Death rides out: NATO, Russia and the war in Ukraine

Issue: 178

Tomáš Tengely-Evans

One year after the brutal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, those who have opposed Russia and NATO stand vindicated.1 The Eastern European country is a battleground for United States and NATO ambitions to reassert their hegemony in the world and for Russia’s failing hopes to stamp its authority over its “near abroad”.2 The stakes are incredibly high for both sides.3

Vladimir Putin’s regime continues to unleash death and destruction on Ukraine. However, in the process, it has sunk Russia further into a military disaster that threatens the very opposite of Putin’s war aims. Far from increasing its standing in the eyes of its neighbours, the war has weakened Russia’s ability to intervene in other parts of its “near abroad”.4 Its military prowess has been humiliated. Its economy—though surviving Western sanctions—lacks the industrial and technological base to sustain offensive war. Yet, precisely because Putin knows how high the stakes are, he needs to be able to claim some sort of victory. This means he remains determined to hold on to the Ukrainian territory in the south and east of the country that has been annexed to Russia. As he said in his New Year’s address, “This is what we are fighting for today: protecting our people in our historical territories in the new regions of the Russian Federation”.5

US president Joe Biden views the war as “an inflection point in the world”. Less than a month after the Russian invasion, he told a group of business leaders, “There’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it”.6 The US sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to weaken Russia—and send a signal to China—without a direct military confrontation with Russian units. In April 2022, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin told a press conference in Kiev, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” This means denying Russia “the capability to very quickly reproduce” the military forces that it has lost so far.7

The strategy of US imperialism is to “bleed Russia dry” through a managed escalation of the conflict.8 The US has so far pledged $113 billion worth of aid. Congress voted for four packages in 2022—$13 billion in March, $40 billion in May, $14 billion in September and $45 billion in December. At the present rate of spending, another tranche will most likely be required in July. The Biden administration has a high degree of flexibility to specify how this money is spent after congressional approval, and some of it has not yet been allotted. However, of this total, some $50 billion has gone on military aid, including new equipment, training of personnel and transfers of US equipment to the Ukrainian armed forces.9

The White House has sought to coordinate Western aid through the Ukrainian Defence Contact Group, which is made up of some 54 countries, comprising the 30 NATO member states plus Austria, Australia, New Zealand and a number of others. The Ukraine Support Tracker, launched by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a research centre in Germany, shows that the US has provided the lion’s share of the aid to Ukraine—around 62 percent. Nonetheless, military aid from other countries was substantial, standing at around $41.4 billion. There are differences in the types of aid that various Western states send; for example, Britain and Poland “provide substantially military support”, but the “European Union and Canada provide relatively more financial and humanitarian aid”.10

It is not just the scale of military aid that is significant. US aid has been shifting in two ways. First, the sorts of weaponry have been changing, based on battlefield requirements. Second, there is a move towards an emphasis on long-term aid and integration of the Ukrainian military into NATO infrastructures. At the start of the invasion, the US focused on anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, such Stinger and Javelin missiles. After Ukrainian forces repelled the initial offensive on Kiev in April, Russia turned to huge artillery barrages across the east and south of the country. US-supplied aid then shifted towards artillery. The first shipment of M777 howitzers in April “introduced NATO-standard artillery pieces to Ukraine for the first time”. The HIMARS multiple rocket system played a decisive role in the Ukrainian counter-offensive in September and October 2022. In the weeks preceding it, Ukrainian forces were able to target ammunition stores and bases 70 miles behind Russian lines. In 2023, the US is so far prioritising supplying a combination of air defence systems and more offensive weaponry such as tanks. For example, in January, the US pledged 100 M13 armoured personal carriers, which will be necessary to retake further territory in the spring. On 3 February, the US approved future supplies of its precision-guided “small diameter bombs”, which can be fired by the HIMARS rocket systems but have an enhanced range of some 93 miles.

The largest component of this aid is “short-term military support”, which stood at around $18 billion in November 2022. Yet, on top of weaponry, the US has sent over $10 billion in “long-term military support”, which the Ukrainian state can use to buy weapons. This will not have an immediate impact on the battlefield due to the long turnaround time between the procurement and delivery of military kit. Instead, the aim is to rebuild the Ukrainian armed forces and further integrate them into NATO’s military infrastructure.11 In November 2022, Austin, speaking at a meeting at a US air base in Germany, argued the West had to “work together to train Ukraine’s forces”:

We’ll work together to help integrate Ukraine’s capabilities and bolster its joint operations for the long haul. We’ll work together to upgrade our defence industrial bases to meet Ukraine’s requirements for the long haul.12

However, the US and Germany, the most powerful European state, have sought to resist pressure to give other offensive weaponry to Ukraine. Colonel Alexander Vindman, former director of Europe affairs for the US National Security Council, who has pushed for a more aggressive stance since before the Russian invasion, argued in the Foreign Affairs journal that the US had failed to “embrace the goal of a Ukrainian victory”. He says this was a result of efforts “to avoid destabilising Russia too much. Some experts fear that a Russian loss, or some other inglorious outcome for Moscow, may precipitate a broader war or nuclear escalation.” Vindman complained that the US “has committed aid to Ukraine in fits and starts and has sought to avoid an escalation with Russia at the expense of more uncompromising support for Ukraine’s defence”.13

Despite Washington’s strategy of “managed escalation”, the conflict is driven by chaotic inter-imperialist rivalries.14 The logic of competition pushes further escalation in decidedly unmanaged and deadly directions. So, the US and Germany resisted supplying main battle tanks—then they backtracked. Now, the pressure is on to supply fighter aircraft. Beyond Ukraine, European states are being drawn into rival, nuclear-armed camps, with once-neutral Finland and Sweden on the road to joining NATO. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, has called for NATO to give Ukraine the same status as Israel after the war, a move that would commit the US, Britain and other member states to military assistance in case of any future attack.15

