Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked intense debate on the left internationally. In France, the journal Contretemps published an article by Gilbert Achcar, presenting his influential perspective on the conflict.1Achcar’s position has been made available to English readers through International Viewpoint.2 Here, as a supplement to our own analysis,3 we publish a translation of Stathis Kouvelakis’s reply to Achcar, which also appeared originally in Contretemps.4
Let’s start from the observation that today, inside the radical left, the left that mobilised against imperialist wars in the last few decades, there are different, even diverging, approaches to the war in Ukraine. In Europe, and more broadly in the “West” (this problematic term nevertheless takes on a more precise meaning in this context) support for Russia has been marginal. Even Communist Parties (CPs) openly nostalgic of the Soviet Union, such as the Greek5 and Portuguese CPs, have condemned the Russian invasion as an “imperialist war”, emphasised that Russia is a capitalist power seeking “the capitalist unification of the countries of the former Soviet Union.” In contrast, in the countries of the Global South, Latin America, in Africa, in the Arab-Muslim world and in a large part of Asia, support for Russia, or at least a kind of goodwill towards her, are much more widespread both in public opinion as well in certain parts of the left. However, even there, numerous organisations of the radical left (to cite amongst the most important, the Communist Parties of India and Chile) have condemned the invasion of Ukraine, although less forcefully.
This tendency is equally reflected in the position of a significant number of governments, 35 of which abstained on the United Nations resolution condemning the Russian invasion—among them China, India, Vietnam, South Africa, Cuba and Bolivia. This marks a North-South divide that is important to understand before condemning or dismissing it, since wars reveal above all the fractures across the world and are a portent of those to come.
Nevertheless, in parts of the European and Western left that have opposed past imperialist wars and meet again in their condemnation of the war in Ukraine, there are differences that are anything but secondary. They concern in particular the degree and kind of responsibility of Western governments for the situation leading to the present war. The question of NATO, the request for arms to be sent to Ukraine and the attitude to sanctions figure among the most important of these differences.
Gilbert Achar’s text “A Memorandum for a Radical Anti-imperialist Position on the War in Ukraine” allows us to discuss many of these divergences.6 Before clarifying my points of agreement and disagreement with him, I would like to (a) make a point about the ways in which a discussion can take place within the left that opposes the war and (b) define my own position.
In wars, dissident voices have always been accused of “playing the enemy’s game” by the governments and ruling classes implicated in the conflicts. Jean Jaurès was accused of being “pro-German” (he paid with his life), Lenin an “agent of the Kaiser” (there is a vast reactionary literature on the “sealed train”7), Trotsky of being “pro-Hitler” (in Stalinist discourse)… More recently, the left that opposed Western imperialist interventions since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been accused regularly of being “pro-Saddam Hussein”, “pro-Slobodan Milošević”, and lately, of being “Islamo-leftist”,8 accomplices of Daesh (ISIS) and company. Today, everyone who objects to the current discourse, who refuses to demonise the enemy and refuses the warmongering saturating the media, is saddled with similar descriptions: “pro-Vladimir Putin”, “Munich-style appeasers”, and so on. In a recent article,9 David Broder is absolutely right to say that the anti-war left must not allow itself to be intimidated by such language, that the left has “to defend its right to speak fearlessly and without being accused of disloyalty”—which assumes that the left will take care not to do the same thing with in its own ranks.
On the character of the war in Ukraine
This conflict forms part of the sharpening of the inter-imperialist contradictions dominating the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The so-called “Communist camp” disintegrated into a globalised capitalist world, but its Western counterpart, under US hegemony, continued, increasing its military and economic grip and redefining the field of its adversaries. On its side, Russia became a capitalist state whose ruling class is made up of an oligarchy created by pillaging former state assets with the full support and help of the Western powers. Under Putin, the Russian state, destroyed under Boris Yeltsin, has been resurrected under the auspices of an increasingly authoritarian regime and a reactionary ideology that borrows randomly from a mythical Russian past cemented with nationalism and anti-communism. Driven by an imperialist drive for power, Russia’s expansionism is being directed, as in the past, towards her neighbouring territories, starting with the ones that were once part of the Soviet Union, and also “low-level” interventions (that is, interventions without regular troops on the ground) beyond this, of which Syria was the most significant, the only location with a Russian base outside former Soviet territory.
We need to take seriously Putin’s address of 21 February 2022 that announced the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Fully embracing an anti-communist vision of history, he denounced Lenin and the Bolsheviks of being responsible for Russia’s problems, for the diminution of her territory and power and accused them of artificially creating Ukraine as a distinct entity. According to the traditional nationalist imperial discourse of “Great Russia”, the October Revolution and Communism count as destructive elements of the Russian nation. Stalin appears to benefit from extenuating circumstances, but in the end, according to Putin, he too remained trapped in Lenin’s framework.
