The (White) House Always Wins
At the onset of the Russia-Ukraine conflict this past week, many communists including myself have been working overtime to explain the wider geopolitical context of the situation, one that had been a steady simmer for at least 8 years, if not 30, but was ready to reach a boiling point. And that it did, with the Russian Federation beginning a special military exercise to ‘demilitarize and denazify’ what has become a pawn in a larger conflict between the rising Global South (spearheaded by an Eastern block of sorts) and the Global North (spearheaded by NATO and the US).
I’m about to go into a long history of events relating to Russo-Ukraine relations. First and foremost though, let’s be very clear: the left should not be “lesser evil"ing this conflict. Russia’s incursion is both illegal and will hurt the working class of every country involved, and many more with the European energy sector falling into crisis as a result. Russia wants it’s moment in the sunshine as an imperialist power. This also puts socialist allies like China into a precarious position that could undermine their strategy of mutual development. All around, the working class loses. Just take a look at the stock prices of defense contractors across the world.
Now there is substantial history that must be understood if one is to understand this specific moment, and I’ll do my best to provide a starting point there, as well as explain what the left can adopt as a internationalist strategy in the face this crisis of capital.
Where It Started
Now, there are layers upon layers of history here, going all the way back to WWII and the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), who were responsible for the murder of 100,000 Jews from 1941–1945. This nationalist element in Ukraine has stuck around far longer than its had the right to, although it remained fairly quiet before the 1991 illegal and undemocratic dissolution of the USSR. During Ukraine’s time in the USSR, deep ties and brotherhood between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians developed, only recently being the epicenter of ethnic strife in the region. It will be important to remember this shared history and comradery when and if peace is re-established between these two.
In 2010, CIA files were declassified that reveal that US intelligence officials protected a Ukrainian fascist leader named Mykola Lebed after WWII, and utilized him to stir up trouble and keep the nationalist movement alive during the Cold War. The report outlined how Mykola had collaborated with the Nazis in Germany in the genocide of Poles and Jews of Western Ukraine, and how the CIA had helped throw off the trail of the USSR investigation and effort to apprehend Lebed. You can find that report here.
Also during the Cold War, we saw the formation of NATO in April of 1949. Conveniently forgotten by the selective amnesia of Western media are the direct ties to fascists, baked right into the leadership of NATO. So now we have two direct ties to European fascism that will feed into today’s conflict in Ukraine.
Things get more interesting following the death of the USSR. As was the case in the majority of post-Soviet states, the restoration of capitalism and establishment of the neoliberal world order led to sharp periods of austerity for the working class. Specifically looking at Ukraine from 1992 onwards, we can see:
- Population decline from 52 million to 45 million in 2014, largely due to economic emigration in the fallout from independence from the USSR which had been supporting Ukraine after being the battleground and entry point for Germany in WWII and falling birth rates (typical to struggling economies). Separatism (more on this later) after the 2014 political coup backed by the US government saw the population drop further to 41.5 million in 2021.
- The number of children in 2021 was almost halved since 1991.
- From 1989 (market reforms began a few years before the official USSR dissolution), to 1998, life expectancy fell to a new low in 1998. In this same period, the US and Europe saw increases of 8–10 years. It has since returned to around 73 years, after a early 2000s period of stability, again typical of the post-Soviet states and prior to the 2008 economic crash that most of the world is still recovering from in many ways.
- A decrease in the number of citizens receiving pensions, from 13 to 11 million (1991–2021), with an increase in retirement age during this time form 56 to 60. This indicates the need for a longer lifetime workforce participation rate, and can be seen as a response to declining birth rates mentioned previously.
- Pensioners have an average monthly pension of only around 101 euros, with 65% only receiving 79 euros a month. Approximately 80% of single pensioners lie below the poverty line.
- Privatization of healthcare after 1991 contributed to around 80k excess deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ukraine.
As outlined above (and surely in sparser detail than it deserves), on a macro economic scale we can see a picture of desperation and deep resentment by the working class fomenting after 1991. This can be the breeding ground of two things: fascism or socialism. One liberates, one masquerades as liberation, using scapegoats and tapping into nationalist sentiment to weaponize class consciousness in the interest of the national bourgeoise.
