NATO v Russia in Ukraine
A litmus test for Trotskyists
The Russian incursion into Ukraine has accelerated the decline of US imperialism, severely weakened its European “partners” and NATO as a whole, while shrinking its influence in Latin America and the “Indo-Pacific”. This conflict has tested the political character of every ostensibly Marxist formation around the world and starkly illuminated the confusion, cowardice and political bankruptcy of the vast majority of ostensibly Trotskyist groups, particularly those headquartered in the imperialist heartlands.
The notion of “Russian imperialism”, which reformist leftists use to justify support for Ukraine (and thereby also its NATO godfathers) played a central role in our 2018 break with the New Zealand-based faction of the International Bolshevik Tendency. As we observed at the time, “Political clarity is an essential attribute for a small revolutionary propaganda group if it is to play a positive role in the struggle to forge a viable Leninist leadership rooted in the working class”.
The precursor to the present conflict was the US-backed Maidan coup in Kiev in 2014, which was itself an episode in a campaign of increasing pressure on Russia by the US and its NATO allies that had already been underway for over two decades (see: “Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia – Tectonic Shifts in Global Politics”. In a major statement published shortly after the Russian “Special Military Operation” commenced we reviewed some of the important moments in this history and noted that in the few months that preceded the opening of hostilities:
“Putin made clear that if NATO activity in Ukraine was not ended and its proposed expansion into Ukraine was not categorically rejected and/or if there were attempts to deploy new weapons close to Russia’s borders, the response would be ‘military-technical’ countermeasures, not only against Ukraine but also, potentially, against the US and its allies.”
We observed that:
“The Russian military action against Ukraine is tactically aggressive but strategically defensive. Revolutionaries do not give Putin any political support while recognizing that Russia’s right to self-defense includes the right to sever Ukraine’s NATO connection.”
NATO’s relentless eastward expansion over the three decades since the destruction of the Soviet Union, rationalised as designed to contain the potential “threat” posed by Russia, was in fact intended to lay a foundation for dismembering Russia into several smaller, more easily controlled neo-colonies. In 1991, when the USSR imploded, Dick Cheney, US Secretary of Defence in the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush, was a prominent advocate of this policy (according to Robert Gates, Barack Obama’s defence secretary). Zbigniew Brzezinski, a ferociously anti-Soviet ideologue who, as Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor acted as quartermaster for the reactionary Islamist jihad against the modernising, secular regime of the Moscow-aligned People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, also promoted NATO’s eastward expansion as a step towards “decentralising” Russia:
“…NATO and EU enlargement should move forward in deliberate stages. Assuming a sustained American and Western European commitment, here is a speculative but realistic timetable for these stages: By 1999, the first three Central European members will have been admitted into NATO, although their inclusion in the EU will probably not take place before 2002 or 2003; by 2003, the EU is likely to have initiated accession talks with all three Baltic republics, and NATO will likewise have moved forward on their membership as well as that of Romania and Bulgaria, with their accession likely to be completed before 2005; between 2005 and 2010, Ukraine, provided it has made significant domestic reforms and has become identified as a Central European country, should also be ready for initial negotiations with the EU and NATO.
* * *
“Given the country’s size and diversity, a decentralized political system and free-market economics would be most likely to unleash the creative potential of the Russian people and Russia’s vast natural resources. A loosely confederated Russia—composed of a European Russia, a Siberian Republic, and a Far Eastern Republic—would also find it easier to cultivate closer economic relations with its neighbors. Each of the confederated entities would be able to tap its local creative potential, stifled for centuries by Moscow’s heavy bureaucratic hand. In turn, a decentralized Russia would be less susceptible to imperial mobilization.”
—Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997
Brzezinski’s cynical palaver about unleashing “the creative potential of the Russian people” by balkanising their country was a thin cover for the real objectives of removing a potential geopolitical competitor while opening up its “vast natural resources” for exploitation by US corporations. The Kremlin’s motivation in moving into Ukraine was a defensive move aimed at pushing NATO back from Russia’s borders. The Western imperialist mass media entirely ignored this in its frenzied propaganda barrage denouncing Putin as a Hitler-like figure driven by insane Russian expansionist appetites.
Russia’s economy—a source of net outward surplus value transfer
Vladimir Lenin clearly distinguished the attitude of Marxists towards wars conducted by imperialist oppressors from those fought against oppression:
“In short: a war between imperialist Great Powers (i.e., powers that oppress a whole number of nations and enmesh them in dependence on finance capital, etc.), or in alliance with the Great Powers, is an imperialist war. Such is the war of 1914–16. And in this war ‘defence of the fatherland’ is a deception, an attempt to justify the war.
“A war against imperialist, i.e., oppressing, powers by oppressed (for example, colonial) nations is a genuine national war. It is possible today too. ‘Defence of the fatherland’ in a war waged by an oppressed nation against a foreign oppressor is not a deception. Socialists are not opposed to ‘defence of the fatherland’ in such a war.”