Nevertheless, even though it reveals the ideology of his regime, this discourse masks more than it illuminates Putin’s real objectives. For the moment, these remain difficult to decipher: does he really believe that the installation of a puppet regime in Kiev and an enduring occupation of Ukrainian territory could end in anything other than getting bogged down in a long-term conflict and the growing involvement of the West? Is he looking for a partition of Ukraine, for which the recognition of the two separatist republics would be a prelude and which would allow for a barrier zone under Russian control? Or is it about an eventual status of neutrality, as it appears from the Russian-Ukrainian talks or the words of Zelensky himself,10 to arrive at a strong enough position from which to force a compromise that would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO? It is too soon to say and it is perfectly realistic to claim that a combination of the Ukrainian resistance combined with the mobilisation of public opinion, starting with that in Russia, where a not negligible part of the population opposes the war (and would oppose it even more if Russia gets bogged down) could have a positive influence on the course of events. On the condition, however, that the necessary mobilisation on the side of the Ukrainian people itself avoids sliding towards warmongering, develops an understanding of the complexity of the situation and opposes the aggressive imperialist plans of the US and of the Western powers.
One thing is certain: this war cannot be accepted by the forces that fight for human liberation. It is the exact opposite of everything the left stands for. It is an aggression directed against the Ukrainian people, whose right to self-determination Putin denies, and who, regardless of their government, have no other choice but to fight for their country. This war bears grave consequences and terrible dangers for Europe and the world: an escalation and extension of the conflict, with the risk of the use of nuclear weapons (of which Russia has the first largest arsenal). One of the first adverse consequences moreover is that it complicates one of the vital tasks of the Western hard left: refusing any solidarity with its own imperialism while not weakening its condemnation of Russian aggression. For the question is this: the invasion of Ukraine is part of a larger context, shaped by the state of the balance of forces at a European and world level. And this is the decisive point I will return to, these are dominated by US imperialism and its allies in the Western camp that bear a major responsibility in the escalation of the tension leading to this current war.
Imperialism in the “New Cold War”
I will now return to Gilbert Achcar’s text. He starts by making an essential point that situates the current conjuncture in developments over the last decades:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the second decisive moment in this “New Cold War” that the world has been plunged into since the beginning of this century following the decision of the US to enlarge NATO. The first decisive moment was the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003.
In earlier writings, Achcar, quite rightly it seems to me, dated the start of the “New Cold War” to an earlier moment, to the intervention of NATO in Yugoslavia in 1999, a moment that he compared with the Korean War (1950-3) at the start of the “First Cold War”.11
Whichever version you choose, the conclusion changes little. The new world configuration is being shaped by the supremacy of the US and the centrality of NATO. Not only was the latter not dissolved after the end of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, it has continued to expand, incorporating three former parts of the former Soviet bloc in 1999, quickly followed by 13 others to date. It is indeed these decisions, as Achcar writes, that plunged the world into the “New Cold War”, an expression of the readjustment to the supremacy of the US at a global level. Certainly, other players, notably second-order imperialist powers such as post-Soviet Russia, France and Britain play their part, but they are not the ones that have determined the basis of the world order throughout this period.
The enlargement of NATO is a key element in the imperialist reorganisation, but the latter is not limited to that. It is necessary to add the evolution in post-1990 US military doctrine, initially focussed on asymmetrically weak enemies (the North Korea-Iran-Libya “axis of evil”, the “war against terrorism”) but now targeting “military adversaries on the same level”, that is, China and Russia.12 Under Trump’s presidency, the US withdrew from the Treaty of Nuclear Disarmament signed with the Soviet Union, a decision not revoked by Joe Biden, as opposed to what he did with the Treaty on Climate Change. These decades, as Achcar rightly emphasises, have also been marked by multiple military interventions on a grand scale led by the US and allies, from the wars in Iraq (of 1990 and not just 2003), to the one in Afghanistan and including the one in Yugoslavia. But no less significant, and with criminal consequences, are the economic sanctions imposed by the US on any country considered to be an enemy, but rarely on the US-friendly countries that flagrantly defy the decisions of the United Nations (Turkey, Morocco and Israel to name just a few).
There too, even if the tool predated it (for example, the embargo on Cuba in existence since 1962), the collapse of the Soviet Union “opened what is referred to as ‘the decade of sanctions’ in the course of which the UN Security Council adopted 13 different restricted regimes”.13 Sanctions currently affect about 40 countries with diverse political regimes (from Iran to Cuba, from Venezuela to North Korea) but not Israel or Turkey, which is, nevertheless, occupying slices of territory of three of its neighbours in Iraq, in Syria and nearly 40 percent of Cyprus, the only country in the EU whose capital remains divided by a wall.
