Workers’ Resistance to the Russia-Ukraine War from both sides of the East-West Conflict

ASR 86 is significantly delayed, though it will go in the mail before the year is out. In the meantime, we will bring you some articles slated for the issue…

By John Kalwaic

The government of the Russian Federation attacked Ukraine in February, allegedly in the name of “denazification.” This conflict had been slowly brewing since 2014 when the Euromaidan movement toppled the pro-Russian government and led to a government much more aligned with the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the West in general. The Russian Federation and its president, Vladimir Putin, who functions as a dictator, wants to recreate the old empire that collapsed when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, after which Ukraine became an independent country. Putin and his allies are trying to reestablish Russia’s former status as the Russian Empire from 1721-1917 and the Soviet Union from 1917-1991. Right before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government and allied states helped repress an uprising in Kazakhstan.

Many Ukrainians see NATO and the EU as being key to breaking from the old politics and corrupt régimes aligned with Russia. However, the EU has an unfortunate history of imposing rigid austerity measures on member states in its periphery, such as Greece and Iceland. The EU gave loans to struggling EU member countries but demanded harsh payments in return. Western European countries often do not look at eastern European countries on the same level and have traditionally had an imperialistic attitude towards them. Being part of NATO and the EU would also mean Ukraine would join the West’s and in particular the United States’ imperialist policies regarding the rest of the world. On the other hand, joining the Russian block would mean being aligned with their imperialistic policies toward the rest of the world. There could theoretically be some benefits in terms of civil liberties to Ukraine joining the EU. However, these benefits would be a lower priority to the EU and would be fiercely resisted by many of Ukraine’s nationalists and far-right elements.

Ultranationalists and neo-Nazis participate on both sides of the conflict, although Ukraine is more democratic and liberal than the Russian Federation. In Ukraine, as well as other parts of the former Soviet Union, many fascists romanticize the Third Reich or Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s and view Putin and the Russian Federation as still secretly “Communist.” Many of these fascists and Neo-Nazis were part of the Euromaidan uprising in 2014 and have now formed military battalions to fight the Russian invasion but are critical of Ukraine’s President Zelenskyi both because he is Jewish and because they see him as conciliatory towards Russia. Far-right nationalists often use Nazi imagery and have formed the Azov brigades. Ukraine has other non-Nazi military brigades with the same name. Far-right parties fared poorly in Ukrainian general elections after 2014 but remain a formidable force in the armed resistance. There is also far-right political sympathy with the Russian Federation and Putin, who they see as a “strong leader.” The right has bought into propaganda by the Russian government’s East-West culture war against “progressive values,” LGBTQIA rights and climate change activists.

Many Americans who support former president Trump fall into this category but not consistently, as well as many of the far-right groups in Europe. Neo-Nazis have also formed the Wagner Group, which fights on the Russian side of the invasion, flying in the face of the Russian government’s justification of the invasion being about denazification. Chechnyan warlord Magomed Tushayev from the Chechnyan National Guard was killed while fighting for the Russian side of the invasion on February 26. Tushayev was instrumental in the anti-gay purge and mass killing of allegedly LGBTQIA people in Chechnya.

The far right and fascists are not the only ones divided on the conflict. Some specific leftists, known as Tankies (going back to their support for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956), see the Russian government as more friendly to the legacy of the former Soviet Union. These Tankies also view the Ukrainian breakaway republics in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine as leftists. These Republics broke away when some ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine feared being marginalized by Ukrainian nationalists. Although most people in Ukraine speak both the Ukrainian and Russian languages, it is unclear who identifies as ethnic Ukrainian or ethnic Russian. These two breakaway republics are known as the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the People’s Republic of Lugansk. They have a mixture of authoritarian leftist ideology and Russian nationalism. Some have nationalized some industries, which has intrigued a segment of the international left.

