- The Maidan revolt
- The role of western imperialism including NATO
- Putin: Make Russia Great Again
- Support Ukraine’s right to get arms from any source possible
- Zelensky & Ukrainian capitalism
- The seizure of oligarchs’ assets
- The need for working class parties
- Oppose supporting one imperialist camp over another
The direct roots of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine trace back to the 2014 Maidan uprising. As Sergey Kurkov has made clear in his book Ukraine Diaries, this was principally an uprising of tens of thousands of somewhat idealistic youth who saw Ukraine’s future as being linked with Western Europe rather than Russia. They saw Western Europe as the bastion of “democracy”, as being less corrupt, and as enabling a better standard of living. In the back of their minds this was connected with the enormous corruption of then-president Yanukovich. (After Yanukovich’s riot police cracked down, killing over 100 and arresting scores more, the mood hardened and the youth turned to looking for organizers of street fighting. The fascists were the only ones available. The process was something similar to why some Syrian rebels turned to Islamic fundamentalist groups, who often were the only ones with arms.)
Putin correctly saw this revolt as a serious threat to his rule. After all, if the corrupt and pro-Russian oligarch Yanukovich could be brought down, what did that say for the equally corrupt oligarch over all oligarchs, Putin? Resting on years of Ukrainian oligarchs’ encouraging nationalist loyalties in order to divert a class struggle, Putin sent his agents and even outright fascists of the Russian Unity Party into the Donbas region. There, they joined with assorted thugs and, resting to a degree on some of the nationalist loyalty to the corrupt Yanukovich, they formed the two breakaway “republics”.
Domestically, arising out of the “color revolutions” of 2004 as well as the Maidan uprising, Putin pushed through a law in 2016 establishing the Rosgvardia, or home guard. This is a 400,000 member armed force completely controlled by Putin alone. It provides the armed basis for him to move from a semi-dictatorship to outright totalitarian rule, possibly even fascism. It is part and parcel of his links with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), whose role is the Russian equivalent of the christian fundamentalist churches in the US, except that the ROC has near state power.
Two rival imperialist blocs
Internationally, Russia has developed in league with China as the main imperialist rival to US and Western European imperialism. Although they are rivals, in some cases they have the same allies. For example, in North Africa/Western Asia, both imperialist camps support both Israel and Saudi Arabia. And both Russian and US imperialism worked to prevent the downfall of the fascistic Assad dynasty. (In the case of the US, it was slightly more covert, but the role was the same.) The main sphere of the rivalry between US and Russian imperialism was in Europe, and Ukraine, as the second largest country in Europe and one with immense resources, has become central to that rivalry.
Much has been made of the expansion of the imperialist NATO alliance into eastern Europe. Putin has at times claimed that that threat is the reason for his invasion. In fact, the economic and political threat – as shown by the Maidan uprising – is far greater to Putin’s rule. As far as NATO itself, retired Russian General Leonid Ivashov addressed himself to that issue in January of 2022. Speaking on behalf of the All Russian Officers Assembly, Ivashov (who is considered a “hawk”) condemned a possible invasion of Ukraine as “criminal”. In a clear reference to NATO he said “Nobody threatens us, nobody attacks us.”
Putin: Make Russia Great Again
The other important development has been Putin’s increasingly close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) which plays on tsarist themes and the yearning of the “good old days” of Greater Russia. He has built a base through a version of Trumpism, but in this case it is Make Russia Great Again. The invasion is a further step in the diection of outright totalitarianism, even possibly fascism.
Much has been made of Putin’s recent speech in which he said that Ukraine has no right to exist as a nation. In fact, that speech is a somewhat more mild version of a statement he published in July of 2021. In it, he blamed the existence of an independent Ukraine on the role of the Catholic Church (rival with the ROC, especially in Poland) and on the Bolsheviks. Equally significant is that he sounded many of the classic European fascist themes of an ancient, original peoples (the Rus in this case) linked with “a historical and spiritual space”, the “historical motherland”, etc.