In the West, the war has been fought under the banner of defending Ukrainian self-determination, but it has increasingly subsumed its independence to rival imperialist powers. The country’s leaders, under President Volodymyr Zelensky, have tied Ukraine’s fate to the West’s aims; they urge more military support by saying its future lies in becoming a “big Israel”, an outpost of US power in Eastern Europe.16 In his 2022 New Year speech, Zelensky said, “We helped the West return to the global arena and feel how much the West prevails. No one in the West is afraid of Russia anymore and never will be”.17

The US, Russia and China: great power competition returns

The Russian invasion marked the beginning of a new and bloody chapter in the inter-imperialist rivalry between the West and Russia, which has torn Ukraine apart since the 2000s. Hence, it did not just mark a dangerous turning point for Ukraine; it was also a menacing milestone in world politics.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the US has waged a series of wars against weaker states in order to maintain its hegemony. Largely, though not exclusively, these have been in the Global South. They include, for example, its wars in Somalia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. Today, however, we face a “a world of competing great powers”, in which the most powerful states are moving into more direct confrontation with one another. This process is not just being played out between the US and Russia but also between the US and China. Indeed, the competition between the US and China is the main rivalry in the global system.18

The shift towards more explicit confrontation between the biggest powers was given an official stamp at the NATO summit in Madrid in summer 2022, with the alliance agreeing a new “strategic concept”. Speaking at the beginning of the summit, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg promised “a fundamental shift to our deterrence and defence”, including “more forward deployed combat formations”, “more high-readiness forces” and “more prepositioned equipment”. He explained that this marked “the biggest overhaul of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War”, and stressed that China, not just Russia, was the target of these changes:

The strategic concept will also reflect a new reality in other ways. China is not mentioned with a single word in the previous strategic concept. China will be part of the concept we agree at this summit, and I expect allies will agree that China poses…a challenge to our values, our interests and our security.19

An official review group, appointed by Stoltenberg, reiterated the shift to inter-state rivalry in the wake of Russia’s invasion:

The main characteristic of the current security environment is the re-emergence of geopolitical competition—that is, the profusion and escalation of state-based rivalries and disputes over territory, resources and values. In the Euro-Atlantic area, the most profound geopolitical challenge is posed by Russia. Although Russia is by economic and social measures a declining power, it has proven itself capable of territorial aggression and is likely to remain a chief threat facing NATO over the coming decade.20

However, the review goes on to make clear that China is the major, long-term rival to NATO:

The growing power and assertiveness of China is the other major geopolitical development that is changing the strategic calculus of NATO. China poses a very different kind of challenge to NATO than Russia; unlike the latter it is not, at present, a direct military threat to the Euro-Atlantic area.

Nevertheless, China has an increasingly global strategic agenda, supported by its economic and military heft. It has proven its willingness to use force against its neighbours, as well as economic coercion and intimidatory diplomacy, well beyond the Indo-Pacific region. Over the coming decade, China will likely also challenge NATO’s ability to build collective resilience, safeguard critical infrastructure, address new and emerging technologies such as 5G, and protect sensitive sectors of the economy, including supply chains. Longer term, China is increasingly likely to project military power globally, including potentially in the Euro-Atlantic area.21

The strategic concept document, described by Stoltenberg as a “blueprint” for a “more competitive world”, pledged:

We will individually and collectively deliver the full range of forces, capabilities, plans, resources, assets and infrastructure needed for deterrence and defence, including for high intensity, multi-domain warfighting against nuclear-armed peer-competitors.22

Meanwhile, China’s response to the Ukraine war too flows from its inter-imperialist competition with the US. The Chinese Communist Party leadership in Beijing has not condemned Russia’s invasion. Indeed, it has avoided calling it an invasion, reflecting Kremlin propaganda that refers to the war as a “special military operation”. Nonetheless, China’s leaders have not wholeheartedly supported Russia either, instead calling for peace talks. This attitude is motivated by three factors.

First, China wants to avoid inviting Western sanctions on its own economy, which is, of course, very much integrated into global capitalism. Second, it still needs European markets, and it hopes to drive wedges between the US and Europe’s big powers (although this strategy is now very damaged). Third, the war in Ukraine has weakened Russia and made it geopolitically and economically more dependent on China. This has certain advantages for China, for instance, strengthening its hand in Central Asia, where Russia’s prestige and influence has declined. However, this process is also underlining some of the tensions between the two powers. Yes, China and Russia have cooperated, but their relationship is marked by imperialist competition too.

Yet, despite all of this, China does not want to see Russia humiliated. Such an outcome would strengthen the power of the US, China’s main rival, on the Eurasian land mass. Thus, China is seeking to balance between a number of different and sometimes contradictory aims: preventing total Russian defeat in Ukraine, avoiding tying itself to Russia’s fate and bolstering its own position against the US.

The roots of the war

The mainstream media paints Ukraine as a war between “democracy” and “authoritarianism”—or, increasingly and ridiculously, “fascism”. Tories, Labour Party right wingers, liberals and former left wingers such as journalist Paul Mason have all lined up behind the notion of the West as a bulwark of freedom. They say the anti-war movement are “Putin apologists” for daring to talk about the role of the US and NATO in stoking the war.

Meanwhile, some on the radical left see the bloodshed purely as a Russian war of imperialist conquest and a Ukrainian war of national defence, downplaying NATO’s role. For example, the Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, whom Alex Callinicos has debated in Socialist Worker, puts forward this view in what he calls a “radical anti-imperialist” position.23 This argument suggests socialists should support, or “not oppose”, NATO pouring arms into Ukraine.

However, in order to understand the roots of the Ukraine war, we need to investigate two questions. First, what is imperialism? Second, what are US and Russian imperialism up to in Ukraine?