The rule of the so-called “people’s Republics” is very authoritarian and has now led to these breakaway republics joining the Russian Federation. Russia coming to aid of the breakaway People’s Republics was one of the pretexts for the Russian invasion. Other leftists, in particular anarchists, have come to support Ukraine against the invasion. Many Ukrainian anarchists attempted to join the Euromaidan uprising of 2014, though they were often kept out by far-right elements. In 2022 some anarchists tried to organize armed groups to resist the Russian invasion. Black Flag is one example of anarchists involved in resistance to the invasion. Black Flag has been involved in street struggles with Nazis since 2016 and is involved with other social struggles in Ukraine. When the invasion started, Black Flag organized territorial defense as well as food relief efforts to help Ukrainians during war-time food shortages. Anarchists in Ukraine often draw from the tradition of Nestor Makhno, who led the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine. This group controlled parts of Ukraine known as the Ukrainian Free Territory during the Russian Civil war 1917-1921.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken a heavy toll on the world’s economy. The EU and NATO embargoes on Russia have driven the price of natural gas higher, leading many European countries to return to using coal for energy – which is even more harmful to the environment than natural gas. Because of the partial Russian occupation of Ukraine, there also has been a massive grain shortage because Ukraine is a major grain exporter. This shortage of grain has hurt many poorer countries around the world. The war has also created a massive exodus of refugees from Ukraine causing a humanitarian crisis. Both the Russian Federation as well as the United States and some European countries have nuclear weapons and the attack on Ukraine has brought the world closer to nuclear war. Sweden and Finland now have applications to join NATO as the attack on Ukraine have caused exactly what the Russian government wanted to prevent, NATO expansion.

Turkey is also a member of NATO, and its president/dictator Erdoğan will likely leverage its support for Ukraine against Russia to fend off any western criticism of his invasion of Syrian and Iraqi territory. Erdoğan will also use this leverage to repatriate any Kurdish political exiles in Europe. The Ukrainian government has also passed authoritarian measures and has put the country under martial law because of the war. The Ukrainian parliament passed anti-union legislation on July 20 that allows companies to directly deal with employees without unions in companies that had fewer than 250 employees. Some of these workers affected by this law have been the hardest hit by the Russian invasion.
There has been resistance to the Ukraine-Russia war on both NATO-aligned countries in Europe as well as in the Russian Federation and its ally Belarus. In Russia, an antiwar movement is brewing against the invasion of Ukraine although it faces severe repression. In February 2022 when the invasion was launched, thousands took to the streets to protest the war. Many of these protesters faced imprisonment. Many took to the streets of Europe and the United States to protest the invasion as well. In London, UK activists occupied the mansion of Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska on March 14. The activists attempted to squat the mansion and claim it for Ukrainian refugees but were quickly arrested by British police.

Maria Alyokhina, a member of the anarcho-feminist punk band Pussy Riot whose members were imprisoned before for actions against Putin’s régime, disguised herself as a food courier and fled Russia. Another member of Pussy Riot, Aisoltan Niyazova, was detained on May 29 in Croatia at the request of the Turkmenistan government, where she was from originally. Niyazova is being accused of stealing $40 million from the country; her supporters reject the accusation as false and politically motivated as Turkmenistan’s government is aligned with Russia. Croatian authorities later released Niyazova in June 2022. Maxim Smolin was arrested for allegedly attacking a military recruitment office in the Irkutsk region of Central Siberia with Molotov cocktails. More repression occurred when a militant union leader Krill Ukaintsev was arrested for leading an independent couriers union and leading rallies. The Russian government is now charging everyone who spreads “false information,” which is anything that conflicts with their pro-invasion narrative.

Resistance is not just in the streets of Russia’s major cities. In the Tartarstan region of the Russian Federation, a protest took place March 5 at the Turkish-owned Germont factory. Turkish guest workers protested low wages after the ruble dropped in value in February due to the Ukraine war and sanctions on Russia. The ruble had fallen from 79.5 rubles per $1 to 111 rubles per 1$. The strike stopped when the Germont factory bosses agree to a compromise that paid the guest workers 90 ruble to $1. Before the war started, Russia also experienced a strike by 50 Chinese guest workers against a state-owned oil company in Russia’s far east on November 7, 2021.

Soldiers have also had forms of resistance. In March 2022, a group of disgruntled soldiers intentionally ran over with a tank their commanding officer Colonel Yuri Medvedev, who was the commander of the 37 Motor Rifle Brigade. This was in retaliation to the casualties the 37 Motor Rifle took early in the war. Col Medvedev was then moved to a hospital with his legs broken. In April 2022 around 60 Russian paratroopers stationed in the Northern Russian base of Pskov refused orders to be deployed to Belarus in the Ukraine invasion. The former soldiers now face lengthy sentences and are branded as “traitors” by the Russian government.

