Positions of the global left over the abyss of imperialist escalation

06.09.2022
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Vitold Vasiletskyi
6661

It has been half a year since the Russo-Ukrainian full-scale war started. Apart from the events on the battlefield, there have been plenty of political discussions, particularly among the left. In this text, I try to summarize their main points and present arguments regarding the Russian invasion both as a specific issue and a part of a larger international relations crisis.

Militarism as an antithesis of collective rationality

One of the most impressive features of the capitalist system is the contrast between its massive material, technical, intellectual potential, and the level of most people's well-being. I do not use the term “well-being” in the narrow economic sense (as mere purchasing power) but as a condition when one’s basic needs are met reliably, and opportunities to apply his or her skills to socially useful activities are available. Basic needs do not reduce to housing, food, education, etc., but also presuppose health care, environmental stability, and physical safety. Unfortunately, even the latter is lacking. During the last three years, Ukrainian citizens have experienced two global cataclysms.

In 2020-21, several COVID-19 waves in Ukraine resulted in about 35% excess mortality compared to the previous years, which is not extraordinary for Europe and the world. However, this revealed problems not limited to national level. First, I would highlight the inability to coordinate timely global action to prevent the pandemic in the first weeks after the virus was discovered. Some countries managed to keep the incidence at almost zero for a couple of years, eventually realizing their policy was too hard to keep up and, by and large, futile given that the rest of the world let the virus rip (with the notable exception of China, but its harsh measures arguably deserve criticism as well).

Finally, the expansion of industrial agriculture, this time to remote areas of China, could have caused the very emergence of this pathogen. Thus, it seems quite likely the capitalist environmental management and the political fragmentation of humanity can provoke threats leading to unprecedented excess mortality in peacetime. There is no reason to believe we are safe from such a situation recurring in the future.

 

коронавірус в Україні

Pandemics in Luhansk oblast, January 2021. Photo: Yevhen Malolietka.

 

A full-scale Russian invasion is the second cataclysm. While the pandemic is related to an external threat to humanity, here people themselves are killing each other en masse. This triumphant negligence of human life is first and foremost a war of aggression waged by Russia. However, the same factors made Putin's arbitrariness possible, namely incompetent international institutions and the short-sighted policies of many states. And by short-sightedness, I don't only mean the West's confrontation with Putin's regime but rather its long-standing cooperation with it.

Since 1945, the 2014 annexation of Crimea was the first European case when one state seized and declared part of the territory of another state as its own. It was a kind of “Russian Sudetenland.”  However, even after the annexation of Crimea and the decisive role of the covert Russian participation in the Donbas war in 2014-15, Western Europe considered Russia an important trade partner. For instance, Nord Stream-2 was built during these years as a part of the German strategy. Also, Western countries exported a lot of weapons to Russia. By and large, it is for the role of politicians like Schröder and Merkel, whose policy was heavily influenced by big business, the full-scale Russian aggression became possible, and Putin considered serious Western sanctions unlikely.

Russian aggression also implies a fundamental rejection of democratic principles. Putin officially demanded that Ukraine recognize the independence of the LPR and DPR within the borders of respective oblasts (provinces), though it is doubtful that residents of the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts wanted a change of jurisdiction, especially by military means. Moreover, Russia has seized large areas in the south of Ukraine, saying nothing about their status for months[1] and terrorizing the locals, who do not express any signs of mass loyalty. We are still to comprehend the fact that a war destroying entire cities with a population of up to half a million can be launched in the 21st century by will of a single person.

 

Anton, a teacher, carries leftovers out of a school destroyed by shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast, July 24, 2022. Photo: IGOR TKACHEV / AFP via Getty Images

 

By saying “one person,” I do not intend to deny the political responsibility of the Russian ruling clique, of active and passive war supporters (these groups may comprise the majority of Russian population), or of Lukashenka and his supporters. However, Putin made this decision himself consulting, as it appears, an extremely limited circle of people. As in the case of the pandemic, the world community has been incapable of designing mechanisms to stop the war and concurrent crimes – murders and rapes, deportation of people to Russia and Belarus, filtration camps, etc.