Remember the words of Madeleine Albright,14 Secretary of State under Clinton, who declared in relation to the hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq (particularly children and vulnerable people) as a result of sanctions: “the price is worth it.” Quite justifiably, in relation to these sanctions, Achcar talks about “the almost genocidal cost to the population”. It was indeed an undertaking of dehumanisation of entire populations that from then on can be condemned to death en masse. People who think that the people of the South forget this kind of “humanitarianism” are making a mistake.
The United States remains for the moment the overwhelmingly hegemonic imperialist power, dominating in an asymmetric fashion in relation to other dominant powers. Of course, seen from Mali, Cyprus or Ukraine, other powers of regional or global spread also play a role. International relations imply a multiplicity of actors, but they remained shaped by the asymmetric position occupied by the United States, its capacity to establish a true hegemony, to take on the leadership of a larger “camp” (the “West”), that has had no serious competitor at global level since the disappearance of the Soviet bloc. No other country is capable of rivalling US military power or its economic or technological clout—China may perhaps be able to do this in the not too distant future, but for the moment her expansionist ambitions are essentially economic. As for Russia, despite her nuclear arsenal (ageing but still ranking first), it is a second order, declining imperialism like France or Britain, trying to recapture a place as a major player at a global level. Russia’s arms exports are flourishing, putting her at the second level globally, but her military expenditure is a twelfth of that of the US, putting her at a comparable level to France, Germany and Britain. Her GDP is less than Italy’s and her economy, dependant overwhelmingly on hydrocarbons and other primary commodities, is that of an “emerging” country, not of an industrial and technologically developed global power.
On “campism” and internationalism
All of this weighs on the “campist” way in which Putin’s Russia, a second order regressive imperialist power, is viewed on the world stage, but itself merits some explanation. For it is this distorted perception, an effect of the overwhelming US dominance, that, by a sort of perspective illusion, attributes to Russia some of the characteristics of former Soviet Union, although her regime boasts of anti-communism and across the world supports forces of the radical and extreme right. Similarly, countries that consider themselves part of the Western camp regard Russia with hostility, whereas others in the South, that claim to follow their own course (let’s be clear, we are talking here, with only few exceptions, about capitalist countries like China and India) look (more or less) kindly on Russia, as a headache and a trouble-maker for the US superpower. And even if it is often countries that are hardly democratic, we have every reason to believe that their governments receive massive popular support in this regard. For in these parts of the world, the moral discourse of the US and the West, and their defence of “rights” so selective it is beyond a joke, are largely seen for what they are: monumental hypocrisy at the service of a centuries-long enterprise of domination . Hence the reaction of China, India, South Africa, Vietnam (is this really any surprise?), of certain Latin American countries and of public opinion in many others, including parts of the left (like Evo Morales in Bolivia).
At the risk of shocking a few people, one could dare make the following comparison: after the end of the Algerian War, Gaullist France benefitted from comparable goodwill of a large part of the world. Assuredly, she had conducted horrific colonial wars, and everyone understood she was a weakened imperialist power, and she maintained (and continues to so, within her declining powers) an absurd neocolonialism in her West African backyard. There she remains a power perpetuating her domination by means of corrupt and brutal political elites. However, France enjoyed elsewhere a certain prestige that every president since Charles de Gaulle has attempted to revive.
Part of this attitude certainly comprises a reference to history, to the myth of 1789, to the country of “the Rights of Man” and so on. Putting it schematically, in those parts of the world, the difference between de Gaulle and Guy Mollet, the socialist prime minister who threw France into the Suez expedition and the deadly escalation of the Algerian war, was clear enough. De Gaulle was applauded when he acted with a degree of independence from the United States. And he acted that way because he attempted to save what he could of French imperialist power, establishing de facto a certain equilibrium in international relations and therefore facilitating the move of countries looking for independence, even if they were a long way from sharing the political and ideological views of the General. Thus, we saw the development of a special relationship between China and France, the first major Western country to recognise the People’s Republic (1964) and even a special empathy with Cuba, then at the height of its internationalist commitments, spurred on by the foreign policy of de Gaul that drew the admiration of the Cuban revolutionary government.15
International relations between states in fact obey the logic of the balance of forces and not of grand moral or ideological principles. The Bolsheviks understood this perfectly, when confronted with military intervention and a blockade by the victorious imperialist powers of the Entente, they signed agreements with the losers of the first World War (in particular the “friendship” treaty with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1921 and the Rapallo treaty with Germany in 1922) thus breaking “the capitalist united front”. More prosaically, these treaties, the fruit of complex diplomatic manoeuvres, broke the isolation of the young Soviet state; they permitted the development of economic, diplomatic and even military relations, modifying the balance of forces that were crushing them in their favour.
