Better late than never
IG correction on Russia v NATO…‘should be more precise and more honest’
“Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification—that is the hallmark of a serious party….”
—V.I. Lenin, ‘Left Wing’ Communism: an Infantile Disorder
In our 10 October 2022 “Litmus test for Trotskyists” we surveyed the attitude of various ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies toward Russia’s military campaign to de-NATOize Ukraine. We distinguished the positions of the overtly social-imperialist currents that sided with Ukraine (and its NATO godfathers) from others that took a neutral position (generally described by them as “revolutionary defeatism” on both sides). Many of the organizations which have refused to support either side in the conflict mistakenly consider Russia to be an “imperialist” power qualitatively similar to the US, Britain, etc. While they are entirely wrong about this, their approach to what they regard as an “inter-imperialist” conflict has a sort of formal logic.
But the neutrality of those ostensibly Trotskyist groups which reject the notion of “Russian imperialism” has no logic at all. When a non-imperialist country (like Russia) is engaged in an essentially defensive struggle against an aggressive imperialist military alliance (in this case the US/NATO axis and its Ukrainian vassal) Trotskyists take sides—with the former against the latter. In our initial 27 February 2022 statement on the conflict, we made it clear that supporting a Russian victory over NATO does not imply any political support for the repressive capitalist ruling clique in the Kremlin:
“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.”
In our recent “litmus test” we discussed the rationalizations offered by three groups that do not regard Putin’s Russia as an imperialist power, but nonetheless maintained a position of neutrality in the Ukrainian conflict: the World Socialist Website (published by David North’s Socialist Equality Party); the Trotskyist Fraction (a tendency headquartered in Argentina which publishes Left Voice in the US); and the New York-centered Internationalist Group (IG), which like ourselves, was founded by former cadres of the once-revolutionary Spartacist League (SL). We were particularly surprised (and disappointed) by the IG’s initial refusal to side militarily with the Kremlin against NATO.
Less than two weeks after our “litmus test” appeared, the IG announced that it was dropping its position of even-handed neutrality in favor of Russian defensism. We welcome this shift—to date, despite our very small size, we have probably been the leading advocate of a Russian military victory among the many international tendencies which identify as Trotskyist.
Unlike the TF and WSWS, which continue to adhere to a position of neutrality in the conflict, the IG has at last recognized the legitimacy of the Russian military intervention to uproot NATO’s Ukrainian foothold. There is nothing shameful about making a mistake; even the very best revolutionaries (including Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg) made important political errors at different points. What is decisive in evaluating a political grouping is how it responds to its mistakes, as Lenin observed in the passage from ‘Left Wing’ Communism cited above.
While the IG has now corrected its initially mistaken position, it has yet to “frankly acknowledge” its error in failing to back the military victory of Russia over NATO and its Ukrainian proxy from the beginning. In announcing its line change, the IG correctly observed:
“Washington and its allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization vow to ‘make Russia’s war on Ukraine a strategic failure,’ [White House, National Security Strategy (October 2022)] insisting that Russia must be defeated and forced to withdraw from all of what used to be eastern Ukraine, including Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk ‘people’s republics’ that broke from the fascist-infested Kiev coup regime in 2014. Many imperialist strategists want to go further and break up Russia, in order to destroy what they see as a geopolitical rival and to seize its resources.”
But the IG is wrong that it took until September-October 2022 before “quantity [turned] into quality,” and “the Ukrainian army became in reality an extension of NATO.” They cite three major factors in the supposed qualitative transformation of September-October. The first is the “vast amounts of more-or-less sophisticated weapons and munitions being poured into Ukraine from the United States and other Western countries.” But this has been going on since 2014. In fact, the IG’s 28 February statement, entitled “Behind the War: U.S./NATO War Drive Against Russia, China,” featured a photo caption that read: “U.S. delivers hundreds of Javelin anti-tank missiles, Kiev, January 2022. NATO countries have been pouring in large quantities of arms to prop up Ukraine regime.”
The second leg of the IG’s argument for the supposedly “changed nature of the conflict” is:
“Not only are the U.S. and its allies deeply involved in training, planning and executing Ukrainian military strikes, not only is Ukraine crawling with CIA operatives and commandos…plus several thousand foreign ‘volunteers’ (mercenaries) in fascist-led Ukrainian units, U.S. officials precheck every strike by HIMARS rockets.”
