attempt to militarily recover lost territory. Since Ukraine would not accept the Minsk Accords, this looks unlikely unless western imperialism decides it will reverse its support for these conditions. This, of course, could all be fudged, just as the Minsk Accords were, but that is what has brought us to full-scale war.
It started because Ukraine chose to ally with western imperialism and is now dependent on it. The Russian invasion has turned the majority of its people even more decisively against it, to the extent that it appears that they will not agree to what they consider an unacceptable peace. They are prepared to continue a war that Russia considers involves its decisive interests, and in which it cannot therefore accept defeat because defeat in Ukraine would present a much greater threat and represent a much greater loss than that encompassed within the boundaries of that state.
In such a ‘stalemate’ the western left that supports Ukraine will no doubt demand a Russian retreat regardless of what that state conceives as its vital interests. It is as if the world could be remade according to some predetermined state of moral justice, and through the actions of western imperialism and its client state to boot! The full results of such a victory are scarcely considered.
They will likely go along with whatever support their own imperialist states provide until perhaps such escalation threatens more or less immediate face-to-face war with Russia. Their opposition would then be, as the saying goes, a day late and a dollar short.
Forward to part 2