It is at this level, and only at this level, that class internationalism takes its rightful place—even if one has to talk about its effectiveness in the long run—as Leon Trotsky explains in a well-known passage from Revolution Betrayed:
During those years, the Soviet government concluded a series of treaties with bourgeois governments: the Brest-Litovsk peace in 1918; a treaty with Estonia in 1920; the Riga peace with Poland in October 1920; the treaty of Rapallo with Germany in April 1922; and other less important diplomatic agreements. It could never have entered the mind of the Soviet government as a whole, however, nor any member of it, to represent its bourgeois counteragents as “friends of peace”, and still less to invite the Communist Parties of Germany, Poland or Estonia, to support with their votes the bourgeois governments which had signed these treaties… The fundamental line of the international policy of the Soviets rested on the fact that this or that commercial, diplomatic or military bargain of the Soviet government with the imperialists, inevitable in the nature of the case, should in no case limit or weaken the struggle of the proletariat of the corresponding capitalist country, for in the last analysis the safety of the workers’ state itself could be guaranteed only by the growth of the world revolution.
“Ultimately”, that is to say over a whole period of time, not just a brief moment, a time full of tensions and open to different directions, including for the worse… Meanwhile, wherever a local victory is achieved in one of the “weaker links” of the imperialist chain, it is vital to hold one’s position, to keep both ends together—combining revolutionary politics with tactical manoeuvres with other states—without mistaking, nor sacrificing, one to the other.
The role of NATO
But let us return to the question of the expansion of NATO. We know that to obtain the consent of Gorbachev to the reunification of Germany, James Baker, the US Secretary of State, and other Western leaders (including the Germans) gave a spoken commitment not to expand NATO. This long controversial point has been confirmed by declassified US documents.16 Yeltsin himself, not exactly an enemy of the West as everyone knows, had tried to get such guarantees from Western leaders and the then Ukrainian leaders, in particular in relation to Ukraine, without success. We need to emphasise that the decision to expand NATO was taken under Clinton, while Yeltsin was still in power (they waited for his re-election in 1996 before announcing it), therefore before the arrival of Putin as president and before his project for re-establishing the greatness of Russia took shape. When the first expansion was announced, George Kennan, the “brains” of the Cold War politics of anti-communist containment, declared in a famous opinion piece in the New York Times in February 1997:
The view, bluntly stated, is that expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.
And he wrote that when the expansion only concerned three countries (Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland), none of which bordered Russia.
This scenario has been repeated in the same way: successive waves of East European countries joining NATO, that preceded, generally by several years, their integration into the European Union… No doubt a matter of a trial period. Since the first expansion, the signal for war had been given that Achcar marked as the inaugural moment of the “New Cold War” in his work of 1999. As the historian Perry Anderson recalls:
Twelve days after the first levy of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had joined the Alliance, the Balkan War was launched—the first full-scale military offensive in NATO’s history. The successful blitz was an American operation, with token auxiliaries from Europe, and virtually no dissent in public opinion. These were harmonious days in Euro-American relations. There was no race between the EU and NATO in the East; Brussels deferred to the priority of Washington, which encouraged and prompted the advance of Brussels. So natural has this asymmetrical symbiosis now become that the United States can openly specify what further states should join the Union.17
The current powerlessness of the EU, cruelly revealed in the vain attempts at mediation by the Franco-German couple during the weeks before the invasion, dates from a long time. It is a result of the increasing subordination to the US, accentuated by the continuing expansion, under the wings of NATO, towards this “new Europe” dear to Donald Rumsfeld.18
So it is absurd to claim, as Western governments and the media never cease to do, that Putin is nothing other than a paranoid, “mentally disturbed” man who imagines being “encircled” by hostile powers. No, unfortunately this is not a fantasy, and was being put in place well before Putin, when Russia was completely bled out and on her knees before the West. Let’s also not forget that Putin came to power by positioning himself initially as a strict continuation of Yeltsin and his pro-western policies. This attitude of the Western bloc isn’t the result of an ideological blunder or a disembodied desire for power, but the outcome of its imperialist nature. In order to perpetuate itself, the West needs enemies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it never accepted the idea of inviting the new Russian capitalist class to the table, because the idea of Russia as an eternal “Other” and a potential threat always prevailed. It also has to be underlined that the elites from the countries of the former Soviet bloc, or of the Soviet Union itself (including the Ukrainians, particularly after 2014), played this card to the utmost in order to consolidate the power of the new layers of oligarchic capitalists and legitimise their position with peoples who wanted revenge on the former custodial power.