A popular view of imperialism sees it merely as stronger nation-states dominating weaker ones. This has taken place across history and, of course, remains a feature of contemporary imperialism. Empires, armed conflict and geopolitical competition between states existed in class-based societies before capitalism. However, at a certain stage in the development of capitalism in the late 19th century, geopolitical rivalry and capitalist economic competition fused in a novel way.24 The British liberal economist J A Hobson, whose work Lenin drew on, described a “cut-throat struggle of competing empires” in his influential 1902 book, Imperialism: A Study. He surveyed the European powers’ colonial land grabs in Africa and Asia during the late 19th century, contrasting it with previous eras. He argued that the “leading characteristic of modern imperialism” was the “competition of rival empires”, and that the very “notion of a number of competing empires is essentially modern”.25

The Marxist theory of imperialism sought to understand what was driving this competition. It was developed most notably by Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916 and Nikolai Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy in 1917.26 Of course, there are parts of what Lenin and Bukharin wrote that no longer hold up, but arguing for the relevance of the classical Marxist theory of imperialism is not an exercise in dogma. The foundations of the theory are indispensable to understanding the world of rivalries we face today. Crucially, Lenin and Bukharin grasped imperialism as a capitalist phenomenon involving a system of competing capitalist states and capitals.

Capitalist development in the 19th century saw a process that Karl Marx described as the “concentration and centralisation of capital”. The capitalist system is driven forward by competition between firms; they invest to get ahead of rivals and grab a larger share of the markets. As firms compete, the most successful ones swallow up rivals and drive them out of business. So, instead of hundreds of small companies, a handful of corporations come to dominate key sectors of the economy. This tendency drove the growing internationalisation of production and circulation, and the growing interdependence of state and capital. Even though corporations operate internationally, they cluster around their own national states, depending on them in the struggle against rivals. States can use military means to project their power and further the interests of their capitalist corporations. However, these states are also dependent on the development of capitalist firms to enable them to develop the military and industrial base necessary to sustain modern warfare.

Some within the Marxist tradition have argued that internationalisation of production would make war less likely, claiming armed conflict would become increasingly irrational from the point of view of the capitalist class. The German Marxist and Social Democratic Party leader Karl Kautsky put forward this sort of position in his theory of “ultra-imperialism”, which he wrote, with a staggering lack of prescience, in the run-up to the First World War. A less intelligent version of this idea was articulated by US political commentator Thomas Friedman, a champion of globalisation in the 1990s, when he argued that no two countries in which the McDonald’s fast food chain operates could go to war with one another.27

Such hopes of capitalism somehow abolishing war are patently misguided. Because capitalism does not develop equally across the world, there is constant fluctuation of the relative power of the different nation-states within the global imperialist system, and this drives a logic of imperialist competition that can build towards war. Lenin grasped the importance of this uneven development:

The only conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, interests, colonies and so on is a calculation of the strength of those participating, their general economic, financial, military strength and so forth. The strength of these participants in the division does not change to an equal degree, because the even development of different undertakings, trusts, branches of industry and countries is impossible under capitalism.28

Ukraine: faultline of empire

Ukraine is at the centre of a much bigger faultline of imperialist rivalry running down the Eurasian landmass between the US and Russia and many other regional powers.29 This great fissure starts in northern Europe on the border between Russia and the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. From here, it cuts down into Moldova and Ukraine, runs through the oil-rich Caucasus region on Russia’s southern tip, and extends into Central Asia.

Speaking as a former leading official in the US National Security Council between 2018 and 2020, Colonel Vindman made clear that US imperialism had a strategic interest in Ukraine before the invasion. In November 2021, Vindman praised US leaders for “some recognition of Ukraine’s strategic value to NATO”. However, he also complained that this was “well short of where we should be weighing Ukraine in terms of regional and geopolitical standing”. This weight, Vindman argued, could “enable US and Euro-Atlantic aspirations for competition with Russia…and with China”.30

Vindman’s thinking prevails in the Biden administration. In autumn 2022, a White House statement argued that the US’s relationship with Ukraine “serves as a cornerstone for security” in “the broader region”. To this end, the US is “committed to Ukraine’s implementation of the deep and comprehensive reforms necessary to fulfil its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations”. This involves what is known in military jargon as “interoperability” between NATO and Ukrainian armed forces, and it comes along with defence sector reforms and a broader free market package.

Tensions are rising right along the Eurasian faultline. The US is determined to defend its place in the world, but other states see its relative decline as an opportunity to jockey for position. After the end of the Cold War, the US was the world’s only superpower. In 1991, President George H W Bush proclaimed a “new world order”, saying its principle would be simple: “What we say goes.” Yet, the situation was far more complex than that. Serial war criminal Henry Kissinger warned that the US was still in “no better position to dictate the global agenda unilaterally than it was at the beginning of the Cold War”. He wrote that the US would “face economic competition of a kind it has never experienced” from rising powers such as China.31

In response to this challenge, sections of the US ruling class advocated for the assertion of the country’s global hegemony through brute military force, and these elements clustered around the new Republican administration of George W Bush, who took office in 2001. Senior policy makers had laid out this vision in the publications of the Project for the New American Century think tank. Their big chance came after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon building in Washington DC in September 2001. Under the guise of a “War on Terror”, the US launched brutal invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The aim was to gain control of the Middle East’s vast oil reserves, sending a signal to potential rivals such as China that its economic growth was dependent on US goodwill. A military success in Iraq would show the US’s rivals that it was still top dog in the world. However, the result was the opposite. The US’s humiliating defeats on the battlefields of Iraq instead signalled that it might be possible for weaker powers to assert their own interests—even when they went against US wishes. Russia is one such power.