—Vladimir Lenin, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism, 1916
Lenin’s description of how imperialism operated a century ago remains fully applicable today:
“Economically, imperialism is monopoly capitalism. To acquire full monopoly, all competition must be eliminated, and not only on the home market (of the given state), but also on foreign markets, in the whole world. Is it economically possible, ‘in the era of finance capital’, to eliminate competition even in a foreign state? Certainly it is. It is done through a rival’s financial dependence and acquisition of his sources of raw materials and eventually of all his enterprises.
* * *
“Big finance capital of one country can always buy up competitors in another, politically independent country and constantly does so. Economically, this is fully achievable. Economic ‘annexation’ is fully ‘achievable’ without political annexation and is widely practised. In the literature on imperialism you will constantly come across indications that Argentina, for example, is in reality a ‘trade colony’ of Britain, or that Portugal is in reality a ‘vassal’ of Britain, etc. And that is actually so: economic dependence upon British banks, indebtedness to Britain, British acquisition of their railways, mines, land, etc., enable Britain to ‘annex’ these countries economically without violating their political independence.”
Leon Trotsky observed that imperialist exploitation arose as more economically advanced countries took advantage of more backward ones:
“Disproportion of development brought tremendous benefits to the advanced countries, which although in varying degrees, continued to develop at the expense of the backward ones, by exploiting them, by converting them into their colonies, or at least, by making it impossible for them to get in among the capitalist aristocracy. The fortunes of Spain, Holland, England, France were obtained not only from the surplus labour of their own proletariat, not only by devastating their own petty bourgeoisie, but also through the systematic pillage of their overseas possessions. The exploitation of classes was supplemented, and its potency increased by the exploitation of nations.”
—Leon Trotsky, “Marxism in our Time,” 1939
Sam King, an Australian Marxist, sketched a few contemporary distinctions between imperialist and non-imperialist countries (a category in which he correctly includes Russia):
“The Forbes Global 2000 list also gives us an indication of the degree of participation of different national capitals in the eighty-two economic sectors Forbes uses to categorise them. The Third World has 85 per cent of the global population but just 21 per cent of listed companies (414 of 2,000). The overwhelming majority of these Third World firms are domestically oriented financial, oil and utilities companies. These companies’ size, and hence their inclusion on the list, generally reflects the size of their domestic markets and the degree of their domestic monopoly. Beyond this, in the larger Third World countries we find listed some construction, chemicals or manufacturing companies, again predominantly for the local market, such as India’s Tata Motor (which dominates the domestic market) or China’s Dongfeng Motor.
“In addition, there are a small number of internationally competitive companies, each expressing the various competitive attributes of the largest Third World states. From Mexico, there are two beverage companies and an international telecom, from India software and IT services, from Russia gas, metals and defence, and from China manufacturing companies in home appliances and consumer electronics.”
—Sam King, Imperialism and the development myth, 2021
King observed that:
“Even the poorest imperialist state, Spain (income [in GDP per capita] $25,555), earns nearly double the top-earning Third World state Argentina ($13,432) and Chile ($13,416) and three times Mexico, Brazil and China, Russia and Turkey: That is the size of the smallest gap between the two distinct worlds.”
Michael Roberts, a Marxist economic analyst based in Britain, also dismisses the idea that Russia is an imperialist exploiter:
“The Russia[n] economy remains a ‘one-trick pony’, depending on oil and gas that make up more than half its exports before the war started, with the rest being grain, chemicals and metals—no advanced technology exports. That means that far from extracting surplus value through trade with other countries, instead, the more advanced capitalist economies and their multi-nationals get net transfers of surplus value from Russia.
“Putin may think Russia can be an imperialist power, but the economic reality is that Russia is just a large peripheral economy outside the US-led imperialist bloc like Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Turkey, Egypt etc—if with a larger military than most.”
—thenextrecession.wordpress.com, 15 August 2022
As Trotsky observed, the question of whether or not a country is imperialist has important programmatic implications for Marxists:
“The coercive imperialism of advanced nations is able to exist only because backward nations, oppressed nationalities, colonial and semicolonial countries, remain on our planet. The struggle of the oppressed peoples for national unification and national independence is doubly progressive because, on the one side, this prepares more favorable conditions for their own development, while, on the other side, this deals blows to imperialism. That, in particular, is the reason why, in the struggle between a civilized, imperialist, democratic republic and a backward, barbaric monarchy in a colonial country, the socialists are completely on the side of the oppressed country notwithstanding its monarchy and against the oppressor country notwithstanding its ‘democracy.’”
—Leon Trotsky, “Lenin on Imperialism,” 1939
Former Soviet satellite parties embrace Third Camp neutrality in Ukraine
Many formerly Soviet-aligned parties, including the British, Irish and Turkish, have assumed a dual-defeatist posture, rather than backing Russia. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Communist Party of Britain (CP/B) immediately endorsed a World Peace Council statement that effectively denied the right to self-determination for the Russian-speaking majorities in the Donbass, Crimea and other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine:
“We the undersigned political parties welcome the statement of the World Peace Council of February 25, 2022, which:
“Calls on all sides to the Russia-Ukraine conflict to restore and secure peace and international security through constructive political dialogue, noting that the Russian and Ukrainian people, as well as the peoples of the region, have nothing to gain from this military conflict.