The arbitrariness of individual states, especially nuclear ones, is very difficult to cease. We must do something about it.

The war is also an insult to climate policy. First, the profits from oil and gas exports contribute to the war financing. European governments, who decarbonize their economies quite sluggishly, also buy Russian fossil fuels. Second, the military industry and armed forces are vivid examples of waste. Producing, testing, and deploying all this land, air, and naval military equipment, as well as creating the infrastructure for it, requires a massive expenditure of resources, including fossil fuels.

In addition to material resources, the military sphere absorbs a substantial part of human potential. A huge number of engineers and scientists are needed to design airplanes, tanks, ships, submarines, bombs, missiles, salvo systems, thermobaric missiles, radars, and other types of arms and equipment, not to mention nuclear weapons. People who could otherwise work for the benefit of life-affirming institutions — health care, clean energy, environmental conservation etc., — instead engage in activities of negative social benefit (if not from the perspective of individual states, then from the perspective of humanity in general).

It is certainly true that some notable civilian technologies were initially developed for military purposes. Even fewer doubts I have about the benefits brought by basic research. However, it would still be much better to allocate intellectual and industrial potential to basic human needs firsthand.

 

A missile launches from an S-400 installation at the Ashuluk military base in southern Russia during the Caucasus 2020 military exercises, September 22, 2020 / Photo: DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images.

 

Unfortunately, it turned out rather the opposite: the life-affirming institutions of both Western welfare states and the Soviet Union developed in conjunction with military needs. As Georgi Derluguian points out, the modern state is a military-industrial machine, where the army and the military industry are supplemented by the police and passport control system, the tax system, patriotic propaganda, mass education, and healthcare. The USSR was a particularly vivid example of such a state. As Derluguian writes, “the militarization of the Soviet superpower underlay various spheres such as industry, science, space research, patriotic ideology, national politics, sports, education, and socialization of the male population.”

The world has changed since then. For example, armies have become more dependent on contract soldiers. As the Russian example shows, social inequality enables their recruitment by making military service one of the few options to earn money. However, we should remember the nature of the states built by Social Democrats and Bolsheviks, as it can provide us with a pill against unnecessary nostalgia and Sovietophilism.

I certainly don’t contend that the welfare state is a bad idea. My point is that the historical examples of welfare states came at too high a price. Moreover, it is easy to reach such a conclusion basing on abstract humanistic ideas, benefiting from this welfare system, and staying far from the areas where the products of military-industrial complex are being intensively used. But it’s a completely different experience to ponder this question hiding in a shelter while an invading army is attempting to get into your city. So, I tend to agree with Derluguian, who believes that 21st-century socialists should solve the problems raised by the anti-war, environmental, and other movements of 1968.

Therefore, anti-militarism should undoubtedly be a strategic priority of the left. At the same time, I want to warn against some straightforward and erroneous interpretations of this conclusion. Unfortunately, it is easy to fall into naive pacifism or abstract anti-imperialism using catchy but questionable slogans.

 

A car drives past a crater on the Antonivsky Bridge in Kherson, July 21, 2022 / Photo: STRINGER / AFP via Getty Images.

 

Doctrinalism as a way to passive support the Russian invasion

For instance, consider an article by the British socialist Colin Wilson, which I would call a shining example of abstract anti-imperialism (or Evasionist Left). The author correctly states that the war in Ukraine is Russian imperialist aggression. At the same time, he claims it was NATO's policy of isolating Russia that created the context for it. In addition, Wilson rightfully calls to fight not against individual imperialists but against imperialism as a product of the capitalist system. He wishes that the war discredits the ruling classes of all imperialist states, which would help the working class to establish international unity. Finally, the author poses some specific demands: withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine, cancel Ukraine's foreign debt, and allow Ukrainian refugees to come to Britain without visas. Finally, Wilson mentioned that NATO must dissolve, and Britain must leave the organization.