In 1991, the Soviet Union split apart into the Russian Federation and 14 other states, including Ukraine. For much of the following decade, Russian power was a shadow of its former self. President Boris Yeltsin sought to work with the US to force through the transition from state capitalism to free market capitalism. Moreover, significant sections of the Russian ruling class thought they could become a junior partner to the US within global capitalism. Nonetheless, Russia was still determined to push its own set of imperialist interests.

From 1991, Russia tried to reassert its influence in the former Soviet republics. The deputy minister for nationality affairs, Kim Tsagolov, was very clear about the position of the state: “Russia is participating in this confrontation between world powers in disadvantageous conditions. In spite of this, we must defend our position on the Caucasian bridgehead”.32

Attempting to improve Russia’s weakened status, Yeltsin stirred up a series of separatist and ethnic conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ingushetia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The aim was to destabilise its neighbours, and the result was 170,000 people dead and 1.5 million refugees.33 In Chechnya, located at the heart of the Caucasus, it took two brutal wars to subdue a revolt after the small republic declared independence in 1991. In 1999, Putin, recently made prime minister (and soon to be president), overwhelmed the Chechen resistance. His military victory, and the spike in world oil prices in the 2000s, underpinned the regime’s stability. Putin built up the armed forces and used Russia’s oil and gas resources to grow its economic and political strength. He could now assert Russia’s dominance in the “near abroad”, and Ukraine—a buffer between the West and Russia—was one of the most important of these neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile, the US, NATO and the EU had also been trying to extend their influence in Russia’s “near abroad”, and this became an area of growing rivalries. The US broke its promise to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, that NATO would not expand eastwards. Things came to a head in 2008 when NATO’s Bucharest summit agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would be able to join the alliance. Russia invaded two separatist regions within Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to stop it joining NATO.

There was an economic side to the rivalry. The EU—a regional bloc of capital and would-be imperialism that is aligned with the US—sees parts of the “near abroad” as its own backyard. Russia set up the Eurasian Customs Union to compete with the EU (and also to strengthen its hand against China in Central Asia). To make this a viable economic bloc, Ukrainian membership was crucial.

In 2014, when Ukraine seemed like it would pivot toward the West, Russia annexed the Crimea and backed separatist insurgencies in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the south east.34 This aggression was not simply down to Putin and a small clique of generals and spooks around him. Rather, it flowed from the Russian state pursuit of its own set of imperialist interests.

The same is true of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine today. The assault on Ukraine flowed from the competitive pressures the Russian state was experiencing before the war. In 2015, the Minsk “peace process” froze the Ukraine conflict, but the tug of war between the West and Russia continued. By autumn 2021, it was becoming clearer that Russia was losing in the face of the West’s superior weight. At the same time, the “near abroad” has seen a series of uprisings in recent years, with rebellions in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. These were popular revolts, but liberal and nationalist political forces in those countries looked to the West as an alternative to dictatorship, and Western powers hoped to gain from the fall of regimes more closely aligned with Moscow.35

The Russian state—not just Putin—wanted to signal to its neighbours that it can still dominate. Losing Ukraine to the Western camp would be disastrous for the Russian state, its ruling class and its influence across the region.

Two wars or one? Imperialism and the national question

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many socialists argue that all that is taking place is a war of Ukrainian “national liberation” or “national defence”. They point to Ukraine’s long history as a subordinate state of the Russian Empire between 1793 and 1918, as well as its absorption into the Soviet Union from the 1920s until independence in 1991.36 Therefore, so the argument goes, talking about the US’s and NATO’s role is a “distraction”, as left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell put it when he withdrew from speaking at an event organised by the Stop the War Coalition. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service union, opposed a conference motion that categorised the war as a “proxy conflict between NATO and Russia”. As NATO poured fuel onto the fire, Serwotka argued, “There’s plenty of time for people to discuss the role of NATO, including whether Britain should be a member of it, but now is the time to stand with those people who are being occupied, being murdered and being besieged.”

For those who take this view, characterising the war as an inter-imperialist, proxy conflict between the US and Russia is a denial of Ukrainians’ agency and their country’s right to national self-determination. As the Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko writes in the New Left Review journal:

For this politics, the problem is Russian imperialism, not imperialism in general. Ukraine’s dependency on the West tends not to be problematised at all.37

At its worst—and most cynical—this narrative is cloaked in the language of identity politics. It claims that opposition to NATO amounts to “Westsplaining” and ignores “Ukrainian voices”. Ishchenko continues:

Ukrainian identity politics primarily targets the West, which is held to be culpable for allowing the Russian invasion, trading with Russia, “appeasing” Putin’s regime, providing insufficient support for Ukraine and reproducing “Russian imperialist” narratives about Eastern Europe. Yet, if the West is to be blamed for Ukraine’s suffering, it could relatively easily redeem itself by providing unconditional support for “the Ukrainian” and unconditional rejection of “the Russian”.38

Meanwhile, some socialists pay lip service to an inter-imperialist dimension, but end up in the same position of lining up behind the West. Achcar argues that talk of a proxy war and opposition to NATO arms “obliterates the Ukrainians’ agency”.39 Yet, the political tradition associated with this journal recognises the dimension of national liberation in the war:

For Ukrainians it is a war of national self-defence. At the same time, from the side of Western imperialist powers led by the United States and organised through NATO, it is a proxy war against Russia. The war is both an imperialist invasion of a former colony and part of an inter-imperialist conflict between the US and Russia with their allies.40

Nevertheless, it has also taken a position of opposing both Russia and NATO. Understanding this requires a clear grasp of the Marxist approach to national self-determination so it can be applied to the concrete situation in Ukraine.

Lenin and national self-determination

At the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Putin blamed “Lenin and his associates” for “creating Ukraine” by “separating and severing what is historically Russian land”.41 Putin was here referring to the Bolsheviks’ positive attitude towards Ukrainian national rights. He was right that Lenin was a staunch supporter of oppressed nations’ right to self-determination. Indeed, Lenin argued against other revolutionary socialists, such as the Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, who thought that supporting Poland’s right to self-determination from the Russian Empire was a divisive distraction from the working class’s struggle for socialism.