In January of 2022, right before the invasion, Irish fishers threatened a protest where they would face down the Russian Navy for having navy drills in Irish fishing waters – causing the Russian Navy to relocate their operations. Some international activists have also joined in direct actions against the Russian invasion. Members of the environmentalists’ group Green Peace Nordic engaged in protests in the North Sea against oil tankers carrying Russian oil. They stormed two oil ships in March of 2022. One of the ships was the Waikik owned by the Greek shipping company, Cardiff Marine carrying 100,000 tons of crude oil from Russia to Rotterdam. The other ship was the SFC Baltic owned by Russia’s Sovcomflot and was transporting 85,000 tons of fuel oil from Russia to Antwerp. Activists had flares and sings aboard and around the Waikik and the SFC Baltic no war, no coal. One of the slogans, “oil is war,” mirrored the ingenious activist slogan, “water is life.” Many dockworkers’ unions across the world have also issued statements not to handle Russian war cargo.

While most of Europe and North America are opposed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia does have some allies. Belarus and its dictator president Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Lukashenko is even more autocratic than Putin; he was originally elected to power on a populist wave in 1994 as a leftist but he quickly turned into a post-soviet dictator. Lukashenko even changed the Belarusian flag to a similar version of what it was in the former Soviet Union. Lukashenko implemented draconian political measures and did nothing to help with the COVID-19 pandemic in his country. Lukashenko’s government has been a close ally of Putin though it is still an independent country and had been since 1991. Protesting war would be difficult in Belarus due to the autocratic régime in power. But Belarusian workers have found more militant ways to resist such as industrial sabotage. From when the war started railroad workers sabotaged railways in Belarus giving supplies to the invasion. The group that claimed responsibility for the sabotage in a telegram was called the Community of Railway Workers of Belarus. In March of 2022, the workers sabotaged signaling equipment and circuits to the Belarusian railroads, cyber-attacks were also included. In May of 2022, Lukashenko signed a law that made any attempt to sabotage the railroads an act of terrorism punishable by death. The Community of Railway Workers of Belarus was declared illegal and an “extremist organization” by the government.

Resistance to the war and the conflict between NATO and the Russian Federation is not just occurring on the Russian side of the war. A few NATO and EU countries have also experienced protests, strikes, and other forms of resistance to the war and its harmful effects. On June 26, thousands came out in Spain’s capital Madrid to protest a NATO summit being held there the following week. In Greece, workers at the TrianOSE Greek railroad company refused to transport American tanks destined for Ukraine from Alexandroupoli, a port in southern Greece in April of 2022. The TrianOSE bosses tried to get other workers to move the tanks but to no avail, even after threatening them with dismissal. Unfortunately, the TrianOSE bosses finally succeeded in bringing scabs in to move the tanks, but the workers who resisted threw red paint on the tanks. The United States and the EU have both had an imperialist history with Greece. The United States backed a military dictatorship there in the 1960s while the EU in particular Germany placed harsh austerity measures on Greece in the 2010s.

Another NATO and EU country that has experienced working class resistance to the war in Ukraine is Italy. Italy has a new radical labor movement known as the “unions of the base” which also include many immigrants. Port workers have been involved with these unions and have sometimes refused to move war cargo to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen and now have also taken part in actions against moving war cargo to Ukraine. On March 31, 2022, port workers in the City of Genoa affiliated with the USB Italian Trade Union observed a 24-hour strike protesting the usage of the port for imperialist wars. Earlier in March 2022, dock workers at the Port of Genoa protested the disembarking of camouflage tanks at the port from a ferry coming from Palermo, allegedly bound for Ukraine. On March 14, cargo workers at the Pisa airport refused to load cartons of arms and ammunition in planes disguised as giving humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The USB union has stated, “on behalf of the interest of the US and NATO, the Mario Draghi government in the country is dragging Italy into more imperialist conflicts with the sending of our resources and the adoption of sanctions. The price of such conflict will be paid by workers with austerity and layoffs. As port workers have no intention of staying indifferent in the face of the new war winds that are blowing in Europe again.” On May 20, 2022, the union Si Cobas and other Italian unions launched a one-day general strike all over Italy against the supplying of military weapons by the United States and other NATO countries. The one-day general strikes also opposed the Italian and EU governments’ military spending on weapons for the Ukraine-Russia war. In an interview, an international representative of Si Cobas Roberto Luzzi stated that “our solidarity is for Ukrainian people but not the governments.”

The major powers of NATO/EU on one side and the Russian Federation and its allies on the other side are both fighting over Ukraine and who has dominance in the world. Both have ulterior motives, and their actions are suspect, The Russian invasion is what poses an immediate threat to Ukraine right now. It is important to support the Ukrainian people while critically evaluating the motivations of political actors on both sides.

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