What is wrong with this manifesto? First, it is not clear what role the demand for troop withdrawal plays. Putin should be the addressee here, but will he listen to the appeals of the British left? To answer this question, let us define the role of NATO in the outbreak of the conflict.

A common idea among the left is that NATO is a Cold War atavism that had to be abolished  immediately after the demise of the USSR. Instead, it remained operating and greatly expanded to the east, which led to tensions with Russia.

 

НАТО

The round table of the ministers of foreign affairs and defense of NATO member countries. NATO summit, June 29, 2022, in Madrid, Spain / Photo: EUROPA PRESS/A.Ortega.POOL via Getty Images.

 

I realize that the Western policy towards post-Soviet Russia could have been more efficient, not only in terms of security but also in the economic sphere. Although, I will highlight that the Russo-Ukrainian war is not primarily about NATO and that Russia’s imperial ambition constitutes its much more important reason for the Russo-Ukrainian war.

In 2008, at the NATO summit, Putin named Ukraine an artificial state. In 2021, he expressed similar thoughts in his article about the “historical unity” of Russians and Ukrainians. He did the same in his speech on the occasion of the DPR and LPR recognition in February 2022. By claiming that Ukraine is a part of historical Russia, Putin in fact denies its right to exist outside the Russian sphere of influence. According to Chancellor Scholz, in a private conversation shortly before the invasion, Putin told him the same: Ukraine and Belarus cannot be sovereign states. Putin seems to sincerely believe that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and considers Ukraine's possible rapprochement with Europe a threat to his own rule.

To add, Ukraine (despite having a weak economic state before the invasion) is a potentially valuable asset with fertile soils, raw materials, skilled workforce, and industrial potential (including military industry). Ukraine's inclusion in the alliance with Russia and Belarus would make it a much greater power in the world politics — at least if there were no harsh sanctions.

I will not assess the ratio of “historical” and “strategic-economic” motives in Putin's head. I only emphasize they seem to play a crucial role in Putin’s willingness to go so far in the fight specifically for Ukraine. This is not to say that Ukraine’s membership or rapprochement with NATO did not matter at all. But if the possibility of NATO military infrastructure deployment is such a threat, why did the Kremlin react to Finland joining NATO so moderately? Finland is as close Moscow as Ukraine is, and St. Petersburg is within easy reach, too. However, the thing is that Russia has no territorial dispute with Finland, unlike with Ukraine over Crimea.

 

Russian Navy soldiers stand on the Project 955A Borey-A nuclear missile submarine "Knyaz Volodymyr" during the Russian Navy Day parade in St. Petersburg on July 25, 2021 / Photo: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images.

 

But if so, let’s say it clear: the problem lies not in NATO expansion, but in that of Russia, through military aggression, to be precise. On the other hand, the unsettled political status of Crimea (as well as Donbas) is a powerful safeguard against Ukraine joining NATO. And even before it emerged, back in 2008, Germany and France blocked the NATO membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia. 

To cut a long story short, it was not NATO or other forms of Western expansion that led to the war. Russia's revanchist goals in the post-Soviet space and its claims to the great power status are to blame. Russia aims to be one of the poles of the multipolar world and to have its own sphere of influence. Even if NATO fell apart right now, it would only ease Putin's task in Ukraine. Hence, while sharing the common Western left’s criticism of NATO, I do not consider the current war an appropriate opportunity to add to this discourse.

There is also a problem with calls for international workers' solidarity. I am not sure whether British socialists made such appeals in 1940-41 when Nazi aircraft attacked their country. But as we can see, such calls appeared when Russian troops reached the suburbs of Kyiv, exterminating the civilian population there. At the same time, it is not clear how a mass Russian anti-war movement capable of stopping the war can arise within weeks or months. Are there any instances of such revolts in history? Taking into account the asymmetry of the parties, what is really needed is a combination of Ukrainian armed resistance (and the truth is that Kyiv was saved from occupation by such resistance, not by pacifist slogans) and the anti-war movement in Russia and Belarus. However, we will face the results of the anti-war activity only after a while.