“Condemns the political and military manoeuvers of the USA, NATO and the European Union since the Euromaidan coup of 2014 after which reactionary forces took power in Kyiv with the open support of the Western imperialist powers.
“Reiterates opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion, its military build-up in Eastern Europe and the encirclement of the Russian Federation.
“Declares that the unilateral recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian provinces by Russia not only undermines the founding principles of the Charter of the United Nations, but also creates justification for the future abuse of such methods by the imperialist powers against other nations.
“Recognises that this conflict is related to the control of energy resources, pipelines, markets and spheres of influence.”
—communistparty.org.uk, 1 March 2022
The brutal eight-year campaign waged against pro-Russian Donbass separatists by military units spearheaded by Right Sector, Azov, Tornado, Dnipro, Aidar and other openly fascist formations was an important factor in Putin’s decision to intervene. In contrast to the US and the other “democratic” NATO imperialist predators, Russia is not in the business of appropriating the natural wealth of weaker countries; in fact, it sells energy resources to members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) at a substantial discount:
“…Russia could offer its neighbors subsidized prices for exports of oil, gas, and other commodity items. This mechanism worked relatively well in the context of the continuing shortage of energy and raw materials resources in the world and the concomitant constant growth of world prices for Russian exports. Let’s not forget that in the first years after the Soviet collapse, the economies of most CIS countries remained essentially Soviet, and therefore energy- and resource-intensive, which predetermined the high level of dependence of these countries on the supply of cheap energy and raw materials from Russia.
“However, in the second decade of the 21st century, the ‘producer market’ was replaced by the ‘consumer market,’ which began to gradually reduce the importance of Russian energy bonuses for neighboring states.…
“Moscow sought to attract its neighbors by creating preferential conditions for them to access the Russian market for goods and services, as well as the labor market, in the form of labor migration from the CIS countries. Such preferences were of significant importance within the context of the rapid growth of the Russian economy in the first decade of the 21st century and the unwillingness or unpreparedness of most CIS countries to actively explore the consumer and labor markets of the ‘far abroad.’”
—ip-quarterly.com, 31 March 2022
In Germany both the Kommunistische Organisation (Communist Organisation/KO) and its parent, the German Communist Party (DKP) are embroiled in a discussion about Russia’s role in the global economy and the nature of contemporary imperialism. We consider the elegantly simple formula contained in the “Theses on the Eastern Question” adopted by the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Communist International, to be fully applicable today: “the essence of imperialism is its exploitation of the different levels of development of the productive forces in the different sectors of the world economy, in order to extract monopoly super-profits.” In place of this traditional Leninist approach the Stalinist leadership of both the KO majority and DKP incline to an approach originally developed by the Greek Communist Party which the KO renders as follows:
“Imperialism is a global system of societal relationships, enveloping all capitalist nations—not only the USA, Japan, and Western Europe. Other states in which the conditions of monopoly capital dominate, for example in China, cannot have an anti-imperialist character. Devolution from monopoly capitalism to the capitalism of free competition is not possible, due to contradictions with the basic intrinsic laws of development within the capitalist mode of production—especially the law of the further concentration and centralization of capital. Anti-imperialist struggle must for this reason be aimed against capital and the capitalist system, the source of imperialism. As communists in Germany, we see German imperialism—and its actors, the monopoly bourgeoisie and the state—as our main enemy. We fight however shoulder to shoulder with our international comrades, against imperialism as a whole, as a worldwide system. Special stress is placed upon the role of the EU as an imperialist coalition, the rapidly-developing BRICS group, and US imperialism—still today the most dangerous militaristic imperialist pole of the world.”
—Kommunistische.org, 13 August 2018
Lenin ridiculed a similar argument over a hundred years ago:
“Advanced European (and American) capitalism has entered a new era of imperialism. Does it follow from that that only imperialist wars are now possible? Any such contention would be absurd. It would reveal inability to distinguish a given concrete phenomenon from the sum total of variegated phenomena possible in a given era. An era is called an era precisely because it encompasses the sum total of variegated phenomena and wars, typical and untypical, big and small, some peculiar to advanced countries, others to backward countries.”
—Lenin, 1916, Op. Cit.
Any framework which includes Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa and the Chinese deformed workers’ state as components of “imperialism as a whole,” is one that can only confuse and disorientate would-be revolutionaries. Such muddleheaded double-talk not only denies the reality of “actually existing” imperialist exploitation, but also logically requires those who subscribe to it to sit out the current conflict, as well as similar ones in future, in a neutral “Third Camp.”
