Pacifists and liberals are fond of repeating the old adage that ‘the first casualty of war is the truth.’ In fact, the exact contrary is far closer to the truth: wars, with their train of naked violence and coercion, strip away the cloak of civility and lay bare the ugly reality of capitalist social relations, revealing truths which are heavily concealed in ‘normal’ times. The longer the war continues, the more the truth is forced into the open. This is why a prolonged war is often a prelude to revolution.
When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy observed early in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that ‘we are alone in defending our country’, he was voicing a truth that usually goes unspoken. Speaking as leader of a bourgeois government which was counting on the support of its more powerful counterparts in Western Europe and the United States, he finds himself largely abandoned and alone in facing down the Russian military colossus. The US and its European allies flying the NATO banner like to pose as Ukraine’s defenders, posturing and strutting their military capability; they may even flick a token quantity of military equipment in Ukraine’s direction occasionally, for the sake of appearances. But they have made it very clear from the beginning that they had no intention of committing troops or even serious supplies of weaponry to Ukraine’s defence.
Central to NATO’s strategy in Ukraine is to avoid any direct military confrontation with Russia; Putin knows it, and plans all his moves accordingly. When Zelenskiy called for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, Putin warned that if they did, he would consider that an act of military aggression by NATO; NATO refused Ukraine’s request. “We are not part of this conflict,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in explanation of the refusal. And it is true: they are not part of the defence of Ukraine. A similar scenario is playing out in respect of fighter planes which Poland could supply to the Ukrainian air force. Ukraine remains, as Zelenskiy said, alone.
There are two wars being fought over Ukraine today. The first of these is the heroic defence of Ukrainian nation from the invasion and occupation of its national territory by Russia, a war of the whole Ukrainian people in arms, which has the sympathy and support – and admiration – of class-conscious workers the world over, and of anyone who supports the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. That has been shown by mass demonstrations from Tbilisi, Georgia, to London, to Riga, Latvia, to Tel Aviv, to Auckland, to cities across Mexico, Japan, and the United States; even in 147 cities across Russia itself, where protestors take part at great personal risk to themselves from the same state machine engaged in the barbarity in Ukraine.
Alongside this there is a second war, entangled with the first but essentially separate, in which the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, all the western European powers, as well as other NATO members like Turkey are deeply involved. This is the escalating inter-imperialist conflict between themselves and Russia. This conflict has not yet become a shooting war – at this stage, it is chiefly an economic and propaganda war. But war is a dangerous and unpredictable animal; once unleashed, it is not entirely under the control of any of its masters. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the course of this war has suddenly accelerated towards military confrontation, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
NATO has long had the initiative in this conflict – in fact, it has been NATO’s raison d’être throughout its entire existence. NATO is the military expression of US power in Europe – and over Europe, including over its allies. It was NATO that set up the military encirclement of Russia, and then kept tightening the noose, thereby providing Putin with his most plausible pretext for the invasion of Ukraine. This is no small matter: the Russian invasion otherwise lacked any semblance of justification.
And wars are won or lost on their politics and the morale of the combatants at least as much as by the weaponry arrayed on each side – as Putin is discovering, to his dismay. An army in which the combatants know they are fighting for a just cause, and are prepared to lay down their lives for that cause, has a great advantage over one made up of unwilling conscripts who have been lied to, no matter what the weaponry at their command. That is how Vietnam defeated the United States.
Now the NATO powers are looking eagerly for opportunities to advance their interests further, as Putin’s difficulties in Ukraine start to mount. Even such an obtuse observer as Boris Johnson can see that “After twelve days, it’s clear that Putin has made a miscalculation.” The US and its European allies are driving this war through the punishing sanctions they have imposed on Russian financial and economic activity. The centrepiece of the sanctions is a measure barring the Russian central bank from accessing $630 billion of foreign exchange reserves held in foreign banks, crippling its foreign trade, and hampering its ability to shore up its currency. These are very severe sanctions – they are designed to drive the Russian currency into the ground and bring economic activity in Russia grinding to a halt. And the sanctions are being widened and deepened every day.
