Ukraine (6) – A proxy imperialist war

Photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office on Monday, April 25, 2022, from left; U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, April 24, 2022,(Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Covert action has been a favoured means of waging war since at least the start of the first Cold War, with such covert action often part of what has been variously termed vicarious or proxy warfare.  It has been used by Empires for a long time, employing the resources of their conquests, such as the British with Hindu Sepoys, Nepalese Gurkhas and the French with Algerian Berber Zouaves.  In the middle of the 19th century Britain ruled India with almost 278,000 troops of which only around 45,000 were European

From the Truman administration onwards the typical US intervention into other countries has also involved economic and financial sanctions, with the proxy element involving the demand that third countries implement these measures as well.  These are usually followed by clandestine or ‘special’ operations and then conventional war; the preferred agency of the CIA thus became involved in over 900 major covert actions between 1951 and 1975.

The supposed advantage of this approach is that it is less expensive in terms of money, troops and political capital.  The proxy war being waged by US imperialism today shows all these features except on a much larger scale.  Almost an entire, and relatively large, country is being employed as a proxy – unless one believes that the US is really concerned with the independence of the Ukrainian state and not the significant degrading of Russia.  The US has demanded that every other country impose its economic and financial sanctions even to the point of incurring massive damage to their own economies.

While proxy wars are supposed to be less expensive the sheer scale of this one involves massive cost, which however is incurred unequally.  The arms and energy industries, especially in the US are doing just fine.  Massive political propaganda has improved the political position of US imperialism, at least in the West, including the subordination of much of what passes for the Left in these countries, so that in this respect as well the proxy war has fulfilled its function. Whether this continues to hold good is another matter.

The first Cold War appeared to make direct war between the US and Russia unthinkable because of the risk of nuclear escalation, but the US has sought counterforce and nuclear primacy strategies that would supposedly make a nuclear war winnable in some meaningful sense.  The potential escalation involved in this proxy war is therefore greater than previous conflicts.

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In a review of three books on proxy warfare In the London Review of Books Tom Stevenson notes that ‘America is the world’s most prolific sponsor of armed proxies’ and that it ‘has done most to develop the proxy war doctrine.  In January 2018 the US military introduced the ‘by-with-through’ approach. It was the work of J-2, the intelligence directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: ‘the US military must organise, resource and train’ local forces and ‘operate by, with and through’ its ‘partners’ and ‘nations that share our interests’ (note that the word ‘proxy’ is avoided in favour of more anodyne terms). Using proxies has been common practice for the CIA for decades, but the J-2 doctrine describes an increasingly common style of war.’ 

He noted when writing (in the second half of 2020) that ‘around half the US troops in Afghanistan are technically mercenaries: they are deployed for private profit.’  In Iraq in 2008 the US had a proxy army of 103,000 ‘Sons of Iraq’ fighting in Anbar.  In Afghanistan the US trained over 50,000 mujahedeen, providing nearly $3bn in aid between 1979 and 1989.  As the CIA Director William Casey put it: ‘Here’s the beauty of the Afghan operation . . . Usually it looks like the big bad Americans are beating up on the little guys.  We don’t make it our war . . . All we have to do is give them help.” 

The current war has been precipitated by Ukraine seeking to formally join NATO while securing the approval of US imperialism for its security strategy aimed at the conquest of the Crimea, which Russia considers its own territory. Nancy Pelosi, before the provocative visit to Taiwan, said after a visit to Kyiv and a meeting with President Zelensky, that America stands “with Ukraine until victory is won.” US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

US objectives are therefore not limited to those internal to Ukraine but to requirements in relation to Russia, its economy and security, and the balance of power between it and both Russia and China, to which the US quickly turned its sights on the pretext of the Ukraine war.  There can be no doubt that the amount of military aid provided by western imperialism has materially affected the dynamics of the war with the effect of turning almost the whole of Ukraine into a proxy for its own interests.

Since these interests are truly world-wide the potential for a global conflict is obvious, even the pro-war left acknowledges this danger while cheerleading Ukrainian armed forces.  This awareness does not translate into opposition to the war itself but only to the imposition by the US and NATO of a no-fly zone over Ukraine and the open introduction of their troops on the ground.

It appears therefore that the only inter-imperialist war that can exist for this Left is one that creates the immediate potential for a nuclear exchange.  This currently has the effect of allowing an underestimation of the potential for this happening through anything short of direct kinetic combat.  Even the right-wing RAND corporation presents scenarios in which US intervention can trigger direct warfare with the potential use of nuclear weapons.  Others were noted in the previous post.

It has been argued that there has been no nuclear war between the United States and Russia because conventional war between them is also inconceivable.  Except that it has reasonably also been suggested that direct conventional war between them has not occurred because no conflict between them has occurred that has involved the vital interests of both, and from which therefore neither can retreat.