It is undoubtedly necessary to demand help for refugees, but we should respect the subjectivity of Ukrainians and not perceive them as passive victims. It is indicative that Wilson expressed solidarity with the brave participants of the Russian anti-war movement but did not find such words for any group of Ukrainians.

 

українські біженці

Ukrainian refugees arrive by train from Poland at the central train station in Berlin, Germany, on March 16, 2022 / Photo: Derek Hudson/Getty Images.

 

Why not save as many Ukrainians as possible from becoming refugees by helping Ukraine repel Russian offensives? Instead, numerous manifestos and articles reiterate that military aid to Ukraine only prolongs the conflict or even increases the threat of international escalation. According to this logic, the best way of de-escalation is the surrender of Ukraine. It seems that someone would indeed not be upset if Russia quickly seized Ukraine. But putting it plainly means risking your reputation (unless you are anyway an open supporter of Russia). Thus, you have to wrap it up in slogans “for peace” without discussing the specific conditions such a peace deal and the public opinion in Ukraine. Still, some on the Western left go so far as to criticize NATO for preventing Putin from gaining a “face-saving” victory in Donbas.

As a result, this seemingly anti-imperialist position de facto leads to passive support for the Russian invasion. Let me add a personal note: in the first weeks of the war, I was pleased with any anti-war statement. But today I find it hard to take seriously slogans like “no to war,” “for the withdrawal of Russian troops,” etc. without a clear explanation of how to achieve these goals.

It is argued that instead of supporting one of the sides, the left should stick to revolutionary defeatism like the Bolsheviks did during World War I. However, today we don’t have a world war but a Russo-Ukrainian one. And besides, during World War II, it was not a problem for most of the socialists to support the anti-Hitler coalition, even though it was led by the largest state in the capitalist world. In any case, revolutionary defeatism makes sense if a revolution led by the left is possible. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Ukraine, Russia, or the West now. Under these circumstances, it is very irresponsible to wish for Ukraine's defeat in a defensive war; in fact, this is again just a form of passive support of Russian imperialism.

 

A pathologist near the morgue in Bucha / Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

 

Against the war or against the USA?

In some cases, the Russian invasion critique looks like no more than a rhetorical curtsy. For instance, the Monthly Review editors seem to condemn the war. Nevertheless, their analysis implies that the American expansion after the Cold War is to blame, namely NATO expansion and the pro-Western reorientation of Ukraine. Euromaidan is regarded as a coup orchestrated by the US. This perspective is based on an implicit (in some similar texts even explicit) assumption in the spirit of political realism that the former USSR is a “natural” Russian sphere of influence, and to intervene in it means to provoke Russia, posing nothing less than an existential threat to it.

Here, the denial of Ukrainian subjectivity is brought to the absolute. For instance, the authors consider Ukraine's potential membership or close cooperation with NATO as a threat to Russia's security. At the same time, Russian military presence in Belarus is completely ignored. It looks like hypothetical NATO missile bases in Ukraine are a problem, while the real missile strikes, airstrikes, and a ground offensive by Russian armed forces from the territory of Belarus are not.

At the Russo-American negotiations in early 2022, the USA was ready to accept restrictions on weapon placement in Eastern Europe. Still Russia was not interested in a compromise similar to the settlement of the Caribbean crisis: the Kremlin just made its maximalist demands. Having this de facto ultimatum rejected, Russia decided to “continue politics by other means.”

Even before, the West's policy towards Russia was not as hostile as it is portrayed. For instance, immediately after the USSR collapsed, the Western states made a lot of efforts to ensure that the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal ended up in the hands of Russia. It was them who decided to overlook Russia's brutal wars in Chechnya. Mass violations of human rights — indiscriminate strikes on populated areas (in 2003, the UN recognized Grozny as the most destroyed city in the world), filtration camps, executions of civilians, etc. — remained almost unpunished for the Russian state.

