The Biden administration is whipping up fears of imminent war with Russia over Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s regime has amassed more than 100,000 Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO member states are funneling aid, shipping weaponry, and mobilizing troops to prepare Ukraine to confront Moscow’s forces. Europe and the world stand at the precipice of a terrifying conflagration.
In this explosive situation, socialists in the U.S. must take a clear stance against Washington’s warmongering first and foremost, while at the same time opposing Russia and its imperial ambitions. We should demand a peaceful settlement of the crisis that recognizes the right of Ukraine to self-determination and protects the rights of the country’s national minorities.
An Imperial Conflict
Washington’s claim that Russia is to blame for conflict is simply false. In reality, the U.S. bears primary responsibility. The Clinton and Bush administrations expanded NATO into Eastern Europe, removing it from Russia’s former “sphere of influence,” and subordinating it to Washington’s political, economic, and military domination.
Washington’s interests in Ukraine and indeed all of Eastern Europe are predatory in nature. It uses NATO to enforce its rule over a neoliberal order that exploits the region for cheap labor and natural resources.
NATO’s whole purpose, to paraphrase the infamous remark of its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, is “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The U.S., as always, cloaks this imperial project in the language of democracy and human rights. After its butchery and war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, such rhetoric rings hollow.
Russia’s interests are also predatory. Russia is a capitalist, petro-power that markets its weaponry to an array of nefarious allies like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose regime Putin backed in a counter-revolutionary war against the country’s people. Russia wants to reassert its control over its former sphere of influence against the U.S. and NATO.
Its claims of anti-imperialism are no more credible than Washington’s invocation of human rights. Putin’s suppression of the uprising in Kazakhstan is only the most recent example of his regime’s aspiration to reestablish the Russian state as a great power.
In this conflict between the U.S. and Russia, we should have no illusions about the EU. It is no “neutral arbiter.” Indeed, the EU’s attempt to integrate Ukraine into its economic orbit was one of the triggers of Russian aggression in the country. Today, it is true that some EU states are less eager for war over Ukraine compared to the U.S., but not out of any pacifist sentiment.
Most of these states have their own terrible history of colonialism. And many have collaborated with the U.S. in its brutal wars throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium, most horrifically in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their reluctance is more than anything the result of their dependence on Russian gas and oil. Germany, for example, has struck a deal to accept Russian gas through the newly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, though final approval is caught between their competing interest to appease European allies and the U.S., and their need for cheap Russian gas.
Dangerous and Protracted Conflict
While the U.S. and Russia are engaged in military brinkmanship, they are actively trying to cut a diplomatic deal. It is unlikely such a deal can be struck. The U.S. will not agree to Russia’s demand that NATO halt its expansion in Eastern Europe, and the U.S. will not tolerate Russia’s attempt to reclaim its former sphere of influence. These realities make war a dangerous possibility.
Each power has much to gain by ratcheting up hostilities. Putin wants to neutralize domestic opposition to his corruption, his enrichment of Russia’s billionaire class, and his repression of political resistance. He hopes a groundswell of great power nationalism against the U.S. and NATO will boost his flagging support at home. He is emboldened both by the fact that the West is deeply divided and, thanks to dramatic increases in prices for oil and natural gas, by Russia’s economic rebound.
Biden is overseeing a nation stumbling from one crisis to the next. He confronts a hawkish Republican opposition that has skewered him for being a weak imperial president, pointing to his shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan. All of this has undermined his attempt to unite U.S. allies to contain China and Russia. A show of weakness over Ukraine would further compromise that effort, while a show of strength might enable him to neutralize his domestic opposition, restore his popularity in a burst of nationalist war fervor, and reassert U.S. imperial leadership.
We must also recognize “counter-tendencies” that mitigate the likelihood of war. Neither the U.S. nor Russia believe actual military conflict is in their interests. It would disrupt a fragile world economy, especially in Europe.
It would play havoc with already tense relations between the U.S. and China, which has made clear it will stand with Russia. Thus, any conflict between the U.S. and Russia would draw in China on Moscow’s side, destabilizing the whole neoliberal global order.
The most likely outcome, therefore, is a protracted standoff over Ukraine and indeed the whole of Eastern Europe. The militarization of this standoff means that any number events, including accidents, could lead to the terrible unintended consequence of war.