NATO membership of Ukraine, with the possibility of stationing long-range missiles within a short distance from Moscow, coupled with an avowed policy of a direct conventional attack on territory claimed to be part of Russia containing its Black Sea fleet, would obviously seem to involve vital strategic Russian interests.  That this scenario has precipitated aggressive Russian action can be a surprise to no one.  To pretend therefore that only Russia is responsible for this war lacks any credibility.

Russia has time and time again warned that Ukrainian membership of NATO is a red line. Putin in 2008 ,after the summit in which NATO declared Ukraine would become a member, said that “we view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders . . . as a direct threat to the security of our country.”

It does not matter whether Russian action is morally reprehensible and should be condemned.  It is not the job of socialists to right the moral wrongs of world capitalism and the states that it comprises.  The job of socialists is to argue and fight for a new society in which such wrongs are abolished, and this means starting from current society and seeking how it can be changed.  This is the subject of the long series of posts on this blog on Marx’s alternative to capitalism (here for example), which relies on the independent social and political organisation of the working class across the world supported by other oppressed and exploited classes and layers of the population.

This will not be done by defending the prerogatives of capitalist states on the grounds that they have provoked invasion by other bigger capitalist powers, or the idiot view that we should defend their right to join imperialist military alliances.  We should oppose both the Russian invasion and the participation of western imperialism because only this identifies the sources of the war and the enemies of workers suffering from it directly and indirectly.

Gilbert Achcar of the Fourth International says that the war in Ukraine is not an inter-imperialist war because such a war ‘is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers . . .’    In the last couple of decades the phenomenon of imperialist proxy wars has had a resurgence and the most significant wars of the last few decades have all been proxy wars of one variety or another, either originating or developing as such, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and others.

It does indeed matter that US and NATO imperialism is not attempting to impose a no-fly zone or placing large numbers of troops on the front-line but refusal to call this an inter-imperialist proxy war has led to a position in which the actions of US/NATO imperialism is supported (through supply of arms) and the actions of the reactionary proxy (the Ukrainian state) are openly celebrated.

The war in Ukraine has brought the proxy mode of war increasingly adopted by imperialism to a new level, not only because of the scale of the war and the military support provided, not only because the proxy is a large state and is directly fighting Russia and not some Russian proxy, but because it involves the perceived vital interests of Russia.  We need only consider the response of US imperialism if Russia was pouring weapons into an anti-US Mexico that had declared its intention to reconquer Texas to appreciate the view of the Russian capitalist state. We can now see the provocation involved by successive reactionary Ukrainian governments including putting the objective of NATO membership into the constitution guided by an increasingly ultra-nationalist ideology.

Understanding that what we are seeing is an imperialist proxy war leads us to oppose both US imperialism and the Russian state and in doing so strengthens the independent political position of the working class.  If the road to freedom lies in appealing to the assistance of either US imperialism or Russia the working class will never learn to look to itself.

Back to part 5

3 Lenin Against Nationalism

In the previous post we noted that capitalism extends itself across the globe, leading to both bigger capitals and bigger states and then to international economic and political organisation.  Inevitably small capitals and small nations suffer.  This does not mean that socialists seek to halt or reverse such processes.

Within the Great Russian Empire, with its prison house of peoples, Lenin advocated the closest relations between its nations and the united organisation of the working class movement.  In his article ‘Corrupting the Workers with Refined Nationalism’ he states that:

‘Marxists, stand, not only for the most complete, consistent and fully applied equality of nations and languages, but also for the amalgamation of the workers of the different nationalities in united proletarian organisations of every kind.’

How far this is from some of today’s ‘Marxists’ can be seen in their championing of the likes of Scottish nationalism or Catalan nationalism.  Where Lenin argued that socialists should demonstrate their proletarian internationalism through membership of united organisations, these left nationalists have demonstrated their nationalism by leading the way in splitting their own organisations along nationalist lines.

Lenin emphasises the need for unity in ‘On the National Pride of the Great Russians’:

“No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,” said Marx and Engels, the greatest representatives of consistent nineteenth century democracy, who became the teachers of the revolutionary proletariat. And, full of a sense of national pride, we Great-Russian workers want, come what may, a free and independent, a democratic, republican and proud Great Russia, one that will base its relations with its neighbours on the human principle of equality, and not on the feudalist principle of privilege, which is so degrading to a great nation.’

‘Just because we want that, we say: it is impossible, in the twentieth century and in Europe (even in the far east of Europe), to “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by using every revolutionary means to combat the monarchy, the landowners and the capitalists of one’s own fatherland, i.e., the worst enemies of our country.’ 

