Imperialism’s role in the Ukraine war

By ERWIN FREED and FLORENCE OPPEN

The war in Ukraine is the most obvious touchpoint to understand the acceleration of the disintegration of the old order of world imperialism. The fight for independence in Ukraine is threatened every day by the desires of imperialist powers to win control. The future of Ukraine is in the hands of the Ukrainian working class, which is massively resisting the occupation, and also in those of its real allies: workers all over the world who are opposing the Russian invasion and NATO’s aims in the war.

Biden’s billions and Zelensky’s betrayals

The U.S. government approved a new $40 billion “aid” package to Ukraine when President Biden signed the bill on May 21. The new package is another “poison pill” reminiscent of the March package but on a much larger scale than when we explained: “What the package bill does … is to subordinate all humanitarian and direct shipment of military aid to the U.S. imperialist project in Europe—that is, to the rapid buildup of U.S. NATO troops, the reinforcement of counterespionage and CIA activities in Ukraine and Russia, and economic warfare against Russia.” For interested readers, Workers’ Voice covered the contents of the March bill in an earlier article, “Biden’s imperialist ‘aid’ to Ukraine & the tasks of socialists in the U.S.

The new bill not only delivers various forms of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but also brings the United States even closer to direct involvement in the conflict. According to a breakdown in The New York Times, within the package, over $5 billion goes to “U.S. military deployments and intelligence.” A dark reality of the war is that it is being used as an opportunity to test in the field new weapons technologies like Baykar Bayraktar TB2 drones. As we have previously reported, much of this “aid” is in the form of loans that will act to further subordinate Ukraine to U.S. imperialism even in the event of a military success against Russia.

The U.S. government’s purpose in sending arms and supplies is not to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty but rather to bring the country further under its influence and militarily weaken Russia. Ukrainians have been demanding air defense support (in particular, airplanes and tanks) since the beginning of the war. NATO has refused to deliver such equipment while rapidly increasing its supplies of arms as the resistance grew on the ground. In mid-April it began delivering some anti-aircraft equipment and airplane parts, and now will send some long-range rocket systems, but still refuses to send planes because, as The Kyiv Independent explained: “NATO has effectively drawn a line between the supplies of fighter jets, which are seen as provoking Russia to launch a war against NATO, and other arms supplies, which are perceived as less dangerous.”

However, Viacheslav Tseliuko, an Ukrainian military analyst does not agree on the reasons for such a line. He says it is more “a question of perception” and “political games,” and that “in reality, the line is arbitrary.” In fact, the “line” of U.S. military policy indicates that its main goal has been to exhaust the Russian army and economy rather than to deliver a quick defeat of the Russian invasion.

In fact, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made this point clear last month when he said at a news conference in Poland that the U.S. was striving to “see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. … It has already lost a lot of military capability and a lot of its troops, quite frankly, and we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.” The secondary goal of U.S. military aid to Ukraine is to get rid of its old weapons in order to increase and modernize its own military stock and also to test new weapons.

Socialists should continue supporting the Ukrainian resistance and defend its right to ask and receive U.S. and NATO military aid. The use of U.S.-supplied war materiel does not change the character of the war, which is a national liberation war against Russian imperialist aggression. We must, however, warn Ukrainians about the real goals of the aid and to not trust their imperialist “allies.” What we actively oppose is any subordination of Ukraine’s war for freedom to the strategy aims of U.S. imperialism and NATO in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. This is why we are against all the economic sanctions promoted by Biden, against U.S. rearmament, and against the deployment of NATO troops; we demand the dissolution of NATO. The only real solution to the present war lies in the mobilization of the material solidarity of true allies—working-class people all over the world.

The current leadership of the struggle, the Zelensky government, is using the war as a catalyst in its ongoing attempts to restructure the Ukrainian economy for foreign capital. These include the April 24 Law 2136, “On the Organization of Labor Relations Under Martial Law,” which lifts penalties for non-payment of wages, allows firings despite collective bargaining agreements, reduces paid time off, and authorizes a number of other union-busting attacks on Ukrainian workers, according to a round-up by Commons.

Status of Ukraine

The Russian occupation of Ukraine continues with setbacks and advances for both the invaders and the invaded. The war is deepening as thousands of soldiers and civilians are killed and cities are decimated.