 

RDS-202, the most powerful thermonuclear weapon in the world / Photo: IQSA News/Facebook.

 

Interestingly, one more message was circulating before the invasion: the USA and the UK were pushing Ukraine to the brink of war while simultaneously accusing Russia. When this message appeared to be groundless, the campist/tankie left switched to yet another explanation: Russia was forced to send in troops to protect the residents of Donbas, and anyway, Ukraine was on the verge to attack. But again, it is Russia that had been performing a large build-up on the Ukrainian border since the spring of 2021, not only around the Donbas. At first, it looked more like a coercive diplomacy effort, but towards the end of the year, it transformed into a real war preparation. For the current Ukrainian government, on the contrary, the almost full ceasefire in Donbas of 2020 was one of the biggest political achievements.

Suppose we agree that Ukraine should have shown more compliance in implementing the Minsk agreements (whether it is true is a separate issue on which I won’t elaborate here). Even then it’s ridiculous to imagine that Zelensky strived not only to undo his own peacemaking achievement but also to provoke an inevitable open armed conflict with Russia by attacking Donbas. Therefore, for Russia, the situation in Donbas is nothing more than an excuse to cover up encroachment on the whole Ukraine.

Speaking of the USA, they have been pursuing an imperialist policy towards Ukraine for a long time: from IMF missions and endeavors to partially control governmental appointments to financing Ukrainian civil society, which has a distinctly pro-Western, nationalist, and neoliberal tone.

 

Джо Байден

US President Joe Biden at the NATO Summit in Madrid, June 30, 2022, Madrid, Spain / Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images. 

 

At the same time, the image of Euromaidan as a US-staged coup does not stand up to scrutiny. Unquestionably, American officials played a role in the opposition activities, but they intervened in an already existing internal political conflict, shaped by the split of the elites and mass protests in various cities. Indeed, it does not imply that the left would call Maidan progressive. Neither it denies the violent activities in Euromaidan, in which the far-right groups played a crucial role.

At no stage in the history of independent Ukraine did the USA consider the possibility of a military invasion. This fundamentally distinguishes them from Russia, in its policy toward post-Soviet space relying either on the loyalty of the ruling elites (mostly strongmen like Lukashenka and Nazarbayev) or on brute force, as in Ukraine in 2014 and especially in 2022.

Putin not only dared to initiate a full-scale invasion but also announced in June that he intended to return “historically Russian lands” to Russia as he believed Emperor Peter I had done. Perhaps[2], he made a hint at the annexation not only of Donbas but also of the occupied territories in southern Ukraine, and he launched this “plan B” after the failure of the regime change attempt. From this I again conclude that the fundamental cause of the current war is in Moscow, not in Washington. The distinctive features of an inter-imperialist conflict do take place, yet this is first and foremost a war of Russia against Ukraine.

 

Poster of Vladimir Putin, March 23, 2022, Warsaw, Poland / Photo: STR / NurPhoto via Getty Images.

 

Arguments in favor of supporting Ukraine

I will explain in more detail why I believe it is vital to support Ukraine in this war and pursue the soonest possible defeat or at least the weakening of Putin's anti-Ukrainian and, dare I say, anti-Russian regime.

The Russo-Ukrainian war is the largest war in Europe and one of the largest wars in the world after 1945, and for Russia, it is a war of aggression. This is most evident in the Kherson region and other parts in the south of Ukraine, no significant pro-Russian attitudes were observed, let alone the desire to join Russia. If such an attempt at territorial expansion is successful, it will set a horrible precedent for the world community.

The very methods employed by Putin are worth attention. It is not only aggression against Ukraine based on military doctrine which makes mass war crimes virtually unavoidable. It is also intimidation the world with hunger, which Kremlin propagandists have already rejoiced.