The bulk of the left views the current war in Ukraine through the prism of national self-determination. Some socialists argue that, if we are really to follow Lenin’s approach to national self-determination, this means characterising Ukraine as a “national struggle” and not opposing the shipping of NATO arms to the warzone. In Tempest, a US online magazine, some of whose contributors come from the same political tradition as this journal, Ashley Smith argues:

With all its contradictions, Ukraine is engaged in a struggle for national liberation. Against Russia’s imperialist invasion, Ukraine has waged a national popular struggle for self-determination. It is fighting for its right to exist as a nation with its own government. This war is between Russia and Ukraine, not between Russia and the US. It is not an inter-imperialist war.42

However, such arguments do not derive from Lenin’s approach to the issue of national self-determination. For Lenin, there were two main reasons socialists should support self-determination. First, convincing the working class in the imperialist county to support the right of the oppressed nation to self-determination would help break the hold of reactionary ideas. If Russian workers, for example, supported national freedom for Ukraine, it would help to undermine the Great Russian chauvinism that ideologically bound ordinary people to the Tsar and the ruling class. These same principles are true in modern Russia, where Putin is using Great Russian chauvinism as an ideological glue between ordinary people and the regime. However, there is a difference between supporting the right to national self-determination and championing secession. As Lenin wrote, “This demand for the right of national self-determination is not the same as a demand for separation, fragmentation and the formation of small states”.43 This was a question of revolutionary strategy and tactics.

Second, oppressed nations winning independence would be a blow to imperialism, aiding working-class people’s struggle against the ruling class. Lenin pointed to the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland in 1916, which threatened to weaken the British state at a time when it was fighting an inter-imperialist war against Germany. This meant that, in some cases, socialists in the imperialist countries should not only support the right to self-determination, but also be part of the fight for national freedom. Lenin argued, “If we do not want to betray socialism, we must support every revolt against our chief enemy, the capitalist class of the big states, provided it is not the revolt of a reactionary class”.44 It should be noted, though, that this never means painting a communist colouring on nationalist forces, nor does it require socialists in oppressed countries to subordinate their class interests to national independence.45

However, the right to self-determination was never an abstract question for Lenin, and he always understood it in the context of imperialism. He was well aware that demands for self-determination could and have “served, under certain circumstances, as an instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie for deceiving the workers”.46

Thus, Lenin argued that socialists had to look at concrete circumstances:

The bourgeoisie, which naturally assumes the leadership at the start of every national movement, says that support for all national aspirations is practical. However, the proletariat’s policy in the national question (as in all others) only supports the bourgeoisie in a certain direction, but never coincides with the bourgeoisie’s policy.

The proletariat…assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle.47

So, how can we apply Lenin’s approach to an inter-imperialist war?

Serbia 1914: “only a small part of the totality”

Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not the first time socialists have had to grapple with the relationship between an inter-imperialist war and national self-determination. Marxists were confronted with the same problem in relation to Serbia and Poland when the First World War broke out in 1914. How did they react? Can the positions they developed help us respond to the war in Ukraine?

On 28 July 1914, using the pretext of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo, the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia, precipitating the First World War. On one side stood the “Triple Entente”, comprising the British, French and Russian Empires; on the other was the “Central Powers”, made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Each armed camp sought to pull other states, such as Italy, into the bloodbath for the redivision of Europe and the colonies.

The socialist parties of the Second International were committed to peace, pledging a general strike if war broke out between imperialist powers. However, no sooner had the First World War begun, the majority of these parties collapsed into supporting their own ruling classes in the slaughter. The honourable exceptions were the Russian Bolshevik Party, the Bulgarian socialists (after the Bulgarian state joined on the side of the Central Powers in October 1915) and the Serbian Social Democratic Party, which refused to vote for war credits.

Dušan Popović was a leading member of the Serbian Social Democrats. In spring 1915, he wrote a letter to Christian Rakovsky, a Bulgarian-born socialist and an associate of Leon Trotsky who would go on to become a Bolshevik after 1917:

For us, it was clear that, as far as the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was concerned, our country was obviously in a defensive position. Austria had been carrying on a policy of conquest against Serbia long before the latter became an independent state… Basically Serbia is defending its life and its independence, which Austria was constantly threatening even before the Sarajevo assassination. If Social Democracy had a legitimate right to vote for war anywhere, then certainly that was the case in Serbia above all.48

Yet, despite this, Popović goes on to argue, “However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Serbia and Austria was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal, European war, and this latter (we are profoundly convinced of this) could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character.”

Popović wrote that the socialist parties of Austria Hungary, Germany and other states backing the war was a “terrible moral blow for us, the hardest blow in our lives as militants”. Nonetheless, “it has not shaken our profound conviction that we have acted as socialists”, and “in the only way possible for socialists”, by not voting for war credits in an inter-imperialist war. He added that “the events that occurred later have merely reinforced our opinion” about the nature of the war.

So, Popović acknowledges two aspects of the war: the Serbian state’s “defensive position” and the “pronounced imperialist character” of the wider clash among Europe’s great powers. The same was true of revolutionaries such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. Yet, this did not lead Popović to say there were two wars—perhaps connected, but ultimately discrete—happening. He argued that socialists had to analyse the overarching nature of the war, grasping it as a totality.

In such situations, the question is thus, “What is the dominant character of the war?” As Lenin asked, is it defined by the “continuation of the politics” of self-determination or the “continuing of the politics of imperialism”? In a 1915 essay, “The Collapse of the Second International”, Lenin argued:

If this war were an isolated one, that is, if it were not connected with the general European war, and with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia and so on, it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian capitalist class. This is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war.