We can see the rise of fascist sentiment in Ukraine most starkly culminating in the election in 2014, where Victoria Nuland and other US intelligence representatives took advantage of the moment to oust the neutralist president Yanukovych of the time and install an anti-Russian, Ukrainian nationalist successor Petro Poroshenko . Here is a short laundry list of red flags showing the lack of democracy and rising tide of reaction in Ukraine:
- Electoral fraud was a regular part of the 1990s election after independence from the USSR. The Communist Party of Ukraine nearly won in the late 1990s, but due to some state bureaucrat meddling, the capitalists remained in power. In 2015, the Party’s representation in parliamentary and electoral matters was ended, and they were effectively driven underground. Communist parties are currently banned in Ukraine, although they have remained at a low level of activity.
- Stephen Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist was awarded the highest title of “Hero of Ukraine”, along with a law to make it illegal to deny this fact in 2010.
- Azov Battalion and the Right Sector were brought into military and political life*. Also notable is the rise in power and legitimacy of the Ukrainian ultranationalist party Svododa, formed directly after the 1991 USSR dissolution. Since 2014 this party hasn’t been nearly as popular, having played a direct part in the protests surrounding that years elections. All of these represent extremist, nationalist sentiment that have been legitimized and normalized in Ukraine.
- Ukrainian language is given special status, with Russian language being phased out in a series of laws (2016 law required that radio feature a certain quota of Ukrainian songs, while in 2017 an educational law began requiring a shift to Ukrainian dominant language education by 2023). This represents a textbook example of ethnic discrimination, and heightened tensions in a country where the two languages used to exist in relative peace. From 2018–2019 this situation escalated, and the state language of Ukraine was changed to Ukrainian, in a “law [that] regulates the Ukrainian language ‘in the media, education, and business. It aims to strengthen the language’s role in a country where much of the public still speaks Russian.’ For example, it requires films produced in Ukraine to be in Ukrainian and foreign films to be dubbed.” Considering the Russian language is native for around 30% of the country, it is easy to see how this can and did cause additional tension.
- After the 2014 election, two sections of western Ukraine declared independence and broke away from Ukraine proper, forming what is now recognized as the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Ukraine has been shelling and bombing these areas (collectively referred to as Donbass) ever since, killing at least 14,000 between 2014 and today. Nowhere to be found in Western media are claims of an attack in the DPR even after Putin recognized both states, signaling a break in the momentary peace after Russia’s announcement of recognition.
- In 2020, the UN held a vote on condemning Nazism, and the only two countries to vote No? Ukraine and the United States. If this isn’t a clear indicator of the issues, I don’t know what is. Notable absentees included the regular suspects of US allies: Australia, UK, New Zealand, and several others. Russia voted yes to condemning Nazis.
*This is a very serious situation, one effectively and near unanimously downplayed in the US for geopolitical interests. Imagine if the KKK was given a military battalion and members of known US Fascist groups like the National State’s Rights Party was given a spot in the House or Senate.
As outlined above, tensions have been escalating in the area, and Putin has repeatedly asked that Ukraine not be added to NATO and for the international community to step up and speak against the Donbass bombing campaign. Officially recognizing the LPR and DPR was a step in the right direction by an exasperated Russian Federation. The LPR and DPR invited Russia to come to their defense openly, something that sadly led to an escalation by Russia. They entered Ukraine this past week in order to rid the government of rightist elements and establish real sovereignty for Ukraine. This was the stated purpose of course, and it’s not lost on me or others that Russia may have its own bourgeoise interests in mind. They must be held to this and held responsible for any deviations, but not by a US or NATO escalation. However, what is truly opportunistic is the West’s purposeful ignorance of the brinkmanship that brought this on in the first place, spearheaded by their meddling and NATO expansion.
NATO in February 1990 assured Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch eastward”. This has been shown to be a lie, and is one of the greatest threats to world peace currently, along with the US’ overall aim of continued hegemony and the looming climate crisis.