In their propaganda the imperialist powers are pitching these sanctions as targeted penalties, imposed chiefly on Russian oligarchs actively involved in the invasion of Ukraine, seizing their bank accounts and expensive yachts, and as measures whose purpose is to aid the defence of Ukraine. But both claims are a sham: these measures have the sole aim of advancing their own economic and military interests in Europe against their Russian rival and counterpart – not Ukraine’s – and the people hit hardest by them will be the ordinary working people of Russia – not the oligarchs.
Russian stock prices crashed 44% immediately after the Ukraine war launched. As the sanctions took effect, the value of the Russian ruble plunged nearly 30% against the US dollar; the Russian central bank immediately hiked interest rates from 9% to 20%. These measures are ‘targeted’ at strangling the working people of Russia. The sanctions are already also hitting workers in other European countries, and around the world, with fuel shortages and inflationary price hikes. The prices of oil and gas for heating have already spiked. The unforeseen secondary consequences of the disruption to world trade could be equally calamitous: Russia and Ukraine are both major exporters of wheat, together accounting for 30% of the world’s wheat exports; the price of wheat quickly shot up. Turkey, already struggling with inflation running at 54%, imports 60% of its wheat imports from Russia; Egypt, 25%.
For their part, EU sanctions are also heavy on censorship – shutting down media outfits and individuals they deem to be spreading ‘disinformation’ – in perfect symmetry with the heavy censorship imposed by their counterpart in Moscow (about which the US and its allies raise a loud and hypocritical hue and cry.) The net of censorship is also widening constantly on both sides – shutting down RT, Sputnik and other informal mouthpieces for Moscow with a wide following in the West, while Moscow silences social media reports of anti-war protests in Russia. Whatever their differences, the NATO powers are in full agreement with Putin on this point: the last thing they want is for ordinary working people to read widely and make up their own minds about who is speaking the truth and who is lying.
Does the military encirclement by NATO mean, then, that Russia has legitimate security concerns that workers should recognise? Does Russia have the right to defend itself against the more powerful imperialist alliance that is NATO? The answer is No. Class-conscious workers do not grant to any imperialist power the right to defend its oppressive rule.
This is the most fundamental question of inter-imperialist war, the question upon which the Second International shattered a century ago. When in August 1914 the mass Social-Democratic parties of Germany, France, and other European powers reneged on their decades-long stance against the impending war, and adopted a position of recognizing the ‘legitimate security concerns’ of their respective imperial masters, it was a colossal blow to working class solidarity, and opened the gates to four years of unprecedented slaughter.
The only parties to emerge from the maelstrom intact were those that rejected all imperialist militarism, rejected the ‘right of defence’ of imperialist states, and supported the defeat of all the belligerent powers, their own in the first instance. It was on this basis that the Bolsheviks in 1917 wrenched Russia out of the bloodbath of the Great War, and laid the basis for the end of that war a year later, and of the overthrow of predatory capitalism in Russia.
Another historical analogy may be useful here: In the 1930s, the United States prepared to go to war with its weaker rival (and former ally) Japan. At stake was the question of which of these two sets of gangsters would dominate the Asia-Pacific region. The US cut off Japan’s imports of iron ore and oil, resources which it lacked in sufficient quantities on its own territory. Japan responded with a military campaign to secure these resources in Asia – oil from the Dutch East Indies, ores from China – a campaign marked by unbridled brutality against the nations it conquered. Eventually Japan was driven to attack the US itself at Pearl Harbour, entering a war in which all the advantages lay with the US, and which ended with US nuclear attacks, and the defeat and occupation of Japan itself.