WSWS, TF, IG: ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’
The various Stalinist advocates of neutrality in this conflict are joined by a wide spectrum of ostensible Trotskyists. Many self-proclaimed Trotskyist tendencies which reject the idea that Russia is an imperialist power and oppose NATO’s aggressive expansion, have nonetheless refused to take sides in the current military conflict. The Turkish Devrimci İşçi Partisi (DIP—Revolutionary Workers’ Party), has combined denunciations of US/NATO provocations with declarations that revolutionaries cannot remain neutral—yet, for reasons which remain unclear to us, still hesitates to come out explicitly in favour of a Russian military victory, (see: “On RedMed’s ‘International Anti-Imperialist and Anti-War Declaration’”).
The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS—published by David North’s Socialist Equality Party [SEP]) characterises Putin’s military initiative as essentially defensive and is harshly critical of both the NATO imperialists and their Ukrainian puppets. Yet the Northites steadfastly refuse to take sides in the conflict, although they are capable of insightful commentary on the motivations of various fake-Trotskyists who claim that Russia and China (mistakenly characterised as “capitalist” by the SEP) are imperialist powers:
“What political purpose, it must be asked, is served by adding the word ‘imperialist’ to descriptions of China and Russia? In practical political terms, it serves very definite functions. First, it relativizes, and therefore diminishes, the central and decisive global counterrevolutionary role of American, European and Japanese imperialism. This facilitates the pseudo-left’s active collaboration with the United States in regime-change operations such as in Syria, where the Assad regime has been backed by Russia. Second, and even more significantly, the designation of China and Russia as imperialist—and thus, by implication, as colonial powers suppressing ethnic, national, linguistic and religious minorities—sanctions the pseudo-left’s support for imperialist-backed ‘national liberation’ uprisings and ‘color revolutions’….”
—wsws.org, 18 February 2016
The WSWS, which has long recognised the predatory appetites of US imperialism towards Russia, refuses to draw the logical conclusion of its analysis, presumably out of fear of being smeared as “Putin bots.” While correctly condemning various Pabloite and Shachtmanite currents which parrot the bourgeois media’s denunciations of “Russian imperialism,” the SEP has chosen to occupy a position in the “Third Camp” between the two combatants:
“The way out of this disaster, from which the present war emerged, is to be found not in alliance with US-NATO imperialism or with Putin’s capitalist regime; but only through the unified struggle of the Ukrainian, Russian and international working class against all the warring states. The working class in Russia as well as in Ukraine must uphold the principle: The main enemy is at home.”
—wsws.org, 30 June 2022
The Northites’ neutrality has not prevented them from identifying the core strategic issue posed in Ukraine today, and the fact that imperialist aggression directed first at Russia, will ultimately be expanded to target China:
“The imperialist NATO powers are financing their proxy war in Ukraine with the aim of gaining control of the vast Russian landmass, which contains among the world’s largest reserves of oil, gas, and strategic minerals. Moreover, this US-led imperialist campaign is part of broader war preparations against China. Russia, on the other hand, intervenes militarily abroad seeking not colonies for exploitation, but geo-strategic guarantees against imperialist intervention.”
—wsws.org, 17 May 2022
Yet from these correct premises the SEP draws an entirely unwarranted conclusion:
“The [Russian] invasion itself on February 24, while provoked by imperialism, was a bankrupt and desperate effort to increase its leverage in negotiations with the imperialist powers. But the opposite occurred. The invasion was seized upon by the imperialist powers as a much needed pretext to implement their long-held war plans against Russia and escalate their military build-up for a new imperialist redivision of the world.”
—wsws.org, 1 September 2022
Putin’s “Special Military Operation” was neither “bankrupt,” nor particularly desperate. It was a carefully calculated move aimed at reducing Russia’s vulnerability to imperialist aggression by neutralising NATO’s Ukrainian proxy. Despite a few miscalculations and unanticipated difficulties, it remains highly probable that, if the conflict remains essentially contained within Ukraine, the Kremlin will ultimately succeed and the NATO alliance will be seriously damaged, if it survives at all. Political and economic commentators across the political spectrum are anticipating massive social turmoil across Europe in the coming months as capitalist rulers attempt to saddle workers with the costs of the enormously expensive military intervention in Ukraine and the spectacularly counterproductive economic sanctions imposed on Russia. The entire architecture of US imperial rule established in the aftermath of WW II—including the privileged position of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency—now appears to be at serious risk.
Whether or not Putin’s military initiative ultimately succeeds, it is stupid for the WSWS to describe the Kremlin’s attempt to abort NATO’s efforts in Ukraine as “bankrupt.” What could more aptly be characterised as “bankrupt” is the Northites’ cowardly refusal to take sides, even while acknowledging that Russia’s bonapartist capitalist regime is engaged in a defensive struggle against imperialist aggression.
Two other tendencies, Left Voice (the American section of the Argentine-based Trotskyist Fraction [TF])—see: “Trotskyist Fraction on Ukraine – Centrist Waffling”—and the New York-centred Internationalist Group (IG), which have also denounced the US for provoking the conflict and reject all claims of “Russian imperialism,” have joined the WSWS in adopting a neutral position.