NATO’s creep eastward has left a trail of death and destruction, and is hardly the peaceful and diplomatic series of treaties it holds itself up to be. When a country presents itself as an unwilling obstacle, a ‘human rights intervention’ is conveniently materialized to justify military action and annexation. Regime change often follows. The US learned after Vietnam that its public couldn’t be counted on to get behind a war in a straight forward manner, and the empire has adapted to this need seamlessly, utilizing fake pleas for humanitarian intervention to justify the actions of a self appointed world police and hegemonic powerhouse. The bombings start back in 1994:
- 1994 and 1995: NATO bombs Bosnia and Herzegonia (Operation Deny Flight and Operation Deliberate Force)
- 1999: NATO bombs Yugoslavia (Operation Allied Force or Operation Noble Anvil)
- 2007 and 2010: NATO bombing in Afghanistan (considered part of Operation Enduring Freedom aka War on Terrorism)
- 2011: NATO bombing in Libya (Operations Harmattan, Ellamy, Mobile, and Odyssey Dawn)
- 2014-today: NATO (as well as US, UK and France independently) bombing campaigns in Syria
Note: One thing you’ll notice is the obvious air of American exceptionalism in the naming of these war crimes (let’s call them what they are).
Alright, there’s definitely a lot more that could be said, but I hope I painted a somewhat distinct path from the beginning of this conflict to its boiling point in February 2022. Let’s turn to some of the immediate effects and who might stand to gain.
Where It Might Be Going
Many leftists have rallied behind Russia in this conflict, seeing it as an anti-imperialist and anti-hegemonic escalation purposefully pushed onto Russia by Washington, but one that will ultimately leave the US weaker than before. Originally I was inclined to agree. I wanted to wait to see how the US reacted, and although I’d love to not be so cynical for once, I think it’s appropriate to say that even if Russia didn’t do exactly as the United States would have liked, they didn’t deal a particularly strong blow to the West either (so far).
We’ve seen three main developments in just the first few days of conflict that show the United States has spun this around in their favor, something I fear was the goal all along:
- Sanctions regime established
- Nord Stream 2 paused
- NATO expansion looking more likely than ever (in other areas)
US President Joe Biden announced sanctions on Russia that ‘exceed anything we’ve ever done’, assumedly worse than the genocidal sanctions leveraged against Vietnam, Cuba or you-name-in socialist government in the past. These include sanctions on Russia’s financial institutions, major enterprises and individuals in Putin’s circle. Restrictions on Russian purchases of US goods and services were also put into place. The European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom (hey look the usual capitalist suspects!) also are imposing sanctions of their own.
In a show of supreme irony not lost on me, Biden said Putin’s desire to take over Ukraine is a move that “the United States and freedom-loving nations everywhere will oppose with every tool of our considerable power”. This of course isn’t the stated purpose of Putin’s incursion, but it is convenient in getting Americans behind the Washington. Maybe we should see what the colonized areas of Hawaii, Guam, etc have to say on this? How about the neo-colonies we maintain in Africa? Maybe the areas around the 800+ military bases sprawling around the world? Hearing a US president tout the need for sovereignty in a country it effectively couped is one of the most insanity inducing things imaginable, if you’ve been paying attention. The hypocrisy of it makes your head about spin off the shoulders.
Left out of this conversation is the mountains of research (one such study linked here) showing that sanctions do not get at their prescribed goal, but instead add layers of despair onto the working class of the targeted nation, even to the point of causing preventable death. My heart and solidarity go out to the Russian working class at this time. May they use this energy to rally behind the socialist cause and retake the economy that leaders like Putin have proletarianized and burdened since 1991.
Nord Stream 2 was paused after the above sanctions specifically targeted the project, making its continuance prohibitively expensive. This is a classic case of imperialism on the US’ part, opening the entire EU market to an energy crisis that the US can step in to solve. Even if that means ordering millions of barrels from subpar North American pipelines and shipping them needlessly across a wide ocean. European working class has already begun feeling the burn, with gas prices hiking 62% already, practically overnight. US prices too have inflated temporarily (a calculated risk shoved onto the US working class by the suits in Washington). It’s my understanding these are likely to dip back down in the coming days.
