The war in Ukraine (7) – unprovoked because unforeseen?

Ukrainian veterans of the Azov Battalion, formed by a white supremacist and previously banned from receiving U.S. aid, attend a rally in Kyiv on March 14, 2020.Vladimir Sindeyeve / NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2008 a memo was sent from the US ambassador in Russia to Washington, which was later revealed by Wikileaks, entitled ‘Nyet means Nyet: Russia’s NATO redlines’.  It stated that “Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat.  In Ukraine . . . there are fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.”  A similar US intelligence report in 1994 had previously warned about divisions within the country that could lead to civil war. (Quoted in ‘Ukraine in the Crossfire’, Chris Kaspar de Ploeg)

A simple question therefore arises.  If the consequences of NATO expansion to Ukraine could be seen fifteen years ago, why can’t many on the Left not recognise it now when it is front of their eyes?

Of course, this left will claim that Russia has no right to invade Ukraine but this is not enough for them; for what they have to do is justify their support for the Ukrainian state, which must also have foreseen the potential ruinous consequences of its action. This left now justifies their defence of western imperialist intervention when it is this intervention that has precipitated the war.  Besides embellishing and decorating the Ukrainian state and absolving western imperialism of any culpability it must emphasise the responsibility of Russia and exaggerate its power, lest it be clear that the claims of Ukraine and western imperialism that Russia seeks to conquer not only Ukraine but also roll over Eastern Europe be seen for the fantasy that it is.

So, in order to do so we have the speculative interrogation of Putin’s mental state and blinkers placed on the interpretation of his actions, including ignoring his support for Russian membership of NATO; his support for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan; his backing of the sanctions against Iran, and his sharing of intelligence with the US.  As he later put it “Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much.  And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it.”

In Ukraine, Putin did not instigate the rebellion in the East of the country in 2014 but tried to limit it and then control it, frequently being opposed to its leaders’ policies. Separate republics were not his optimal choice for this would remove his greatest leverage over the whole of the country.  Given the Maidan coup/revolution, he acted to defend Russian interests in Crimea against an anti-Russian regime that had come to power violently.  Some pro-Russians in the East also took up arms as some pro-western Ukrainians had done in the west of the country.

Through the Minsk agreements he subsequently hoped to retain the Donbas areas under Russian influence while supporting a degree of autonomy within Ukraine sovereignty.  The Ukrainian state rejected this and sought to reinterpret Minsk as first Ukrainian state control and then some steps to an autonomy that it rejected, not least because of opposition from its far-right and fascist forces.  Had Putin always wished to remove Ukraine from the map the poor state of the Ukrainian armed forces in 2014 made then the time to attempt it.

German officials claimed that the United States opposed the Minsk agreements and regularly pressurised Ukraine against their implementation, with the US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt meeting the Ukrainian President every two weeks.  German intelligence also claimed that CIA advisors had help set up a ‘functioning security structure’ in 2014 and hundreds of American private military contractors from Blackwater were sent to the East of the country. NATO then announced increased cooperation with Ukraine “to promote the development of greater interoperability between Ukrainian and NATO forces, including through regular Ukrainian participation in NATO exercises.” (This and the following quotation from ‘Ukraine in the Crossfire’, Chris Kaspar de Ploeg)

Ukraine itself became a significant exporter of arms even as it “was begging for newer weapons from the West.”  US politicians encouraged it to seek a military solution with Lindsey Graham visiting Ukrainian troops saying “Your fight is our fight, 2017 will be the year of offense” and John McCain stating that “I believe you will win.”  In the following year the US ambassador to NATO  threatened to “take out” any Russian missiles she thought violated existing Treaties and the Secretary of the Interior threatened a “naval blockade” of Russia.

At this time the people of Ukraine were divided on what role NATO was playing, with 35 per cent seeing it as a threat, 29 per cent as protection and 26 per cent as neither.  While Germany and France appeared as guarantors of Minsk the former chancellor and President, Merkel and Hollande, have stated that the agreements were needed for the purpose of letting Ukraine gain time and build up its military power for another conflict.