The TF coherently explained why contemporary Russia should be viewed as a dependent, rather than imperialist, capitalist country:
“…if certain characteristics of the Russian state create the ‘illusion of a superpower,’ they mask the fact that Russia is actually subordinated to a typical case of ‘uneven and combined development.’ It has inherited from the Soviet Union and the Cold War a huge nuclear arsenal and dominant positions in several international institutions. Putin has also restored and strengthened state power after the debacle of the Yeltsin years, while consolidating and deepening Yeltsin’s pro-capitalist efforts.
“Nevertheless, the Russian economy is based almost exclusively on the export of raw materials (especially oil and gas, metals, and agricultural products) and is still highly dependent on Western technology and finance. Russia’s capacity for international influence remains largely limited to the former borders of the USSR, despite partial successes in the Middle East and Africa. In sum, Russia is becoming more of a regional power, with genuine international influence remaining limited.”
—leftvoice.org, 20 March 2022
It also competently sketched the background to the current military showdown:
“The roots of the conflict between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO go back to the end of the Cold War with the triumph of the United States, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and capitalist restoration. After having regressed to historic levels in the period of Boris Yeltsin, under Putin’s Bonapartist regime, Russia re-emerged as a power that has inherited the nuclear arsenal of the former USSR, although it does not have the status of the former Soviet Union and is based on a rentier economy dependent on oil. This gives Russia a geopolitical projection that far exceeds its material bases and feeds Putin’s ambitions to influence the international scene in the interests of Russian capitalism.
“In addition to promoting pro-Western governments in Russia’s neighborhood, the U.S. has moved forward with the eastward expansion of NATO, which gradually incorporated the countries that were part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence….The logic guiding this expansive action of the U.S. is the strategic objective of advancing a policy of semi-colonization of Russia.”
—leftvoice.org, 23 February 2022
The confrontation in Ukraine, initiated by the relentless expansion of NATO, does indeed pivot on the issue of whether US imperialism will succeed in its “strategic objective of …[the] semi-colonization of Russia.” Marxists cannot be neutral in such a struggle; but for the TF those who back Russia’s attempt to resist imperialist encroachment are also in effect supporting Putin’s reactionary bonapartist regime:
“Although they are fewer, there are those who insist that Russia and China represent a progressive alternative to U.S. and Western imperialism. This position disregards the repressive Bonapartism of Putin’s regime, which today is reacting with particular brutality to anti-war activism in Russia. Those on this side also tend to evaluate all of Putin’s foreign policy moves as ‘defensive maneuvers’ against U.S. hegemonized imperialism, thus openly and shamefully justifying the reactionary Russian invasion of Ukraine and its national oppression.”
—leftvoice.org, 31 March 2022
When the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Marxists took the side of the semi-colonial victims. Doing so did not mean endorsing the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s reactionary Baathist dictatorship. Marxists take sides in strikes and other forms of class struggle without politically endorsing the bureaucratic union leaders conducting them. The same criterion applies to anti-imperialist military conflicts: favouring the victory of one side over the other does not imply political support for the programme and practice of those leading the fight—it merely signifies that the victory of one side over the other will advance the interests of the workers’ movement and/or the oppressed.
The IG, like the TF, rejects all talk of “Russian imperialism,” yet is uneasily aware that this conflicts with its posture of neutrality in the struggle pitting the Kremlin’s forces against those of NATO and its Ukrainian proxy. The IG ludicrously attempts to square this circle by denying that the US and its NATO allies are a party to the conflict:
“This is now a war between the Russian capitalist state, with its nationalist ruler in Moscow, and that of Ukraine, whose nationalist regime in Kiev has acted as a cat’s paw of Western imperialists and uses fascist forces to besiege the Russian-speaking population of southeastern Ukraine. We Trotskyists call for revolutionary defeatism on both sides in this reactionary nationalist war, for internationalist proletarian struggle against both capitalist regimes and, above all, against the U.S. and European rulers who set off this conflagration.”
* * *
“We [previously] declared that ‘If clashes lead to a full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine, Trotskyists would be for a policy of revolutionary defeatism in both of these regional powers, calling for workers to actively oppose the war effort of “their” bourgeoisies and to wage intransigent class struggle against the capitalist rulers in Moscow and Kiev.’…. At the same time, we noted that if the conflict ‘turned into a war by Ukraine’s imperialist backers against Russia that would be a very different matter.’”
—internationalist.org, 28 February 2022
The IG’s contrafactual claim that “Ukraine’s imperialist backers” are not playing a significant role in the conflict ignores the fact that the US/NATO axis has been reorganising, training and equipping the Ukrainian military for years and gradually integrating it operationally. We documented some aspects of this in our February statement:
“In 2013 a ‘Defence Education Enhancement Programme’ (DEEP) was commenced to overhaul the Ukrainian military. According to NATO’s website, DEEP ‘fosters defence capacity and institution building. By enhancing democratic institutions, it makes an important contribution to NATO’s efforts to project stability in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond.’ In 2015 Ukraine was welcomed into NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) which entitled it to access armaments. Two years later Ukraine declared NATO membership to be a strategic national objective.”