So, yes, the expansion of NATO was an imperialist move and should be opposed just as NATO itself should be. But that was not the driving force behind Putin’s invasion. In fact, it is questionable whether Ukraine could even join NATO, since NATO’s rules seem to exclude any country that has a border dispute, and Ukraine has such a dispute with Russia over Crimea. Also, bringing in a new country requires unanimous consent of the present NATO nations, and up until now it seems at least Germany would have vetoed this. The main reasons for the invasion were Russia’s setbacks in the economic and political rivalry between Russia and the West, and also Putin’s drive to recreate a tsarist-like Greater Russia, Making Russia Great Again. That latter drive is made necessary by Putin’s very basis of rule in Russia. Nowadays, Putin doesn’t even mention NATO as justification for his invasion.
Zelensky and Ukrainian Capitalism
As far as Zelensky: he first came into office in 2019 as one who would clean up the Ukrainian government. At the same time, his economic policies were basically neoliberal, including on the privatization of land. He also supported some anti-labor legislation. His geopolitical orientation was and is towards the NATO nations. Part of this is due to the conflict with Putin over both Crimea and the breakaway “republics”. So the most immediate threat to Ukrainian national rights comes from Russian imperialism, rather than from western imperialism. Also, part of Zelensky’s orientation result from that same orientation on the part of most, although not all, Ukrainians.
Zelensky is a capitalist politician and as such he cannot clean up the immense corruption upon which Ukrainian capitalism rests, that is to say the domination of the oligarchs. Nor can he resolve the economic crisis in Ukraine, which some call “the northermost country in the global South”. Nor can he resolve the problem of fascism, which is prevalent throughout the capitalist world and possibly even more so the further east one goes in Europe. But he is not an enabler of fascism. In fact, he dismissed the interior minister Avakov, exactly because the latter was a sponsor of the Azov Battalion. Nor is he simply a “stooge” of Western imperialism. If he were, he would not be risking his life staying in Kyiv rather than fleeing as Biden had advised him to do. But in the end, just like anybody else in office, he must obey the logic imposed by one class or another. As even the capitalist Brookings Institute put it, “Since independence, Ukraine has struggled continuously to break the iron triangle of oligarchic rule, corruption, and financial instability that has left Ukraine mired in poverty.” No politician who bases themself on capitalism and the capitalist classs, no matter what their intentions, can break that “iron triangle”.
Before the invasion, a class struggle was starting to develop inside Ukraine and the idea of a separate working class party was being considered by some. That development has been entirely put to the side by the invasion, which is reason enough to unequivocally oppose the invasion (as if the immense human suffering weren’t enough!)
Much has been made of the fascist forces in Ukraine, especially the Azov Battalion. Yes, these forces do exist, just as they do throughout the world, and they must be opposed. However, the fascists in Ukraine were unable to get a single representative elected to parliament in 2020 (as opposed to the US!) In Russia, on the other hand, fascism is alive and thriving, with Putin being the number one centralizer of fascist forces throughout Europe. Putin’s invasion will be a further step in the direction of strentghening fascism in Russia. It’s no accident that the Ukrainian fascists are the only ones in the world that don’t support the invasion.
From reports, since the invasion the orientation towards the west has increased tremendously. The invasion overall has strengthened NATO as, for example, now both Sweden and Finland are considering applying to join and NATO is more united than before. In addition, several Western European countries are now incrasing their military budgets, Germany first and foremost. The point is that if Putin’s main motive for the invasion was to counter the threat posed by NATO, he has achieved the exact opposite, as could have easily been foreseen in advance (and evidently was by at least the top Russian military command staff).
Of course, US and Western European imperialism opposes this invasion for their own interests. It is for these imperialist interests that the NATO nations are sending arms to Ukraine, but what should be the position of socialists? It is a mistake to cite this or that Marxist leader from the past to “prove” a point, but some comments of Trotsky are very relevant here. In Learn to Think, he raised the hypothetical situation of if Algeria rose up against French colonial rule and Mussolini, for his own imperialist interests, wanted to send arms to the Algerians. What should be the position of socialists? Trotsky unhesitantly said that socialists should support it. He even said that if the Italian dock workers were on strike against Mussolini, they should make an exception and load those arms. He explained that he’d intentionally chosen the example of one of the most despicable rulers in Europe to drive the point home.