After “vowing to defend the city to the last soldier,” Ukrainian forces surrendered their final stronghold in Mariupol—the Azovstal steel plant. Mariupol is a strategically important city for both Ukraine and Russia for a number of reasons. One is that it is economically important, being home to major production and shipping industries. Another, more important to this conflict, is Mariupol’s geographic position between Crimea and the Donbas. This placement makes the city an essential connection between the two Russian-aligned territories. Mimicking the tactical plan used in Syria, Russian forces took the city through a massive bombing campaign that Ukrainian sources say killed 20,000 civilians.

As Russian forces are released from the siege of Mariupol and are redirected from places like Kyiv, the invasion is concentrating on winning control of the Donbas and eastern Ukraine. Fighting is becoming concentrated on the city of Severodonetsk, which is seen as the key for Russian forces to gain full control of Luhansk. As in Mariupol, the strategy appears to be one of siege and war of attrition.

The status of occupied areas in Ukraine remains a major question. Volodymyr Saldo, Russian-appointed governor of the Kherson Oblast on Ukraine’s southeastern coast, said in a meeting of local leaders: “We look at the Russian Federation as our country. Because now the territory is under the control of the Armed Forces, in the future it will be transformed into a subject of the federation. That is, there will be the Kherson region of the Russian Federation.”

In the bordering Zaporozhia Oblast, Vladimir Rogov, a member of the Russian-appointed military-civil administration, said in an interview with Sputnik News: “There can be only one future for the Zaporozhye Region—it should be part of Russia, should become a full-fledged constituent entity of the Russian Federation. We do not need gray zones, we do not need the Zaporozhye People’s Republic. We want to be part of Russia, as we always were for hundreds of years.” The latter part is factual in as much as most of Ukraine was kept in bondage as a colony of the Tsarist “prison house of nations” from the 14th century until the Soviet Revolution in 1917.

Putin signed a decree on May 25 fast tracking the process for residents of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which connect Crimea and Donetsk, to receive Russian citizenship and passports.

World rearmament

A central aspect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the international working class to understand is that the war is part of a larger process of increasing possibilities of a slide towards inter-imperialist world war. The campists and sections of the social democratic left see the invasion as a “rational” response by Russia to the growth of NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union and understand this war as an inter-imperialist one. Even though NATO has expanded for the last 30 years, however, this neither justifies nor explains the invasion of Ukraine. The blame for the invasion is entirely on Russia’s shoulders. The fundamental force driving the Russian invasion is the capitalist thirst for profits, and Russia is carrying out a war of imperialist aggression that must be stopped.

In the face of domestic and international economic stagnation, imperialism becomes increasingly violent. Russia tends to rely on military adventures due to its relatively undeveloped economic and diplomatic relations with the semi-colonial world; the narrowness of the Russian economy, mostly centralized in the energy and banking sectors; and the outsized importance of the Russian military. In these conditions, to compete in a world-market squeezed by massive crises and already dominated by other major powers, Russian capital is driven towards war.

The obstacles for expansion and capitalist accumulation facing Russia are not qualitatively different from those of all the imperialist countries. Before the invasion of Ukraine, the scramble to redivide control of the world economy was already taking place, periodically breaking out into outright violent conflict. After the invasion, the already-existing fissures in the imperialist world are deepening, and every day threaten to engulf more of the globe.

Major imperialist powers are quickly increasing their national defense budgets. In a period of devastating austerity, pandemic, and climate collapse for working people everywhere, a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that global military spending has passed $2 trillion for the first time in history. Germany plans to double its defense spending to over €100 billion. According to the German news agency DW, a large amount of these monies will go to upgrading the country’s aerial fleet.

Sweden and Finland officially applied for NATO membership on May 18. This marks a cataclysmic shift in Sweden’s international outlook. The country has not been at war in over 200 years. Bringing Finland into NATO will greatly increase the friction between the alliance and Russia. Not only will, in the words of Robin Wright writing for The New Yorker, “its eight-hundred-mile border… NATO’s longest boundary with Russia, more than doubling the length of Europe’s front line,” but also Finland’s inclusion adds one of the most effective, largest, and well-funded militaries in the world to the imperialist alliance. According to military analysts at War on the Rocks, Finland’s “fully mobilized field army is sized at 280,000, with several hundred thousand more reservists available to fill losses.” For comparison, Sweden, which is a larger country in both geography and population, has total forces between active and reserve of less than 60,000 troops.

