Ukraine: a long inter-imperialist war, a new international situation

Andrοs Payiatsos

The war in Ukraine is already in its third month, having caused tens of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees (6 million at this point in time) and a massive destruction of infrastructures and whole cities. The energy and commodity prices are skyrocketing, the world economy is in the process of another major dip and the poorest among the world population will be paying the heaviest price. 

At the same time, the powers that are at the center of the conflict seem to have trapped themselves in a war out of which there is no easy escape, because none of the belligerents can accept any other result than “victory”. This goes not only for Russia and Ukraine but also for NATO. 

The essential character of this war is that it is a struggle for spheres of influence and domination, power and profits, between Russia (and its allies) on the one hand and NATO on the other, fought on Ukrainian soil. 

How long will the war be?

As the weeks and months go by, it is becoming clear that the western imperialist powers are determined to “teach Russia a lesson” despite the fact that if they are able to this, it will be at a very high cost. 

In the words of US president Joe Biden, the US wants to destroy Russia’s strategic abilities to repeat similar kind of invasions in the future. This is big words, putting the stakes too high… And, most probably, quite remote from the reality of the situation. If the West does indeed manage to corner Putin against the wall and push him into desperation, they may leave no other option to him but to use weapons of much greater destructive power (including tactical nuclear weapons – i.e., short range nuclear missiles that can cause destruction to an area of about the size of a football ground). This would not mean a nuclear world war; this perspective is something that still has to be excluded because it would lead to the mutual destruction of both sides. But the impact of such an escalation would be even more devastating than it already is, not only on Ukraine but also on the world economy and international relations.

This should not give the impression that a diplomatic solution in the next period is out of the question. It is certain that diplomatic efforts are taking place behind the scenes. But the ending of the war is not an immediate perspective. 

NATO does and will continue to encourage Zelensky to refuse to negotiate with Russia until the Ukrainian army tests its ability, based on NATO weapons, to bring the Russian advance to a standstill and begin a counter offensive or at least force Russia to spend huge resources, material and human, to defend what it will be able to conquer essentially in the next weeks (in the next few months, at most, the perspectives for the war will be clarified). Turning the war into a non-stop hemorrhage for Russia, economically and in terms of human lives, is what the West is aiming at. They hope that this can cause the crisis and fall of Putin’s regime.

This is at the same time coupled with the effort of the West to weaken China, which has a strategic alliance with Russia. This aspect of the war will be taken up in another article to follow soon.   

Miscalculations – on both sides

The plans of the US and NATO will not be easy to come to fruition. 

It is clear that the Russian government and army did indeed miscalculate the situation when they launched their offensive. 

They initially thought it would be an easy ride to march to Kiev. The reality proved to be different, so they had to make a massive shift in their plans and concentrate all their forces on the eastern and south-eastern provinces. They claim they are fighting a war of liberation (for the Russian speaking minority in the East and South). In reality they are defending the strategic and economic interests of the Russian capitalists in their competition with the capitalists of Europe and the US whose interests are being served by NATO. 

There is also good reason to assume that Putin underestimated the determination with which the West was going to back Ukraine. There can be no certainty for this, as it is clear that he was preparing the invasion for years, piling up among other things financial reserves. 

But it is not only Russia that underestimated the real balance of forces and the dynamics in the situation. It was also the Western imperialists. On two grounds. 

First, it looks as if in the past years they thought that they could encircle Russia by expanding NATO eastwards without getting a determined reaction from Russia. As we wrote again, however, the military intervention of Russia into Ukraine was entirely predictable. NATO has been expanding to the East, incorporating 14 new states into its ranks in the past 3 decades, despite verbal agreements (this has been confirmed – amongst others by Burnie Sanders speech in the US Congress) between the US and Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that NATO would not expand to the Eastern Block. Russia repeatedly protested to the US and European rulers for this, but its protests were ignored. On the contrary, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the West has been arming and training the Ukrainian army to make it better prepared for a possible Russian invasion. They also, of course, helped arm and train the neo-Nazis.

If this “encirclement” of Russia by NATO was a conscious policy of provoking Russia, then this is much worse than just a miscalculation, it is an adventurist and criminal policy by the dominant power on the planet. The cynicism of the Western alliance should not be underestimated, despite all its hypocritical references to peace, democracy and freedom. Just to give an indication of this, James Stavrides, ex commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013, on Sunday, March 6, less than two weeks after the Russian invasion, stated that Vladimir Putin may be the best thing that ever happened to the NATO alliance”. So much for the distress about the loss of Ukrainian lives. 