In case if Putin succeeds in turning Ukraine into a Russian satellite state, he will unlikely stop here. On the contrary, this will only enable further acts of aggression, including from the territory of Ukraine. Russia's appetites may expand to other post-Soviet and former Soviet satellite states. It is challenging to imagine such a conflict today. However, more isolationist forces may come to power in the key NATO member states in the future and they will not care about protecting their Eastern European allies. Meanwhile, Russia could restore its military potential, relying on Ukrainian resources and industry. In the worst-case scenario, Russia might even use Ukrainians as cannon fodder, similar to how it mobilized a considerable proportion of the DPR / LPR male population[3].

 

війна в Україні

A destroyed Russian military vehicle at the exhibition in Kyiv, August 22, 2022 / Photo: Zinchenko / Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images.

 

As for Ukraine, most of the population is strongly against the Russian invasion. Even if Russia managed to capture Kyiv and establish a puppet government, it would be clearly illegitimate. Even before the invasion, public opinion in Ukraine was in favor of EU integration. Do Ukrainians think irrationally, and should they change their minds? In my opinion, generally not.

The fragmentation of the country will break the integrity of the Ukrainian community bound together by human, cultural and economic ties. Furthermore, if Russia draws Ukraine into its sphere of influence, an authoritarian political regime will be imposed upon the country, similar to the current Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes. Their ideology is in opposition to the bourgeois democracies of the West and the hegemony of the United States, but such an alternative is distinctly conservative.

Putin's Russia is imbued with “traditional values,” primarily homophobia and denial of feminism, which are made nearly the markers of national/civilizational identity, along with imperial revanchism and Russian ethnic nationalism. With the invasion of Ukraine, the regime became even more repressive, not only towards any anti-war discourse but even loyalist self-organization.

The escalating tensions with the West resulted in Russia leaving the European Court for Human Rights jurisdiction. Consequently, the European Convention on Human Rights, which was considered to have a positive effect on justice in Russia, lost its effect in the country. A less significant but striking example of Russia's struggle with the West is its threat to block Wikipedia for violating Russian legislation (this in fact means incompliance with the official interpretation of the Russo-Ukrainian war). Russia is trying to replace it with another project called Runiversalis, grounded on “traditional values,” in particular denying ​​homosexuality as a norm (imposed by the West, particularly via Wikipedia). A representative of the parliamentary committee on information policy praised the project for eliminating the “left-liberal and Western-centric bias” of articles.

 

Shelling of Sloviansk, Donetsk oblast, on September 7 / Photo: Donetsk region police.

 

I believe that the Russian-Belarusian model of the regime in Ukraine would be extremely unfavorable for the Ukrainian left. Moreover, under Ukrainian circumstances, such a regime would have to be even more repressive, as it would face mass resistance. This scenario would be far worse than a gradual transition towards a liberal democracy with the prospect of EU membership, even if we agree the EU itself needs to be reformed or even dissolved.

I would emphasize that there are no overly optimistic expectations for European integration in terms of the economy. Quite the opposite, Ukraine will still be a deeply peripheral part of Europe; for instance, it can become a major hydrogen supplier to Western Europe. And by speaking about the transition to liberal democracy, I admit that current Ukraine does not fit even these standards.

There are civil rights violations in Ukraine. These are, for instance, extrajudicial ban of mass media and ideological censorship in USSR-related matters (the so-called decommunization laws). It is also impossible to deny the issue of far-right violence. Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, even more problems with political freedoms and labor rights have occurred in Ukraine. In addition, post-Soviet Ukraine is a state that moves along a neoliberal path and cannot brag about an efficient socially oriented economy. But the first step in these issues must be the elimination of the foreign invasion.

We see that the armed units with far-right background have become national heroes, and even the symbols of those units have become less marginal. It demonstrates not so much the ideological reconfiguration of Ukrainian society but rather its consolidation in the face of the aggressor. It may well diminish if the war drags on; at least Putin might hope for the Ukrainian exhaustion and capitulation scenario. But even if this happens, there will still be a rich soil for revanchist sentiments. On the contrary, if peace comes to Ukraine on acceptable terms, the government will no longer be able to cover up anti-social and anti-democratic initiatives with patriotic slogans, and nationalist sentiment will gradually decline. That is why today, the most desirable expression of solidarity with Ukrainians is to help them defeat the invaders as quickly as possible.