In an August posting to our website we observed:
“The Ukrainian government, like its military, is currently entirely dependent on massive injections of imperialist financing and weaponry and operates as little more than a pawn in U.S. imperialism’s long-standing objective of dismembering Russia. In 2020 Adam Schiff, a leading Democratic Party politician, boasted about using Ukraine to ‘fight Russia,’ and just this week Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence, revealed that the U.S. retains effective control over determining targets for the celebrated HIMARS artillery system:
“’Skibitsky told the United Kingdom’s Telegraph newspaper there was consultation between US and Ukrainian intelligence officials before attacks and that Washington had an effective veto on intended targets, though he said US officials were not providing direct targeting information.’”
In May the IG itself offered the following (accurate) assessment of the situation:
“The U.S. is hurtling and stumbling irrationally toward world war, possibly nuclear war. Together with its allies in the imperialist North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Washington is sending increasingly heavy offensive weaponry to the fascist-infested Ukrainian military. But the U.S. has set its broader sights on Russian downfall as a dramatic example of U.S./NATO military prowess and an implied threat to China. The U.S. vows to defeat Russia and degrade its military so it will be ‘weakened’ for years to come as Pentagon chief General Lloyd Austin has said.”
—internationalist.org, May 2022
How does the IG leadership imagine the US intends to “defeat Russia and degrade its military” * while remaining uninvolved in the conflict? Given that the “fascist-infested” Ukrainian armed forces are widely recognised to be operating under the direction of US/NATO command, the IG’s absurd denial of significant imperialist involvement is clearly nothing less than a cowardly rationalisation for a policy driven by adaptation to political backwardness. This is compounded by the reluctance of the group’s leaders to admit having made a mistake in the first place. Leader-cults of various stripes routinely practice this sort of “prestige politics,” but it is an approach that is entirely alien to the Bolshevik-Leninist tradition which the IG claims to stand in.
Fake-Trotskyists echo State Department denunciations of ‘Russian imperialism’
The prize for the most convoluted position on Ukraine has to go to Socialist Action (SA), the US group led by Jeff Mackler, which, while not openly taking a side in the conflict, hints that it regards “Russian imperialism” as somehow preferable to the American version:
“Were we to blind ourselves to the reality of the events that transpired in Ukraine since the 2014 U.S.-instigated fascist coup and place an equals sign between U.S. and Russian imperialism, we would be gravely mistaken….That U.S. imperialism planned and orchestrated a fascist-led coup aimed in part at obliterating the minority Russian-speaking people, 30 percent of the population, and that the same U.S. government seeks to orchestrate Ukraine’s affiliation to NATO, replete with nuclear weapons on Russia’s doorstep, cannot be removed from any serious assessment of today’s unfolding Ukrainian war. Nor can we be indifferent or neutral with regard to Ukraine’s oppressed Russian-speaking population’s right to exist, that is, their right to self-determination. They have legitimately sought Russian aid against the onslaught of a U.S.-imposed fascist government. We do not object to Russia’s providing it even if Putin’s motives for extending Russian it [sic] are dubious to say the least.”
—socialistaction.org, 11 April 2022
While “not object[ing]” to Putin intervening in defence of the pro-Russian population of the Donbass against “the onslaught of a U.S.-imposed fascist government,” Mackler et al are too pusillanimous to openly advocate a Russian military victory over NATO and its Ukrainian proxy army. In elaborating SA’s position on the “unfolding Ukrainian war,” Mackler invokes various recent US interventions in other neo-colonial countries:
“Without the slightest equivocation, we support this right of all poor and oppressed nations and peoples to be free from imperialist war and conquest. This principle fully applies to all beleaguered nations, including Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Afghanistan, even if we disagree with the nature and policies of their governments.
“In Syria, the Bashar al Assad government fell victim to a U.S./NATO/Gulf State monarchy 10-year war that slaughtered 500,000 Syrians….with the U.S. government’s Secretary of State at that moment, John Kerry, preparing to install yet another coup government beholden to the U.S., the Syrians, exercising their right to self-determination, asked for Russian aid. The result was the defeat of that U.S. regime change horror.”
It takes a lot of chutzpah for Mackler to cite Syria, given that SA at different points supported both sides in that country’s civil war: initially the “revolutionary” Islamist reactionaries who were seeking to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, and then flipping their position (without explanation or acknowledgement) to one of support for the “anti-imperialist” ruling Baathist regime. Mackler did not mention NATO’s attack on Libya in 2011; in that case too SA cynically covertly retrofitted their original position (see: “Socialist Action: Time to Own Up—‘Russian Imperialism’ & Flip-flops on Syria and Libya”).
