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

Against the War in Ukraine and Its Generalization

Feb 21, 2023

The following is a translation of an article appearing in Issue #230 of Lutte de Classe, the political journal of Lutte Ouvrière, the French Trotskyist organization with which SPARK is in solidarity.

One year ago, on February 24, 2022, Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine. “To denazify it,” he said, pointing to the influence nationalists had acquired there, the heirs to Banderism, the pro-Nazi movement that had massacred Jews, Russians and Poles from 1941 to 1945. In reality, he wanted to sweep away the government in Kiev, because he had not been able to get it to renounce its perspective of joining NATO, which would have allowed NATO to install its missiles 700 kilometers from Moscow.

One year later, Putin’s army holds 20% of Ukrainian territory, his economy has resisted Western sanctions, but Putin has not achieved his objective. And, with his bloody contempt for the peoples, denying even the existence of a Ukrainian nation, he will have reinforced the feeling of belonging to Ukraine, which until then barely existed, despite the efforts of the authorities and the nationalists.

The relative failure of Putin results, we often hear, from the mobilization of a people committed to defending their homeland while the Russian soldiers are not so motivated. All this is true. But it is only a part of reality. Ukraine has held out, despite an industry and an army that were much less strong than those of the Kremlin, because the 30 or so members of NATO—including the United States, Germany, Great Britain and France—have armed, financed and supported it in many ways. And they continue to do so, as Biden made clear on February 20 when he appeared in Kiev.

In delivering more and more sophisticated and effective armaments to Ukraine, the NATO countries are pursuing the immediate goals to avoid the defeat of Ukraine and to make the war last in order to weaken Russia and, if possible, bring Russia to its knees. NATO’s policy in Ukraine also shows the entire world what it costs not to bow to the imperialist order. Biden’s words in Warsaw: "Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia," his open refusal to negotiate with Putin, the fact that the Western leaders have all adopted the same posture and the same language lately—serves this end.

The military escalation directed by the West of course serves the war in Ukraine. But it also serves as a backdrop for the battle of minds, if only through the trivialization of a war that is settling in to last, in a Europe that has not known war since 1945, except for the NATO bombing of Serbia a quarter of a century ago. The Western world has the economies of its major countries on a war footing, in a capitalist world that is sinking into crisis, from which its leaders see no way out. Certainly, the leaders of the capitalist world have not yet chosen to rush headlong toward a generalized conflagration, like the one that led to the First and Second World Wars. But all the preparations for the Ukrainian conflict hold the possibility of precipitating humanity into a new world war—at any moment.

The Ukraine war already serves as a training ground, letting the imperialist States prepare for the possibility of a so-called high-intensity confrontation, which the military and political leaders have explicitly envisaged. It also serves the leaders of imperialism to strengthen blocs of allied States, with their networks of bases around Russia and China, calling on other States to join these military alliances and to adopt packages of sanctions against Russia, even when this goes against their own interests and against those of their own capitalists. This can be seen in the stopping of Russian gas and oil imports, the ban on trade with Russia, the ban on maintaining industrial activities there—all of which penalizes European countries, including Germany and France, while benefiting the United States.

If there is one new fact, crucial for the future of humanity, which has emerged in the heat of this war, it is the rapid evolution of the world situation toward militarization. This reminds us of the words that Jaurès pronounced just before the beginning of the carnage of World War I: "Capitalism carries war like the cloud carries the storm.” As relevant today as it was then.

A Long-Declared War

Putin responded in a monstrous way to the continuous pressure of imperialism in Eastern Europe by launching his missiles and tanks on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. But imperialism had been preparing this confrontation for a long time, knowing it would eventually plunge Ukraine into war. Ukraine’s inhabitants were made hostages in a rivalry pitting the U.S.-led camp against Russia, with its dictator, its bureaucrats and its looting oligarchs. Neither side respects the right of the peoples to decide their own destiny, even if imperialism would have us believe it does so.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel does not believe it. She says so in an interview in Die Zeit of December 7, 2022, in which she recalls the crisis that began in February 2014: the then Ukrainian president, challenged by the street and abandoned by sectors of the bureaucracy and the oligarchy, had to flee. When the power that emerged from the movement centered at Maidan Square aligned with the United States, Putin took back Crimea and pushed the Donbass to secede. The Minsk agreements—which Merkel and Hollande sponsored, and to which Moscow and Kiev both subscribed—were supposed to settle the dispute peacefully. She may have claimed this at the time, but she now admits they were a trap. “Putin,” she explains, “could have easily won [then]. And I doubt very much that NATO would have had the capacity to help Ukraine as it does today. [...] It was obvious to all of us that the conflict was going to be frozen, that the problem was not solved, but that it simply gave Ukraine precious time." And it gave time to NATO to prepare for its confrontation with Moscow.