Did the aggressive and predatory campaign of the US against its weaker imperialist rival mean that the workers’ movement supported Japan’s ‘legitimate security concerns’? Absolutely not – class-conscious workers in the US stood in solidarity with the embattled peoples of China, Indochina, Korea, and the East Indies in fighting all their imperialist overlords – Britain (the colonial power in Burma, Singapore, and Malaysia), France (in Vietnam), Japan (in Korea and China), Holland (Indonesia) and the United States (Philippines). There was absolutely no need to lend support to one or other bunch of colonial overlords then, and there is none today.
Russia was once a workers’ state, the first of Europe’s great empires to fall to a workers’ revolution in 1917. But after decades of counter-revolution, bureaucratic degeneration and decay, the last vestiges of the workers’ state collapsed in 1991, and out of the state bureaucracy emerged a new capitalist class. The administrators of the state-owned industries became, by an act of thieving of historic proportions, its owners. Vladimir Putin, whose training was in the organised thuggery of the Soviet police state, became the pre-eminent representative of this kleptocracy for over twenty years. Now he seeks to regain the empire lost by Russia when capitalism was overthrown in 1917.
Russian imperial expansion unfolded in the 19th century in a somewhat different manner from the expansion of the British and French empires. Whereas British and French power rested on their naval superiority, and therefore spread across the globe in search of the raw materials for their industries, Russian naval power was constrained by its ice-bound geography; the Russian empire expanded over land, through wars of annexation, to dominate the peoples on its borders – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Finns, and Poles to the north and west, central Asian and Caucasian peoples to the south, and the Buryats and other peoples of Siberia to the east.
Because of this, the Russian empire had some unique characteristics – the subject peoples on Russia’s western border shared the same skin colour and some cultural elements with their Russian conquerors, for example. However, in the annexed territories, Russian imperialism was very similar to all the other colonial empires: Russian rule rested on colonial settlement of Russians, with punitive land-grabbing imposed on those who resisted, policies of Russification and suppression of national languages, religions and cultures. The principal difference was that the Russian bureaucratic-clerical police state of the nineteenth century exceeded them all in its level of brutality and oppression.
As the power of the Russian czars expanded westwards, the czarist authorities closed Lithuanian and Polish-language schools in Lithuania, denied licences to Polish shops, and imposed discriminatory tax regimes on Catholics, in favour of the Russian Orthodox religion. Polish language was forbidden in schools in the 1880s. Lithuanians and Poles were banned from professional occupations such as doctors and teachers. The Russian state confiscated large estates of land and handed them over were to Russian nobles in retaliation for nationalist uprisings. They exiled 80,000 Poles to the Siberian penal colonies in 1864, following an uprising against Russia. Russian migration to the newly acquired territories was encouraged.
In Ukraine, Ukrainian language was banned from schools as early as 1804; Ukrainian Sunday Schools were abolished altogether in 1862. The following year, the Russian minister of internal affairs declared that “the Ukrainian language never existed, doesn’t exist, and cannot exist.” A secret decree forbade the use of the Ukrainian language in print. (Putin constantly echoes the ideology of Russification, calling Ukraine “little Russia” and stating in 2008 that “Ukraine is not a real country.” In a speech just prior to the recent invasion he re-iterated that “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood.” )
One of the greatest achievements of the early years of Bolshevik rule after the 1917 revolution was the smashing of this ‘prison-house of nations,’ and the Bolshevik government’s recognition of the right of the oppressed nations of the empire to self-determination, including the right to secede. The Bolsheviks respected Finland’s secession from Russia, despite the military dangers to the workers’ republic that this entailed. Ukraine and other oppressed nations of the czarist empire won a brief moment of freedom in the early years of Bolshevik rule, during which the policies of Russification were ended and a policy of Ukrainisation adopted. For a few years in the early 1920s, Ukrainian language flourished in print media and education, and real steps were taken to overcome the legacy of discrimination. Ukraine won its national independence, and joined the Soviet Union – a voluntary union of nations formerly part of the Russian empire, where the working class had conquered power, founded on a relation of equality between its constituent soviet republics.
