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

Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe:
War and the Contradictions of a World Dominated by Imperialism

Oct 13, 2023

This article was translated from one appearing in Lutte de Classe, #236, Dec.2023-Jan.2024, the political journal of our comrades of Lutte Ouvrière, the French Trotskyist organization.

The conflict that has been ravaging Ukraine for over a year and a half is unprecedented since the end of the Second World War, in terms of the scale of the forces involved. Via Ukraine, it pits Russia against NATO, a formidable military bloc led by the major imperialist powers. This fact alone gives the war major international significance.

Although this war formally began with the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, it already has a long history behind it. It goes back at least to February 2014, to the “Maïdan events” in Kiev. The population’s rejection of a corrupt power presented as pro-Russian had served as a support for pro-Western forces existing in the state apparatus, in the heights of the bureaucracy and among Ukraine’s oligarchs. The regime, severing its political ties with Moscow, threw itself into the arms of the West.

This toppling of Ukraine, which had been the second largest of the Soviet republics in terms of population, industry and naval bases, was a decisive step in imperialism’s determination, constant since the end of the USSR, to push Russia further out of its sphere of influence. The crowning achievement of this objective was to detach Russia from Ukraine, with which, in addition to language and numerous human ties, it shared a centuries-old history and an economy that is still largely interpenetrated.

In response to this upheaval, the Kremlin annexed Crimea and provoked the secession of the Russian-speaking industrial regions of eastern Ukraine. This was bound to lead to war in the Donbass as early as 2014–2015 and, ultimately, to its spread throughout the country.

Sponsored by Paris and Berlin, the Minsk agreements between Russia and Ukraine were not intended to bring about a settlement of the conflict, which was impossible in any case. Their aim—as former Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged a few months ago—was to stall the Kremlin while NATO massively armed what had become its new Ukrainian ally.

With its international character and the weight of the belligerents on the world stage, this war—a product of the contradictions that plague a world dominated by imperialism—also acts to enhance these same contradictions, revealing others that were previously invisible.

We can see this on an international as well as a national scale, in Russia as in Ukraine, but also within the NATO camp itself, among allies who are nonetheless rivals, as each defends interests of its own bourgeoisie, interests that are often opposed to each other. This can also be seen in the rivalries among NATO allies, trying to gain “a foothold” in Ukraine and its neighbors, in order to sell arms to and sign contracts with those countries to set up arms factories.

This conflict offers “opportunities for French industries” in the armaments sector. It undoubtedly offers even more for France’s American “ally.” Providing half the West’s military aid to Ukraine, the U.S. is well placed to get its hands on land and companies in Ukraine itself, and not only there. With its exclusive rights to Poland’s huge military orders, the United States has a formidable asset with which to challenge Germany for political and economic influence in Germany’s own Central European backyard. Of the 68 billion dollars of U.S. aid “sent” to Ukraine, 90% of that money never leaves the U.S.—it simply feeds into the accounts of U.S. firms producing war goods.

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the clash of interests between certain “small” European Union countries and the “big” ones came to the fore this autumn.

At the beginning of 2023, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia obtained from Brussels the suspension of exports of Ukrainian agricultural products going through their territory by rail or road. These products, produced by Ukrainian laborers who were paid miserably, were said to be priced so low as to ruin those countries’ “small farmers,” who were unable to compete.

This is not the place to distinguish between the real extent of the threat invoked and what is the nationalist and electoral demagoguery of the governments concerned. But the fact is, in September, three of them refused to comply with Brussels’ decision to lift the embargo on Ukrainian agricultural exports.

What’s more, Poland and Slovakia have announced that, as a retaliatory measure, they will stop supplying arms to Ukraine (Hungary was already not supplying). Hence the Ukrainian president’s vituperations, accusing his Polish counterpart of playing into Moscow’s hands, despite the fact that in Warsaw a few months before, they were both celebrating the “eternal friendship” between Poland and Ukraine.

As for the slowdown in arms deliveries to Kiev announced by Poland and Slovakia, there’s no need to pretend, like Zelensky, that it’s the hand of Moscow. Washington, at least for reasons linked to the forthcoming presidential election, is undoubtedly using Warsaw as a little telegrapher to tell Zelensky what Biden can’t or won’t tell him in public.

Russian Bureaucrats and Oligarchs

This war also weighs heavily on Russia in economic, political, military and human terms.

For the first time since Putin climbed to the top of the bureaucratic command pyramid at the end of 1999 and restored a certain efficiency to it—his famous “vertical of power”—he found himself in a situation where his aura as a leader no longer fully protected him from criticism—despite propaganda presenting him as unchallenged.

Among the population, this manifested itself at the start of the invasion in public anti-war protests and, less visibly, in a fairly widespread refusal to endorse a fratricidal conflict. The regime overcame the protests with systematic repression, which continues to fall on anyone who questions the war, its aims and its consequences.

But more worrying for the regime, dissenting voices have been heard among what are known in Russia as “the elites,” first and foremost among the super-rich oligarchs.

