The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The War in Ukraine, a New Step Toward a Generalized War?

Apr 21, 2022

Translated from an article by Lutte Ouvrière, a French Trotskyist organization, appearing in Lutte de Classe, #223, April 2022.

While multiplying arms deliveries to Ukraine and glorifying the resistance of its population, European and American leaders repeat over and over, “There is no question of deploying NATO troops or planes in Ukraine.”1 Directly responsible for the spiral that led Putin to invade Ukraine, they want to avoid a war between themselves and Russia. The next world war may not yet have started, but it is written in capitalism’s genes, and humanity is getting closer to it. On the military field as in the moral recruitment of populations, the war in Ukraine is already serving as a dress rehearsal for a wider war, at the same time that it exacerbates all the contradictions of this unjust social order.

The U.S. Plays Three-Card Monte with Russia, Using the Skin of the Ukrainians

Putin’s decision to launch the bloody and fratricidal invasion of Ukraine on February 24 may have surprised even well-informed European generals. However, Western leaders can hardly claim that this decision was the result of a whim. Putin—who led the restoration of a strong Russian state in the service of the bureaucrats and oligarchs who pledged allegiance to him after the disintegration of the Yeltsin decade—has for years denounced the double game of the imperialist leaders. For example, he justified the annexation of Crimea by declaring on March 18, 2014: “They lied to us on several occasions, they made decisions behind our backs, they presented us with a fait accompli. This happened with the expansion of NATO toward the east, as well as with the deployment of military infrastructures on our borders.2 Putin was referring to promises made in February 1990 during discussions on German reunification between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Baker promised that NATO’s military jurisdiction “would not extend ... not one inch to the east.”

The United States very quickly turned its back on this commitment. Taking advantage of Yeltsin’s political weakness and the economic crisis in Russia, and using the pretext of demands made by the new governments of the states in Eastern Europe, the U.S. started the process of expanding NATO eastward in 1997. One after the other, NATO brought in six of the Soviet Union’s former East European buffer states and then three Baltic countries. After 2001, under cover of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. established permanent military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, temporary ones in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan on the Soviet Union’s Asian border. The so-called color revolutions in 2003–2004 enabled them to gain a foothold in Georgia and Ukraine.

In February 2014, the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych, following the occupation of Maidan Square in the center of Kyiv, strengthened the American position in Ukraine. The large demonstrations involved many different layers of Ukrainian society, but they were led by reactionary politicians, advised and financed by representatives of Germany and the United States, and far-right groups had a visible presence. The Russophobic declarations and measures of the new power served Putin as a pretext to annex Crimea, with its Russian-speaking population, and for the pro-Russians of Donbass to secede. This is when the war in Ukraine really started. Between 2014 and 2021, the United States sent 2.7 billion dollars in aid to the Ukrainian military. In addition to weapons, drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, they sent instructors to train and supervise regular soldiers and ultra-nationalist militias engaged in the Donbass. Within a few years, the United States and its NATO allies had reconstituted, modernized and equipped the Ukrainian army.

NATO increased military maneuvers in Eastern Europe, like Operation Anaconda organized in 2016 in Poland and the Baltic countries with 30,000 soldiers, including 14,000 Americans. Since 2017, the Pentagon has quadrupled its spending in this region, in particular to deploy a 4,000-strong armored brigade. In June 2021, Anthony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, repeated: “We support Ukraine’s membership in NATO.”3 These military interventions by the United States in a region on Russia’s immediate borders could only be perceived as a threat by Putin. As early as 2015, a French army officer warned: “In Ukraine, today’s Russia can in no way agree to back down before Washington, at the risk of reproducing the cycle of renunciations that led to the implosion of the USSR.... This thus demonstrates that the Kremlin will always choose escalation rather than run the risk of seeing Kiev win.... Very clearly, the United States is taking a risk by seeking to win an arms race by using Ukraine against Russia, in particular to try to defeat it in its vicinity.”4

Decided on by Putin, a cynical and brutal ex-KGB officer, the military aggression against Ukraine, which is criminal for both the Ukrainian and the Russian people, is the fruit of imperialism’s policy. American leaders had prepared for the eventuality of the current war. Less than 48 hours after the Russian invasion, the U.S. military was shipping 17,000 anti-tank missiles from storage in Germany and Biden was issuing a new 350 million dollar credit to Ukraine.