However, the national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. To Serbia, that is, to perhaps 1 percent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a continuation of the politics of the bourgeois liberation movement. To the other 99 percent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism. If anyone recalls that the war is not “purely” imperialist when we are discussing the flagrant deception of the masses of the people by the imperialists, who are deliberately concealing the aims of undisguised robbery with “national” phraseology, then such a person is either an infinitely stupid pedant or a pettifogger and deceiver.49

Rosa Luxemburg, who had clashed so sharply with Lenin over the national question, put forward a similar line of argument in the Junius Pamphlet:

If ever a state, according to formal considerations, had the right of national defence on its side, that state is Serbia. Deprived through Austrian annexations of its national unity, threatened by Austria in its very existence as a nation, forced by Austria into war, it is fighting, according to all human conceptions, for existence, for freedom, and for the civilisation of its people.50

Nonetheless, Luxemburg emphasised that socialists should not view the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Serbia in isolation from the war’s dominant, inter-imperialist character:

Above all this we must not forget—behind Serbian nationalism stands Russian imperialism. Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great game of world politics. A judgement of the war in Serbia from a point of view that fails to take these great relations and the general world political background into account is necessarily without foundation.51

Popović and his Serbian comrades had, quite rightly, concluded that the First World War was an inter-imperialist war. Dragiša Lapčević, who would later oppose Lenin and the Bolsheviks and clash with the left of the Serbian Social Democratic Party, also refused to support war credits in 1914. He saw that imperialist powers’ rivalries had “driven them to a situation where guns must thunder between them”. The Russian Empire claimed it had joined the war to protect Serbia’s sovereignty, and Britain similarly pretended that its motivations lay in defending “plucky little Belgium” (which, with a colonial empire of almost 2,500,000 square kilometres, was not so little). Lapčević warned, however, that these great powers would now “thunder not for the sake of the small nations but against the small nations”. Speaking to the Serbian parliament a few days after Austria-Hungary Empire declared war, he warned that “the Serbian government is now being used as a plaything in the hands of certain Great Powers”. In such a “general settling of accounts between the Great Powers, small countries can only be the losers”.52

Serbia in 1914 and Ukraine in 2022 are not the same; there are no “one size fits all” blueprint for understanding wars. The current situation in Ukraine does not fit Lenin’s “1 percent to 99 percent” formula. However, the Serbian socialists, as well as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, still provide a framework for grasping the relationship between inter-imperialist wars and wars of national defence. Today, Ukraine is “defending its life and independence”, which is threatened by Russia. However, that is neither the totality nor the dominant characteristic of the war. Rather, Ukraine is the keystone in an arc of inter-imperialist competition that stretches across the Eurasian landmass. Rivalry between the West and Russia has driven the war and now sees NATO’s and Russia’s guns thundering on Ukrainian soil.

The Ukrainian government “is being used as a plaything” in the hands of the West and Russia. The West hopes to use Ukraine to reassert its global hegemony and humble a rival, Russia, which wanted to increase control over its “near abroad” and stem NATO expansion. Moreover, in this “general settling of accounts between the Great Powers”, Ukrainians are the losers. Inter-imperialist competition is the dominant feature of this situation, defining the nature of the war. For socialists, this means standing against the Russian invasion, but also not collapsing into support for NATO and their man, Zelensky.

A denial of Ukrainian agency?

Western politicians and pundits present Zelensky as a “freedom fighter” leading a national liberation struggle. These claims were at their most ridiculous when Tory Party grandee Malcolm Rifkind and former BBC journalist Andrew Marr said he was the “new Nelson Mandela” and the “nearest equivalent to Mandela”.53

However, some socialists who acknowledge an inter-imperialist dimension lean into this narrative. Political economist Yuliya Yurchenko argues that, to recognise the national dimension, “You have to put on your decolonial thinking cap”:

Of course, there is an inter-imperialist dimension to all of this. That’s obvious. But there is also a national dimension to it that must be recognized. You have to draw on all the lessons learned from national liberation struggles in Africa and elsewhere. Even in those cases where competing powers were involved, there was also the struggle for national liberation of oppressed people. Anti-colonial thinkers and leaders taught us to give voice to them and their struggle. Ukraine is in a similar struggle.54

Indeed, the recent history of Ukraine is a more complex story than merely one of imperialist manoeuvring and inter-imperialist rivalries taking place in the shadows. Zelensky has come to represent a particular Ukrainian nationalist project and is waging a national struggle against Russia.

Moreover, it is true that national liberation struggles such as those in Algeria and Vietnam took place against the backdrop of the inter-imperialist competition between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War. Many anti-colonial movements looked to the Soviet Union’s state capitalism as a model for national development. However, for two reasons, these national liberation struggles could not be characterised as inter-imperialist wars. First, they were not subsumed into the inter-imperialist rivalry of the Cold War. Second, these nationalist movements retained their own goals, interests and political independence, even while adopting Stalinist ideology.

It is the case, for instance, that US involvement in Vietnam flowed from military and economic competition with the Soviet Union and China. US foreign policy strategists justified the war with a “domino theory”; according to this argument, if Vietnam “fell” to the Communists, then Thailand, Burma and its other neighbours would soon follow. This meant the US had to brutally assert its power and send a signal to the entire region. Nonetheless, the dynamic driving the Vietnam War was not the US and the Soviet Union confronting one another in South East Asia and seeking to encroach on each other’s spheres of influence. Rather, it was the battle between the US and the Vietnamese nationalist movement, which had already fought the French, Japanese and the French again before taking on Washington.55 Yet, there is a long history of nations’ rights to self-determination becoming the plaything of imperialist powers and a weapon of inter-imperialist rivalry. In other cases, nationalist movements with their own interests have sometimes sought to become allies of imperialist powers. Marxist theorist Chris Harman wrote:

Imperialist wars almost invariably involve great powers trying to use for their own ends national movements directed against their opponents. In some cases, this amounts simply to providing a few weapons to movements that retain their own independence and follow their own goals, as with the attempts of the Kaiser’s Germany to help the Irish uprising in 1916 or the help the Vietnamese received from Russia and China in the late 1960s. Yet, in other cases, once independent national movements have become mere playthings of imperialist powers. This was true, for instance, of the Slovak and Croatian governments established by Germany between 1939 to 1945 and the Polish government set up in German-occupied Warsaw during the First World War. For socialists to support national movements that have acquiesced in such a role would be to help strengthen imperialism.56

Another example is the short-lived Ukrainian State (also known as the Second Hetmanate) between April and December 1918. This regime was set up by the German military authorities and ruled by a Ukrainian aristocrat, Lieutenant General Pavlo Skoropadskyi.57

A proxy war does not necessarily imply no agency on the part of Zelensky and Ukraine. In 1914, Popović acknowledged that the Serbian government had “agency”, but this did not change the dominant character of the war and socialists’ opposition to it. He described how the Serbian government had subordinated itself willingly to the struggle between the imperialist states before 1914. He said it had “conducted a policy of enslaving itself to Petrograd’s diplomacy and to the Paris Stock Exchange. Yet, Petrograd’s diplomacy and the Paris Stock Exchange have only the interests of Russian Tsarism and French finance capitalists in mind and not under any circumstances Serbian interests.” He told the Serbian National Assembly, “I find support for my fear, if not my belief in it, in passages from the crown’s address, which says that this is not a Serbian conflict, but a conflict between the major interests of the Great Powers”. Furthermore, he called for Serbia to “change its policy” and “stop being an instrument of the Great Powers”.58

Today, it is Zelensky who has enslaved the Ukrainian government to Washington’s diplomacy and the European stock exchanges. They have only the interests of Western imperialism in mind, not Ukrainian interests. Zelensky’s addresses provide ample evidence that the war in Ukraine is an inter-imperialist conflict. He has, as he has declared, “helped the West find itself again”.

The West’s role in the war

The role of the US, Britain and NATO in the war has only grown as the Russian invasion has continued. Greater and greater volumes of arms have poured into the country, but there have also been other, more direct forms of military assistance from the NATO powers. As liberal journalist Tom Stevenson writes in the New York Times:

There is no denying that the US, Britain, Poland and other European NATO members have been parties to the conflict from the outset. It is not just military transports and trucks carrying tens of thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-armour weapons to Ukrainian fighters. The US has also provided real-time intelligence, reportedly including targeting information on the location of Russian forces. Though the Pentagon has disputed the extent of intelligence sharing, leaks have been remarkably revealing. We now know the US provided tracking intelligence that led to the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. More striking still, US intelligence agencies provided critical targeting for battlefield assassinations of Russian generals.59

Of course, Ukrainian forces still retain a certain degree of autonomy on the battlefield, but this is tempered by the US’s broader strategy of “managed escalation”, which Ukraine does not control. Despite this role, the US does not want a head-on clash with Russia or a wider war, and Washington is thus keen to downplay its involvement in Ukraine. However, the US’s denial of its operational role is based on a sleight of hand. Scott R Anderson, a former official at the US Department of State who also worked in Iraq, explains, “If the US were providing targeting information to a foreign party, and we’re closely involved in targeting decisions…we’re directing those forces and they’re acting as a proxy for us.” He says this would be risky: “It might be seen as getting close to the line of actually attacking Russia, at which point Russia could arguably respond reciprocally”.60 However, this is a fine line. As explained in the Washington Post:

The US has a rule against providing what officials call “targeting information” to Ukraine. The US will not, officials said, tell Ukrainian forces that a particular Russian general has been spotted at a specific location, and then tell or help Ukraine to strike him.

But the US would share information about the location of, say, command and control facilities—places where Russian senior officers often tend to be found—since it could aid Ukraine in its own defence, officials said. If Ukrainian commanders decided to strike the facility, that would be their call, and if a Russian general were killed in the attack, the US wouldn’t have targeted him, officials said.

Not targeting Russian troops and locations but providing intelligence that Ukraine uses to help kill Russians may seem like a distinction without a ­difference. But legal experts said the definition of targeting provides meaningful legal and policy guidance that can help the US demonstrate it is not a party to the conflict, even as it pours military equipment into Ukraine and turns on a fire hose of intelligence.61

The US did play a decisive role in the Ukrainian counter-offensive in autumn 2022—and not just in the supply of HIMARS. Another article in the Washington Post on 3 February revealed:

One senior Ukrainian official said that Ukrainian forces almost never launch the advanced weapons without specific coordinates that are provided by US military personnel from a base elsewhere in Europe. Ukrainian officials say this process should give Washington more confidence about providing Kyiv with longer-range weapons.

A senior US official (who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue) acknowledged the key role of the US in the campaign, saying that the targeting assistance served to ensure accuracy and conserve limited stores of ammunition for maximum effectiveness. The official said Ukraine does not seek approval from the US on what to strike and that it routinely targets Russian forces on their own with other weapons. The US provides coordinates and precise targeting information solely in an advisory role, the official said.62

A Pentagon spokesperson, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, was at pains to stress that Ukraine is “responsible for finding targets, prioritising them and ultimately deciding which ones to engage”. He said the US “does not approve targets, and we are not involved in the selection or engagement of targets.” However, a description of how this process works by a Ukrainian official contradicts Ryder’s claims:

The senior Ukrainian official described the targeting process… Ukrainian military personnel identify targets that they want to hit, and in which location, and that information is then sent up to senior commanders, who then relay the request to US partners for more accurate coordinates. The US does not always provide the requested coordinates…in which case, the Ukrainian troops do not fire.63

The active role of the West came out again in an episode involving former British prime minister Boris Johnson. One piece in Foreign Affairs suggests the West scuppered peace negotiations in April:

According to multiple former senior US officials we spoke with, in April 2022, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement. Russia would withdraw to its position on 23 February, when it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and, in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership.64

However, the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet revealed Johnson blew a hole in peace negotiations because the West saw an opportunity to further “press” Putin:

According to sources close to Zelensky…Johnson, who appeared in the capital almost without warning, brought two simple messages. The first is that Putin is a war criminal; he should be pressured, not negotiated with. The second is that, even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, the West is not.