When this context is considered it explains why the supporters of the Ukrainian state have been so keen to argue as if the world began on 24 February 2022, and only the Russian invasion matters for any analysis and programmatic response.  It explains why the justification for this support, based on the idea that the Ukrainian capitalist state must be allowed the right of self-determination, must ignore its previous exercise of this right. Taking account of Ukraine’s ‘self-determination’ before this date would reveal this state’s role in deceiving its people on the road to war that it was embarking upon, and the role of the United States in creating that road.

Neither of these justify the invasion, but socialists must take the world as they find it, not as they would like it; not as they believe it should behave, and not with illusions on the role and function of any capitalist state, whether it be of Ukraine, the United States or Russia.  Above all it is the role of socialists to inculcate in all workers the deepest mistrust and hostility to the capitalist state, not defend its right to self-determination, behind which lies its determination to divide and exploit the working class.

This is the ABC of socialist politics, the slogan of ‘self-determination’ has become a reactionary formula behind which the real historical record of its exercise by the Ukrainian state has been hidden.  Support for it cannot survive exposure of its real existence beyond the slogan.

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The war in Ukraine (6) – NATO expansion against the Russian threat?

At the end of 1991 a plan was put together to determine how NATO would relate to the newly independent states in Eastern Europe through creating a new organisation, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), open to all former Soviet Union republics as well as former Warsaw Pact members.  One country, however stood out from the rest–Ukraine.  The US ambassador to Russia stated that loss of Ukraine was a more revolutionary event than the fall of communism.  Gorbachev was furiously opposed to US communication with Kiev, pointing out its large Russian population and its artificial borders that included Donbas and Crimea.  The US “Draft Options Paper” thus recommended “the possibility of Ukraine joining the NATO liaison program at a later time.”

At this time the US was concerned with Ukraine’s possession of nuclear weapons and its policy that this was unacceptable, although some US officials argued that the problem would disappear if Ukraine joined NATO.  Clearly, they believed that the nuclear weapons that would be kept would be pointing at Moscow and not at Washington.

The view that won out was one of a step-by-step NATO expansion that was not too obvious but that “will, when it occurs, by definition be punishment, or ‘neo-containment,’ of the bad Bear.”  Even Yeltsin was compelled to complain of the creation of a “cold peace” while Bill Clinton believed “Russia can be bought off.”  Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Borys Tarayuk told the US that “No matter what we say publicly. I can tell you that we absolutely want to join NATO.’

Under the Clinton administration the US became Russia’s largest foreign investor but this did not prevent it going ahead with new missile deployment–the Theatre or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system–reversing the previous view that it violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, thus slowing down agreement over arms control.  Later, in 1997, fifty former US senators, cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and others signed a letter demanding that “the NATO expansion process be suspended.”

Russian policy proposed collaboration in the defence industry, with legal prohibitions on nuclear weapons in new NATO states and stationing of foreign troops, but neither got anywhere while Clinton approved the testing of new nuclear weapons systems.  Promises from Yeltsin to potential NATO members of a security guarantee and complaints of Russian humiliation achieved nothing.  In any case, Yeltsin was Washington’s man with Clinton stating that “Yeltsin drunk is better than most alternatives sober.”

Supporting ‘Yeltsin drunk’ meant helping procure condition-free loans of $10.2 billion from the IMF to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election as President in 1996, while Russian oligarchs met privately at Davos to ensure a victory that would assist their procurement of state assets.  Despite suffering his second heart attack and virtually disappearing from public view he won the election.  Yeltsin had used the money to travel the country dispensing it to buy votes in what his campaign staff in night-time planning sessions called ‘what-shall-we-hand-out-tomorrow’ meetings.  As Clinton said, “If the Russian people knew how much I wanted him re-elected, it might actually hurt his chances.’  Time magazine hailed their intervention as “Yanks to the Rescue’ (July 15 1996.)

In effect, the US had interfered big time in the election to get its favoured candidate elected in a vote that involved “widespread voter fraud” according to a member of the OSCE election-observation team.  This observer also claimed that he was pressured to keep quiet about the irregularities, including that in Chechnya fewer than 500,000 adults remained but more than a million had voted, 70 per cent for Yeltsin.  All this puts into perspective more recent US Democrat complaints about purported Russian interference in Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton. 

A new a NATO-Russia agreement in 1997 was sealed by yet more money from the US along with lots of promises, including that NATO had “no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons” or substantial combat forces.  Privately Clinton was assured that his early assessment was correct that no absolute commitments had actually been made, the only real one being simply a commitment to meet. By the end of the year Madeline Albright was already telling the Russians that the US “would not consult on future infrastructure including on the territories of the three invitees’–the newly invited Central and East European members of NATO.