The US does indeed control the strikes carried out by the HIMARS. This is to avoid the possibility of the Ukrainian military ignoring instructions not to engage with targets on Russian soil, thereby risking a massive escalation of the conflict beyond Ukraine. Prior to acquiring the HIMARS, Ukraine did not have NATO weapons capable of hitting Russian territory. The “game-changing” HIMARS first appeared in Ukraine in June at a time when, as we noted, “suddenly [Henry] Kissinger, New York Times etc., are all calling for negotiations. Presumably because the Russian military is successfully destroying the [fascist] Azov battalion etc. in Donbass…”. The introduction of the HIMARS represented only a relatively minor extension of the ongoing integration of the Ukrainian military into the NATO command structure that has been underway since 2014. We speculated that the IG might take the arrival of the HIMARS as an opportunity to vacate its previous stance and begin advocating a Russian military victory over NATO and its proxies:
“The position of the ‘revolutionary’ neutralists in this conflict must be uncomfortable….For the IG/SL [Internationalist Group/Spartacist League, both of which recognize that Russia is not an imperialist power] their initial mistake is going to be very difficult to explain coherently without admitting to being wrong. Not a problem for the SL of course which has become adept at unanimously renouncing the previously unanimously endorsed position. Presumably the IG, which is so brittle that it cannot even pretend to seriously examine its own history, will jump on the new US missiles [i.e., HIMARS] or something similar and claim that the situation has qualitatively changed (and hence also their position).”
The IG’s unwillingness to address its own history (in particular the origins and timeline of the political devolution of the once-revolutionary SL from which we both emerged) is an issue we have addressed on several occasions—most comprehensively in a lengthy December 1996 letter (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6, pp 7-23). Our anticipation that the IG might seize on the introduction of HIMARS in June to correct its original error proved mistaken.
The third leg of the IG’s rationalization for its line change is that NATO has been providing the Ukrainian military with “real-time information” via “very good satellite imagery.” But again, this is not new; it has been a key component of the US/NATO attempt to upgrade the military capacity of its proxy throughout the conflict. The IG’s claim that “This degree of control was institutionalized at October 12-13  NATO meetings in Brussels” is ridiculous given the available documentation of Ukraine’s gradual operational military integration with US/NATO forces, some of which we sketched in the 27 February 2022 statement we issued at the outset of hostilities:
“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.”
The US/NATO “strategic objective” in supporting the 2014 coup was to turn Ukraine into a pawn in Washington’s long-standing objective of dismembering Russia. To this end, the Ukrainian military was reorganized in accordance with NATO standards and operational doctrines. In a 2017 article on the NATO-initiated “Center for Doctrines and Tactics” in Ukraine a Russian think tank noted:
“the fact that Ukraine is already becoming an integral part of the Western deterrence model is evidenced by the virtually constant presence of military personnel of the alliance member countries at the training grounds of Ukraine. This permanent presence is covered by rotation, bilateral joint exercises, or exercises within NATO, or the need for the presence of observers from the alliance.”
The authors observed that:
“As a result [of education in NATO doctrines, organizational structures and tactics], even if Ukraine does not formally become a member of NATO, the country will be drawn into the plans of an anti-Russian alliance. In particular, various bilateral agreements legalize the deployment of troops and the creation of military bases on its territory.”
When hostilities commenced on 24 February 2022, the Russian military made the US-constructed Naval Operations Center in Ochakov a top-priority target. Three days earlier Vladimir Putin had described it as designed to make “it possible to ensure the actions of NATO ships, including the use of high-precision weapons by them against the Russian Black Sea Fleet and our infrastructure along the entire Black Sea coast.”
The current military contest was triggered by NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders—at issue is whether Ukraine has a “right” to join the anti-Russian imperialist military alliance. The “Special Military Operation” launched in February 2022 represented the escalation of a conflict that had begun eight years earlier, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov observed last April:
“In February 2014, the European Union helped broker a deal between the Ukrainian president [Viktor Yanukovych] and the opposition. The next morning, the signatories, namely the representatives of the EU (Poland, France and Germany), were ignored by the opposition, which carried out a coup d’état. They declared that they were creating a ‘government of victors’, they would cancel the special status of the Russian language, they threatened to expel ethnic Russians from Crimea, sent armed groups to storm the Supreme Council of Crimea. That is how the war started.”
NATO was a party to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine from the beginning through its ongoing efforts to reorganize and modernize the weaponry and tactics of the Ukrainian army. This is what Adam Schiff, the Democratic Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, meant when in January 2020 he told Congress: “The United States aids Ukraine and her people, so that we can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight Russia here.”
US/NATO policy in Ukraine has been animated by “fighting Russia” since the 2014 Maidan coup that deposed president Viktor Yanukovych who had unsuccessfully attempted to balance between the Kremlin and the EU/Washington axis. This objective was spelled out on 7 April 2022 when Canada’s deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland (granddaughter of a prominent Ukrainian Nazi of World War II vintage) talked of “vanquishing” the Russian military during her speech tabling the government’s budget:
“Putin and his henchmen are war criminals. The world’s democracies—including our own—can be safe only once the Russian tyrant and his armies are entirely vanquished. And that is what we are counting on the brave people of Ukraine to do. Because they are fighting our fight—a fight for democracy—it is in our urgent national interest to ensure that they have the missiles and the money they need to win. And that is what this Budget helps to provide.”