Johnson’s position was that the West, which back in February had suggested Zelensky should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to “press him”.65

How can wars end?

The political tradition associated with this journal stands with ordinary Ukrainians and demands the immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops. However, the key questions are how can this happen, and who will force it? One possibility is that the Russian invasion is pushed out through US and NATO force of arms. What would be the consequence of this? It would not be the end of conflict in Ukraine and the broader region, but rather the beginning of a potentially much larger one. It would strengthen US power, enabling it to try to stretch its imperial influence right across Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It would signal that it had overcome its “Afghanistan syndrome” after the humiliating fall of Kabul in September 2021, and it would bolster the logic of escalating tensions with China.

From the beginning, this journal has argued that real hope lies with anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, including revolts against the rulers of imperialist states. In Russia the hope is that the anti-war movement is able to inflict serious problems for the Putin regime. Unfortunately, the initial wave of anti-war protests in Russia was crushed by brutal repression. In September 2022, however, Putin’s decision to mobilise at least 300,000 reservists sparked opposition. This extended beyond the major cities into some of the most deprived areas in the Russian Federation, which have borne the brunt of deaths, such as the majority-Muslim republic of Dagestan. There are historical examples of anti-war sentiment and discontent about attacks on the working class combining in Russia, as happened, for example, during the First Chechen War in the 1990s.

In the West it is vital to build an anti-war movement that stands in solidarity with Russian protesters while opposing NATO escalation and expansion. This solidarity will be key if protests break out once more in Russia and are denounced as “pro-Western” or “pro-NATO” by the regime. This is not easy in the Western countries. Nonetheless, in some, there is more space to make anti-war arguments.

In Ukraine, hope lies with a resistance that is independent of NATO and a vision of a country free of both imperial camps. None of that will happen easily, but it is the only anti-imperialist, anti-war solution to the horror. The last year has hammered this home.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans is online editor at Socialist Worker.


1 The initial response of the International Socialist Tendency, the international grouping of revolutionary socialist organisations with which this journal is connected, was laid out in a statement on 15 March 2022: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February was an act of imperialist aggression and a violation of the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination. For Ukrainians it is a war of national self-defence. At the same time, from the side of Western imperialist powers led by the United States and organised through NATO it is a proxy war against Russia. The war is both an imperialist invasion of a former colony and part of an inter-imperialist conflict between the US and Russia with their allies. We are against both imperial powers. We express our solidarity with the Ukrainian people, supporting their right to resist the invasion. While doing so, we also oppose NATO and its expansion to the East.”—International Socialist Tendency, 2022.

2 Russia’s so-called near abroad comprises the 14 other republics that were once part of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. The Russian state has typically viewed these countries as part of its rightful sphere of influence.

3 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Judy Cox, Richard Donnelly, Rob Ferguson, Sheila McGregor and Tony Philips for their comments on the first draft of this article.

4 It is telling that France, rather than Russia, played an important role in “mediating” the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022. This contrasts with Russia’s more prominent role in previous clashes between the two states.

5 Putin, 2022.

6 Biden, 2022.

7 Borger, 2022.

8 Stevenson, 2022.

9 Cancian, 2023.

11 Cancian, 2022.

12 Garamone, 2022.

13 Vindman, 2022.

14 Ferguson, 2022; Choonara, 2022; Callinicos, 2022.

15 Khalaf, Minder and Foy, 2023.

16 Al Jazeera, 2022.

17 Peleshchuk, 2022.

18 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 2022a.

19 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 2022b.

20 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 2022a.

21 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 2022a.

22 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 2022c. My emphasis.

23 Callinicos and Achar, 2022.

24 Callinicos, 2009.

25 Hobson, 1902.

26 Lenin, 1963; Bukharin, 1972.

27 Friedman, 1996.

28 Lenin, 1963.

29 For a more comprehensive discussion about US-Russia relations and the roots of the war, see Ferguson, 2022.

30 Royal United Services Institute, 2021.

31 Harman, 2002.

32 Ferguson, 2000.

33 Ferguson, 2000.

34 For a longer discussion of the dynamics of these revolts, see Ferguson, 2014.

35 A full analysis of the dynamics at work in the Belarusian revolt can be found in International Socialism 169—see Tengely-Evans, 2021.

36 Henning, 2022.

37 Ishchenko, 2022.

38 Ishchenko, 2022.

39 Achcar, 2022b.

40 International Socialist Tendency, 2022.

41 Plokhii, 2022.

42 Smith, 2022a.

43 Lenin, 1972.

44 Lenin, 1964.

45 Lenin, 1965.

46 Lenin, 1964.

47 Lenin, 1964.

48 Živković and Plavšić, 2003, pp226-240.

49 Lenin, 1974.

50 Luxemburg, 1915.

51 Luxemburg, 1915.

52 Živković and Plavšić, 2003, p226-240.

53 Turp-Balazs, 2022.

54 Smith, 2022b.

55 Hore, 1991.

56 Harman, 1999.

57 Henning, 2022.

58 Živković and Plavšić, 2003.

59 Stevenson, 2022.

60 Harris and Lamothe, 2022.

61 Harris and Lamothe, 2022.

62 Khurshudyan, Lamothe and others, 2023.

63 Khurshudyan, Lamothe and others, 2023.

64 Hill and Stent, 2022.

65 Romaniuk, 2022.


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