In the debate between Gilbert Achcar of the Fourth International and Alex Callinicos of the International Socialist Tendency, Callinicos sets out what Achcar’s view is on what constitutes an anti-imperialist war – ‘a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo)colonial domain of the other, as was very clearly in the First World War. It is a ‘war of rapine’ on both sides, as Lenin liked to call it.”
He then criticises this view – ‘This definition, which requires an inter-imperialist war to be one where both sides are seeking to conquer each other’s territory, doesn’t even fit the Second World War. British and French imperialism weren’t interested in seizing German territory, but in hanging onto their already overstretched empires. And Hitler wasn’t particularly interested in these. It was eastern Europe and the Soviet Union he was after.’
Callinicos finishes by saying that ‘The properly Marxist approach is to recognise that the present situation involves both an inter-imperialist war by proxy and a war of national defence on Ukraine’s part.’ It is not clear whether his proposed fight for national defence includes reconquering Crimea or the already separated parts of the Donbas.
Achcar writes that ‘the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the second defining moment of the New Cold War in which the world has been plunged since the turn of the century as a result of the US decision to expand NATO.’ Yet this ‘defining moment’ of a new Cold Ward is held not to define the war in Ukraine, the veritable front-line within it. Still, he does not shy away from stating its importance, even if he gets the nature of it completely wrong: ‘the fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression.’
He opposes NATO ‘boots on the ground or the imposition of a No-Fly Zone from a distance’ and states that as a matter of general principle, he is against direct military intervention by any imperialist force anywhere. Asking for one of them to clash with another is tantamount to wishing for a world war between nuclear powers, he says. Indeed so, but are we not also opposed to indirect ‘military intervention by any imperialist force anywhere’? Not according to Achcar.
In a further article Achcar answers the following question – ‘Wouldn’t Ukraine’s standing up against the Russian invasion benefit NATO?’ – by saying ‘“so what?” Our support to peoples fighting imperialism shouldn’t depend on which imperialist side is backing them.’ To which the only rational answer is – how can a people be said to be ‘fighting imperialism’ when it is backed by a rival imperialism? And here, to be specific, we are talking about an independent capitalist state seeking to join by far the largest imperialist alliance!
In reply to the further question ‘Isn’t the ongoing war an inter-imperialist war?’ he answers:
‘If any war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival were called an inter-imperialist war, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side. An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy. . .’
Since he believes that only a direct war between the US/NATO and Russia (and presumably China) is an inter-imperialist war then he must believe we have not seen an inter-imperialist war since World War II, and not between these protagonists, also perhaps excluding the Korean War in which China could hardly be considered imperialist but Russia was involved, leaving aside the question whether this too could be seen as imperialist since it was part of the Soviet Union.
Since indirect intervention in Ukraine is not an imperialist war then all the too numerous to mention indirect wars, not to mention covert actions, by the US and others must not be considered imperialist war either. From concern that we label too many wars as imperialist, which is itself rather strange if we consider imperialism to dominate the world, he has arrived at his happy conclusion that very few wars can be characterised as imperialist.
His response might be that one-sided imperialist interventions may be cited as imperialist wars but his argument is about an inter-imperialist war, although in the case of the war in Ukraine such a response would fail his argument.
Of course, the scope and scale of indirect imperialist intervention is relevant to considering whether and to what extent a particular war can be considered imperialist and thereby its political salience. But this applies to Ukraine in which it is impossible to argue that both Russia and the US/NATO are not involved. The sheer scale of Western imperialist intervention in Ukraine does not permit its intervention to be considered secondary.
The major Western powers have publicly supplied over $14 billion in military aid, which is over two times the defence budget of nearly $6 bn of Ukraine in 2021, and excludes other promised funding nearly three times this amount, and no doubt other military support that has not been openly revealed. Since these words were written Biden has promised even more lethal aid. In addition, unprecedented sanctions must be regarded as war by other means and have historically preceded open conventional warfare.
The military aid follows years of increasing cooperation with NATO including training of its armed forces, their participation in the NATO occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and military exercises with NATO forces within the country. The US has directly impacted on the war through intelligence and real-time targeting of Russian forces and assets while it would be naive to believe that Western special forces have not been inside the country during the war.
The view that we are not witnessing an imperialist proxy war can lead to blindness to the assistance already given, both visible and hidden, and to the real possibility of escalation, which is at increased risk given what has already been committed. It should already be noted that the nature of the weapons delivered by the US and other NATO powers is increasing in power and sophistication with the potential for fighter aircraft to be provided now under consideration. The debate is therefore not simply about an academic political characterisation of the war.
Unfortunately, it is to be expected that much of the pro-war left will follow Western imperialist escalation, as it already has, not only because this is the logic of their political position of prioritising support to the Ukrainian State but because of an acquired emotional commitment. One only has to note Facebook posts in which so-called Marxists proclaim their gloating over Ukrainian advances to realise what counts for those with this commitment.
A recent examination of the potential routes to further escalation notes the following:
‘A Ukrainian law recently signed by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy gives Polish citizens the rights similar to those of Ukrainian citizens. This could serve as legal cover for thousands of Polish soldiers to enter Ukraine, don Ukrainian uniforms, and using NATO-supplied Western equipment begin fighting against Russia’s forces. When proof of any such gambit emerges – as it inevitably will – Russia could decide to hit Polish targets in response, bringing NATO into the war more directly in one form or another.’
The writer notes that ‘The Kharkiv advance was organized on the basis of: NATO training of tens of thousands of Ukrainian forces; massive Western weapons supplies to Kiev (e.g., see https://www.ustranscom.mil/cmd/usp.cfm); the NATO Central Command’s and Western intelligence’s deep embeddedness into the Ukrainian forces; NATO-designed counteroffensive tactics, strategy, and plan; large numbers of former Western soldiers and officers participating in the operation; possible participation of Polish officers and troops . . . Retired former U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor has asserted that NATO officers form a military staff that is directing much of the Ukrainian war strategy and tactics.’
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