One can’t play the game of scorned innocence and claim that the expansion of NATO was only a pretext or diversion invented by Putin, while, for years, the US and her allies have launched themselves into escalating the pressure and encirclement of Russia, considered more and more explicitly as a systemic enemy—while there is hardly any divergence in socio-economic terms with the West. As stated by Bernie Sanders,19 a man difficult to characterise as “campist” or as a staunch “anti-imperialist” and who, moreover, has vigorously condemned the invasion of Ukraine: “Does anyone really believe that the United States would not have something to say if, for example, Mexico was to form a military alliance with a US adversary?” And by the same token, Sanders reminded us the US reaction to the installation of soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, following the US attempt to invade the island by sending counter-revolutionary commandos, at a moment when the reality of a military threat for the new regime was undeniable.
A strange forgetfulness
Let’s focus on the essentials: Achcar’s text starts in broad outline with a fair analysis of the current situation. However, no sooner is this starting point made that it seems to be forgotten along the way. The expansion of NATO in the triggering of the New Cold War disappears in the rest of the text, as if it have never played a role in the cycle of events that led to the starting of this current war. Achcar’s reasoning in fact develops with a parallel between the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and that of Iraq by the US, noting the failure of the latter and the positive benefits that resulted: “The propensity of US imperialism to invade other countries has been considerably reduced, as confirmed by the recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan”. Achcar then draws the following conclusion:
The outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of every other country to aggression. If it in turn fails, the effect on all other world and regional powers will be extremely dissuasive. If it succeeds, that’s to say if Russia succeeds in “pacifying” Ukraine under its boot, the effect will be a major slide towards the unrestrained law of the jungle in the world situation, emboldening US imperialism and its allies in following their own aggressive behaviour.
This reasoning is untenable. First of all, the parallel between the invasion of Ukraine and that of Iraq is hugely deceptive. It’s true that in both cases there were acts of aggression and the violation of the sovereignty and the integrity of a state. But the comparison stops there. For Iraq is thousands of miles away from the US and was never going to join a military alliance hostile to Washington, or reneging previous commitments of abandoning its nuclear capacities—as Zelensky did when referring to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 in his speech in Munich on 19 February.20 Ukraine is currently being supported militarily, economically and diplomatically at a very high level by the whole of the Western camp, with the US in the lead, while Iraq wasn’t supported by anyone and the Taliban only by Pakistan. If Ukraine wins militarily as a result of this support, which would be legitimate as long as she defends her territory in the face of an invader, it will be the whole Western bloc that will celebrate that victory as its own. Such a victory would obliterate the disastrous images of the recent routs in Kabul and Baghdad—one of the main reasons no doubt for the bellicose hysteria overwhelming Western capitals and the media. By effacing those images of defeat, it would embolden the US-led camp in its march eastwards and its attempt to impose its law at a global level, albeit by means less costly than those used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is here that we can grasp the consequences of abandoning the analysis of the role of NATO along the way. What is thereby concealed is the place of Ukraine in this enterprise of expansion which alters the very nature of the conflict underway, embedding it in the inter-imperialist rivalries that oppose the Western powers to Russia. As a result, we’ll come back to this later, the “radical anti-imperialist position” defended by Achcar comes back to pleading, not for peace, but in favour of a military victory for Ukraine, that requires the logistical support of the West to make it possible. This position accepts the logic of war, hence its claim of “radicalism”, cloaked in “anti-imperialism”, because it is about the defeat of Russian imperialism—except that in this case, it is Joe Biden who becomes the true champion of “anti-imperialism”. Disguising the inter-imperialist character of the current conflict, this position is misjudging the—perfectly predictable—consequences of a victory won in these conditions, namely of Ukraine being a client state, organically integrated into NATO, of Russia encircled on all sides by a military alliance that treats her as a target, of Atlanticism triumphant without exception over Europe and beyond. In other words, not peace, but a headlong rush towards the militarisation of international relations and the certainty of fresh conflicts on the “old continent”.