The Main Enemy is at Home!
Socialists in the U.S. and around the world must take a clear anti-war position in this crisis based on the recognition that neither Washington nor Moscow represents a force for progress. Both sides have only predatory, imperialist ambitions.
Here in the U.S., our main task is to oppose our own government. The main enemy for U.S. workers and oppressed peoples is not in the Kremlin, but in Washington and on Wall Street—the U.S. state and its ruling class.
Predictably, the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party is lockstep behind Biden. Even some so-called progressives like Representative Ro Khanna are backing Biden, while others are silent. Only a few outliers openly oppose the Biden administration.
The Republicans on the whole have also rallied behind the administration. Thus, as is almost always the case, the two capitalist parties, who are at each other’s throats over domestic matters (except military budgets), find themselves united in asserting Washington’s imperial dominance.
Against this united front of the ruling class, we should follow the sage of advice of German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht. While he declared during WWI that “the main enemy is at home,” he made clear that it was not the only enemy. As an anti-imperialist internationalist he saw the fight of German workers as part of a global struggle of the whole working class and oppressed peoples against the capitalist rulers of every single country in the world.
In this spirit he declared, “The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.”
Our internationalist responsibilities in the face of war are to oppose the military designs of our own ruling class, while also assisting the efforts of progressive forces abroad to confront the maneuvers of their rulers. Only such a global struggle can rip up the capitalist roots of imperial rivalry and secure permanent peace. We must proclaim, in Liebknecht’s words, “Down with the war instigators here and abroad!”
Against Washington’s Rivals and for Self-Determination
We cannot afford the illusion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Too many on the left, including the Democratic Socialists of America’s International Committee, ignore Russia’s great power aspirations and how its aggression against Ukraine has precipitated the crisis. Even worse, some on the left continue to support Russia as a so-called “anti-imperialist power” with legitimate reasons for standing up to the US.
Such a stance betrays the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination against Russian threats as well as solidarity with Russian workers and oppressed peoples struggling against Putin’s tyrannical rule. It will also isolate anti-war activists from the majority of the US population who, while skeptical about warmongering by the U.S., also oppose Russian belligerence.
In this context, it bears repeating that Russia is a capitalist state with its own imperial interests, even if it is less powerful than the U.S. Let us not forget that Putin actively supports the far right throughout the world, including inside the Republican Party. It is not an accident that Tucker Carlson on Fox News is calling for the U.S. to back Russia against Ukraine.
Unconditional opposition to a war between the U.S. and Russia does not mean indifference toward the rights and freedom of the people of Ukraine. The country has been historically oppressed by Russia under both Tsarism and the Stalinist Soviet Union. Washington hopes to use it for its own imperial purposes.
The socialist left must therefore champion Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Only its people should decide their fate. Socialists should also defend the rights of national minorities within Ukraine, including Russian speakers in Donbas in the country’s eastern part. They must have official recognition of their language and have the right to political autonomy within Ukraine.
Neither the U.S. nor Russia will defend those rights. Indeed, their intervention has emboldened right wing forces on all sides, exacerbating and deepening national division and oppression. Any solution that respects Ukrainian independence and the rights of its national minorities must come from the Ukrainian people, not great powers like the U.S. or Russia.
Internationalism from Below
Socialists need to support progressive forces fighting for democracy and equality in Ukraine, building international solidarity from below against imperial intervention and war. Our allies are the unions, feminist groups, environmental, student and anti-war organizations operating inside both Russia and Ukraine and indeed throughout the world. To them we owe our solidarity.
Such a project is not utopian. There is widespread anti-war sentiment across the world. In the U.S., Washington’s long occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has instilled deep opposition to war among workers and oppressed people. In Russia, there has been mass protest and opposition to Putin since his last imperial adventure in Ukraine when he seized Crimea. In the EU, people are tired of warmongering after Iraq.
And throughout Eastern Europe there is opposition to their regimes as well as Russia. Three decades of Washington’s neoliberal policies in Eastern Europe have also undermined illusions that it provides any alternative to Moscow. Socialists everywhere should support all attempts to organize this discontent into active opposition to war and empire.