‘We say that the Great Russians cannot “defend the fatherland” otherwise than by desiring the defeat of tsarism in any war, this as the lesser evil to nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Great Russia. For tsarism not only oppresses those nine-tenths economically and politically, but also demoralises, degrades, dishonours and prostitutes them by teaching them to oppress other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and quasi-patriotic phrases.’

It is not necessary to endorse Lenin’s remarks about ‘desiring defeat’ or ‘lesser evil’ to appreciate the motivation of absolute opposition to the nationalism of Great Russia; the nationalism that lives on today in the pronouncements of Vladimir Putin but which is ideological garb draped over the body of the Russian state and oligarchic capitals that it is designed to protect.

Just as Marx supported the development of united nation states such as Germany and Italy, because this involved the internal overthrow of reactionary feudal privileges and restrictions, so he opposed national oppression within nations and looked to the progressive social forces within the oppressed and oppressor nations to achieve this free unity and benefit from it.  Lenin in this article mentions the ‘freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers.’

The idea that in Ukraine any positive nationalist programme could issue from a corrupt capitalist state, one more and more the supplicant of US imperialism, and this spearheaded by its ‘best fighters’ who are fascists, shows the drastic illusions consuming many on the left. 

In relation to his opposition to Great Russian chauvinism, Lenin said that:

‘The objection may be advanced that, besides tsarism and under its wing, another historical force has arisen and become strong, viz., Great-Russian capitalism, which is carrying on progressive work by economically centralising and welding together vast regions. This objection, however, does not excuse, but on the contrary still more condemns our socialist-chauvinists . . .’

‘Let us even assume that history will decide in favour of Great-Russian dominant-nation capitalism, and against the hundred and one small nations. That is not impossible, for the entire history of capital is one of violence and plunder, blood and corruption. We do not advocate preserving small nations at all costs; other conditions being equal, we are decidedly for centralisation and are opposed to the petty-bourgeois ideal of federal relationships.’

He goes on to say that this does not mean supporting the capitalist political forces that promote this economic development.  However, it also means we do not seek to reverse it either.

In ‘The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin states that:

‘The Russian proletariat cannot march at the head of the people towards a victorious democratic revolution (which is its immediate task), or fight alongside its brothers, the proletarians of Europe, for a socialist revolution, without immediately demanding, fully and unreservedly, for all nations oppressed by tsarism, the freedom to secede from Russia. This we demand, not independently of our revolutionary struggle for socialism, but because this struggle will remain a hollow phrase if it is not linked up with a revolutionary approach to all questions of democracy, including the national question.’

‘We demand freedom of self-determination, i.e., independence, i.e., freedom of secession for the oppressed nations, not because we have dreamt of splitting up the country economically, or of the ideal of small states, but, on the contrary, because we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.’

Many of today’s ‘Marxists’ see in self-determination only separation and not the objective of unity.  They see the creation of new states where Lenin saw the unification of nationalities.  They think the right to secede mean support for secession when it is the means to provide guarantees to unification.  They think self-determination is only expressed by separation and creation of a new capitalist state when for Lenin it was the means for ensuring voluntary unity and the avoidance of such an outcome. Lenin advocated this policy even in the case of colonies.

In A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism Lenin writes that:

‘We demand from our governments that they quit the colonies, or, to put it in precise political terms rather than in agitational outcries—that they grant the colonies full freedom of secession, the genuine right to self-determination, and we ourselves are sure to implement this right, and grant this freedom, as soon as we capture power.’

‘We demand this from existing governments, and will do this when we are the government, not in order to “recommend” secession, but, on the contrary, in order to facilitate and accelerate the democratic association and merging of nations. We shall exert every effort to foster association and merger with the Mongolians, Persians, Indians, Egyptians. We believe it is our duty and in our interest to do this, for otherwise socialism in Europe will not be secure.’ 

‘We shall endeavour to render these nations, more backward and oppressed than we are, “disinterested cultural assistance”, to borrow the happy expression of the Polish Social-Democrats. In other words, we will help them pass to the use of machinery, to the lightening of labour, to democracy, to socialism.’

‘If we demand freedom of secession for the Mongolians, Persians, Egyptians and all other oppressed and unequal nations without exception, we do so not because we favour secession, but only because we stand for free, voluntary association and merging as distinct from forcible association. That is the only reason!’

The failure of Russia to offer a powerful and attractive example to Ukraine lies behind its turn towards invasion to substitute for this failure.  Undoubtedly this has divided the Ukrainian people themselves whose attempts to clean their own stables have been frustrated time and time again by oligarchic factions.

Through some of these factions the country has been turned towards the EU and NATO, membership of which its oligarchs and bourgeois political parties have attempted to impose even when the majority of the people have opposed it.  So, an unconstitutional Government signed an EU Association agreement and IMF loans, with their consequent massive implications for austerity, without any elections following the Maidan overthrow of the previous Yanukovych Government. The prime minister responsible, Yatsenyuk, admitted that “I will be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country . . .’