This gloomy eventuality doesn’t make the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion any less legitimate, but it is advisable to remain clear about the present situation and not delude ourselves. The fundamental difficulty the anti-war left faces at the moment is that, as in all inter-imperialist conflicts, the victory of either camp involves devastating consequences, the worst no doubt being a generalised conflagration. Such a conflagration would be catastrophic for the continent but perfectly manageable for the US, separated by an entire ocean from the theatre of war and thus guaranteed a comfortable position for retreat. Accordingly, the “law of the jungle” mentioned by Achcar as a consequence of a possible Russian victory, is simply the law that governs international relations now and, in a sense, has always done. For, contrary to what happens within (modern) states, in interstate relations, there is no superior authority able to impose the rule of law on parties treated as free and equal agents. The functioning of the UN, dominated by the Security Council and its “permanent members” (aka Second World War victors endowed with veto rights), is governed by the balance of forces between the states, like on Orwell’s farm where certain animals prove to be more equal than others. So the question is to know whether one of the predators in the jungle can reign or whether it has to share the preys with others, which would mean a profound overturning of the world order that succeeded the bipolarity of the “first” Cold War.
Which the way out of the war?
Among the six points listed by Achcar, the first three would be largely acceptable to the forces of the anti-war left: withdrawal of Russian troops from the whole of Ukrainian territory, resolution of the differences in relation to the separatist provinces of Donbas and the annexation of Crimea “through the exercise of their right to democratic self-determination” and a refusal of “direct military intervention” or of a “no fly zone” that carries the risk of a world war between nuclear powers. Hence, Achcar recognises that Crimea and the separatist republics of Donbas are real issues and not just a propaganda artifice of Putin. Let’s add here that even if they took place in questionable conditions, the referendums held in Crimea (March 2014) and in Donbas (May 2014) can’t simply be brushed aside. With regard to the separatist republics, the Ukrainian regime bears a heavy responsibility for the deterioration in the situation, by refusing to implement the Minsk accords, continuing the bombing and by discriminating its Russian speaking citizens, abolishing Russian as an official language jointly with Ukrainian. Let’s remember also that the use Communist and Soviet symbols and have been forbidden in Ukraine since the 2015 “laws of de-Communisation”. Following these laws, the activities of all Communist parties and organisations (in particular participation in elections) were suspended. At the same time, Stepan Bandera,21 leader of the OUN (Organisation of the Ukrainian Nationalists), Nazi collaborator and participant in the extermination of the Jews, was recognised as a national hero22 and the Azov regiment,23 a neo-nazi militia active on the front in Donbas was integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces.24
The dispute arises with the fourth point, in which Achcar defends the sending of arms to Ukraine, a position a bit difficult to accept as “radically anti-imperialist” considering the urgency with which Western governments are fulfilling this task—including Germany, where the last obstacles against full remilitarisation of defence policy have fallen.25 Achcar writes:
We are for the unconditional delivery of arms of defence to the victims of aggression—in this case, the Ukrainian state that is fighting a Russian invasion. No responsible anti-imperialist called for the Soviet Union or China to join the war in Vietnam against the American invasion, but all radical anti-imperialists were in favour of increased delivery of arms from Moscow or Peking to the Vietnamese resistance. It is an elementary internationalist duty to give to those conducting a war the means to fight a much more powerful aggressor. Opposition to all such deliveries stands in contradiction to the elementary solidarity owed to the victims.
This parallel with Vietnam is, to say the least, in poor taste. Zelensky is certainly not the “Nazi” talked about by Putin, but he isn’t Ho Chi Minh either… The Ukrainian government is a bourgeois government, that serves the class interest of capitalist oligarchs, comparable in every way with those in Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union, and which intends to align the country with the Western camp, without any concern for the predictable consequences. In her masterful 2018 study, Ukrainian critical economist Yuliya Yurchenko aptly analysed this regime as a “neoliberal kleptocracy”.26 At the same time as being the victim of an inadmissible aggression, Zelensky’s administration doesn’t represent any progressive cause, and it would be totally absurd for left-wing forces worthy of the name to plead the case of arms delivery. Furthermore, if, in specific occasions, the “radical anti-imperialists” in the past demanded arms from Russia or China, it wasn’t because they were in “solidarity with the victims”, as the humanitarian ideology nowadays would have it, but because, notwithstanding the (perfectly justified) criticisms of those regimes they considered that the countries in question shared something with the anti-imperialist and revolutionary cause of the Vietnamese, that they embraced themselves.
This question can be put another way. Given the incalculable risks it would lead to, why would it be necessary to only oppose, as does Achcar, “direct military intervention” in this conflict and not all forms of military intervention? Is the (incontestable) nuclear risk sufficient reason to limit restraint to “direct intervention”? Won’t sending arms to Ukraine, as the US and the EU have trumpeted, lead to an escalation and enlarging of the conflict, transforming the countries involved into co-belligerents and further complicating future coexistence with Russia, whatever the regime and the outcome of this conflict? Couldn’t the delivery of arms combined with an unprecedented level of sanctions lead to a wider engagement, if it turns out the means are insufficient to stop the advance of Russian troops? Why, once having got involved in the situation, wouldn’t the Western powers not step up a gear, not by sending troops, but by establishing a “no fly zone”, as relentlessly demanded by the Ukrainian side and supported by the most bellicose fraction of the US establishment? This would involve fighting Russian planes flying over Ukraine, moving into a direct confrontation with Russia, possibly a third world war. The borderline between direct and indirect intervention is not as clear as some would like us see to think.