Lastly, Finland and Sweden have begun flirting with joining NATO in response to what they see as Russian aggression, which could realistically make this whole crisis more accurately felt. Russia has already indicated it will not sit quietly if this new avenue to their border is exposed.
Ukraine remains a pawn here, a proxy that can easily be sacrificed by its Western shadow government if the gamble doesn’t pay off, as seems to be the case today. NATO played off and on in acquiring Ukraine, never seriously interested outside of pushing Russia into a high alert status that blew up in everyone’s face. They fed fascism with weapons and legitimate places in the military and government of Ukraine. Even if Russia’s gamble in Ukraine pays off and neutrality secured, nothing meaningfully changed for NATO, and Sweden and Finland may have been manipulated in this giant cat and mouse game into joining NATO instead.
Russia’s Selective Anti-Fascism and Other Factors
It’s time to give Russia some direct and pointed critiques. Putin is, after all, a staunch anti-communist and rather selective in his anti-fascist stance(s). Putin and the Russian Federation certainly embodies some level of Russian chauvinism and a nostalgia for the idea of a Russian empire, minus the socialist flair of the USSR of course. This represents a willingness to engage in textbook imperialism. Now, Russia’s ability to actually do this is debatable, judging on their size and power on the global stage (fairly small). I’ll leave the discerning reader with two articles taking opposing stances on this: one arguing Russia is indeed an imperialist power at a global level, the other arguing Russia’s capitalism has not evolved to this stage yet and is a regional power at best.
I am of the opinion that even if Russia is still developing to the point of engaging on the world stage at the level of the US, UK, France or other imperialist powers, they certainly intend to!
Putin and Russia seem to be less concerned with fascism in a broad sense and specifically concerned about Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Semitism, something that Ukrainian fascism consider more of a secondary concern. This makes sense to an astute purveyor of history, since Nazi Germany famously and regularly cursed the Bolsheviks and Jewish Communists, tying the two together in order to fight back against the rise of leftism in Germany prior to the war and certainly when invading the USSR.
It feels a mistake to believe Putin’s goals here are completely benign, even with the serious security concerns Russia has in the area. Russia is vying for a chance to exert influence, and Russia’s ruling class is certainly chomping at the bit for the opportunities for new markets and profits. After 8 years of trying to reach a diplomatic solution, why is it only now that Putin gets involved? It feels to me to coincide with capitalism’s global state of continued crisis, kickstarted by the COVID-19 pandemic. One should not simply brush aside the timing of all this. However, the US and CIA have admitted to willingly and purposefully pushing Russia into this conflict.
What is to be done?
In this situation, Ukraine was a third wheel in a militarized conflict between imperial bourgeoise actors on both sides vying for control of oil and commodity markets in Europe. All sides of the conflict are capitalist oligarchies. It is a mistake to think that historical grievances and righteous anti-fascism are the sole drivers in the current conflict, and not the cynical perversion of two opposing ruling classes that will undoubtedly profit from the whole murderous escapade. That’s what it is to them in a lot of ways. Adventurism necessitated by falling rates of profit and the need for constant expansion and re-division of the world. Materially, NATO will come out of this either unchanged or, more likely, on the up and up.
Revolutionary defeatism is the only assured way out of the conflict. Lenin took this stance in the first World War, arguing that the working class of all involved countries would benefit more from the defeat of their own government, one that is more than willing to send them to die. Turning the conflict inward can break the imperial power structure and make their job much more difficult. There are a few ways to go about this, the first of which is to support anti-hegemonic advancement across the world. This will force capitalist contradictions to come home to roost, and the US working class will need to find a way to coalesce around their shared suffering, setting a vision for a new organization of their country and subsequently the world at large.
NO to war with Russia.
NO to war with China and the Asia Pivot.
NO to the New Cold War (if it ever actually ended).
NO war but CLASS war.
Solidarity with the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the Russian working class and especially the Ukrainian working class, caught between in this conflict and lacking true sovereignty for almost a decade.