While they have not been a major political issue in recent years, the disputed territories of Finnish Karelia, Salla, and Petsamo—which have been part of Russia since the 1940s—could easily become a pretext for military escalations between the two border-countries, quickly escalating to a world-engulfing conflict. From the other side, naval trainings and similar activities by NATO forces in the Arctic Sea will be increasingly seen as hostile acts by Russia. The Arctic is an increasingly important region for energy production and trade, especially for Russia who derives over 10% of GDP and 20% of exports from Arctic territories and who looks to benefit from a new shipping route through the area. In a recent interview following joint NATO-Finland-Sweden military drills in the Arctic, the Russian ambassador-at-large Nikolai Korchunov warned that similar activities in the future could have “unintended consequences.”

Reflecting the internal fractures quickly splitting up and reforming the various imperialist camps is the fact that Turkey is opposing NATO taking in Finland and Sweden as members. The official reasoning is that Sweden in particular has relations with Kurdish resistance forces that Turkey regards as terrorist groups. In the Western press, speculation on the “real” reason for Turkey’s intransigence ranges from its trying to block the two countries’ membership as leverage to relieve sanctions to the alleged fact that Turkish officials are upset that their country waited years for NATO membership while Sweden and Finland are receiving a fast track process. In any case, the significance of the severe divides within the NATO bloc is very real. Amidst all of this, Turkey’s President Erdogan has announced plans to begin a new incursion and occupation of Syria. Finland and Sweden both supported sanctions on Turkey in 2019, the last time it took this step.

New and shifting fronts of political conflict are not relegated to Europe or its immediate “backyard.” In mid-April, China announced a new security pact with the Solomon Islands—a small nation about 1000 miles northeast of Australia. Details have not been released, but an unverified draft statement suggests the agreement would allow Chinese troops, ships, and police to be stationed on Solomon Island territory. The United States, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand immediately put out a statement claiming that the security agreement poses “serious risks to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” China is hoping to come to a similar joint agreement with nine other Southern Pacific countries by the end of May, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, the United States has active military bases in Singapore, Japan, and across the Pacific.

U.S. hegemony in Europe is contested

An important dynamic already in motion before but sped up by the Russo-Ukrainian war is the growing desire of European Union political leaders for “defensive” independence from the United States. In March, according to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, “the E.U. announced that it was authorizing the creation of a 5,000-person ‘rapid deployment’ force, independent of NATO.”

On May 18, a new plan called “Defense EU” began, which has the European Union directing joint defense spending between member states for the first time in history. The shift is happening when the military stockpiles of many EU members are being sent to Ukraine, leaving a big hole to fill for weapons manufacturers. The purpose is to coordinate, consolidate, and expand European military production with the implicit strategic goal of competing with and separating from the United States.

Socialism or barbarism

The war in Ukraine is the latest morbid symptom of capitalism’s death agony. At the same time, there is a glimmer of hope—the real possibility of class struggle and solidarity in a time of war, despair, and imperialist crisis. Militant workers need to understand that capitalism and imperialism offer nothing but destruction on the horizon. The ruling class in virtually every country, no matter its size or place on the map, is preparing for a new global conflict. Alliances in both the imperialist and the subordinated sectors are being reconfigured through military and economic contestations. The climate, economic, and social crises are hastening with every day.

However, that is one side of the equation. The other side is that of the Ukrainian resistance, the Russian and Belarussian antiwar resisters, and the protesters in Kazakhstan fighting against Russian imperialism and domestic capitalists. The other side is that of the international working class and oppressed peoples in struggle against exploitation and oppression.

A victory—even a partial one—in the war against Russia’s invasion would be a major blow to imperialism everywhere. It would show the capacity of subordinated nations to win the struggle against so-called “stronger” powers. However, as long as Zelensky or other compradors remain in control of the country’s political and productive forces, the situation for working people will remain one of exploitation, and real self-determination will remain elusive. This is why we believe that full liberation from imperialist domination can only succeed by means of revolutionary action, led by the working class. Let’s actively support the struggle of the Ukrainian working people from the United States!

Photo: Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region use NATO-supplied missile launchers.

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