The conflict had been brewing since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. From that moment on, the United States and the European Union maneuvered to draw Eastern Europe into NATO’s orbit. White House advisors explained that Ukraine had to be detached from Russia, so that Russia would no longer have the means to become a great power again. However, after the Yeltsin years (1991—1999) of economic collapse, the break-up of the State and the humiliating subjugation of the country by the West, Putin and the Russian bureaucracy wanted to restore the territory of what under the tsars had been called “Great Russia.”

A first attempt by the West to suck in Ukraine took place in 2004 under the aegis of the Yushchenko-Timoshenko team, which had toppled the pro-Russian Yanukovych. Their rule was short-lived. The population, disgusted, ended up recalling Yanukovych, only to drive him out again in 2014. This time it was for the benefit of the Western camp. And it meant war. In the Donbass, where the Kiev army and far-right troops fought against the separatists, the war left 18,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees. Eight years later, the whole country was plunged into horror.

American and European leaders knew that Moscow could not accept a Ukraine that had become a forward base for NATO. They knew what deadly risks their policy implied for the Ukrainians, and for the Russian youth that would be sent to kill and be killed. By arming, training and advising the Ukrainian army and the troops of fascist nationalists, NATO had made this war inevitable ever since 2014.

The Western leaders did not care. Making war with the skin of other peoples is a constant in the policy of the colonial and later the imperialist powers. We see it once again in the blood and mud of the trenches in Ukraine, in the ruins of the apartment blocks of Kharkiv, Kherson or Donetsk, which the missiles of both sides have brought down on their inhabitants. Western media retell the fable of a sudden conflict between the small, isolated and unarmed Ukrainian David, who was attacked without reason by the big, bad Russian Goliath. On the occasion of the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, we were treated to a steamroller of unvarnished propaganda. The camp of Evil (Russia, Iran and especially China) was pictured as facing the camp of Good (the powers that, dominating the planet, guarantee the perpetuation of the system of capitalist exploitation in the name of democracy). And these “good guys” claim to safeguard countries like Ukraine, as long as they follow in lock step behind the imperialist powers.

This massive propaganda aims to ensure that Western public opinion unreservedly accepts the lie that the war waged by the great powers against Russia by means of the Ukrainians is a war in defense of a people under attack. Beyond the immediate issue of the war, these same States have an equally important objective: to chain their own populations to their war chariot, within the Ukrainian framework, while having in mind wider conflicts to come.

The Ukrainian conflict has all the makings of a prologue to a more or less generalized confrontation, for which politicians, generals and commentators had already designated the main target: China. Thus, Les Echos of February 15 ran a front-page article headlined: “For America, China is once again enemy number one.” The same supposition is repeated regularly in all the big U.S. papers, starting with the Washington Post, which still speaks for the bourgeoisie’s political staff.

From One War to a Larger One

The steppes, the cities and the sky of Ukraine are used by the Western staffs and industrialists to confront Russia, through Ukrainian soldiers—and also to test their armored vehicles, artillery pieces, command, communication, interception and intelligence systems, and to draw the necessary lessons. They also see it as a chance to get rid of old ammunition and equipment. Consumed by the fighting in Ukraine, this justifies the escalation of arms deliveries and the explosion of military budgets, boosting the war industry.

This situation allows States to receive orders, sometimes enormous, from countries dependent on more powerful protectors and the leading arms markets. Poland proposed to give Ukraine old Soviet-designed MiG-29s, replacing them with American F-16s, and promised to deliver old model Leopard tanks, replacing them with new ones. Obviously, this does not suit French companies Dassault or Leclerc, which struggle to find buyers for their military production. It simply shows—as Biden emphasized when he and German Chancellor Scholtz promised to deliver tanks to Kiev at the same time—that though countries are allied within NATO, and even anxious to show their unity, the imperialist States remain rivals in this field, as in others. The United States has reserved the lion’s share for itself, with arms orders that have doubled in 2022, in line with its industrial power, its military supremacy—and the wars to come.

The arms orders for Ukraine, which are added to those upgrading each Western army, serve to keep Putin in check as well as to transform Western economies into “war economies” at an accelerated pace, according to the very terms of the program set by the NATO defense ministers at their February 14—15 summit in Brussels. For months, Western political leaders, and even more so, their military leaders have been publicly and concretely discussing a generalized war that they know is approaching. Thus, in Brest, Admiral Vandier, French Chief of Naval Staff, said to the new class of officer cadets: "You are entering a Navy that will probably experience fire at sea.” Some even put forward a date for that war, such as General Minihan, chief of air operations in the United States, "I hope I’m wrong, but my gut tells me we’ll be facing off in 2025" with China.