In 1998 Yeltsin asked Clinton for more help with IMF loans but the money flowed out of the country almost as quickly as it flowed in, prompting US officials to note that “the infamous oligarchs continue to put their personal interests above the common good.” They seemed not to consider that this was a result of the introduction of capitalism into Russia that they had promoted, or that putting ‘personal interests above the common good’ was one description of what capitalism is all about.

Some US officials were wary of being too openly antagonistic to Russia and its long-term consequences, while French President Jacques Chirac told the US National Security Advisor Tony Lake that “we have humiliated them too much” and that “one day there will be dangerous nationalist backlash.”  Chancellor Kohl also worried about the long-term reaction to NATO expansion, and even the British worried about the Article 5 guarantee being too strong and risky to offer too widely.  The American proposer of the original post World War II American containment strategy, George Kennan, argued in 1997 that NATO’s expansion was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-war era.”  

None of this advice for a more cautious approach prevented the US and NATO bombing Serbia without a UN Security Council resolution, without invoking an Article 5 guarantee and without aggression by another state.  To Russia this proved that NATO expansion was not about bringing peace to Europe and claims it was doing so were a lie, with Yeltsin’s critics saying ‘Belgrade today, Moscow tomorrow.’  The example of Kosovo and the justification for war was subsequently employed by Russia itself. The New York Times then reported that Russia had resumed “targeting NATO states with nuclear warheads.”

Looking back in 2015 Bill Clinton’s defence secretary Bill Perry concluded that arms control became “a casualty of NATO expansion” and that “the downsides of early NATO membership for Eastern European nations were even worse than I had feared.”  The CIA noted in 1999 that Vladimir Putin was concerned over the capabilities of its conventional forces, the increased threat from NATO, the need for new nuclear capability and the fear “that a future conflict could be waged on Russian soil.” 

NATO expansion was thus not a result of Russian aggression or threats, or of the need for NATO to establish peace in Europe, but a product of Russian weakness and US determination to impose the fruits of its victory in the Cold War.  Bourgeois figures in many countries noted the provocations involved and the future risks entailed.  Even Joe Biden admitted in 1997 that, rather than NATO membership, “continuing the Partnership for Peace . . . may arguably have been a better way to go.”  Yet now we are to believe that none of this is relevant to the war in Ukraine, with its constitutional imperative to join NATO.

Today’s leaders of these countries deny that the expansion of NATO and the steps towards Ukrainian membership have anything to do with current Russian policy and actions. How incredible is it then that certain parties on the Left agree with them, going so far as to support Ukraine and defend NATO and in doing so further, in so far as they can, membership of the former within the latter? And all this under the flag of ‘anti-imperialism’ and a war of national liberation!

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The War in Ukraine (5) – the amnesia of the pro-war Left

Getty Images

One of the problems with the view that the war in Ukraine is unprovoked is that it erases much of history, wipes clean western imperialist actions, supports the idea that this imperialism is democratic, and robs the working class of the knowledge it needs to orient itself in the world.

Far from being unprovoked the war is a result of repeated provocations that we can outline, beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, when the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze made this “reasonable proposal” to James Baker, the US secretary of state: “Let’s disband both NATO and Warsaw Pact.”  It hardly needs saying what the reply was and how it relates to the current war; unless of course you belong to the band of ‘socialists’ who blame Russia in toto.

There was nevertheless an obvious problem for western imperialism, and the United States in particular: how to justify the existence of NATO as a ‘defensive’ alliance when the enemy no longer existed.  Further to this, the problem was couched in the context of a possible Soviet Union offer for quick unification of Germany in return for leaving NATO and declaring neutrality. This was even further complicated by the knowledge that this offer would have “widespread support among the members of the public in both East and West Germany”, as the German chancellor Helmut Kohl later admitted. Polling showed that 84 per cent of West Germans wanted to denuclearise their country and leaving NATO in return for German reunification would win widespread support across the country.