Second, their aim to trap Russia inside Ukraine and have some kind of repetition of the “Afganistan scenario” (which is more or less what they hope for), has also meant that the West has been gripped in the teeth of huge economic convulsions, paying a very high price for their efforts to weaken (or if possible, defeat) Russia. 

The world economy is heading for a major dive, a new recession in many countries, combined with inflation, which has been the highest in 40 years for the US and Europe. This is the phenomenon of “stagflation” that was characteristic of the 1970s. The war has been a decisive factor in pushing in this direction. We should not be surprised if the main “winner”, in this new phase of crisis faced by western capitalism, could actually be the most feared of all competitors of the US: China. 

But there are important differences between Afghanistan –where the Soviet Union was forced to accept defeat and leave in February 1989– and Ukraine. This parallel would hold true if Putin had occupied the whole of Ukraine. But his target is –and probably was from the beginning, despite western propaganda to the opposite– to occupy the eastern and southern provinces, which are predominately Russian speaking. This has been achieved to a large extent. If Putin is able to fulfil this goal, then essentially the Russian army will have to defend the land it has conquered. This is different from invading a whole country and imposing a government that is opposed to by huge sections of the population and surrounded by armed warlords from all sides. So, the differences are quite important. 

This is not to underestimate, however, the possibility of a “never ending” war on the “new borders” imposed by the Russian army, which may never be recognised by Ukraine and which, with the support of the West, can be very costly to Russia. 

A war between Russian and Western Imperialisms  

Any argumentation that the present war is simply or essentially a war between Russia and Ukraine is sheer propaganda when it comes from ruling class circles, and very naïve, or even hypocritical in some cases, when it comes from sections of the Left. 

What is taking place in Ukraine is a war between Russia (and its allies in CSTO – Collective Security Treaty Organization) and NATO. If it was a war just between Russia and Ukraine it could have finished in a few weeks. If Russia, on the other hand, was isolated internationally and did not have the support of China and the “neutrality” of other important countries, its defeat would have been a matter of time. 

Ukraine is being provided with huge numbers of arms of the latest technology, so vast that the stocks of the western powers are depleted! The Financial Times has described this as the biggest arms push since the end of the Cold War (at the end of the 1980s). Hundreds of billions of dollars/euros are spent by the West in its efforts to arm Ukraine. The most advanced weapons are pouring into Ukraine, including tens of thousands of the latest anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The US provides satellite information to its ally as a result of which the Ukrainian army was able to sink two (Ukraine claims the number is three) Russian war ships (including its flag ship) and kill an estimated number of 10 generals on the battle field. The information came from US army staff boasting about their achievements and was released by the New York Times, something that caused the anger of Joe Biden who demanded silence on such issues.  

Those sections of the Left that only see an invasion by an imperialist power (Russia) against a weaker and poor nation (Ukraine) have a very distorted picture of what is happening on the ground. This is a war between two major military-imperialist camps, on Ukrainian soil. It is a war which is reactionary on both sides. The political forces which claim to represent, or aim to represent, the working class and the poor can only take a third, independent, class position, against both belligerents. 

For the working class, the correct position is “the enemy is at home. This holds for advanced workers and youth, for revolutionary socialists, in all the belligerent sides: Russia, Ukraine, Europe, the US, but also internationally. This position does not of course mean supporting the “other side”. It means that revolutionary socialists cannot support any one of the ruling classes that are behind the war; it means that their central task is to oppose national unity in their own country and fight to expose the crimes and responsibilities of their own ruling class in bringing about the imperialist conflict.

Historical parallels  

The positions defended above do not represent some kind of new departure or innovation for Marxists. We carried material on “Internationalist Standpoint” (read for example comrade Takis Mastrogiannopoulos’ article ”The war in Ukraine and the positions of the Marxist Left”) to illuminate the approach of the Bolsheviks and of the Zimmerwald Left at the time of the first world war (WWI). That material has important parallels to the present war in Ukraine (although there are of course differences as well). 