The opposition to a military escalation of the conflict by delivering arms to Ukraine draws a dividing within the left. The case of Spain is particularly interesting in this regard. The Spanish right is indignant about the reticence of Podemos, which is in the government led by the socialist Pedro Sánchez, in approving the sending of arms to Ukraine. It puts pressure on Sánchez to expel them from government and accuses the left-populist party of being “partners of the enemy, enemies of Ukrainians, of Europe, of peace and liberty”. Having failed to amend it, Podemos ended up voting for the resolution in the European Parliament which called for reinforcement of sanctions against Russia and for the delivery of arms to Ukrainians. Other parts of the Spanish radical left (Communists, the Basque left of Bildu and Anticapitalistas, the Spanish section of the 4th International) are more resolute in their opposition to military escalation, their elected representatives either abstaining or, like the MEP of Anticapitalistas, Miguel Urban, voting against the same text.
But this question goes even beyond the borders of the left. Whatever his motivations, no doubt rooted in a desire to maintain a degree of European autonomy vis-a-vis the US, hasn’t Emmanuel Macron shown greater wisdom (at least at the level of discourse) than the “radical anti-imperialism” advocated by Achcar, when he (Macron) declared, in a recent speech, that “we are not at war with Russia” and avoided mentioning, amongst the actions taken, any allusion to the arming of Ukraine (which France is nevertheless participating in)?
Opposing duplicity and hypocrisy
There remains the subject of sanctions against Russia. Achcar takes a kind of agnostic position, underlining the contradictory consequences, some damaging Putin and his regime, others only the Russian population. Remembering that anti-imperialists have campaigned and are still campaigning for sanctions on states, like against apartheid South Africa or Israel, he concludes with a “neither-nor”: “Our opposition to Russian aggression combined with our distrust of western imperialist governments, means that we should not support sanctions nor demand they should be lifted.”
One could agree with such caution, but here again, the parallels made are deceptive. Of course, anti-imperialists and the anti-war left are not in principle opposed to sanctions on states. However, when they mobilise in support of such objectives, it is not in support of their own governments but in opposition to them. It was, before 1990, to end the prolific economic relations that Western nations had with the apartheid regime, and today, it is about them ceasing to support Israel, a state that ignores all UN resolutions condemning the occupation and colonisation of the territories invaded in 1967 and that not only has not faced sanctions but benefits in the EU from the “clause of most favoured nation”.
This constant duplicity makes the sanctions put in place by the West for decades, indefensible; their capacity to impose them, serves moreover to confirm Western economic supremacy, China and Russia being only marginal at the origin of these kind of measures (3 percent in 2020).27 The task of the left is to denounce the political function of this mode of action and to show that it is, above all, a means of strangling a country ruffling the world order fashioned by US and Western domination, a measure that indeed differs little from an act of war.
On the other hand, one can’t help but agree with Achcar on the last point he makes: the unconditional welcome of Ukrainian refugees. But you can’t make it without pointing out that the almost unanimous consensus around this is a flagrant example of “the double standards” of the dominant cynical discourse. What do you say about, for example, the mayor of Calais, who boasts of welcoming Ukrainian refugees and aiding their passage to Britain whilst relentlessly demanding an intensification of the tracking of (other) migrants that has been going on for years in her the town, going as far as to forbid the distribution of free food and water? How to admit the cynicism of the French Interior minister Gerald Germanin, who allows himself to criticise the British for a lack of humanity28 for refusing to receive Ukrainians, when he himself has never stopped making clear his credentials concerning the pursuit of migrants?
As much as it is out of question of making Ukrainian refugees also pay for the deadly politics of “Fortress Europe”, it is unacceptable to defend, even by omission, a selective welcome, that operates according to unspeakable (or actually not that unspeakable…) criteria. For if you allow to some people what you refuse to others, it is assuredly because the latter have the triple “bad luck” to not be the victims of Russia, to not be white, and, on top of that, to be Muslim. So, yes to welcoming Ukrainians, but not as an exceptional procedure and on an equal footing with all those fleeing war, deprivation and persecution.