Three weeks before the ouster of Yanukovych the most popular opposition figure was Klitschko with a poll rating of 28.7% while Yatsenyuk didn’t even reach 3%.  Yatsenyuk however had the support of the United States, whose plans to put him in place were famously discussed in the leaked phone-call between US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt days before formation of the post-Maidan regime. 

The current divisions within Ukraine are not simply externally imposed but prove the failure and hypocrisy of nationalist claims to further national unity and oppose foreign interference.  In February 2017 a Gallop opinion poll recorded that more Ukrainians considered NATO a threat than a protection.  Nevertheless, the Ukrainian Government changed the constitution in 2019 to add a stipulation on “the strategic course” of Ukraine toward NATO membership.

This course has played no small part in causing the current massive escalation of war and making Ukraine utterly dependent on US imperialism, exposing all calls for defence of this state and its regime on the grounds of self-determination to be deceitful lies.

It is ironic that this subordination to the United States has been accompanied by, and is the product of, the growth of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, proving that Lenin was right to warn that bourgeois nationalism will happily ally with external imperialism while demanding sacrifice from its own people.  This nationalism disguised as ‘self-determination’ has inevitably infected its left supporters in exactly the same way; we noted at the end of the previous post the absurdity of some on the left declaring that self-determination requires the ability of Ukraine to decide its own international alliances, including subordination within NATO.

The result of such subordination makes all talk of self-determination by the left while welcoming weapons from ‘anywhere’ – read NATO – not so much utter delusion, or even mistaken, but treacherous betrayal.  Having invited the US to determine the outcome of the war does this left really pretend the US will not determine the outcome of the peace? 

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces should be opposed by all socialists.  It will deliver death and destruction and strengthen division between the workers of each country; not to mention division within Ukraine between its majority and Russian-speaking populations, and within Russia and its millions of Ukrainian residents.

Initial reports are of opposition by many Russians to the invasion and this must be supported by workers everywhere.  If we seek to support these voices we must not rally to our own ruling classes and states in their aggression towards Russia, which will inevitably hit ordinary Russians most rather than the oligarchs who have been so royally entertained in the West for so long.

We must oppose NATO and its expansionism and demand no Western involvement in the war.  The future of Russia must lie in its workers opposing the repression of Ukraine, which will be a foil to resistance to their repression from their own state.  They will bear the cost of the war in the lives of their fathers, sons and brothers and the cost of bombs, shells and missiles as well as incurring the wider enmity created.

Similarly in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian people have the right to defend themselves and to seek support from Russian workers and workers in the West, they need to ask what sort of state and Government it is that has led them into this war.  The higher living standards of the West have understandably attracted many in Ukraine, but the route to economic and social unity with the West does not lie through an alliance with NATO, which has demonstrated its aggressive and war-like nature in Afghanistan, in Libya and previously in Europe.

The promise of independence of Ukraine within NATO was a promise that could not be kept and could exist only as an increasing threat to Russia.  NATO membership would simply make Ukraine a hostage to NATO – in reality US – foreign policy and its intentions. This does not excuse the Russian invasion but damns the policy of the Ukrainian Government and the lies of Western powers.

Self-determination for Ukraine today means opposition to the war and to NATO.  At some point the fighting will stop but it will not be the Ukrainian people who will determine their future, just as the prelude to war has involved the US, EU and China arguing over their fate.  Real self-determination can only be accomplished by the unity of the peoples of the region, of Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Europe as a whole.  Who will achieve this?

Only the working people of Ukraine and Russia have an interest in denying the territorial ambitions of their respective states and ruling classes.  Only they have a joint purpose in removing their own corrupt governments from power and denying their wider geo-political ambitions.  The so-called end of the cold war and the Soviet Union has demonstrated that war is intrinsic to the existing regimes in both Russia and the West, and of most benefit to its strongest power the United States. The demand for peace will be hollow if it does not recognise this glaring fact of recent history.

In Ireland we are asked to join the hypocrisy of Western powers with blood on their own hands, to oppose Russia in its copying their own actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia etc.  The call to join NATO is getting louder and the demand for a bigger Irish military is now prominent.  Ukraine has demonstrated that neither of these is a contribution to peace or security.

The unity of the peoples of Eurasia can only be achieved over the body of capitalist state rivalry and the billionaires and oligarchs who have benefited from the existing political and economic system. The working class movement of each country must reject the aggressive policies of its own states and leaders and seek to build real unity of its working people.

Against the War! Against the invasion! For immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine!  No to NATO! For the unity of working class people – Workers of the World Unite!

see also here