Although they have lit the fuse, Western leaders do not want to engage in this war themselves. The refusal of the United States to allow Poland to supply Ukraine with the MiG-21 planes requested by President Zelenskyy is significant. The United States multiplies its military budget allocations, sends sophisticated weapons, maintains and no doubt increases the number of its military advisers, but it does not want to risk being considered a belligerent by Russia. It does not want to engage in a direct confrontation. Even Ukraine’s entrance into NATO, which Blinken encouraged nine months ago, is no longer on the agenda, since this eventuality was the main cause of Putin’s intervention. Steered by his American sponsors who are obviously seeking a negotiated outcome to the war, Zelenskyy declared on March 15: “We have heard for years that the doors of NATO were open, but we understood that we could not join. It is the truth and it must be recognized.” In short, Western leaders threw Ukrainians into the lion’s den and then closed the exits. They boast about the Ukrainians’ courage and patriotic commitment facing Russian aggression, but leave them to fight alone.

This prudence does not result from a sense of responsibility by Western leaders worried about starting a nuclear war—as the media repeatedly asserts. Time and time again, from Vietnam to Iraq, from Libya to Yemen and Afghanistan, they were ready to destroy entire countries, to decimate populations and to use weapons of mass destruction, directly or through their regional allies. Their prudence today can quickly become a headlong rush into warmongering tomorrow. Everything will depend on the duration and evolution of the war in Ukraine, its possible extension to other territories, particularly those of the former Soviet Union, the impact on the world economy of the fighting and sanctions against Russia, the progress of the negotiations, the attitude of Putin, the bureaucrats and oligarchs around him. To date, using Ukraine to wage war on Putin and taking advantage of a more solid Ukrainian resistance than expected, the United States has achieved its objectives: to weaken Russia, to strengthen the domination of U.S. trusts in Eastern Europe and in the world, to reinforce their capitalists in the military-industrial sector, while also reasserting U.S. supremacy over their European allies in a world economy in crisis.

Europe and the United States

The war in Ukraine shows once again that the United States is the world’s Police Chief, including over Europe. The media made a lot of noise about the European Union’s (EU) decision—a decision described as historic—to take 450 million euros and then finally a billion from the so-called “European peace facility” budget (sic) to cover the cost of weapons sent to Ukraine. But the United States was increasing its military and economic aid to Ukraine up to 14 billion dollars. As for the economic sanctions, the European leaders ended up taking them reluctantly, excluding gas and oil so far, so great is their dependence on raw materials and the presence of their industrial and commercial groups in Russia. Macron and German Chancellor Scholz, representatives of the two main powers of the EU, may have protested a bit and pretended to speak to Putin, but they had no choice except to follow Biden’s policies more or less obediently.

It is not a question of the individuals in power or their political orientation, but of the balance of power. The governments of the Eastern European countries have turned to NATO and the United States to ensure their defense, and not to the EU, because the EU remains an assembly of competing countries that does not have a common army. After years of palaver, the countries of the EU have announced the adoption of a “strategic compass” with the aim of harmonizing European defense and creating, perhaps, a rapid intervention force, or even a single command. This word “compass” by itself shows that European defense is only a chimera. As a former Secretary of Defense and National Security under Hollande recently put it: “Europe’s problem is that each country is building a small army in its own corner with unnecessary redundancies and structural costs.”5 A former EU ambassador regretted that Europe has “a multitude of armored vehicles, fighter planes, and that the European military industry is poorly integrated.”6 These diplomats, like the top military people who issued multiple op-ed pieces in the newspapers, are worried about Europe’s dependence on American decisions, but they can’t do anything about it.

This war underlines the extent to which the divergent interests of French, German and British imperialisms prevent them from having a common army. Without even mentioning the potentially different war objectives between these countries, the simple construction of tanks, missiles, or fighter planes gives rise to bargaining and highlights rivalries. No sooner had Olaf Scholz announced an expenditure of 100 billion euros to re-equip the German army than the German Arrny announced it had ordered F-35 planes from the American Lockheed Martin, to the great displeasure of France’s Dassault, which wanted to sell Rafales, or the Franco-German-Spanish consortium (around Dassault, Safran, Airbus, and Indra), which is discussing the production of a European military aircraft, the Scaf.

The Arms Race

On this ground, as on so many others, the war in Ukraine is reshuffling the cards and whetting appetites. Militarism and the hypertrophy of defense budgets have for years been one of the responses to the crisis of the capitalist economy. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2020, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, military expenditures worldwide had reached almost two trillion euros, or the equivalent of 250 euros for each human being on the planet, infants included. NATO countries alone spent over one trillion dollars. The current war will change the scale of these budgets. This unprecedented arms race demonstrates that all the imperialist leaders, governments, their generals and their diplomats are preparing future slaughters. It is significant that the invasion of Ukraine was greeted on the stock market by a surge in the shares of Thales, Dassault, Lockheed Martin and other arms dealers. Practically all the countries have announced an increase in their defense budgets, which all of them want to raise to 2% of their GDP. Denmark wants to join the “defense of Europe” and is also increasing its military budget. A few months earlier, Japan had announced an increase of six billion for its armies and the doubling of its defense budget under pressure from the United States.