 

Iryna, a farmer, with a can next to an announcement about free milk for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Territorial Defense Forces, Komar village, Donetsk region, August 30, 2022 / Photo: Dmytro Smolienko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images.

 

Arming Ukraine does not contradict the desire for a diplomatic settlement. As a Ukrainian, I clearly do not wish for a protracted war. The difficulty, however, lies in the conditions on which peace can be reached. Russia officially demands significant territorial concessions from Ukraine, including some of the territories it occupied in 2022 and even some of those remaining under Ukraine's control. I see no way to fix this other than a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Another issue is the overall lack of trust between the parties. Even if some kind of agreement is settled, we can’t be sure that Putin will not attack Ukraine again. Hence, Ukraine needs effective international security guarantees. But this would be more likely to happen if Russia turns more democratic and less aggressive. I suppose that Putin’s significant defeat in Ukraine will help the struggle for such changes in Russia. It would also contribute to the democratization of Belarus since Lukashenka’s regime greatly relies on his loyalty to Putin.

Consequently, we can't justify refusing to supply weapons with calls for peace. It does not matter where the help comes from. To be clear, under current conditions, we are predominantly talking about NATO states. But it is irrational to renounce this assistance just in the name of opposing NATO. The fight against it is reasonable when NATO is an aggressor, and there have been many such cases over the past few decades. That is how my position is different both from naive pacifism and campism. I do not believe that any of the geopolitical camps deserve unconditional support. However, it does not mean that we need to uncritically follow the principle “against all,” “the main enemy in your country,” or “the main enemy is in Washington.”

Standing with Ukraine must not divert attention from possible problems. For instance, if Ukraine regains some of the territory lost before 2022, there will be a severe risk of a repression wave under the pretext of punishing collaborators. The current Ukrainian legislation interprets the concept of “collaborationism” quite broadly. For instance, it includes the article on “implementing educational standards” of the aggressor state, which could potentially relate to any educational worker. In addition, there have been disturbing examples of harsh verdicts for captives forcibly mobilized in the DPR / LPR.

In my opinion, the best-case scenario would be a diplomatic settlement of the status of Donbas (as well as Crimea). What should we do if there is a real possibility of recapturing the territories controlled by the DPR / LPR, but Russia still does not agree for meaningful negotiations? In this case, it will be appropriate that the military and financial aid to Ukraine and the prospect of its membership in the EU depend on the observance of human rights. Undoubtedly, the Ukrainian left will also have to struggle for these rights. Apart from this, policies in some spheres, including language, should consider the peculiarities of those regions.

 


Shelling of Northern Saltivka in Kharkiv / Photo: Serhii Bolvinov / Facebook.

 

The status of the left in conditions of global fragmentation

As a Ukrainian, I am concerned about this war's direct impact on my country. However, I’d like to make some globally relevant notes.

The Russian invasion and the Western response led to much deeper fragmentation of the world into geopolitical camps. This is undesirable given that mankind is facing critical challenges that may be resolved only at the global level. Instead, on the one hand, there are global institutions lacking democratic accountability, devoid of power and influence; on the other, there is a violent confrontation between states or geopolitical blocs.

In the 20th century, the competition between the Western and Soviet camps somewhat stimulated progressive transformations in various parts of the world, but those changes were rooted in productivism. Today, on the contrary, we should aim at abandoning fossil fuels, degrowing consumption in a socially just way, and demilitarization. All this is highly unlikely to happen in the case of the “new cold war.” I have no good solution to this political problem, but I’d like to warn against the idea of geting along with Russia at the cost of Ukraine or other countries. Just as we talk about climate justice in the context of cutting greenhouse emissions, we need to ensure that any settlements between “great powers” do not coerce entire nations, even for the sake of the future of humanity.