The US and NATO has portrayed its expansion into central and Eastern Europe as an exercise in democracy–’all the countries joined of their own free will’–but the German events are only one example of the dismissal of the views of local populations that was repeated later in Ukraine.  This includes Soviet offers to get rid of nuclear weapons that the US rejected but that, if we follow the logic of the pro-war left, we should now endorse.  Not that this left currently follows its own reasoning to its conclusion.  It is just that it has no logical claim to reject it, and leaves the working class in the West open to the argument that the problem is an aggressive Russia and the solution a suitably armed NATO with nuclear capability to prevent Russia from doing what it wants.

The US faced the additional problem that the German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher publicly supported the idea that there should be no expansion of NATO to the East, something repeated on several occasions.  The US was bitterly opposed, as one US official stated in an internal memorandum, this “would forfeit the prime assets . . . that have made the United States a post-war European power.”  However, when Gorbachev stated that any expansion of the “zone of NATO” was unacceptable, US secretary of state James Baker stated, according to Gorbachev, that “we agree with that.”  This, of course, was a lie, one that became particularly controversial and the focus of repeated complaints by the Russians that are still routinely derided by the western media today, but was repeated by Kohl in relation to the territory of the then East Germany.

While the German chancellor was saying that NATO would not expand its territory eastward into East Germany, Genscher repeated the position that “for us, it is clear: NATO will not extend itself to the East”. The secretary general of NATO, Manfred Worner, also asserted that the fact it would ‘not deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees.’

After agreement to German reunification the problem then became how to remove Soviet troops without also having to remove NATO ones.  Proposals by Gorbachev for the Soviet Union to join NATO were rebuffed, as were later attempts by Yeltsin and still later ones by Putin for Russia to become a partner of western imperialism; something that discomforts both supporters of ‘Russia is to blame’ and ‘Russia is to be supported’ camps today. 

The weakness of the Soviet Union at this time was exposed by its requests to Germany for funding for its troops stationed in the country, a weakness that the West, and particularly the US, exploited when it promoted the shock therapy applied to introduce capitalism into Russia.  Throughout the NATO expansion, Russia was too weak to resist, and the US was able to proclaim a “new world order” that included this expansion and wars against Iraq and Afghanistan plus others.  It might seem impossible to separate this history of imperialist aggression from the war in Ukraine, but that is exactly what supporters of the war must affirm if it is to be seen as uniquely free from Western complicity.

However, as early as 1992 an official of the US State Department had contacted the Ukrainian ambassador in Washington to urge Ukraine to join NATO, while in the following year the Ukrainian deputy foreign minister was stating that it was “unacceptable for NATO to expand without Ukraine becoming a full member.”  Russian leaders were meanwhile saying that it should be first.

In 1994, Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to conclude a framework agreement with NATO through the Partnership for Peace initiative, a road by which Central and Eastern European countries could join NATO, and was its most enthusiastic participant, seeking to join exercises and contributing 400 troops to the Implementation Force in Bosnia in 1995.  The next year its Foreign Minister discussed the potential to become an ‘Associate Member’ of NATO while Russia made it known that this would be considered an ‘unfriendly policy’ with ‘all the resulting consequences.’

In 1997 the Ukraine Foreign Minister went further in stating the strategic goal as complete integration into NATO.  Later he voiced concern that this might involve the deployment of nuclear weapons in Ukraine’s western neighbours and proposed a nuclear-weapons free zone, which NATO rejected.

Ukrainian President Kuchma continued steps to join the European Union and in 2002 established a schedule for meeting accession requirements by 2011, while the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council also discussed the need to “start practical implementation of the course to join NATO”.   Ukraine continued to pass parliamentary resolutions stating its objective of joining NATO until mid-2004, sending 1,650 troops to support the US occupation of Iraq. In 2005 the new President, Yushchenko, sought a NATO Membership Action Plan, and in 2008 the Ukrainian government’s aspiration that Ukraine would become a member was approved at the NATO summit in Bucharest, pushed by the United States against some European reservations.

Yet opinion polls regularly recorded that there was still not majority support within the country for membership, with opposition reaching over 60 per cent in one poll, a result confirmed and reported in others here and here. One other from Gallup reported as its conclusion that ‘Ukrainians Likely Support Move Away From NATO, Residents more likely to view NATO as a threat than protection.’ 

