The War in Ukraine

Editorial, ASR 85 (Spring 2022)

By the time you read this, Russian forces may be in Kyiv, or not, depending on how the battle goes. Ukrainian resistance and Russian military incompetence has given the lie to Western tales of Russian military might that has fueled NATO expansionism since the end of the Cold War. 

What induced Putin to invade Ukraine now? The war has actually been ongoing since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and encouraged the establishment of the so-called Peoples’ Republics of Donets and Luhansk in the far east of Ukraine. Perhaps he wanted to move before Ukraine actually joined NATO, which would make military action against Ukraine even more perilous. Perhaps he just wants to carve out the Russian-speaking lands once named “Novorossiya” in southeastern Ukraine – lands that were annexed to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in 1922 in their program to break up the old Russian Empire (and weaken the monarchist and nationalist counter-revolution). Putin spoke in the run-up to the invasion of his desire to re-create the glory of the Russian Empire. The threat of NATO encirclement and dreams of re-establishing Russia as a major player on the international stage certainly goes to motivation in the commission of this crime.

Unfortunately the Ukrainian people are stuck in the middle of this contest between rival imperialisms. The atrocities committed by the invaders against civilians are displayed nightly on television for all to see, which adds to growing public pressure for NATO, and the U.S. in particular, to do something to help Ukraine. While the U.S. has been sending billions of dollars in military hardware (air defense systems, anti-tank weapons, drones, and small arms and ammunition; all of which is very profitable for the merchants of death, like Lockheed-Martin, Northrop whose stock price has risen 20% since the invasion), there is still pressure to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO have so far resisted this step for fear of getting into a shooting war with nuclear-armed Russia. But the nightly images of bombed-out apartment blocks, theaters and subway stations, and the reports of 3 to 6 million refugees and displaced persons fleeing the conflict, can have no other effect than to get people to clamor for something to be done – even if it means risking a wider war, including the risk of nuclear war. This is something we have to resist. The spread of the war to the Baltic States, Poland, Turkey, Belarus and Russia itself would not help the people of Ukraine one bit. It would only spread the misery.

What can be done? We can certainly condemn the Russian invasion and support the Ukrainian peoples’ resistance and the myriad grassroots initiatives being organized by the people to survive; but we can’t get behind ultra-right Ukrainian Nationalists like the Azov Battalion or the Right Sektor who high-jacked the Maidan rebellion of 2014 and who have wormed their way into the state security apparatus. They just provide Putin with fodder for his claims to be fighting in Ukraine to carry out ”de-nazification.” All nationalism is ultimately reactionary but defending the right of the Ukrainian people to defend themselves against the Russian invader is not the same as defending the Ukrainian state.

 The anarchist movement in Ukraine is small and scattered and divided in its response to the crisis. There are some reports that some Ukrainian anarchists/anti-fascists, in the name of resisting the Russians, have formed a military unit under the authority of the Ukrainian Army while others have opted to join the civilian-based resistance units. Still others are aiding refugees and people who are stuck in besieged cities and towns. The situation in Russia is just as bad. They don’t have bombs dropping on them, but to go out into the streets and protest the war is to risk their freedom. Anarchists have condemned the invasion and joined the anti-war protests and are looking for ways to inform their fellow Russians about what is really going on in Ukraine.

What about the labor movement? The state-supported labor federation in Russia, the FNPR, is supporting the invasion, though the smaller Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR) noted “with great bitterness” that “it is the working people of our countries, on both sides, who are suffering as a direct result of military conflict” and called for a cease-fire. While there have been protests against the invasion across Russia, there are few reports of labor action to stop it. The U.S. says its intelligence reports indicate that some troops have refused combat and sabotaged military equipment, and there are many reports of Belarus and Ukraine rail workers sabotaging rail lines to prevent the movement of troops and war supplies.

Meanwhile the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has put an embargo on loading or unloading ships carrying Russian cargo and the UK’s Unite union instructed workers at the Stanlow refinery not to handle a shipment of Russian oil carried by a German-flagged tanker. Swedish dockworkers have announced similar measures. These are actions that hit the Russian economy and can perhaps deprive the Russian war machine of needed cash.

As feeble as these actions appear in the face of the constant bombing of Ukrainian cities and the plight of the 3 million-plus refugees, they point the way to stopping this war. Can the anti-war protests in Russia combined with the refusal of workers around the world, who are in a position to do so, to handle Russian goods change the Putin regime’s calculus as to the price it is willing to pay for rebuilding the Russian Empire? What are the possibilities of mutiny in the Russian armed forces? There are reports of many of the conscripted soldiers arriving in Ukraine without realizing where they were being deployed. They were lied to. There have also been reports of logistical problems forcing Russian troops to beg for food and other necessities. With growing casualties, and claims of up to 15,000 deaths, the Russian rank-and-file soldier certainly has plenty of reason to rebel. Rebellion in the ranks of U.S. troops, combined with a growing anti-war movement at home, contributed to forcing U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s. And let’s not forget, the end of Czarism was partially a result of rebellion in the ranks of the armed forces fed up with being used as cannon fodder for the glory of the Empire. 

We don’t know how this conflict will end. Will NATO finally give in to popular pressure and try to enforce a no-fly zone, opening up a wider war? Will there be a negotiated settlement that gives Putin some concessions but that preserves a smaller but still independent Ukrainian state? Will Russia manage to occupy the capital, Kyiv, but face a years-long insurgent resistance to occupation, like the U.S. faced in Iraq following its invasion? Or will the Russian Army disintegrate, as disillusioned conscripts turn their guns around and return to Russia to settle accounts with their bosses? We don’t know. We can only continue to protest the Russian invasion; oppose NATO military engagement; support the resistance of the Ukrainian and Russian people to the Putin dictatorship; and urge labor to enforce an embargo on Russian goods. International working class solidarity is the key.

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