Europe is not the only continent from which the sound of boots comes. By deploying its naval air armada in the China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait, the United States exerts the same type of military pressure on China that it exerted on Russia.7 During the vote at the U.N. to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China abstained, which earned it the wrath of Westerners who urged it to choose its side. Both a competitor and a partner of the imperialist countries, Xi Jinping’s China will do anything not to take sides, because it has no interest in breaking with either the United States or Russia. Western sanctions against Putin may allow China to strengthen its trade with Russia. On the other hand, the war in Ukraine is a factor of instability which aggravates the world economic crisis and weakens the Chinese capitalists.

Workers and War

For Ukrainian workers, the war is a cataclysm which directly threatens their existence. The brutality of the Russian invasion, the destruction of homes, places of refuge, hospitals, pushed even Russophile Ukrainians into the arms of nationalist militias. In Russia, the multiple effects of the Western embargo are added to the anguish felt by the families of soldiers who risk their lives for the interests of the bureaucracy and the privileged of the country; added to the sacrifices imposed by the authorities in the name of the war efforts; added to the reinforcement of the police dictatorship over all opponents. For the hundreds of thousands of people who worked for Western companies that have ceased operations, the war means layoffs and unemployment. For many others, it will mean additional shortages and difficulties in daily life. Everyone will suffer from an increase in the cost of goods, and not only of imported products.

For hundreds of millions of people in poor grain-importing countries, the war in Ukraine is already causing the price of bread to soar, with the threat of famine. This surge is primarily the result of the speculative operations by the quartet of multinationals that control 90% of the world cereals market. In a few weeks, a ton of wheat went from 280 to 380 euros. In Egypt, which imports 80% of its wheat from Russia or Ukraine, the price of flour has increased by 50% in a few days.

For the workers of Europe or America, the war in Ukraine is reflected in an acceleration of inflation caused by the speculative operations of war profiteers, like those in the energy or agribusiness sectors. By aggravating the disorganization of the economy caused by Covid and the economic war waged by the large capitalist groups to monopolize the maximum of surplus value, this war intensifies the social war big business is waging on the workers. It exacerbates the rivalry between the capitalists and the powers that defend their interests. The disruptions in supply chains caused by the fighting in Ukraine or by the sanctions against Russia are already serving to impose periods of unemployment and further setbacks in working conditions.

This war is used by all governments to try to unite the population behind them, in the name of defending democratic values against Putin’s dictatorship, in the name of peace or of the threat of nuclear war. The legitimate emotion people feel seeing images of corpses, destruction and crowds of refugees; the outpouring of disinterested solidarity to help the latter; the staging of volunteers who sign up to go and fight in Ukraine are all used to try to create national unity and to prepare minds for the idea that it is legitimate to defend one’s country and that one must be ready to die for it.

This national unity is far from certain today. In France, the distrust and even hatred toward Macron, expressed during the yellow vests movement, and which persisted during the two years of authoritarian management of the pandemic and its use to keep workers in line, hinder adherence to national unity. A whole fraction of the working class of this country, because of its links with the Maghreb, Africa, or the Middle East, is legitimately revolted by the differences in treatment between Ukrainian refugees and those from the Middle East. These workers know the responsibility of imperialism and its allies in the destruction of Iraq, Libya, Yemen or Syria. This rejection of imperialism, when it is not based on class consciousness, leads some of them to see in Putin, quite wrongly, an anti-imperialist champion.

However, in various circles, including among the workers, one could hear support for the restoration of compulsory military service. Sweden has just brought it back into force; in Germany, the governing parties are discussing it. The International Legion for Ukraine created by Zelenskyy seems to have found recruits, and not only among former soldiers or extreme right-wing activists in search of adrenaline. There is no massive influx and we are still far from a general militarization of the population. But one of the objectives of Western governments—which praise the heroism of the Ukrainians and the imposition of a martial law that prevents all men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving Ukraine—is to prepare minds for war. Two years ago, General Burkhard, current Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, noted that young French officers were “not hardened enough.” A training officer at Saint-Cyr regretted that “French society has moved away from tragedy and history.”8 The war in Ukraine is used by the officers of the bourgeoisie to give crash courses in “tragedy and history.”