As one of these argued: ‘As for public opinion, NATO membership should generally not be a matter of broad public acquiescence, but of a conscious geopolitical choice by a consolidated national elite. As part of NATO’s post-Soviet expansion, only Slovenia and Hungary have held referendums on membership – and Hungary’s was nonbinding. Slovakia’s 1997 referendum was declared invalid, as it gathered only 10 percent of eligible voters.’ 

Opinion polls in Ukraine repeatedly demonstrated majority opposition to NATO membership, or at least major division, even after the Ukrainian government approved ‘a four-year, $6 million “information campaign” to improve NATO’s image.’  The article quoted above argued that ‘While the jury is still out regarding its effectiveness, even with the best of PR campaigns and outreach programs, the West by now has generally accepted the uncomfortable fact that NATO may never gain broad popularity among Ukrainians, especially in the eastern regions of the country.’

We now know, of course, that the United States never gave up intervening into Ukrainian politics with the objective of moving the country into NATO. The author of these lines showed remarkable naivety in believing that popular opposition was anything more than an obstacle to be overcome rather than a democratic wish to be respected.  The price to be paid to overcome this obstacle was forecast right from the start, as we see below.

Russia reaffirmed its opposition to NATO expansion, and in particular into Ukraine and Georgia, on the grounds of violation of the principle of equal security and the creation of new dividing lines in Europe.  While Putin claimed that Russia had ‘no right to interfere’ with Ukraine foreign policy’, and if it wanted to restrict its sovereignty (by joining NATO) ‘that is its own business’, Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that “Russia will do everything it can to prevent the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO’.

In the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ the American columnist Charles Krauthammer stated that ‘this is about Russia first, democracy only second . . . The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east . . . The great prize is Ukraine’.  As Putin complained, they “have lied many times’ and in Ukraine “have crossed the line”.  “Everything has its limits.”  The Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov was even more blunt in stating in 2011 that “NATO expansion into Ukraine is something Russia would view as absolutely unacceptable because it then becomes a vital threat.  In political jargon, this kind of threat means war.’ (The quotations not referenced are taken mainly from. ‘Not One Inch, America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate’, M E Sarotte, Yale University Press)

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At the start of the invasion I commented on Facebook that the Russians had warned that Ukraine could not join NATO and that this was a red line, only to be rebuked that, in effect, I was saying that Ukraine ‘was asking for it’.  I replied that this was, as a matter of simple fact, what had just happened.

Facebook is not a great medium for political debate so it should be elaborated here that, as we can see, the Ukrainian state played its own role in advancing the war through its repeated attempts to join NATO, even voting to place it as a constitutional imperative in 2019.  So, while the Ukrainian people did not invite war, its political leadership and its western backers certainly did.  How tragic is it then to now rally to the defence of the state that walked you into war and rely on western imperialist forces that led you there?

Even in 2012 only 28 per cent of Ukrainians supported membership of NATO.  What we see here is thus a sterling example of the old socialist maxim that ‘the main enemy is at home’; in this case the main enemy of the Ukrainian working class was its own capitalist state for whom it is now fighting and dying.  How much more obvious must it be that this should be opposed by all those who claim to be socialists and Marxists?  How obvious is it now that if they don’t, their claims to express any sort of socialism must be repudiated?

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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.

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What sort of Anti-War Campaign (3) – Not against the war but for victory?

Graphic from The Economist

Opposition to the Russian invasion to the exclusion of all other causes of the war rests upon the view that there has been an aggressive invasion of Ukraine and its people have the right to defend themselves. This cardinal fact supersedes consideration of all issues before the invasion occurred.

In doing so, while thinking (correctly) that the Russian regime is brutal and reactionary, and the invasion should be opposed; the Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR) group also believes (wrongly) that by this simple fact their support for the Ukrainian state is justified, which includes, whether it likes it or not, this state’s alliance with western imperialism.   

This could easily be countered by pointing to Ukraine’s continuing campaign against the separate Donbass regime which preceded the invasion, and its rejection of the Minsk agreement; the NATO military exercises in Ukraine last year that represent increasing de facto membership; changes to the constitution by Zelensky in 2019 to allow de jure membership, and typical Ukrainian oligarchic regime attacks against rival pro-Russian figures inside the country that threaten support for continuing Russian influence.  However, the argument of the ACR doesn’t go any further than the first observation of the Russian invasion.