The Kremlin’s February military intervention had two major objectives: 1) ending eight years of military attacks on the Russian-speaking population of the Donbass and 2) breaking Ukraine’s connection to NATO. Revolutionaries cannot be indifferent on either of these questions. The issue of Ukrainian integration into NATO (i.e., its supposed “right” to join the imperialist alliance) has been central to the conflict from the outset.
In an article published on 14 May 2022, Glen Greenwald observed that Ukraine’s role as a NATO proxy in the struggle to “vanquish” Russia is widely shared by leading figures in both the Democratic and Republican parties:
“As we noted on Tuesday, many leading Democrats, such as Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), have begun speaking about this war not only as an American proxy war—which it has long been—but as ‘our war’ that we must fight to the end in order for ‘victory’ to be ours, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) vows that there be ‘no off ramps’ to end the war diplomatically, since the real goal of the war is regime change in Moscow.
“Even worse, the eighty-two-year-old House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), now in his twentieth term in Congress, went to the House floor on Friday to twice say that ‘we are at war’—meaning the U.S is now at war with Russia—and that it is therefore inappropriate to heavily criticize our president….”
. . .
“Only two months ago, those who observed that this was not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but really a proxy war between Russia and the U.S./NATO, were vilified as Kremlin propagandists. Now, U.S. leaders openly boast of this fact, and go further, claiming that the U.S. is actually at war with Russia and must secure full victory. That there is not a single Democratic politician willing to object to or even question any of this speaks volumes about what that party is, as well how dangerous this war has become for Americans and the world generally.”
A 24 October New Yorker article headlined “Inside the U.S. Effort to Arm Ukraine,” included the following lengthy subtitle: “Since the start of the Russian invasion, the Biden Administration has provided valuable intelligence and increasingly powerful weaponry—a risky choice that has paid off in the battle against Putin.”
The article traces US involvement in the conflict:
“In the war’s early days, Biden told national-security officials at the White House and the Defense Department that the U.S. had three main policy interests in Ukraine. ‘One, we are not going to allow this to suck us into a war with Russia,’ a senior Biden Administration official recalled. ‘Two, we need to make sure we can meet our Article 5 commitments with NATO’….’And, three, we will do what we can to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield,’ the official continued. ‘The President was clear: we do not want to see Ukraine defeated.’”
US/NATO war planners assumed responsibility for provisioning the Ukrainian military from the outset:
“At the time, [April 2022] according to Ukrainian generals, the Army had enough artillery ammunition to last for two weeks of intensive fighting. Ukraine used 152-millimetre shells, a family of ammunition that many former Warsaw Pact member states inherited from the Soviet Union. NATO forces use 155-millimetre shells, and the two systems are not interchangeable. The problem was not merely the depleting stocks of Soviet-calibre munitions inside Ukraine—they were becoming increasingly hard to find anywhere in the world. At the start of the war, Western governments and private arms dealers had negotiated transfers from places such as Bulgaria and Romania. Among the largest caches were those the U.S. and NATO had designated for Afghan security forces, which had been sitting unclaimed in warehouses in Eastern Europe since the Taliban takeover…. Rear Admiral R. Duke Heinz, the director of logistics for the U.S. Army’s European Command, said, ‘We were seeing fewer and fewer countries raise their hands to say they had munitions to donate.’
“That left another option: Ukraine would have to switch to NATO-calibre weaponry. On April 26th, defense ministers from more than forty countries, including all the NATO member states, met at the U.S. airbase in Ramstein. Austin, the U.S. Defense Secretary, opened the proceedings. ‘Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here,’ he said. ‘I know we’re all determined to do everything that we can to meet Ukraine’s needs as the fight evolves.’”
US personnel have played a central role in providing weapons and other essential equipment to Ukraine throughout the conflict. One celebrated example is the Starlink communications network supplied by Elon Musk, as a 21 October 2022 article on the website of “Visit Ukraine Today” described:
“As you know, Musk gave Starlink stations to Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale war, then they helped Ukrainians a lot, including the military.”
. . .
“Satellite Internet signals cannot be jammed like regular radio signals, and the Satellite Internet Kit only takes 15 minutes to set up. So the Armed Forces can use Starlink for stable and operational communication between the headquarters and the military at the front.”