Ukraine: An Appalling Human, Social and Economic Toll

The war in Ukraine has already killed or wounded 180,000 Russian soldiers, and nearly as many Ukrainian soldiers, while killing more than 30,000 civilians (estimated by the head of the Norwegian army, speaking for NATO). Seven and a half million Ukrainians have taken refuge in Poland, Slovakia, Austria, etc., and in Russia. The overwhelming majority are women and children. Men between the ages of 18 and 60, who can be mobilized, are forbidden to leave Ukraine. There are also several million people displaced inside the country itself.

Many cities, large and small, have been bombed, sometimes razed to the ground, and the energy infrastructure has been hit everywhere, plunging the population into darkness and cold. The destruction of roads, bridges, railroads, ports, airports, businesses, schools, hospitals and housing reached an amount estimated at 326 billion dollars last September. It has obviously increased since then. Added to the destruction is corruption: enormous misappropriations made by Ukrainian ministers, generals, bureaucrats and oligarchs.

Zelensky acknowledged the corruption at the top of the State apparatus when he dismissed part of his government, including the Ministers of Defense and Reconstruction, and other top officials. This did not change the nature of a State that is one of the most corrupt in the world: more corrupt than the Russian State, it is said, which is no small thing. Zelensky had no choice but to dump them. A high-level American commission had just arrived in Kiev to check what was happening to the colossal sums the U.S. was providing. Even if the American State is extremely rich, it also has its own top layer (arms manufacturers, financiers, high-flying capitalists) and does not want too much of the war profit to go into the pockets of Ukrainian bureaucrats, oligarchs and mafiosi.

At the very moment when the West announced it would supply tanks to the Ukrainian military, no one wanted the regime to appear as it really is: bandits prospering on the backs of the population. Victim of the bombardments and exactions by the Russian army, the Ukrainian population can’t help but realize that they are also victimized by parasites in the high Ukrainian bureaucracy, by crooked ministers, and by thieving generals. The wealthy enjoy their fortunes abroad in peace, while their police henchmen round up men, able-bodied or not, for the front. Due to heavy casualties, Kiev called up more than 30,000 conscripts in January, far more than in previous months. The resistance that this provokes is not surprising. The army was initially able to count on volunteers, but those it is now mobilizing are, by definition, not volunteers.

In their wildly enthusiastic comments about a regime that is supposed to embody democracy and the unity of a people behind its leaders, the Western media, with few exceptions, drew a modest veil over facts that could spoil their lying picture.

Social Disaster

In 1991, the USSR collapsed, undermined by the activity of millions of bureaucrats who were on a rampage to take over State property, while their leaders carved out national fiefdoms where they would rule with no accountability. In Ukraine, the bureaucrats posted signs everywhere, trumpeting: “We are 52 million.” This was supposed to reassure a country that had become independent, without really having wanted to be, its economy cut adrift from the one that had been built in an integrated, interdependent manner during more than 70 years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Its population found themselves cut off from the Russian people, to which they had been united by a long, common history.

Instead of being a leap into a better world, as promised by the propaganda, for the population it was a plunge into misery, chaos, unemployment, and the gangsterism in power. With the brutal fall in the standard of living, life expectancy collapsed, mortality soared. The population decreased in absolute numbers, as in Russia, without the relative stabilization that eventually came about in Russia, reversing the trend. On the eve of the current war, Ukraine had 45 million inhabitants, including millions of seasonal and full-time economic migrants. One year later, there are only 38 million.

How many Ukrainians who have gone abroad will be able to or want to return, and when? This will depend on the course of the war, and no one knows when it will end. But, whatever the outcome, it will not put an end to the demographic catastrophe that has struck the country for 30 years, a situation it shares with most of the former Soviet republics, and whose roots are social and economic. The regime of the Russian bureaucracy and its billionaire oligarchs—which is itself in very bad shape socially and economically, corrupt, repressive, and anti-worker—cannot represent any future for the Ukrainian population, even for its Russian speakers. As for the regime embodied by Zelensky—who was given power by the great powers and their trusts that control the agricultural and mining wealth of Ukraine as well as its skilled labor, exploiting it with miserable wages—the current conflict undoubtedly saved his ass at the beginning. As in any war, the population at first lined up behind a power that strongly defended itself. But we can bet that large sections of the laboring people today have recognized that this actor turned president, who had played the “servant of the people” on TV, worked in real life only to preserve the interests of the wealthy.

Confronting each other on the field of battle through the intermediary of various peoples are three forces: the Western leaders, representatives of an imperialist bourgeoisie which dominates the world; the Russian leaders, representatives of the parasites who exploit the workers of Russia; and the Ukrainian leaders, representatives of their oligarchs as well as of the Western trusts. All three are enemies of the popular classes, of the working class. And the workers, wherever they are, whatever their nationality, language or origin, have no solidarity whatsoever with "the main enemy who is always in our own country," as the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht put it in 1916, in the middle of World War I.

