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Ukraine: Year one of a terrifying imperialist war

In the course of a year, the West and Russia have turned Ukraine into the site of a deadly proxy war. Nick Clark and Charlie Kimber look at what’s behind the slaughter—and how it can be stopped

Nick Clark and Charlie Kimber
UNDP Ukraine/Flickr

Living amid the ruins in the village of Novoselivka, near Chernihiv, Ukraine. Swathes of the country have been destroyed by missile barrages

There’s no end in sight to the war in Ukraine—and no heroes either. Certainly not those who, over the past 12 months, have beat the drum and cheered for sending more weapons and war machines to the Ukrainian military. Rather than helping to bring the war closer to an end, they’ve turned it into an ever more open confrontation between the West’s Nato military alliance and Russia.

Ordinary people in Ukraine and Russia have been made to play the foot soldiers and victims in this war for dominance in eastern Europe. But the longer it drags on, and the greater the involvement of the West in the fighting, the more likely it is to spill out to engulf many more people in the horror.

On the ground, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have spent months dug into trenches, killing each other across a front line that barely moves. The US estimates that 100,000 soldiers on each side have died since the war began. But step by step the US, Britain and other European countries have become increasingly embroiled in the war as they tread a by now familiar path.

Currently, the Ukrainian government is demanding that the US and its allies supply it with fighter jets—especially US-made F16s. US president Joe Biden flatly refuses—in public. The US knows that arming Ukraine with long-range jets risks expanding the war further beyond Ukraine. It also implicates Nato more directly in the war.

But the US’s allies, including Britain, have suggested they might send fighter jets in the future. And the Ukrainian government is hopeful it will one day get what it wants. It remembers how, until only recently, the US and its allies also refused to send tanks to aid Ukraine’s offensive. That changed in January, marking a break from the claim that the West would only arm Ukraine with the weapons it needed to defend itself.

Throughout the war, the West’s arming of Ukraine has broken through all of its supposed “red lines,” one by one. It began with sanctions, then moved quickly to supplying “defensive” weapons, then heavy weaponry for shelling attacks. Yuriy Sak, an adviser for Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, told the Reuters news agency, “They didn’t want to give us heavy artillery, then they did. They didn’t want to give us Himars systems, then they did. They didn’t want to give us tanks, now they’re giving us tanks. Apart from nuclear weapons, there is nothing left that we will not get.”

Weapons maker Lockheed Martin has already increased its production of F-16s in anticipation that governments are about to send their own ones to Ukraine.

This isn’t a case of Nato being dragged into the war against its own will. The US and its allies use the control and supply of weapons to conduct the war in their own interests from afar. Last year, when Boris Johnson was still Britain’s prime minister, he used one of his several trips to Ukraine to tell president Volodymyr Zelensky not to negotiate with Russia.

The Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported that Johnson told Zelensky the West was “not ready” for an end to the war. Instead, he said, the West wanted to use the war to “press” Russian president Vladimir Putin. Days later, talks collapsed after Ukraine hardened its stance.

That should tell you something about who’s really directing the war, and to what ends. On more than one occasion, Biden and US officials have said their aim in the Ukraine war is to “weaken” Russia’s strength and influence in Europe.

It’s part of an even bigger project to reassert the US’s military power—and draw European states into a more tightly-knit alliance—against its biggest rival China. That’s what makes the war far more than a war of invasion and defence. It’s a proxy war—a war between two imperialist camps where Ukraine does the fighting on the West’s behalf.

It exploded out of more than a decade of growing competition between the West and Russia in eastern Europe.

Russia tried to establish and cement economic dominance in the region mostly through its control of gas supplies into Europe. Meanwhile, the European Union and Nato tried to draw ­neighbouring countries into their influence with offers of economic cooperation and military protection.

Russia invaded Ukraine not to protect its people—but to defend its military and economic interests. Putin is no friend to the international working class. He presides over a repressive neoliberal regime, and appeals to Great Russian nationalism for ideological support.

He has sought to rebuild Russian ­military power and to use it to ­maintain Moscow’s dominance of its “near abroad”, notably in the crushing of the independence movement in Chechnya, the 2008 war with Georgia, the 2014 ­seizure of Crimea. Further afield, Russian military power has been used to rescue the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

For its part, in the years before the war, Nato boosted military cooperation with states near Russian borders and built up its forces there. It trained and equipped Ukrainian forces, all with the overt aim of “containing” Russia.

That process of competition is to blame for the war—and pouring new weapons in with the aim of defeating Russia is an extension of it. Far from ending the war, it prolongs it—and pushes it to more terrifying heights.