Most revisionist “Trotskyist” tendencies are less duplicitous. The British Socialist Workers Party (SWP, leading section of the International Socialist Tendency founded by Tony Cliff), considers Russia to be “imperialist,” but correctly identifies the Zelensky regime as essentially a proxy for NATO. Writing in the International Socialism Journal Rob Ferguson claimed, “The Russian invasion [of Ukraine] bears the hallmarks of all imperialist wars,” and called for “the withdrawal of Russian troops and support for Russian anti-war activists,” while also stipulating that socialists “must oppose NATO’s expansion and its escalation of the war.”
The SWP regards any capitalist country capable of competing for influence beyond its national frontiers as “imperialist”:
“First, imperialism is a global system that draws capitalist states into conflict. Second, imperialism reflects a stage of capitalist development in which the process of production expands beyond national boundaries, so that state and capital become increasingly interdependent. Firms rely on states to project political, economic and military power and protect capital against its rivals, while states in turn depend on the level of economic and technological development of capital to project their power.“
—isj.org, 28 June 2022
Lenin took a different view—he only considered countries with a high enough level of economic development to systematically extract value from more backward regions to be imperialist. He also regarded the displacement of industrial by finance capital to be a central feature of imperialism:
“the development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still ‘reigns’ and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the bulk of the profits go to the ‘geniuses’ of financial manipulation.“
The supremacy of finance capitalism distinguished modern imperialism from the empires of earlier epochs:
“Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practised imperialism. But ‘general’ disquisitions on imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background, the fundamental difference between socio-economic formations, inevitably turn into the most vapid banality or bragging, like the comparison: ’Greater Rome and Greater Britain.’ Even the capitalist colonial policy of previous stages of capitalism is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital.”
The Cliffites never treated finance capital as an central aspect of imperialism; they tended instead to stress the capacity to wield geopolitical influence:
“The drive to competition is a permanent, inherent feature of the global system. As one period of imperialist conflict comes to an end, another emerges, leading inexorably to new, potentially more intense, imperialist rivalries….
“Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet empire with its economic, state and military infrastructure severely weakened; however, it was far from powerless. Russia inherited the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal and commanded the largest conventional force in the region. Most of the newly independent former Soviet states were heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies and on the industrial and economic infrastructure built over decades of Soviet power.
* * *
“Russia’s attempt to integrate into the global economy, its energy strategy and its assertion of hegemony were intimately linked. By 1993, exports of raw materials had become the lifeline of the Russian economy….
“Russia displayed a strategic use of imperialist power, exploiting national and ethnic divisions to the point of open conflict and war.”
—isj.org, Op. cit
The SWP’s largest domestic competitor, the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP), which purports to employ more orthodox Leninist criteria, has nonetheless declared both Russia and the Chinese deformed workers state to be “imperialist” powers:
“Imperialism is frantically engaged in seeking to further exploit new markets in the neo-colonial world, with the US, EU nation states, China and Russia all knocking on the door.”
—socialismtoday.org, 13 September 2019
When hostilities first erupted in Ukraine the SP’s position of dual defeatism closely approximated that of the SWP:
“Socialists and the wider working-class movement must condemn Putin’s military invasion, which will bring the death of many innocent civilians and widespread destruction. The CWI [Committee for a Workers’ International—the international tendency headed by the SP] stands resolutely opposed to all capitalist warmongers and reactionary nationalist chauvinism that pits workers against workers. The CWI also opposes Nato and the western capitalist powers, which are also responsible for the ratcheting up military tensions in the region that have now resulted in a new war in Ukraine. It is the working class of Ukraine and Russia and beyond who will pay dearly for the war, not the oligarchs and ruling elites in Moscow, Kiev and Washington. …
“We say: stop the war in Ukraine; withdraw Russian troops and end the bombing; withdraw NATO troops from Eastern Europe; No to ethnic division and cleansing; for the right to self-determination and full democratic rights for all minorities; for workers’ unity and a common struggle against warmongers, oligarchs and the system of capitalism that creates poverty, joblessness, ethnic divisions and wars.”
—socialistworld.net, 24 February 2022
But as the Russophobic bourgeois propaganda barrage intensified, the SP shifted ground and edged away from its earlier observation that “The people of Ukraine are horribly engulfed by a proxy war between Western imperialist powers and the regional imperialist power, Russia.” By May, in a polemic against a degenerate former “revolutionary” who had become an overtly pro-NATO social democrat, CWI secretary Tony Saunois declared: “Marxists fully support the right of Ukrainian workers and people to defend themselves and fight against foreign invaders.” Instead of demanding that the Western imperialist alliance leave Eastern Europe, Saunois merely advised his readers to place: “No trust in Western powers or their military alliances, including NATO.” The CWI supremo made it clear that this shift in emphasis came as an accommodation to popular pro-imperialist illusions:
“Following the invasion, a layer of the population in Ukraine and the West had increased expectations and hopes that NATO could provide some protection and support to the Ukrainian people. However, these hopes are diminishing by the day—especially in Ukraine, as NATO is seen as failing to decisively intervene.
“Despite any temporary illusions which exist in NATO, socialists have a responsibility to skilfully explain the truth and expose the reality of what such institutions represent. The imperialist character of the NATO coalition was clearly shown in the interventions in the Balkans in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011. The catastrophic consequences which have followed illustrate the nature of this military alliance of capitalist powers.”
