NATO/US vs Russia in Ukraine—A Trotskyist Analysis
Below is an edited version of a speech delivered at Lutte Ouvrière’s Fête, 27 May 2022
The current conflict in Ukraine seems in all likelihood to eventually be viewed as a major historical turning point. It has three interrelated threads: the decline of the American imperium; Russia’s role in an emerging multipolar geopolitical world order; and sharpening of national/ethnic antagonisms within Ukraine itself.
Even before the COVID pandemic struck, global capitalism was on the verge of a major profitability crisis. The economic weight of the US and its imperialist “partners” in NATO as well as Japan and Australia in the global economy has been declining, while China, where collectivised property relations remain dominant, has been steadily gaining ground on its “advanced capitalist” peers. While the Trump administration was oriented towards containing China, the Democratic administration, nominally headed by Joe Biden, has prioritised a policy of confronting Russia with the objective of removing it as a major player in world politics.
The triumph of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in August 1991 which destroyed the multi-national Soviet state opened the door to foreign imperialist exploitation. During the Yeltsin years of the 1990s, when Western capital had free rein, Russia’s GDP shrank by an astounding 50 percent, thereby condemning the vast majority of the population to hardship and poverty. At the time there were many influential figures in the American ruling class, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who advocated dismembering Russia into several smaller and more easily controlled states.
The US imperialists reneged on their promise to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the Soviet Union, that NATO would not expand one inch eastward. In 1997 a number of former Warsaw Pact states joined the imperialist military alliance and in 2003 the accession of the three Baltic mini-states brought NATO right up to Russia’s border. In 2006 NATO provocatively proposed installing missile defence systems in Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania—ostensibly to intercept a potential Iranian attack, but really aimed at Russia. When, in April 2008, NATO invited Georgia and Ukraine to apply for membership, the Kremlin declared that this would represent a serious threat to the fundamental security of the Russian Federation. A few months later, the Georgian military, equipped with plenty of Israeli and US weapons, clashed with Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists sympathetic to Russia. The Georgian government had expected that NATO would intervene on its behalf but the US was not prepared to risk war with Russia, and the Georgian army was quickly smashed. The Russians having made their point, soon withdrew.
After having taken over from Boris Yeltsin, Putin vowed to stabilise the Russian economy by introducing tariffs, restricting foreign investment and reining in the oligarchs who had been transferring massive amounts of Russian assets abroad. The Kremlin managed to shore up those elements of Russia’s economy that were globally competitive—particularly its energy sector—and bolster domestic control over key resources. Whilst there are a few sectors in which Russia is competitive internationally, such as steel, microscopes and weaponry, in most fields higher up the value chain Russian producers have not achieved parity with their counterparts in the imperialist world. US Senator John McCain once flippantly referred to Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country”.
Unlike imperialist countries, Russia’s economic engagement with its dependents, particularly former Soviet republics, is characterised by selling commodities—particularly oil and gas—at prices lower than those current on the world market. In a 2014 Brookings Institution article entitled “Ukraine: A prize neither Russia nor the West can afford to win”, the author estimated that Russia was subsidising Ukraine to the tune of US$ 10 to 15 billion per year. Russian trade with other former Soviet republics is similarly characterised by significant discounts on oil and gas sales. Rather than playing a predatory role in its near abroad, or anywhere else, Russia derives most of its income from energy sales, largely to Europe. Russia is not an imperialist power, despite its formidable military, but rather a dependent capitalist country. The actual imperialists in North America, Europe and Japan understand this and hope that by imposing massive sanctions they might bring back the good old days when Yeltsin danced to the tune of Washington, Berlin, London and Paris.
In 2014 the US funded the Euromaidan coup to remove Viktor Yanukovych, who had won Ukraine’s presidential election in 2010. Yanukovych had introduced a language law that granted rights to any minority of ten percent or more in a locality while attempting to play off the EU and Russia against one another. In late 2013 when Yanukovych accepted Putin’s offer of a US $15 billion loan and subsidised energy prices, instead of the IMF austerity package the EU was pushing, many people in Western Ukraine who wanted to join the EU were opposed. Washington seized the opportunity the protests presented and invested US $5 billion in toppling Yanukovych, whose administration was replaced by one composed of handpicked US favourites. The subsequent fighting in Maidan Square that ultimately deposed Yanukovych was spearheaded by organised fascists who revere Stepan Bandera, a leading Nazi collaborator during Germany’s occupation of Ukraine during World War II.
A recent article in the hip social-democratic American Jacobin magazine noted that the anti-Semitic pogroms carried out by Bandera’s Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) were so brutal that some Jews sought protection with the German Nazi occupiers. Of course, Hitler’s forces had the same plans for them as the OUN. In the aftermath of the 2014 coup, in recognition of their role in the Maidan coup, many leading members of fascist groups like Right Sector and Svoboda, were brought into the state apparatus–mostly in the police and military—and their militias were incorporated into the National Guard.