In relation to the attack of Austria on Serbia in the summer of 1914 which sparked off WWI (as Britain, France and Russia entered the war in support of Serbia) Lenin wrote:  

“In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria. It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, ‘the masses of the people’, a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a ‘continuation’. If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie as this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war. (…)  The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war.” (Our emphasis).

And the Bolshevik Party, at a conference which met in Bern, Switzerland, in February 1915, asserted that:

“The national element in the Austro-Serbian war is an entirely secondary consideration and does not affect the general imperialist character of the war” 

The parallels between Serbia in 1914 and Ukraine in 2022 from a theoretical/historical perspective are quite clear. 

In September 1915 the Zimmerwald Conference took place (in Switzerland) with socialists from all over Europe meeting to discuss the way to fight against the war. It was divided into a left, a centre and a right wing. The positions of the left wing, which came to be known as the Zimmerwald Left were summarized in a separate statement that they brought out. Among other things they stated:

“The prelude to this struggle is the struggle against the world war and for a quick end to the slaughter of the peoples. This struggle demands rejection [from the socialist MPs] of war credits, an exit from government ministries (…) to organize street demonstrations against the governments, propaganda for international solidarity in the trenches, demands for economic strikes, and the effort to transform such strikes, where conditions are favourable, into political struggles.The slogan is civil war, not civil peace.” (Our emphasis).

The declaration of the Zimmerwald Left which included delegates from Russia, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Latvia, Sweden and Norway remains until today the cornerstone of the positions of revolutionary socialists in the event of war. 

Massive global economic and social repercussions

The massive expenditure on arms by the West represents a huge drain on its resources, but what is urgent now for them is to (try to) teach Putin a lesson. So, they will spend as much as necessary, pushing budget deficits and public debts through the roofs, to reach their aim. 

Of course, one should not forget that the hundreds of billions of dollars/euros that are being spent on arms to supply weapons to Ukraine, don’t go into Ukraine, they go into the pockets of Western arm industries. This money comes from tax payers’ money. 

In other words, this new arms expenditure, represents a new massive transfer of wealth from the mass of the people into the hands of the western oligarchs. 

At the end of the day, when the economies of the West will be left with higher deficits and debts, the working-class masses will again be called upon to pay for them, in the next months and years, with new waves of attacks. These will be presented as necessary sacrifices, for the sake of “peace, democracy and freedom”. 

Thus, we are at the beginning of a new period of austerity and neoliberal attacks. The capitalists will be getting richer and the workers poorer in the rich industrial countries, while in the poor countries millions will face destitution and hunger (see further on). 

Apart from massively arming Ukraine, what we are witnessing is a new horrific arms race on a global scale, costing fortunes to national economies while the ruling classes in the US and Europe will be applying austerity policies to tackle inflation (which is being given a further push as a result of the war). 

At the same time, of course, the climate crisis is getting entirely out of control, with the West and the whole planet turning massively to coal and oil, even to nuclear energy, as a result of the energy crisis which has been aggravated by the war. 

Divisions in the Western front

There should be no doubts that there are serious divisions inside the ruling classes in the US and Europe – and this is besides Hungary which is openly refusing to boycott Russian hydrocarbons. 

The West has been trying to present a unified face, but it is no longer possible to hide the differences. One only has to compare Biden’s war cries with Emanuel Macron’s statement in Strasburg on Monday, May 9, that peace should not be constructed on the basis of Russia’s humiliation.Macron’s is, of course, a much more sensible approach from a bourgeois point of view to the one of the hawks in Washington, Britain and elsewhere.  

The EU has been declaring in every possible tone that it will not compromise with Russia’s demand to pay for its hydrocarbons in rubbles, only to end up doing precisely this, as released by Bloomberg and confirmed by the Italian prime minister Draghi on May 11th. Finland and Sweden decided to apply for entry into NATO, but Turkey declared its opposition to it (it remains to be seen of course if Erdogan is serious about this or if he wants concessions on other issues). The attempt of the EU to apply a sixth package of sanctions against Russia, failed to materialize.

These differences within different sections of western capitalists are not just a reflection of the very real dangers to world capitalism’s stability that this war is presenting, in general. They also reflect a divergence of interests between European and US capitalism on the economic level and different “national” interests by the different ruling classes in Europe. 