But Ukraine suffered the same fate as the revolution in Russia: within little more than a decade, a political counter-revolution triumphed under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, and the gains of the revolution were overturned. Bolshevik leader Trotsky’s fight to maintain the revolutionary course of Bolshevism was defeated.
Nowhere did the blows of the Stalinist counter-revolution fall more heavily than in Ukraine. For in addition to everything else, their national aspirations had been crushed. Expressions of Ukrainian nationhood were denounced as ‘bourgeois nationalism,’ Russification policies were resumed with a vengeance, all the old Great Russian prejudices revived. The Soviet Union became a prison-house of nations once more – and all in the name of socialism and the working class. (The Ukrainian Marxist Ivan Dziuba documented both the period of freedom and Stalin’s reversal of the Leninist policy of self-determination for oppressed nations in his book Internationalism or Russification, written in 1965. Dziuba died on 22 February this year at the age of 90.)
Trotsky commented in 1939, “The more profound the hopes aroused, the keener was the disillusionment. The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence.”
As the rule of the bureaucracy wreaked havoc on the planned economy, Stalin’s crimes against the Ukrainian nation escalated to genocide. Faced with the debacle of the forced collectivization of the peasants’ land holdings in 1932-33 and widespread resistance to it in Ukraine, Stalin held the whole Ukrainian nation responsible for the failure, and punished them accordingly. Armed detachments requisitioned grain at gunpoint from peasants on the brink of starvation; Ukrainians seeking to flee north to Russia to find food were driven back. Millions died in what Ukrainians call the Holodomor – murder by starvation. (This crime was depicted, vividly if somewhat misleadingly, in the 2019 film by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, Mr Jones. For readers interested in a more detailed account of this period, I reviewed the film in my post The Holodomor in Ukraine and the obfuscations of “Mr Jones”, and then answered the criticisms of my review from a socialist who disputed the facts of the ‘so-called Holodomor theory’ in a further post Ukraine’s ’History wars’ and the political descendants of Stalin and Walter Duranty.)
The Ukrainian nation, its alliance with the Russian working class finally severed by Stalin’s genocide – again, committed in the name of communism! – turned in desperation to the imperial powers in the west for support. For some elements in the Ukrainian movement, this went as far as seeking support form Hitlerite Germany. Disastrous as that orientation was, and is today, the responsibility for it lies entirely with Stalin and his political descendants.
The struggle of oppressed nations for self-determination, in alliance with the working class of the oppressor nation, can become a mighty motor force of revolution, as it was in early Bolshevik Russia. By the same token, errors and equivocation, and any failure by the workers of the oppressor nation to recognise the right of oppressed nations to self-determination hands the imperialists a powerful weapon to use against both the oppressed nations and the working class.
The crimes of Stalinism towards the Ukrainian nation, continued up to the present by Stalin’s political heir, Vladimir Putin, lie at the foundation of the orientation of Ukrainian nationalists towards and US and European Union imperialism today. Overcoming this orientation will not be a simple matter – it will be a task commensurate with the crimes – but it starts with the world working class offering solidarity to the oppressed nation of Ukraine in its fight for self-determination.
The two belligerent powers in the wars in Ukraine, the United States and Russia, share much in common. Both empires are in historic decline, their industry, in particular heavy industry, a shadow of what it was in the past. The huge military machines that both possess are a legacy of their past industrial strength – that is to say, their military prowess is completely disproportionate to the industry on which it now rests.
On the one hand, this pre-disposes them both to seek military solutions to their economic problems, but on the other, it also makes any losses of military hardware they suffer in war increasingly difficult to replenish. (Russia already seems strangely reluctant to commit its air power fully to the Ukraine war, perhaps for this reason.) Vladimir Putin seeks to reverse Russia’s historic decline by re-creating the Russian prison house of nations of the czars; he will be no more able to ‘make Russia great again’ than his friend and co-thinker Donald Trump was able to ‘make America great again,’ no more than Biden in future. The wars now unfolding in Ukraine – both of them – will reveal this truth more clearly.