The West’s Involvement
Trotsky was right and the same applies as far as Ukraine. Those socialists who equivocate or oppose the sending of arms to Ukraine are in effect advocating that Ukraine should lie down and surrender to Russia’s imperialist invasion. The question of a US/NATO imposed no-fly zone is different. That would have to be imposed by the soldiers of those nations, bringing them directly into the war. In that case, they would have increased power over what happens in Ukraine and the outcome of the war. An example is the case of Britain having sent its troops into Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Supposedly they were being sent to protect the Catholic minority. In fact, those troops ended up repressing the Catholics in the course of protecting the interests of British capital. It is understandable that Ukrainians, under the onsluaght of Putin’s bombs, would support a no-fly zone, but how it would work out would be more similar to what happened in Nothern Ireland.
In fact, one of the main dangers to guard against today is the possible pressure of Biden and other NATO nations to accept an unacceptable compromise, including what might be in effect a partition of Ukraine. At some point the Ukrainian masses might become so exhausted that they feel it necessary to accept such a deal, but from the outside all indications are that that point is not even close. Biden, Johnson, Scholz – they don’t care about that. All they care about is their interests, which for the moment happen to mesh to a great degree with those of the Ukrainian people. The emphasis here is “for the moment”.
It is not enough to unequivocally oppose the invasion and not give the slightest political cover to Putin. It’s not enough to support the right of Ukraine to get arms from wherever it can (meaning in practice the NATO nations), while calling for no trust in that imperialist power whatsoever. In the West, there is overwhelming sympathy for Ukraine, but workers will want to know what they can do, other than donate some money. Socialists must have an answer.
We should point out Biden’s seizure of the assets of Russian oligarchs is largely a fraud, as it seems to be only the oligarchs’ private jets and yachts, and even those have been seized but not sold. In any case, their main assets are in stock holdings, bank accounts and real estate. We should call for a campaign to seize and sell the other assets (in the case of real estate) and the money be given to Ukraine.
But why only the Russian oligarchs? How about the Ukrainian oligarchs such as Kolomoisky, who bilked Ukrainian people out of billions of dollars through the world’s largest ponzi scheme and who has parked millions in the US? How about all the others? Their assets should be seized and also turned over to Ukraine to help finance its defense and, after the invaders are driven out, the rebuilding of Ukraine.
But why should we stop there? How about all the Western oligarchs who have invested in and profited from the looting of Ukraine as well as the Russian military industrial complex? Their assets should be seized to help the same cause as well as to repay the taxpayers – meaning the workers – of the west whose taxes have paid for the military aid for Ukraine.
Nor should we stop there. There are the oil companies and also the military manufacturers who have profiteered immensely from this war. Their assets should be seized too and should go towards the same purposes.
In the US, different laws at the state level enable these oligarchs to hide their wealth through shell companies. Biden’s home state of Delaware is one of the worst in this regard. The same is true in many countries around the world. What is required is an international movement to put an end to these shell companies and require that they open the books so that we, the working class, can see where the money really is.
Working Class Parties
This means that the working class must have its own independent voice and its own party. That includes in Ukraine since without that the money would simply be siphoned off by the same oligarchs. Together, such a voice and such parties can be built. In this way, by raising some very concrete demands, socialists can tap into a mood that exists and start to break out of the left ghetto which it presently largely inhabits.
Support One Imperialist Camp or the Other?
One final word: When the Soviet state became bureaucratized, Stalin as the leader of the bureaucracy also completely perverted the ideas of Marxism. A relatively tiny handful, led by Trotsky, struggled to keep those ideas and that method alive. The conditions at the time and since have meant that they would inevitably be a small – even at times even an isolated – minority. Today, Stalinism as an organized force is nearly entirely gone, but its ideas and influence live on. That is what is represented by those who start from the point of view that there are several imperialist camps and the task of socialists is to align with one or another, which almost always means aligning with the imperialist camp that opposes US imperialism. That is what is known as “campism” and especially in this situation they appear to be in a fairly strong majority within the socialist world, and whether intended or not, they in effect give political cover to Putin’s invasion. Those who oppose this point of view will often be in a minority, even a small minority. It doesn’t matter. We must not make the slightest concession to this approach, which will cut us off from socialists in both the Ukrainian and (paradoxically) the Russian working class. They matter far more.