More than twenty years ago, Putin had imposed a deal on the wealthy tycoons who were bringing the country to its knees, plundering it and making the state their plaything. “Pay your taxes, stop meddling in politics, and the government will let you do business,” said Putin. Since then, with a few exceptions, the oligarchs have kept their word.

Over time, they prospered and multiplied, forging multiple business and lifestyle links with the Western world of the capitalist jet-set. Their main aspiration was that nothing should disturb their golden existence as parasites.

However, with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, they and a host of regime dignitaries and senior bureaucrats found themselves with their assets frozen in Western banks, no longer able to sell raw materials as freely in the four corners of the world and, last but not least, no longer able to sail their yachts to Monaco, organize lavish parties in their chateaux in France or their villas in Tuscany.

Educated by experience (notably that of Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s No. 1 oligarch, who was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and the confiscation of “his” oil company for believing he could override the Kremlin’s demands), today’s oligarchs have avoided intervening collectively and, above all, publicly against the war. Several dozen of them, who had not been careful enough, paid for it with their lives within a few months, victims of a wave of suspicious suicides.

For the moment, Navalny (in prison) and Khodorkovsky (in exile in London) act as spokesmen for the aspirations of a section of Russian society that wished to join the imperialist world. It’s not yet a political movement, having a route to the top of the State, a project and a program for capitalist restoration, but it prefigures it.

This is the perspective from which we should view the mini-putsch by Prigozhin last summer. Not that it really threatened, let alone shook, the regime. It was an attempt that seemed doomed to failure because it involved only a tiny and marginal part of the Russian armed forces. Nonetheless, the march on Moscow by Wagner’s tanks served to reveal tensions and fractures within the regime.

The thug-turned-billionaire Prigozhin had long been close to Putin, and had been given carte blanche by the Kremlin for military missions in Syria, Africa and Ukraine. In a way, he was a pillar of the regime who had defected. For weeks, Prigozhin had criticized the way Putin and his team were conducting the war, and in terms looking to strike a chord with the population when he accused the general staff of not feeding the soldiers, or of sending them unarmed to their deaths.

Khodorkovsky’s appeal from London to “the Russian people” to support Prigozhin could not have had an effect. But it did demonstrate the possibility of a convergence of protest at the top, based on the fracturing of the state apparatus into rival clans, with the aspiration of sectors of the oligarchy, even the bureaucracy, to shake up the current regime, if not get rid of it.

A Weakened Russia in its “Near Abroad"

The Kremlin’s inability to wage a blitzkrieg, despite the initial disproportion of the forces involved, and its subsequent bogging down in the conflict, have helped to weaken Russia’s position in its “near abroad” (the countries of the former USSR that maintain economic or defense ties with it).

As early as February 2022, some of these states refused to approve of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine—some even disapproved. This was the case in Kazakhstan, where Putin’s special forces had just saved the day for President Tokayev and other leaders of the Kazakh bureaucracy, who were threatened by a workers’ and people’s uprising, which was also threatening the profits of the country’s multinational oil and other companies.

This autumn saw another consequence of Russia’s entanglement in the Ukrainian quagmire in the former Soviet Caucasus. For decades, Russia had been imposing itself as a “judge of peace” over disputed regions between various Caucasian states. It may have had troops that maintained a certain status quo, but it failed to react to Azerbaijan’s lightning attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, located in the middle of Azeri territory but populated by Armenians.

In mid-September, Azerbaijan felt strong enough, armed by Turkey and Israel, to pounce on Nagorno-Karabakh and empty it of its 120,000 Armenian inhabitants. Baku was thus “liquidating” what it saw as an abscess in the imploding USSR of the 1990s: the transformation into an independent state of a hitherto autonomous region that was, in principle, part of Azerbaijan.

This “ethnic cleansing” is bound to have equally tragic consequences. Azerbaijan has also announced its intention to link its territory with Nakhchivan, an Azeri province wedged between Armenia, Turkey and Iran. This would mean snatching a portion of Armenia’s territory to create a corridor, and thus new armed confrontations.

Against a backdrop of Russia’s weakening and disengagement, new alliances are being forged in the Caucasus, and these are bound to be warlike. Between Turkey, which wants to extend its influence, and Azerbaijan. Between the United States and Armenia, where the U.S. has established a foothold, as it has already done in neighboring ex-Soviet Georgia. Not forgetting France, which has just signed a defense and arms supply agreement with Yerevan.

Such alliances, pursued under the aegis of imperialism and against a backdrop of inter-imperialist rivalries, can only aggravate the national question, which the October Revolution of 1917 had sought to resolve in the most democratic way for the many peoples who, for centuries, had lived closely interwoven lives in this region. But it will undoubtedly arrange business for French, American, Turkish, Israeli and other arms dealers, for whom wars are “opportunities.”

Western Sanctions and Their Effects

On October 5, at the Valdai International Forum, Putin declared that international sanctions had done Russia less harm than good. They had forced it to diversify its economy to offset embargoes and trade disruptions.

Putin has been saying this since 2014, when the United States and the European Union decided on the first sanctions against Russia, which had retaken Crimea. It may be part of the usual boasting by the head of the Russian bureaucracy in the face of imperialism. But his comments also reflect Putin’s desire, as he seeks re-election as president next March, to show a positive assessment of his “special operation.” After all, it didn’t bring him the lightning victory he could have boasted of, and twenty months later, the Russian population, like the Ukrainian, is increasingly aware that this war is not about to end. Western leaders, and American generals in particular, regularly confirm this.

