Ukraine: an imperialist war on both sides

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Today, in a world fraught with imperialist wars - Iraq, Syria, Libya, East and West Africa, Sudan and Yemen, tensions in the Far East and terror attacks in Europe - Ukraine has become a serious focus of confrontation between Russia and its western rivals. Even if the current war is taking place on the periphery of Europe it nevertheless indicates a striding militarism and a growing threat of war coming to the capitalist heartlands.

The re-emergence of Russian imperialism and the NATO response

The region around Crimea is crucial for Russian strategic interests, for the protection of its pipelines, an essential part of its economy, but more so for the Russian navy where the Black Sea is its only guaranteed warm-water port, the others being iced up for six months of the year. Crimea, which gives access to the Black Sea, has already been integrated into the Russian Federation. With this move the idea of Novorossiya that the Russian bourgeoisie has been talking about since Putin took the presidency in 1999, after his brutal and successful military operation in Chechnya, has become more of a reality. Novorossiya is an expression of Russian imperialism from its Tsarist days when it took the region north of the Black Sea from the collapsing Ottoman Empire.

Today its stamp is has also been marked in the breakaway Donbass region, in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and the ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’. Donetsk airport is a smouldering ruin, littered with corpses. The railway hub of Debaltseve was fought over during the February ‘cease-fire’ brokered by France and Germany. The destruction continues with moves towards a land corridor to the Black Sea via the town of Mariupol. The Russian ruling class, with Putin at its head, has no qualms about using force in this region of vital Russian interest against the resistance of Kiev’s special forces. Russian imperialism’s retreat after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 is well and truly over

The German and French led Minsk cease-fire of 12 February has already broken down, like the failure of the cease-fire last September. To a certain extent, the separatist rebels in the East are a wild card, independent of Russia but, overall, and for the reasons above, it is Russia that is pulling the strings and providing the overwhelming fighting force and material. Latest reports suggest that much of the deadly artillery shelling comes from within Russian territory.

At the same time we have been seeing the manoeuvring of the western countries, particularly the US, to give backing the Kiev regime. The western leaders and their media gave their support to the Maidan ‘revolution’ which was nothing more than a military coup replacing the Russian-backed gangsters in Kiev with those supported by the west. Russia cannot allow this regime to be incorporated into NATO with its forces right up to its borders. The war could thus become a long-term affair, giving Russia a sort of buffer zone and providing it with the ability to turn it on and off, thus gradually destabilising the western-backed Kiev regime. It’s a dangerous game. The US threat to provide Kiev with lethal weaponry is more than bluff and, at any rate, these events tend to take on their own irrational dynamic. In respect of supporting Kiev with arms there have been contradictory statements from various western ministries which probably represent both a genuine uncertainty and a campaign of disinformation. What is clear is that NATO has begun arming Eastern European countries with more modern weapons and military systems along with the creation of a NATO rapid reaction force.

There’s a contradiction here: on the one hand this is a period marked by the overall weakening of US imperialism, but at the same time NATO forces rely very heavily on US military assets. There’s a contradiction too within the alliance of the western countries, because while there’s no such thing as a ‘European’ foreign policy and certain centrifugal tendencies hold sway, including a weakening of the ‘transatlantic bond’, even down to arguments over the meaning of NATO’s Article 5 on mutual defence, these events have nevertheless promoted a more unified response. Thus NATO is doubling its rapid reaction force to 30,000 with units stationed in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. According to NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Staltenburg, this is “The biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War” (The Guardian, 5/12/15). Germany is taking the lead in NATO’s Response Force (NRF) in 2015, through the rotation system. And according to last November’s Die Welt, a paper well-connected with NATO intelligence circles, Germany is playing a particular role in organising elite response forces.