The unfortunate Ukrainian experience also demonstrates the vulnerability of neutral states. Critics of NATO tend to refer to a verbal promise of non-expansion allegedly given to Gorbachev. Still these people usually mention neither the Budapest memorandum, signed in return for Ukraine's renunciation of its nuclear arsenal, nor the bilateral treaty on friendship, cooperation, and partnership between Ukraine and Russia.

The reason why Russia so blatantly disregarded its obligations lies largely in its confidence that Ukraine would be incapable of successfully resisting, and the world community would generally stay away. Similarly, for the Baltic states and former satellites of the USSR, their NATO membership is the best available security guarantee against possible Russian aggression. That is how the NATO expansion was perceived in those countries. However, while everybody focuses on American expansionism critique, their subjectivity is again ignored, just like with Ukraine.

In short, any calls to abolish NATO and similar blocs should go along with the suggestions on how to to save small states, for which these blocs are primary defensive alliances. Such an approach would be far more responsible than endlessly criticizing NATO for its eastward and recently also northward expansion, paying no attention to Russian revanchism.

 

A kindergarten with a crater in the yard after Russian missile strikes on Kyiv on the morning of June 26. Kyiv, June 27, 2022. Photo: AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty.

 

I suppose we need a global disarmament program, analogous to agreements on greenhouse gas emission reduction and, on the other hand, to the Soviet-American strategic arms reduction treaties (but this time multilateral and broader in scope). It should consider both the current inequality of military excesses but also be designed in a way that would make dangerous imbalances impossible at any stage of its implementation. Even if there is not much hope for such a program to be implemented under capitalism, it can contribute to global political mobilization around universalist values.

Finally, I would like to stress the evident fact that emerged on February 24: a severe crisis of expertise. Although the Russian invasion was in no way a black swan, many social scientists and analysts failed to predict it, even when Russia had already recognized the DPR / LPR a few days before the invasion. Sometimes this may reflect political bias, but I think an even bigger problem lies in the fundamental misunderstanding of Russian imperialism. Putin’s consistently anti-Ukrainian rhetoric since at least 2008 largely remained out of sight, and his willingness to sacrifice Nord Stream 2 and/or a lot of Russian soldiers was grossly underestimated.

On average, leftist analysts succeeded no more than others in grasping the ongoing crisis. Even when American and British intelligence released data about Putin's intention to invade Ukraine and install a puppet government, while a bulk of Russian propagandists were saying pretty much the same, many socialists only accused Western governments of “warmongering.” I hope this astonishing failure will stimulate improvement of Marxist or other frames of geopolitical analysis. We all make mistakes. However, any expert who wants to be taken seriously should realize intellectual responsibility for his or her analysis, because for some people not only their political activity but also their physical survival may depend on decisions influenced by that analysis.

For instance, the Russian invasion caught many Ukrainians off guard. Even within the first days after it started, some people did not realize how violent the hostilities were ahead. Perhaps it would help them a lot if they had access to good political analysis indicating the high probability of war months or at least weeks beforehand. If the authors of such analysis were of socialist views, it could help to promote left ideas. Last but not least, improving our understanding of global political processes would help the left to better elaborate its own strategy.

Footnotes

  1. ^  In Kherson, for instance, an intention to hold a “referendum” was semi-officially revealed as late as in June, and only on September 20 (after this article was published in Ukrainian) the “referendums” across the occupied regions were announced to take place on September 23-27. In addition to being obviously staged and lacking legitimacy, these events are being held even without full control of the contested regions. For example, even before the invasion, less than half of the population of the Zaporizhzhia oblast lived in the currently Russian-controlled part of this oblast.
  2. ^ This suggestion was finally confirmed in mid-September, after this article was published in Ukrainian.
  3. ^ In September 2022, the Kremlin started to employ similar mobilization methods within Russia itself.

Author: Vitold Vasiletskyi

Translation: Yuliia Kulish

Cover: Kateryna Gritseva

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