This is also reflected on the currency situation – the dollar is at a 20-year high, the euro is in rapid fall, with its rate to the US dollar approaching 1:1 whereas only months ago it was around 1€ to 1.15$. Europe is forced to turn to the US and other countries for its energy supplies – particularly liquid natural gas (LNG). The rise of the dollar relative to the euro makes energy even more expensive for Europe, as most of the contracts for hydrocarbons imported into Europe are in US dollars. The US economy does not suffer from the sanctions against Russia in a direct manner. It is the biggest producer of hydrocarbons and imports only 3% of its energy. It actually gains because it exports its LNG at prices way above the previous period. LNG is much more expensive than Russian natural gas – Europe is losing and the US is gaining. Also, the US is too far away from the new refugee crisis which is under process due to the war. 

Within the western sphere, the position of the US is enhanced, and that of Europe weakened. Europe’s historical decline is continuing and is reflected in the developments around the war, as it essentially follows the commands of the US “boss”. Russia’s position will also be weakened as an outcome of this war. But the essential question is whether the main beneficiary of the present crisis will be no other than China, the main threat to US’s global supremacy.  

Propaganda   

There is no basis on which to accept any of what the western media have been claiming and spreading. From the beginning, they have been trying to create the impression that Putin has gone mad, that he probably suffers from Parkinson or other similar diseases, that he is too old and in depression, that he seeks ways to leave a historical legacy, etc, etc. Their more recent “information” was that he suffers from cancer and will soon be operated. As regards his plans, western media have been “explaining” that his plans were to capture the whole of Ukraine, enter Moldavia, take over Romania, march into Poland and divide it in two. Some went as far as saying that his real aims were to dissolve the European Union. This kind of talk cannot be taken seriously, no evidence has been provided about any of these assertions. There is very good reason to assume, actually, that Putin is anything but “mad”. In relation to his speech on May 9, commemorating the end of WWII, western media were speculating for weeks that he would be making some horrific escalation of massacres and genocide in order to triumphantly speak of victory, even declaring world war (WWIII) etc. Nothing of the sort happened. 

What we see on the part of the western capitalist media is nothing related to “journalism”, it is simply propaganda, but actually, poor, cheap, low-level propaganda, aiming to scare off people and rally them behind the decisions of their ruling classes. We should add that this not particularly successful – most of the current leaders in Europe are faced with falling support, the same is true for Biden in the US. 

At the same time, the US and the EU are trying to present the Russian army as hopelessly weak, corrupt and inefficient. Leaving aside the fact that the Russian generals and Putin himself did indeed miscalculate in the initial phase of the war, since their change of tactics and their concentration on the East and the South the slow advance that we see today is not so surprising. The Ukrainian army with the reserves called in, is much bigger in numbers than the about 150,000 Russian troops taking active part in the invasion of Ukraine. It has been trained and armed for the past 8 years (since the 2014 annexation of Crimea) by the West, particularly US and Britain, and since the start of the war it has been supplied with the most advanced missile systems of the West. Also, it has all the information about the movements of the enemy, provided by Western satellites. Last but not least, it is fighting a defensive war, which gives it great advantage compared to the aggressor. With these in mind, in a period of about 10 weeks after February 24, when the invasion began, Russia conquered lands approximating the size of a small country, like Greece. This is not some kind of a spectacular achievement, but on the other hand one can hardly describe it as a failure. 

Russian isolation?

As has been mentioned already, if Russia was alone in this war, it wouldn’t be able to endure for any significant length of time, for military and economic reasons. 

But Russia’s relationship with China has been tested through the war and shown to be enduring – for the present historical conjuncture. One should note the common declaration signed on February 4th in Beijing, on Putin’s visit to China –i.e., only days before the start of the war– which among other things states: “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. 

We can assume that in all probability Putin on his visit to China had informed Xi Jinping of his plans to invade Ukraine. 

The US and Europe are trying to present Russia as entirely isolated in the planet. In reality the anti-Russian front is made up of the US and Europe and their closest allies (Canada, Japan, Australia etc) and that’s about it. The rest of the planet is not ready to identify with the US. The whole of Africa and the whole of Latin America refuse to follow sanctions against Russia. In Asia, China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia (representing between themselves 40% of the global population) refuse the sanctions as well. China and India (soon to be the first and fifth economic powers of the planet respectively) are ready to absorb the oil and natural gas that Europe refuses to buy from Russia, at about two thirds of the global market price. This is important for the Russian economy, breaking the isolation that the West is trying to impose on it. But it also gives China and India an advantage in the global competition. 