One of the first measures implemented by the new fascist-riddled government in Kiev was to cancel Yanukovych’s language law which had recognised the multi-national make-up of Ukraine. Whilst in Western Ukraine there are Hungarian, Romanian and Polish national minorities, about 20 percent of Ukraine’s population are Russian speakers, mostly located in an arc running from Northeast Ukraine along the Black Sea coast to Odessa. The banning of the Russian language was seen by many in this region as a serious threat—an impression that the Maidan government’s subsequent actions confirmed. In Crimea and the Donbass region separatist movements formed which declared independence from Kiev. Whilst Putin accepted Crimea into Russia after the vast majority of its population opted for inclusion in a referendum, similar attempts by Lugansk and Donetsk to join Russia were rebuffed. On 2 May 2014 a fascist mob attacked leftists and Russian speakers in Odessa, and chased them into the Trade Unions House which was then set on fire. Some 50 people were killed and another 100 were severely injured. To avoid repetitions of such terror attacks, inhabitants of the Lugansk and Donetsk “peoples’ republics” set up their own military units (with Russian assistance) and successfully resisted repeated attempts by Kiev to reconquer these territories. The regular armed forces of Ukraine were generally unenthusiastic about this mission but the new neo-Nazi National Guard regiments, which were virulently Russophobic, eagerly went into battle, although they were unable to defeat the forces of the breakaway statelets.
In the aftermath of the 2014 coup against Yanukovych, the notorious Azov regiment and other fascist formations flourished whilst parties considered too pro-Russian were banned. The first targets were the Communist Party and Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions but subsequently there were many assaults on candidates the Ukrainian oligarchs did not approve of. Journalists whose reporting was considered too critical often ended up dead, while regional governments were intimidated by fascist thugs during their deliberations (as a 2019 BCC documentary showed). Trade union meetings were attacked as the International Trade Union Confederation reported. Russian investment in Ukraine dried up after 2014 and the economy contracted significantly.
Volodymyr Zelensky was voted into office in 2019 promising to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the Donbass via the Minsk peace agreements which called for regional autonomy for the Russian-speaking population of the east, within a unitary Ukrainian state. The Minsk deal was supported by Russia as well as Germany and France. But Zelensky soon realised he couldn’t fulfil his promises because of fascist opposition. In an interview, published by news portal Obozrevatel on 27 May 2019, a week after Zelensky took office, Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector, stated that if the new president attempted to implement the Minsk Agreements he would be hung from a tree. These were not just empty words as Zelensky discovered when he travelled to Zolote, a town in the Donbass region, on 26 October 2019 where he addressed Azov militants who bluntly rejected his request that they cease hostilities with the separatist forces. This episode which ended Kiev’s participation in the Minsk Accords, highlighted the influence of fascist elements within the Ukrainian state apparatus. In November 2021, Yarosh, the Nazi who had publicly threatened Zelensky, became advisor to the Ukrainian army’s commander in chief, Valery Zaluzhnyi.
For years NATO member states have been training and equipping the Ukrainian military, including its neo-Nazi units. Since 2014, Ukrainian rightists and ultra-nationalists, who have openly exhibited a genocidal hatred for Russian “untermenschen”, have been shelling Lugansk and Donetsk in a conflict that has killed 14,000, the overwhelming majority of whom were Russian-speaking civilians. While we favour a policy of joint class struggle carried out by members of both nationalities, Marxists support the right of the Russian minority in the Donbass to opt for national self-determination including their right to join Russia as Crimea did in 2014.
NATO conducted various military maneuvres on Russia’s borders during 2021, including the provocative incursion of British destroyer HMS Defender into Russian territorial waters. The Russian and Belarusian militaries carried out several military exercises to demonstrate their capacity to resist NATO aggression. In December 2021 Vladimir Putin proposed that NATO reverse all eastern expansion since 1997, guarantee that Ukraine would never be admitted to NATO and assist in working out a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the east of Ukraine. Putin’s proposals, which were intended to defend Russian speakers and ensure NATO nuclear missiles were never stationed in Ukraine, were ignored.
On 19 and 20 February 2022, a few days before Russia’s incursion, the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] reported a surge of shelling in Lugansk and Donetsk where the Ukrainian army had assembled significant forces in order to reconquer the breakaway Donbass territories. The Russian-speaking people of that region were rightly concerned about their fate if Ukraine’s neo-Nazi regiments were victorious, as they likely would have been had Russia not intervened.
Hilary Clinton was voicing the aspiration of the entire American ruling class when she speculated about turning Ukraine into another Afghanistan-type quagmire for the Russians. Were it not for the continued massive support of the US and NATO, the war would likely have lasted a month or two.