—socialismtoday.org, 3 May 2022
The SP/CWI’s orientation to layers of the population disappointed that NATO had not done more to counter Russian “imperialism” in Ukraine puts them into close political proximity to the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) which frequently “critically” supports policies coming out of Whitehall. The AWL joined various other pro-imperialist reformists (including the French NPA (Le Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) and the German Pabloites of the Internationale Sozialistische Organisation) in signing the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine, which declared:
“…we stand with the Resistance of the Ukrainian people against the aggression of Russian imperialism and its attempt to rebuild the Tsarist and then Soviet Empire.
“As with other national liberation struggles, our solidarity with the people of Ukraine is unconditional and independent of any judgment on their political leadership, because it is solely up to Ukraine and Ukrainians to decide the future of their country.”
—workersliberty.org, 9 June 2022
Sotsialnyi Rukh, a Ukrainian component of this Russophobic lash-up, has been exposed by the WSWS as linked to US imperialism via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID (The United States Agency for International Development). The AWL, which criticised NATO for failing to “give Ukraine what it needs in its war of self-defence,” in a 30 March article openly solidarised with the defenders of Mariupol, without mentioning that many of them were members of the fascist Azov Battalion and similar far-right formations.
Defeat NATO imperialists in Ukraine! Long live Trotskyism!
The current conflict in Ukraine poses the issue of the defence of dependent capitalist countries against the US and other imperialist predators point blank. When the first shots were fired, we were surprised to discover how few groups and individuals among those who lay claim to the heritage of Trotskyism were prepared to clearly and unambiguously call for the Russian military to defeat the imperialists and their proxies in Ukraine. We hope that the more subjectively revolutionary elements in this milieu will break with the policy of Third Camp neutrality and join with us in supporting a military victory for the Kremlin over the US/NATO imperialists:
“Without giving Putin’s reactionary bonapartist regime one inch of political support, Marxists recognise that a Russian victory will weaken the US/NATO imperialist axis and complicate future military aggression against the Chinese deformed workers’ state and others on the US hit list; conversely a victory by NATO’s Ukrainian proxy would encourage further aggression.
“We support the strikes by Greek and Italian workers against NATO weapons shipments to Ukraine, while opposing similar actions by Belarusian workers seeking to block Russian armaments. The chaos and bloody military aggression spawned by global imperialism can only be ended by world socialist revolution. That requires the construction of a revolutionary workers’ party on an international scale…”
—bolsheviktendency.org, 8 July 2022
The current conflict in Ukraine has starkly illuminated the profound political degeneration of most of the world’s supposed “Trotskyist” groupings. Their inability to resist the avalanche of imperialist propaganda over “poor little Ukraine” recalls the inglorious capitulation of the vast majority of the Second International in August 1914. The contemptible AWL echoes the crass social-patriotism of right wing social-democrats of that era, while the SP and SWP take positions more analogous to those of the social-patriotic mainstream. The WSWS, IG and TF, roughly approximate the Kautskyite centre-left with their often abstractly correct observations about the roots of the conflict and their politically cowardly refusal to bite the bullet and draw the appropriate programmatic conclusions. The simple truth is that a Russian military triumph over the global imperialist alliance in Ukraine will weaken the oppressors and thereby help create the conditions for a resurgence of class struggle at home. A defeat for NATO will also enormously complicate any future attempt by the US, its vassals and allies to initiate aggressive moves against the Cuban, Vietnamese, North Korean and Chinese deformed workers’ states as well as Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua or any other neo-colonial targets.
The fundamental issue posed today in the showdown between Russia and NATO in Ukraine is the same as that in the 1930s when our Trotskyist forerunners backed Chinese military resistance to the aggressive Japanese imperialists:
“In a war between two imperialist countries, it is a question neither of democracy nor of national independence, but of the oppression of backward nonimperialist peoples. In such a war the two countries find themselves on the same historical plane. The revolutionaries in both armies are defeatists. But Japan and China are not on the same historical plane. The victory of Japan will signify the enslavement of China, the end of her economic and social development, and the terrible strengthening of Japanese imperialism. The victory of China will signify, on the contrary, the social revolution in Japan and the free development, that is to say unhindered by external oppression, of the class struggle in China.
* * *
“The Eiffelites [a small group of American leftists who opposed siding militarily with China against Japan] counterpose the policy of ‘class struggle’ to this ‘nationalist and social patriotic’ policy. Lenin fought this abstract and sterile opposition all his life. To him, the interests of the world proletariat dictated the duty of aiding oppressed peoples in their national and patriotic struggle against imperialism. Those who have not yet understood that, almost a quarter of a century after the World War and twenty years after the October revolution, must be pitilessly rejected as the worst enemies on the inside by the revolutionary vanguard.”
—Leon Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, 23 September 1937
Update: The day after we published this article NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed our view that “Russia’s victory is NATO’s defeat“