United States military instructors are due to arrive in Kiev in March in order to train local forces how “to defend themselves against Russian artillery and rockets” (The Times, 12/2/15, citing the senior military US commander in Europe). This is a far cry from ‘US disengagement’ that some parts of the press talk about. In relation to the question of disinformation raised above, it seems that the armies of the west are now using the Russian expediency of Maskirovoka, i.e., putting out general information through the media in order to mislead the enemy.

A different situation to the wars in the Balkans in the 1990’s

Russia’s strategy in Ukraine is based on exploiting the divisions and uncertainty within Europe and NATO. This was made clear by its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in a speech a couple of weeks ago: “The events in the past year (in Ukraine) have confirmed the reality of our warnings regarding deep, systematic problems in the organisation of European security”(reported in The Guardian, 13/2/15).

The present war is entirely different from the Balkan Wars of the 1990s which were more expressive of the imperialist tensions between western bloc countries and the US in the ‘New World Order’. These tensions, which translated on the ground into mass rape, massacres (Sarajevo, Srebrenica...) and the total fragmentation of ex-Yugoslavia and its provinces, were not a confrontation between Russia and the west but rather saw the imperialist interests of Germany, Britain, France and the US in a proxy war of each against all. A concrete example of this occurred at Pristina airport, June 1999 in the aftermath of the Kosovo War where Russian troops occupied the airport ahead of a NATO deployment. US overall NATO commander Wesley Clarke ordered the airport to be taken by British troops under his command. British military commander, Mike Jackson, refused Clarke’s orders saying: “I’m not going to start World War III[1].

The current war is less like the Balkans of the 90s and more like the war in Georgia in 2008, where the latter, supported by the US, agitated to join NATO. Russia gained ground here and with the US engaged elsewhere the latter was forced to swallow the ‘European’ (i.e., dictated by Moscow) plan for a cease-fire[2]. Now it’s Russia v the others in continuity with its imperialist interests dating back to Tsarist days. Russia is pursuing this strategy with reduced means and ambitions compared to the Cold War, but it’s still pushing for a new front line in Europe. All this is very dangerous for the working class across this continent and beyond.

An irrational situation

None of this is rational, even from a capitalist point of view. Russia and European countries are suffering enormously over US-imposed sanctions. Sanctions on Russia were introduced in March 2014 and compounded by Russian countersanctions banning food imports. Gas and oil price falls of 40% have also hit the Russian economy. While the Rouble has plummeted, many businesses ceased trading in Russia due to its volatility, and the working class and population as a whole is hit by soaring food prices. Meanwhile Putin calmly anticipates the next rise in oil prices! In reality, things will only get worse with new sanctions threatened following the breakdown of the latest cease-fire.

In Putin Russia has equipped itself with a sadistic leader prone to military adventures regardless. Regardless of the cost to the economy in the short term. Regardless of Russia’s capacity to make long term gains on the imperialist front, while its short term gains, as in the Donbass, can only be held by military force or occupation and corruption, and come at the cost of undermining its strength in the long term.

The victory of nationalism on both sides

In Kiev large numbers of the population, egged on by the west and its media foghorns, voted for nationalist and fascist goons who then terrorised what genuine demonstrators there were in Maidan. Kiev’s new president, Poroshenko, already at his inauguration last June, promised war and austerity and he is now talking about introducing martial law and ‘reforms’ in order to pursue the war and further attacks on the population. The IMF, which has already given billions of dollars to Kiev, is talking about another $17.5 billion with $40 billion more over the next 4 years. This will be in exchange for ‘reforms’ such as cutting the social wage even further and substantially increasing basic prices. This will happen whether the war intensifies or not. And, particularly affected and caught up in all this, the working class is unable to provide any realistic opposition.

This is not to say that there has been no resistance to the war. In the East of the country, outside of the armed gangs of separatists and nationalists there seems very little support for the war. There was some action from miners in the Donbass at the beginning which seemed independent, but it was quickly recuperated by the ‘rebels’ who used as a show-piece for their ‘support’. In fact the rebel factions have complained about the lack of support from the population.