This is unsustainable since it abstracts from the world before the moment of invasion and comes apart as questions arise from continuation of the war after it. Is western imperialist intervention really irrelevant when it is pressing the Zelensky regime to reject potential Russian peace deals and is supplying the military support to allow it to continue the war?  Is it still a just war to recover territory that it is unlikely would be supported by the local population? Would a war pursued in order to recover Crimea be a just war and be supported?

The leaflet given out by the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group and placed on its web site states that Ukraine has suffered an invasion from Russian imperialism.  Regardless of whether this is strictly accurate according to some definition written years ago by Lenin, we can say that Russia is by and large a primary commodity producer with limited productive forces but with many nuclear weapons and a strategic interest in its neighbouring countries, primarily because of the much stronger imperialist forces increasingly surrounding it.

None of this justifies the invasion or negates socialist opposition to it – it is an entirely reactionary action that will further divide Ukrainian workers, divide these workers from Russian workers and facilitate the whipping up of pro-imperialist sentiment among workers in the West; although to a lesser extent elsewhere in the world among those who might see themselves as potential future victims of Western imperialism.

Socialists do not accept capitalist states’ strategic interests as justification for such invasion but seeking to understand the nature of the war requires that we recognise it.  Even the leaflet from the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group states that ‘Ukraine is being torn apart by imperialist powers’ implying that it is subject to aggression by more than one imperialism.

Ukraine is not an oppressed colony but became legally independent in 1991 and without the debts accumulated by the Soviet Union.  It contained numerous nuclear weapons on its territory and sought to bargain them for political and economic advantage. It ultimately surrendered them because both the US and Russia wanted them removed.  In other words, it was an independent capitalist state that came under political and economic pressure to surrender its most threatening weapons.

This makes a nonsense of the argument of the leaflet that ‘the people of Ukraine must be allowed to exercise freely their right to democratic self-determination, without any military or economic pressure.’  How on earth is this supposed to be achieved?  Or is this a utopian and reactionary argument for all smaller capitalist powers to grab onto in order to win favour from some leftist groups?

Ukraine has been ruled by oligarchs from its first steps to independence, both by old nomenklatura and newly minted capitalists alongside criminal organisations, and all sorts of combinations between them.  Western imperialism has attempted to impose its own will through international financial institutions such as the IMF while the local oligarchs have employed western financial institutions to dodge taxes, launder money, steal from the Ukrainian state and shift money on and off-shore as it suits their interests.  Their employment of the machinery of a corrupt state has allowed them to expand their ownership and wealth through privatisation and tax evasion so that the debts to the West are paid by the taxes of the working class.  Russian gas has been used to gain enormous corrupt rents to fund both their economic and political power.

Given this use of the Ukrainian state by oligarchs to protect their wealth and political power, despite the encroachment of western multinationals, it makes a nonsense to demand of Ukrainian and other workers that they should seek to defend the independence of this rotten and corrupt state.  But that is what these ‘Marxists’ advocate.

Of course, the ability of the Ukrainian state to balance its own interests against those of its much more powerful neighbours is limited and has a shelf-life.  The oligarchs themselves have been split, and the greater power of Western imperialism has meant that it has more and more incorporated the country into its sphere of influence and projection of power.

This has involved steps to join the EU and also NATO, with collaboration between Ukraine and NATO armed forces.  It has sent its own troops on Western imperialist adventures as a gesture of solidarity and wants full membership, which Russian capitalism naturally sees as aggressive.  

Why wouldn’t it?  NATO is an aggressive imperialist alliance because imperialism is aggressive.  The only way to present Russia as the only relevant imperialist power in the war is to pretend that this isn’t true.  And true to form the Anti-Capitalist Resistance group (ACR) has placed on its web site arguments that this isn’t always true or doesn’t really matter . . . which we will come to in a later post.

It is simply an unsustainable position to demand of workers and socialists across the world that they defend weaker capitalist powers from imperialist attack when these too are part of the world imperialist system and seek to further integrate themselves into its most powerful alliance.  But that is what the position of the ACR amounts to in its demands in favour of Ukrainian ‘self-determination’.  And this isn’t new: the argument has been used by NATO in relation to a number of countries in order to expand across Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

As has been said on the blog before – the demand for self-determination does not apply in the way the ACR thinks it does.  It is a bourgeois democratic demand that goes no further than the capitalist order and when it comes to choosing between two capitalist powers, or different imperialist alliances, one is not preferable to the other. To do so would subordinate workers to a particular capitalist state and prevent the real self-determination that is required – that of the working class that must unite across national borders.