We need an anti-war movement here—and in Russia too

The best end to the war would be revolutionary uprisings in the West, Russia and in Ukraine. When it started, tens of thousands of Russians courageously took to the streets against Vladimir Putin and called for peace. Socialists among them called for turning the imperialist war into a class war.

But the movement faced intense repression and it did not spread far enough into the working class.Western sanctions, designed to ratchet up economic hardship, made it easier for Putin to pose as a friend of ordinary people. The cops and soldiers broke the initial wave of peace protests.

But historically the biggest opposition to war has often come after months or years of fighting. This was true in the First World War or the US war in Vietnam, or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Anti-war feeling grew around elements such as horror at the scale of casualties, disillusion about the war’s stated aims and working class suffering.

Recently the Russian anti-war movement has shown glimpses of revival. The Telegram messaging channel The Council of Wives and Mothers brings together a group who believed the Russian army were making people sign military contracts against their will. It now has chapters in 89 cities across Russia.

And Russians protested after the killing of Ukrainians last month in a  missile strike on the city of Dnipro. Makeshift displays of flowers, stuffed toys and handwritten notes appeared in at least 60 cities across Russia. “It’s a statement against the war, not just mourning for the dead people in Dnipro,” said one woman who laid flowers at a memorial in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

In the West, anti-war mobilisations have generally been small. And blanket support for the war from all parties, from conservatives to Labour-type ones, has helped to suffocate opposition. The lack of major left protests has opened the door to the right—such as president Viktor Orban in Hungary—to look like the only significant anti-war focus.

Keir Starmer has been a staunch war-supporter from the start. But the Labour left has also played a particularly damaging role. When the war began 11 MPs including Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Zarah Sultana and Richard Burgon signed a Stop the War statement which opposed the invasion but also criticised Nato.

The Labour party chief whip told them off and, in a rapid victory for Keir Starmer, they immediately removed their signatures. Reports of how long it took for them to retreat vary from 30 minutes to an hour. No Labour MP has since joined anti-war demonstrations or rallies.

Goal of ‘national liberation’ has long since been replaced

Goal of ‘national liberation’ has long since been replaced. The intervention of the US and its allies has squashed any elements of national liberation and replaced them with their own interests. A win for Ukraine-Nato can only come about with Ukraine bled dry, its lands devastated, and its future as a permanent armed camp.

People’s rights and democracy are hollowed out under the pretext of “special war measures” and “national unity”. Already the Ukrainian government has outlawed several opposition parties, smashed trade union rights and introduced harsh measures against “deserters”.

Socialists should always have opposed the Russian invasion. But they also had to fight against Nato’s role and its proxy war. The main enemy for socialists is their own ruling class. In Russia that means stressing opposition to Putin without collapsing into support for Nato.

In Britain it means not giving an inch to the lies and warmongering of our rulers—but not prettifying the reactionary Russian invasion.  This, however difficult, is also true in Ukraine—and there is a very relevant precedent.

The First World War was triggered by the attack on Serbia by the might of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So should Serbian socialists have accepted the backing of imperialist forces that said they were springing to their support? The best of them didn’t.

The Serbian revolutionary socialist Dusan Popovic wrote, “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. Serbia is defending its life and its independence.

But he added, “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 could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character. As a result, we considered that it was our bounden duty to oppose the war resolutely.”

And the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said, “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.”

The Serbian revolutionaries in the parliament courageously voted against money for the war and thereby placed themselves against what was soon revealed as global carnage.

Cashing-in on bloody conflict

The more that the West becomes embroiled in the war, the more its politicians seek to put their economy on a war footing. Tory defence minister Ben Wallace is demanding that, when the British government sets its budget next month, it spends more on the military. He complained that military budgets had been “raided” during what he calls “times of peace.”

But now that Britain is squaring up alongside the US for confrontations with Russia and China, military spending should be central he says—and is more important than funding pay rises. Coming austerity “means it’s going to pinch all of us in all our departments because, you know, ultimately the answer cannot therefore be to flood everything with extra spending or more borrowing. But I also know that we have a growing threat on the world stage,” he said.

The Labour Party’s shadow defence minister John Healey is even more blunt than that. Earlier this month he promised that a Labour government would re-arm Britain’s military as it sends arms to Ukraine. He wants British military spending on “an urgent operational footing” to stockpile weapons for keeping the war going in Ukraine and—ominously—“for any future conflict.”

From Socialist Worker: Ukraine: Year one of a terrifying imperialist war

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rússia / ukraine / war