The economic sanctions imposed on Russia have not worked out as planned by the neo-conservative policy wonks in Washington—the ruble has strengthened and there is a great deal of anxiety in many NATO countries over the medium-term political costs of doubling or tripling energy costs for consumers and industry. In this conflict Ukraine is operating essentially as an imperialist proxy against both Russia, and, indirectly, all the other regimes which remain on the US imperialist hit list, including Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and most importantly China. A military victory for Russia will strike a powerful blow against the sinister forces of global imperialist reaction—just as a Russian defeat will embolden the US and its NATO poodles for further aggression in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere. This is why revolutionaries must militarily side with Russia without giving Putin’s bonapartist, anti-working-class regime any political support.
While the Western propaganda machine has been working overtime to present a grotesquely distorted picture of the conflict with absurd allegations of Russian “genocide” while prettifying Ukrainian Nazis as “heroes,” proletarian internationalists must refuse to defend or excuse any and all misbehaviour or criminal excesses committed by Russian forces in this conflict.
The Russian incursion was tactically aggressive but strategically defensive. NATO’s continuous escalation of the conflict, and its proposed extension to Finland and Sweden, have created the highest risk of nuclear armageddon since the darkest days of the Cold War. Thus far neither Russia nor NATO has taken a step back in the on-going spiral of escalation. While we would oppose a long-term Russian occupation of those parts of the Ukraine that do not wish to become informally or formally incorporated into Russia, we recognise that it may be militarily necessary to intervene in Western Ukraine, or for that matter Poland, Romania or Finland. We oppose NATO expansion to Finland and Sweden, just as to Ukraine and Georgia, and recognise Russia’s right to neutralise NATO missile sites in Poland and elsewhere in its “near abroad” without necessarily advocating that such actions be carried out.
Trotskyists condemn the direct imperialist sanctions against Russia as well as secondary sanctions aimed at other countries. The sanctions have already backfired badly and it seems unlikely that the rulers of Germany, France and other EU countries will ultimately opt to maintain their current posture as popular resistance mounts, whilst tens of millions of working people begin to understand that their rulers have chosen a path leading to economic suicide.
On May Day the Bolshevik Tendency marched in London and Toronto under the slogan “US/NATO War Drive Against Russia and China Hurts Workers Everywhere!” This reality is becoming increasingly clear with surging energy and food prices evident around the globe. Whilst imperialist governments are throwing billions of dollars into an attempt to prop up the Zelensky regime in Kiev and weaken and ultimately destroy Russia, workers in the NATO countries are becoming restive at the prospect of being forced to pay for this reckless undertaking.
Marxists advocate workers’ action to impede the imperialist war machine and hasten the end of hostilities through the defeat of NATO and its allies. The Italian dockers of Genova and workers in Greece have shown the way through their refusals to handle imperialist military cargo destined for Ukraine. In various other countries workers misled by imperialist propaganda, like the Belarusian workers who refused to transport Russian materiel, have acted against their own interests by supporting NATO and its proxies. Workers in Russia and elsewhere have a conjunctural interest in Russia’s military victory against imperialism, even though, in the long run, their interests lie in overthrowing Putin’s bonapartist capitalist regime, along with those of the NATO countries, through social revolution.
The conflict in Ukraine has laid bare the deepening contradictions of global capitalism which are manifest in the attempts of the dominant imperialist power and its allies to ameliorate the impact of declining profitability by opening up Russia, Iran, Venezuela and most importantly, the Chinese deformed workers’ state, for wholesale looting. The disastrous effects on working people of the pending global economic crisis, already deepened by the COVID pandemic, have been further exacerbated by the profound disruptions of global energy and food supplies by the sanctions campaign against Russia.
Regrettably, the vast majority of the organised left, including most self-proclaimed Trotskyist groupings, has failed to take sides against the NATO imperialists. Many have adopted a position of neutrality, impressionistically claiming that Russia is imperialist. Others, blindly refusing to acknowledge that Ukraine is operating essentially as an imperialist proxy, portray the conflict as a fight between two qualitatively equivalent capitalist countries—Ukraine and Russia. Bowing to the poisonous Russophobia being pumped out by the imperialist propaganda machine, those leftists who refuse to side militarily with Russia have either opted for a dual-defeatist position or, worse, supported the Zelensky regime and its NATO backers.
The world is moving towards a critical juncture as the frenzied thrashing of the declining US empire intersects and amplifies an accelerating ecological collapse. Trotsky’s assertion that “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” has never been more starkly vindicated. The future of humanity requires the creation of a genuinely revolutionary workers’ party on an international scale—a party that is capable of telling the masses the truth, no matter how bitter it may be. At this moment the duty of revolutionaries is to take a position in favour of a Russian military success against NATO/US imperialism and its Ukrainian puppet. A Russian victory would deal a heavy blow against further reactionary NATO military adventures and thereby improve the conditions for advancing the urgent task of constructing revolutionary workers’ parties committed to the struggle for global socialist revolution. It is to this perspective that we of the Bolshevik Tendency are committed.