Revolutionary Communists and War

This conditioning is favored by the agitation of various political currents which support delivering armaments to Ukraine, including those, classified on the left, which distance themselves from NATO. Thus Together!, the party of Clémentine Autain, writes in a leaflet in yellow and blue, colors of the Ukrainian flag, dated March 8: “We say yes to the deliveries of defensive weapons requested by the resistance and the government of Ukraine.” The groups that inherited the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (SU) take the same position: “Solidarity and support for the armed and unarmed resistance of the Ukrainian people. Delivery of arms at the request of the Ukrainian people to fight against the Russian invasion of their territory.”9 Biden, Macron and other Western leaders did not wait on Together! or the USec to actually deliver weapons. They had already provided weapons without limit to the army of Zelenskyy—a “democrat” who fits right into the portrait gallery of corrupt presidents who have ruled Ukraine for more than twenty years—and to the Ukrainian territorial militias largely controlled by the extreme right.

Calling for “arms for Ukraine,” without distinguishing between the opposing social interests in this vast country, means to assert that the Russian invasion has suppressed all class struggle in Ukraine. It asserts that the interests of the millions of workers—agricultural workers in the former privatized kolkhozes, steelmakers from Azovstal to Mariupol, miners from the Donbass, tram drivers from Kyiv or Kharkiv or retirees with poverty-level pensions—are the same as those of the Ukrainian oligarchs, who went from being pro-Russian to being pro-Western.

We are incapable, from afar and without militant implantation in the country, to propose a policy to the workers of Ukraine which corresponds to their interests. But we can nevertheless affirm some axes of what such a policy could be: to address the Russian soldiers, trying to detach them from Putin and the generals who are organizing this fratricidal war; to rely on the multiple personal, family, economic and cultural ties that still unite Russians and Ukrainians rather than exacerbating Ukrainian national feelings; to refuse any alignment behind Zelenskyy, emphasizing his dependence on the Ukrainian bourgeois and oligarchs, emphasizing everything which is anti-worker in the policy he has pursued since he was elected, and emphasizing his relations with the extreme-right territorial militias and, basically, with the imperialist powers that prepared the current catastrophe.

Revolutionary communists are not pacifists. The workers struggling to defend their right to exist, facing foreign occupying armies or facing their national exploiters, will have to find the ways and means to arm themselves. But the question of weapons is linked to that of power. Some people, including Yannick Jadot, have compared the fight against Franco’s troops in Republican Spain during 1936 to the situation in Ukraine in 2022 to justify sending weapons. In Spain, it was not the weapons that were missed the most, but a revolutionary policy. Before being militarily crushed by Franco, Spanish workers and peasants were politically disarmed by the Republicans, Socialists and Stalinists who refused to endorse the expropriation of the big landlords and capitalists; and who refused to proclaim the independence of so-called Spanish Morocco; and who took or regained by force control over the workers’ militias and the International Brigades, submitting them to the officers of the Republican army. A working-class policy would have been, as it was during the Russian revolution of 1917, a powerful lever to pull the rug out from under Franco’s feet. Long before they need physical weapons, workers need a political weapon: the awareness that they must organize themselves separately, defend their class interests, take power over all of society. This is true in times of peace, it remains so when war breaks out.

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s armies has tipped the world into a new era, that of an accelerating militarism and a march toward a generalized war. Confronting the militarization of the whole society in every country of the world just before the Second World War, the Transitional Program (1938) drafted by Trotsky advocated: “Not one man, not one penny for the bourgeois government! Not an armaments program, but a program of useful public works! Complete independence of workers’ organizations from military-police control!” And again: “Military training and arming of workers and farmers under the immediate control of the workers’ and farmers’ committees. Creation of military schools for the training of commanders among the toilers, chosen by workers’ organizations. Substitution for the standing army by a people’s militia, indissolubly linked up with the factories, mines, farms, etc.”

Workers and young people must not allow themselves to be enlisted, confined under the control of officers and non-commissioned officers who inculcate in them obedience to the hierarchy, love of country and a few other virtues such as hatred of foreigners, machismo or alcoholism.… If they have to learn how to handle arms, this must be carried out at their place of work or study and by trainers that they have chosen. In wars between imperialist brigands or between powers which are ready to throw their people into war to preserve their access to markets and raw materials, workers must base themselves on this general principle: “the main enemy is in our own country!”

1 Statement by Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, quoted by Les Échos, March 17, 2022.

2 Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2018.

3 Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2022.

4 Colonel Philippe Sidos, “A strategic vision of military aid to Ukraine,” National Defense Review, #779, April, 2015.

5 Louis Gautier in Les Échos, March 14, 2022.

6Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador, interviewed by TV5 Monde on January 28, 2022.

7 “China–United States: Fierce but Unequal Competition”, Lutte de Classe, #221, February 2022.

8 Comments by General Patrick Collet quoted by Le Monde, September 7, 2020.

9 Press release of March 1, 2022 from the executive bureau of the Fourth International.