Everywhere, the March to a War Economy

On February 6, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, presenting the U.N.’s priorities for 2023, said that in Ukraine “the prospects for peace continue to diminish [while] the risks of further escalation and bloodshed continue to grow.” He added, “The world is moving with eyes wide open [toward] a wider war.”

At the summit of NATO defense ministers, they were asked to “switch to a war economy”, to relaunch and activate the production of armaments, and foremost shells, tanks and artillery pieces, to face “a war of attrition” in Ukraine. While a decade ago the United States asked its allies to raise their military spending to two percent of their gross domestic product, that figure is now considered a floor that many have exceeded. The subsequent European security conference in Munich brought together most European and world leaders to make the same point.

This all is aimed at trying to persuade their populations of the inevitability of war: designating certain countries as enemies, first and foremost Russia and China; deploying insidious but permanent propaganda in the media around warlike themes; emphasizing the preparation of youth to serve “their” nation, to defend it, without ever hinting that they will be turned into cannon fodder for the interests of the possessing classes. The French government talks about its Universal National Service, which aims to teach young people to march in step, with television reports about service on board warships, or in crisis-stricken regions where the resumption of arms production is supposed to reduce unemployment. The new German Minister of Defense wants to impose a draft and make the Bundeswehr the leading army on the continent, thanks to a 100-billion increase in its budget.

Last June, Macron announced a “War Economy” plan, endowed by the State with 413 billion over seven years. It was necessary "to go faster, to think differently about the pace, the ramp-up, the margins, to be able to reconstitute more quickly what is essential for our armies, for our allies or for those [such as in Ukraine] that we want to help.” And, addressing the leaders of the organization that represents the 4,000 companies producing military goods, he promised them decisions and, above all, investments. For profits, war is beautiful.

Beyond the Ukrainian conflict, the root cause of the soaring military budgets is to be found in the crisis of the world capitalist system, which is getting worse without anyone in the ruling circles of the bourgeoisie in Europe and America knowing how to deal with it. Every time the world is confronted with such a situation, the bourgeoisie and its States appeal to the arms industry to boost the economy. Thanks to the military budget of the States, the bourgeoisie escapes the fall in demand that affects the sectors hit by the fall in the purchasing power of the laboring classes. By boosting the economy with orders for machines, software, materials, raw materials, etc., the bourgeoisie hopes it can maintain its general rate of profit.

Regularly, some important person expresses concern about the risks of putting the lives of nations on such a track, especially with this massive war going on in Ukraine. In Munich, the Chinese foreign minister presented a so-called peace plan for Ukraine. A famous advisor to several American presidents, Henry Kissinger, published his own plan at the end of December. He proposed establishing "a ceasefire line" that would guarantee Russia "the territory it occupied nearly ten years ago, including Crimea," followed by "self-determination referendums [in] particularly divided territories" in order to eventually "confirm Ukraine’s freedom and define a new international structure [for] Eastern Europe. Kissinger added that he believes "Russia should eventually find a place in such a world order.”

Basically, it would be a matter of conceding territorial gains that Putin could boast about. This would prevent the Russian government from being destabilized, but it would be paid for by Russia having to accept what has been the goal of the United States for decades: the tilting of Ukraine to the West’s side. In fact, Western leaders are refusing to negotiate with Putin at the moment. But even if some claim to be looking for a peaceful solution to a war that their policies have provoked, the distance from the war in Ukraine to a wider conflict could be much shorter than anyone might think. The continuous arming of the two camps at war, and militarization of the economy of many countries against the background of a general crisis whose evolution escapes them, leads to a wider war.

Contrary to what Guterres says, it is not all of humanity that is moving toward the abyss with its eyes wide open. The political leaders of the bourgeoisie cannot fail to see what they are up to, and in whose interests, those of the bourgeoisie. In any case, they can see this much better than the masses of the world, who are not aware of the reality, its stakes and its accelerating evolution.

Yes, in Ukraine, in Russia, as everywhere else, the level of consciousness and the organization of the working class lags far behind this war race in which the bourgeoisie engages humanity. And even less has the working class developed what it would take not only to stop this war, but to transform it into a class war for the emancipation of the workers of the whole world.

This is what the Bolsheviks did in Russia in 1917, in the middle of world war. All those who want to change the world before it plunges humanity once again into barbarism must engage themselves on this path—as revolutionary and internationalist communists, as militants of the only class with a future, the proletariat. Then, to paraphrase what Lenin said about the October Revolution: “After thousands of years of slavery, the slaves whose masters want war will reply: ‘Your war for booty, we will make it the war of all slaves against all masters.’”