In the West of the country there has been more open resistance, particularly in the light of Poroshenko’s heavy hint about martial law and the proclaimed draft of 100,000 more soldiers from 16 to 60 years old – a mobilisation that is reminiscent of the Nazis in the last days of World War II, where the Volkssturm was enacted calling up the youth and old of similar ages. Documents hacked from the office of Kiev’s chief military prosecutor, Anotoli Matous, show a far greater number of war casualties than the official figure of 5,400 (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8/2/15, quotes German military intelligence as estimating 50,000 killed). The leaks also show over ten thousand desertions, the latter including senior military personnel and desertions from special military units and this to the point that the regime has set up special military units to track down deserters from the special military units – amongst others.

In Kiev-controlled territory there have been demonstrations and meetings in the provinces of Odessa and Zaphorizia where women particularly have been addressing crowds denouncing the war and the regime and getting a deal of support. But this resistance, though welcome, is by no means sufficient to spark a wider anti-war movement or anti-austerity fight. While generally not supporting the war, the working class of East and West Ukraine have not enough force, not enough political maturity to really oppose it on a class basis.

Is this the eve of World War III?

A frequently asked question, the answer to which is no... but. From the point of view of the attack on class consciousness and the rise of nationalism, feeding into the decomposition of the capitalist system in general, the all-pervading destructiveness could do almost as much damage to the prospects of communism as a world war. But for the latter, for a truly global conflict, there is a need for more or less coherent military blocs. Such do not exist. Even if they are against the renewed push of Russian imperialism there is little unity amongst NATO countries where centrifugal tendencies still dominate. All countries are wary of a German-dominated force as are many of an American domination and this gives an opening to Russia. As for the latter, it has taken steps to get China onside for its ‘Asiatic bloc’ and is making advances to other countries unwilling to bow to US pressure: Egypt, Hungary and Greece for example, but there is no prospect of a military bloc on the horizon.

On the other front, the social front, for a world war to be prepared the working class of the central countries needs to be mobilised and ready to give ‘blood, sweat and tears’ for the national, i.e., imperialist interest just as the proletariat was marched off to war and slaughter in 1914. Despite the present reflux in the struggles in the west, this is still not the case.


We should remember that in World War I, while anti-war movements broke out almost immediately, it took more years of destruction and carnage until 1917 bought a qualitative change in the working class that forced the ruling class to end the war. The conditions in Ukraine are very different today in that the war doesn’t entail mass mobilisations and the role of the big powers is more indirect and hidden. There is the danger of a ‘hidden’ war here, one that just rumbles on, becoming entrenched like other war zones in this period. In this key strategic area between Europe and Asia, with the direct participation of Russia and NATO forces, even if the latter are not totally united – along with other conflicts going on in the world – the catastrophic descent into decomposition is graphically illustrated.

This will tend to further demoralise the working class in the main industrial heartlands, just as the repression of the ‘Arab Spring’, with the knowing complicity of the bourgeoisie of the major powers, has been a factor of demoralisation and an opening for the nationalist left (e.g. Greece and Spain). But despite these considerable difficulties in the class, the task of revolutionaries, communists, around the world is to speak with one voice against imperialist war, something that they have singularly and pathetically been unable to do. For all their talk of ‘internationalism’ their responsibility in deeds towards it has been shamefully ducked, making it nothing more than one empty word amongst all others.

We have to bear in mind that it was only a very small number of revolutionaries, true internationalists, that stood up for the proletarian cause prior to and during World War I, just as more workers were being mobilised to massacre each other. We need to debate, come together and denounce the war highlighting the responsibility of the workers in the west. We need to maintain our analyses in the spirit of Zimmerwald and Kienthal and stand as a beacon against capitalist decomposition and imperialist war. 

Boxer 18/2/15

[2]. Ex-Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, the US’s man, on the run from authorities in Georgia, is now an official advisor to the regime in Kiev.




Eastern Europe