Even in cases of countries where the ruling classes are fully supporting NATO, they cannot always convince their population on that position. In Greece and Italy for example, the governments are fully backing NATO and arming Ukraine, but the majority in both countries are against sending arms to the Ukraine. Even in countries that were considered supportive to the western powers up until recently, things did not work exactly as expected: for example, the Solomon Islands, traditionally considered to be close to the West and in the Australian “sphere of influence”, last month signed a «security pact» with China to the angry surprise of western governments.

Stagflation and crisis

The global economic situation was bad before the war, but things have rapidly escalated to the worse due to the war. The pandemic had already acted as a trigger for the deep recession of 2020, and brought to the surface all the contradictions of the 2008-9 global recession. Capitalism was unable to solve these contradictions in the course of the 2010s, unable to put the system on a sounder basis. 

As a result, the global dept (public and private) rose in the course of 2020 by 28 percentage points, reaching the staggering 256% of the global GDP. This is the highest debt ever, with the exception of the years of the First and the Second World Wars. 2022 was expected to be a year of recovery and the beginning of a return to “normality”. But the war in Ukraine put an end to such hopes and is now turning things in the opposite direction. 

Today, the discussion taking place between economists is whether we have entered a period of stagflation (a period during which the economies are stagnant or in recession, but at the same time inflation is rising). This was characteristic of the 1970s. Today’s inflation rates in the developed countries are around 8% (in the low-income countries the situation is of course much worse) and rising. 

Inflation developed in the course of the pandemic years but has been given a further push by the war. Not only because the energy crisis, which developed in the course of 2021, is aggravated by the boycott of Russian oil and natural gas, but also because both Russia and Ukraine are among the bigger producers and exporters of commodities – industrial metals, grains, oils, etc. Commodity prices have already risen by about 30% since January 2022and this trend can be expected to continue. 

Given these huge contradictions, the capitalist governments have to take austerity/neoliberal measures. The only way to curb inflation is to cut budget expenditure, lower real wages (i.e., allow wage increases below the rate of inflation) and raise interest rates. These policies push the economy into a new recession coupled with inflation which will persist for a significant number of years. This is what one should expect for the rich industrial countries; for the poor “developing” countries, once again, hell will break lose.

Poverty, instability and social unrest

It’s been estimated by the IMF that in 2020, 60% of the low-income countries (a total of 73 countries globally) were faced with the danger of default. The IMF is characterizing “low-income countries” those with a per capita GDP of 1,045 dollars per year – which means absolute destitution. 

This situation is creating the conditions for what is known as «bread revolts». The so called “developing” countries or “emerging economies” are in ferment. In 2019 we had social explosions, some with clear revolutionary characteristics, in 35 countries across the planet. The situation today is even more desperate as a result of the war. 

These processes are very well explained in the article by comrade Nihat Halepli “The commodity crisis and the protests by working-class people worldwide” on Internationalist Standpoint.

To conclude

The capitalist world is entering a new period of deep crisis and huge instability on all levels: economic, social, political and as regards international relations. The new attacks on living standards in the rich industrial countries, are bound to cause reactions and struggles in Europe and the US despite the propaganda of the ruling classes about “democracy, freedom and peace”. In the poor “global south”, where the idea of defending NATO against Russia does not really have any appeal, we can expect new social eruptions. 

The lack of leadership, i.e., the fact that the parties of the Left, old and new, have shown in the past decade to be hopelessly incapable of responding to the tasks needed to tackle the crises and to the needs of the popular masses, will of course be a complicating factor. As a result, some of the eruptions will be blind and will come to a dead end, or even defeat. New layers will be radicalized, particularly of the youth, but because of the lack of a real left alternative, radicalization will develop not only to the left but also to the right – in the direction of nationalism, right wing populism, far-right and neofascism. 

But under all circumstances the conditions created by this war, adding up on the general crisis of the capitalist system will create important opportunities for the radical left and for revolutionary socialist ideas

Capitalism is leading the whole planet into barbarism – that is something that is and will be becoming clearer to millions. The effort to build mass socialist-revolutionary parties of workers and youth internationally is the only way to put an end to it.

____________

Note: This article will be followed by another one in the next days which will look at the war in Ukraine in the context of the rivalry between the US and China for global hegemony 

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