Pressed between two larger capitalist powers the Ukrainian state has attempted to navigate between them in its own interest but has fallen to the side of the stronger.  The independent power of this oligarchic and corrupt state is not the concern of workers and socialists except in so far as we wish to destroy it.  The only answer for Ukrainian workers is not to subordinate itself to its own state or support its alliance with Western imperialism but to assert its own class interests, which are also those of Russian and other European workers.

This however requires an independent working class policy, not supporting the self-determining power of the Ukrainian state.  This includes separate organisation to defend itself in the invasion through separate political and military organisation in such maximal forms as can be created in the circumstances.  But this requires rejection of the political position that one must subordinate oneself to the Ukrainian state in its war against Russia, which is what the ACR position involves.

The political formulas of this group that elide class distinctions do not prevent Ukrainian capitalism or its state from enforcing its class interests, it simply puts to sleep the idea that Ukrainian workers must continue to defend theirs against Ukrainian capitalism and its state.  We have seen this already during this so-far short war, in attacks by the Government on workers’ rights and the banning of opposition parties that are considered ‘left’, and follows attacks on rival media sources to the President, including independent journalists and activists.

The oligarchs and its political representatives have employed increasingly right wing nationalism to protect its role, directed against the threat from the East, all the while seeking incorporation into the Western imperialist system.

The ACR solidarity campaign simply supports these developments by parroting nationalist principles while wishing that the Ukraine state was less subordinated to the stronger imperialist powers.  The former has been employed to subordinate the Ukrainian working class while the latter is not only impossible and reactionary, but again represents the interests of the country’s capitalist class.

Nationalism is the refuge of a discredited Ukrainian capitalist class that employs the language of patriotism and anti-communism, that glorifies some of the worst historical figures in the country’s history, and in doing so legitimises today’s far right nationalists and fascists.  These are the expression of a capitalist state that deserves no support but which some socialists have come to defend.

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

‘Yes’, a non-nationalist argument for Scottish independence. Part 2

1aWhen Davidson gets to his non-nationalist argument for Scottish independence he gets the essential question correct.  He says:

“For socialists the question is about whether or not independence strengthens the working class. But the working class with which we should be concerned is not only British, still less only Scottish, but international. Furthermore, the question cannot be posed in a purely economic way: strength comes from ideological and political clarity as much as from organizational capacity. So what, then, are socialist arguments for independence that would meet these requirements? The most obvious is the possibility of breaking up the British imperialist state.”

So having got the issue right he immediately moves away from it.  From identifying the key question – how does the nationalist demand affect the political position of the working class, not just in Scotland, but internationally, including England and Wales – he starts to talk about the British State.

The purpose of this can only be that he sees the only, or at least main, merit in separation as the weakening of the British State caused by Scottish separation increasing the relative strength of the international working class.  But since the simultaneous weakening of the British working class is so easily dismissed by left nationalists, and the example set internationally – one of promoting the creation of new national states – is not addressed, this isn’t really their argument.  It certainly isn’t argued in this article.

Davidson refers to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but the SNP supported the 1990-91 war against Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, supported the intervention in Libya and has already done a U-turn on membership of NATO.  It would have supported the second Iraq war had the US and Britain gotten the fig-leaf of a UN resolution to cover their small difficulties.  There is therefore nothing inherently anti-war about Scottish nationalism, or any new Scottish state, which is hardly surprising given Scotland’s enthusiastic participation in building the British Empire.

There were of course demonstrations in Scotland against the Iraq war but there were also huge demonstrations in London numbering the hundreds of thousands that were part of a feeling across Britain of united opposition to the war.  The vote in Westminster against intervention into Syria shows that the British State is not very different from a putative Scottish one and is prepared to consider its own interests before joining in the next imperialist adventure.  There’s nothing principled in it, at least nothing progressive, but that exactly sums up the posturing of the SNP.  if we lump them in with the war-mongers of the Labour Party, Tories and hand-wringing Liberal Democrats, the political forces dominating Scottish politics don’t look very different from the rest of Britain.