Conclusion: the meaning of anti-imperialism today
Today’s world is fraught with obscure forces rooted in the violence of exploitative relations inherent in capitalism and the world order that ensures the perpetuation of this system. The war is nothing but a concentrated expression of this violence, “the storm” that bears within it the “seeds” of this system, to paraphrase Jaurès. It’s the reason that “war on war”, following Clara Zetkin’s famous slogan,29 is a correct guide to action for the forces of emancipation, and a fundamental line of demarcation at the heart of the left.
If words still have any sense, taking an anti-imperialist and internationalist position means opposing one’s own imperialism, or the imperialist bloc to which a second order country is attached, and to wage a fight against it, without, at the same time giving any succour to a rival of the same kind. For anti-imperialist Russians, this means combating the war started by Putin, as they have started to do,30 taking unimaginable risks. For the anti-imperialist forces in the West, it means demonstrating that they will take on the heavy burden of those who find themselves “in the belly of the beast”.
In relation to the war in Ukraine, it means a mass mobilisation for the immediate end to the war and the withdrawal of all Russian troops alongside the condemnation of the expansionist moves of NATO and the demand for the withdrawal of our respective countries from this alliance that constitutes a menace of the first order to world peace. You can’t, as does Achcar, underline the expansionist role of NATO in the triggering of the “New Cold War” and not demand its dismantling as a condition for an enduring peace in Europe. You can’t call “radical anti-imperialist’” a position that aligns itself with the decisions of Western governments leading to an escalation of the conflict and to a future pregnant with new wars. Finally, you can’t aspire for a really independent Ukraine within recognised borders, respecting the self determination of peoples, without putting an end to the expansion of this military (and militaristic) alliance that guarantees to the US the perpetuation of its role as “world policeman”, without prioritizing once more nuclear disarmament and working towards the abandonment of imperialist ambitions on both sides.
In the current period, without sharing the illusion of “non-violence”, one has to take note that popular struggles don’t take the form of wars of liberation, nor armed uprisings. In this context, defending anti-imperialism and internationalism necessarily takes the form of mobilising as widely as possible for peace, for the democratic sovereignty of peoples and for a break with the logic of blocs, military alliances and “spheres of influence”. Significant sections of the radical left internationally are on the same wave length. As an indication, let’s just mention in France, Mélenchon, and France Insoumise (France Unbowed), Jeremy Corbyn, the Stop the War Coalition and other anti-war movements in Britain, the Democratic Socialists of America, the progressive wings of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, and many other forces.
It is only by following this perspective that we can:
Affirm an autonomous position of condemnation of Russian aggression whilst resisting the surging bellicosity of our governments;
Preserve the possibility of a truly independent Ukraine and of an enduring peace in Europe;
Convince the progressive forces in the Global South that, although their hatred of US imperialism and Western arrogance is absolutely justified, goodwill towards Putin isn’t;
Re-establish an internationalism capable of confronting and defeating the forces of destruction and death that are arising from a world in the grip of capital.
4 Thanks to Sheila McGregor for the translation. The original, in French, is available here: www.contretemps.eu/ukraine-anti-imperialisme-achcar-kouvelakis
7 Its starting point is the fake “Sisson document”, fabricated by the US government in 1918 to justify its involvement in the First World War, and the persecution of socialist and anarchist militants that opposed it. Cf. the clarification by Alfred Erich Senn, 1976, “The Myth of German Monday during the First World War”, Soviet Studies, volume 28, no 1, pp83-90.
11 Achar, Gilbert, 1999, La nouvelle guerre froide. Le monde après le Kosovo (PUF), p8.
12 Zajec, Olivier, 2020, “A l’heure de l’élection américaine, l’ordre international, qui vient”, Le Monde diplomatique (November), pp16-17.
13 Richard, Hélène, Robert, Anne-Cécile, 2022, “Le conflit ukrainien entre sanctions et guerre”, Le Monde Diplomatique (March), p22.
15 Faivre d’Arcier-Flores, Hortense, “La révolution cubaine et la France gaulliste: regards croisés”, in Vaïsse, Maurice (eds.), 2014, De Gaulle et l’Amérique latine, Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, available on .
17 Anderson, Perry, 2009, The New Old World (Verso), pp69-70.
22 Geslin, Laurent, Gobert, Sébastien, 2016, “Ukraine, jeux de miroirs pour héros troubles”, Le Monde diplomatique (December).
24 Couvelaire, Louise, 2016, “Au camp d’entraînement des petits soldats d’Ukraine”, Le Monde (19 August).
26 Yurchenko, Yuliya, 2018, Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketisation to Armed Conflict (Pluto).
27 Richard, Hélène, Robert, Anne-Cécile, 2022, “Le conflit ukrainien entre sanctions et guerre”, Le Monde Diplomatique (March), p23.