The New Yorker article outlined the role of US spy planes and satellites in providing real-time intelligence for Ukraine:
“Ukraine has a fleet of reconnaissance drones and a loose network of human sources within areas controlled by the Russian military, but its ability to gather intelligence on the battlefield greatly diminishes about fifteen miles beyond the front line. U.S. spy satellites, meanwhile, can capture snapshots of troop positions anywhere on earth. Closer to the ground, U.S. military spy planes, flying along the borders, augment the picture, and intelligence intercepts can allow analysts to listen in on communications between Russian commanders. Since the invasion, the U.S. and other Western partners have shared a great deal of this information with Ukraine. Mykola Bielieskov, a defense expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, in Kyiv, said, ‘That’s a major field where the U.S. is helping us.’”
IG comrades please note: Musk’s Starlink provided “operational communications” for the Ukrainian military from the beginning and US spy satellite information was shared “since the invasion,” i.e., since February 2022. US/NATO intelligence played a critical role in the spectacular sinking of Russia’s Black Sea fleet flagship in April:
“One evening in April, at an intelligence-coordination center somewhere in Europe, Ukrainian military officers asked their American and NATO counterparts to confirm a set of coordinates. This had become a common practice. Ukrainian representatives might ask for verification of the location of a Russian command post or ammunition depot. ‘We do that, fair game,’ the senior Biden Administration official said.”
. . .
“The Ukrainian request in April concerned the suspected location of the Moskva, a Russian naval cruiser and the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. Could U.S. intelligence confirm that the ship was at a certain set of coordinates south of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa? The answer came back affirmative. Soon, officials in Washington began to see press reports that the ship had suffered some sort of explosion. On April 14th, the Moskva disappeared into the Black Sea.”
This was exactly six months prior to the “October 12-13 NATO meetings in Brussels” the IG claims marked the Ukrainian military’s qualitative transformation into an imperialist proxy. Even the zombified remnants of the once-revolutionary Spartacist League, who still cling to the dual-defeatism the IG has finally vacated, know that nothing significant has changed in the relationship between US/NATO and its Ukrainian proxy since February (although the SL is unable to draw the obvious political corollary):
“Ukraine has been a proxy for the imperialists going back to 2014. Imperialist weapons flooded Ukraine at the very outset of the conflict and military operations have been coordinated with NATO throughout. The IG goes into interminable detail over this or that weapons system, speech or act of military cooperation to ‘prove’ that Ukraine’s offensive in September marked a qualitative change.”
During the many months the IG stubbornly refused to take sides in the conflict, it simultaneously postured as a hard opponent of the imperialist alliance, and occasionally made a few insightful observations on what was at stake, like the following:
“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
The IG knows that Russia is not an imperialist power and that the US/NATO alliance attempts to utilize the “fascist-infested Ukrainian military” to “defeat Russia and degrade its military,” also threatens the Chinese deformed workers’ state. Yet it still refused to take sides. As the initial wave of intense anti-Russia hysteria began to ebb in June, we thought that the IG might be ready to abandon a position that was clearly becoming an embarrassment; but it did not finally climb down off the fence until October. By that point pollsters were reporting that a majority of Americans were beginning to grow tired of the US Ukrainian policy, in particular the seemingly unlimited funding for the war.
The IG was not alone in responding to the shift in popular opinion; the Biden administration also began recalibrating its posture as support for the war declined. On 5 November the Washington Post reported that faced with widespread war “fatigue,” the White House was nudging Zelensky to pretend he was open to negotiations:
“While U.S. officials share their Ukrainian counterparts’ assessment that Putin, for now, isn’t serious about negotiations, they acknowledge that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ban on talks with him has generated concern in parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America, where the war’s disruptive effects on the availability and cost of food and fuel are felt most sharply.
“‘Ukraine fatigue is a real thing for some of our partners,’ said one U.S. official who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations between Washington and Kyiv.”
It seems unlikely that there are going to be any serious negotiations, but when and if they do take place, it is safe to assume that Zelensky’s government will play roughly the same role that Ashraf Ghani’s puppet regime did during the Afghan “peace process” preceding the chaotic exit of US forces from Kabul in August 2021.
In our October 2022 “litmus test,” we observed that the IG’s refusal to side militarily with Russia against the imperialists and their proxies was:
“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.”
The IG’s labored attempt to portray a routine NATO confab in mid-October as a moment of qualitative transformation recalls the clumsy attempts by the Kremlin and its international satellites to alibi the various abrupt policy lurches of the Soviet bureaucracy. In 1954 James P. Cannon observed:
“You know, the Stalinists make more changes, and more rapid and drastic changes, than any other party in history. But they never say: ‘We made a mistake.’ They always say: ‘The situation has changed.’ We should be more precise and more honest.”