The SNP has promised that the new Scotland will remain in NATO so that’s the biggest pointer to where Scotland’s place in the world will be.  Not much weakening of international imperialism there.

It is however the SNP promise to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde that is held up as some sort of totem of the progressiveness of Scottish separation. So much so it would appear that some see it as the reason to support separation.

This promise of the SNP conflicts with their proposed NATO membership and Davidson acknowledges that “the SNP cannot be relied on to carry through the removal of Trident without mass pressure from below.” So there is no change from the current situation as far as that is concerned.  So what difference would Scottish separation mean?

There have, after all, been mass mobilisations against nuclear weapons twice before, with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s and 1980s.  In effect Davidson is ruling out a more successful repeat of these except if Scotland becomes independent but doesn’t say how this would work.

He seems to say that the SNP promise will encourage the demand to be taken up that the weapons be moved out of Scotland when it separates.  In one way it’s hard to think of an example in which ‘not in my back yard’ politics would less appropriate.  In the British movement the demand was that they be scrapped.  Left Scottish nationalists demand that they be moved down South.  If indeed they were moved the nationalists couldn’t demand that the new reduced British State scrap them because that would be none of their business, as the British State would be very quick to remind them.

Let us see how this might work.  There is ‘independence’ and the left attempts to set up a campaign to remove Trident missiles from the Clyde.  The campaign would face a strong SNP that had just won the referendum and would have lots of capital to expend taking unpopular decisions to set up and defend the fledgling state.

Faced with tough negotiations with the Government in London it could easily barter nukes on the Clyde in return for using the pound sterling, or sharing financial regulation, or support from London for negotiating entry into the EU, or negotiating pension arrangements, or negotiating Scotland’s share of the debt, or facilitating the timetable for separation.

In other words lots of potential excuses to ditch the promise to get rid of the nukes.  The SNP could even still blame it on the ‘London parliament’ for being oppressive, holding it up as yet another reason to strengthen the forces of Scottish nationalism rather than have campaigns that divide the Scottish people.

On the other hand the Left campaign would be asking that the nukes be moved down the road, which would save Scottish workers from what exactly?  If it made a difference by moving them, they can hardly expect the support of English workers and those English people opposed to nuclear weapons.  So not much chance of building an international campaign on this basis.

The only effect of Scottish separation would be to weaken the reasons for Scottish workers to oppose nuclear weapons and weaken any common action with English workers.  Such would be the result of the nationalist demand for moving them instead of the radical demand for scrapping them.

The question of nuclear weapons is one illustration of the central argument that Scottish separation would weaken the British state and weaken its imperialist role in the world: “Scottish secession would at the very least make it more difficult for Britain to play this role, if only by reducing its practical importance for the USA.”

But left Scottish nationalists are rather late coming to this cunning plan to weaken British imperialism and have rather missed the point.  British imperialism has been in decline for over a century.  Britain leant from the Suez debacle in 1956 that it can do nothing important if the US does not permit it.  Even in Suez the British did not attempt to act alone but connived with France and Israel to invade Egypt.  Even so, some historians have declared that it “signified the end of Great Britain’s role as one of the world’s major powers.”

On the anniversary of the Falklands War sections of the British establishment complained that if Argentina mounted the same operation again Britain would not have the resources to take the islands back.  In June the ‘Financial Times’ had a front page story reporting that analysts from within the British armed forces had warned that cuts in the British defence budget were endangering the US-UK military partnership.

The article stated that ‘Robert Gates, former US defence secretary, said this year: “With the fairly substantial reductions in defence spending in Great Britain, what we’re finding is that it won’t have  . . . the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past.’  It would seem that the cuts of successive British Governments are already having the progressive effect that the left nationalists claim Scottish secession will have, but without the downside.

The strength of British imperialism has already declined by much more than Scottish separation could possibly achieve. Has the prospect for socialism increased during this time?  Has the strength of the working class increased as a result?  The answer is no and rips apart this ‘non-nationalist’ argument for Scottish independence.

The strength of the working class internationally is primarily a function of the united organisation and political consciousness of the working class itself.  On both counts Scottish nationalism weakens it and both organisationally and ideologically weakens the internationalism on which working class politics must be built.

No amount of claims that imperialism will be divided, when the EU and NATO will continue to include Scotland, can be allowed to divert attention from the essential nationalist logic of Scottish separation.

To be continued.