That said, observers note that Russia has withstood the pressure of NATO’s war-like escalation better than expected. The EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development)—set up in 1991 to facilitate the market conversion of the former People’s Democracies and the ex-USSR—announced in early October that it expected Russia’s GDP to grow by 1.5% this year, although it had initially forecast a decline. On the other hand, the EBRD confirmed that it expected Ukraine’s GDP to fall by 30%.

This relative resilience of the Russian economy, despite the war and despite the fact that its gas and oil exports, and therefore its foreign exchange earnings, have contracted sharply, is based on a number of factors.

Russia has managed to circumvent some of the embargoes imposed on it. There is also the fact that, despite the warmongering attitude of their governments, European and American companies, including multinationals, have been unwilling to abandon the Russian market and the profits they derive from it.

What’s more, the Russian economy, with its giant companies in the state-controlled military-industrial complex and energy sector—a distant effect of the Soviet period’s planning and state control—was better equipped to cope with the material and human constraints of the war. This has given it a clear advantage over the Ukrainian economy. The Ukrainian economy has of course been devastated by the war: 20% of its industrial base has been destroyed or damaged; 25% of its workforce has emigrated, fled the combat zones or been mobilized; 17.5% of its territory is occupied, including industrial and mining regions. Even before the war, it had been suffering for years from the destructive effect of the Ukrainian state’s removal of obstacles to the penetration of Western capital.

War against Neighbors and One’s Own Population

However, the Russian economy’s resilience is only relative. In addition to the regular army, hundreds of thousands of mobilized and contracted soldiers have been sent to Ukraine, combined with the flight abroad of a million men, often with a higher level of education, to escape recruiters. As of July, 42% of companies said they were short of manpower.

Since then, the phenomenon has worsened with the departure of some of the large numbers of ex-Soviet Central Asians who have come to work in construction, services and industry. They are targeted by the military authorities, who urge them to enlist in exchange for the promise of a Russian passport. Moreover, they are no longer able to send enough money back home, as the value of the ruble plummets.

The fall in the value of the ruble is accompanied by a surge in inflation, which the Central Bank is trying to curb by constantly raising its key interest rate. Not only does this have a negative impact on economic activity, but it also erodes the purchasing power of tens of millions of wage earners and pensioners, who are already hard hit by the steep rise in the cost of everything that continues to be imported from abroad, but which now takes a costly detour via China, Turkey or India.

For certain categories of workers, such as health-care workers, deductions have been made from their salaries to “help” the army. And the Duma has just decided on the principle of a 2% “voluntary subscription” to the war effort for all civil servants.

At a time when millions of Russians are sinking into poverty, and a very official Federal Register indicates that a million of them are insolvent, the regime tries to appear to be going after the war profiteers—at the very moment when it is pampering the top bureaucrats and oligarchs. Note that the Russian term for civil servant, synonymous with bureaucrat, is associated with corruption, which is in full swing with the war.

In Ukraine, Zelensky acts no differently when he orchestrates the dismissal for corruption of his Defense Minister and six of his deputy ministers, and brings certain oligarchs to justice. This has caused a stir, but it’s not the first time. And it is possible that, as on previous occasions, the courts will acquit the defendants or impose only derisory fines.

Ukrainian authorities are aware of a quiet discontent among the population: against corruption at all levels of the regime, against the roundups at work, in the streets and on the transport system, of workers and young people destined to be used as cannon fodder. In an attempt to buy social peace against a backdrop of war, Kiev has just announced an increase in wages. They remain miserable, however. Nothing to compare with what top bureaucrats like the new director of Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukrainian Railways) earn: a salary of 9 million hryvnias (234,500 euros) and “only” 5.6 million hryvnias for his deputies and the seven members of the board of directors.

The Kremlin, for its part, “offers” enlistment contracts worth three times the average wage and pays compensation of around 9,000 euros in the event of death in combat. The most disadvantaged regions and backgrounds are supposed to be satisfied with this “wage of fear and death” for condemned soldiers on probation. This is what Putin is talking about when, while repeating that he rejects the idea of general mobilization, he forces hundreds of thousands of men to go to recruitment centers to update their military and civilian details.

Anti-Worker Regimes, Each in Their Own Way

It should come as no surprise, then, that a hundred or so of these recruiting offices have been set on fire, the perpetrators of which, often very young, are sentenced to years in prison for so-called terrorist acts, when caught. The same is true of the many “railway attacks” recorded by the courts (sometimes simply the dropping of an anti-war leaflet or placard on or near the tracks).

Putin’s regime may have put an end to the anti-war demonstrations that lasted for weeks in February–March 2022, and he managed to get some activists in the democratic opposition to go into exile so as not to be arrested. But it has not succeeded in curbing all forms of opposition, even if they are individual and subject to swift repression.

Zelensky’s regime had already banned left-wing organizations before the start of the war. It continues to repress anything that claims to be communist, socialist or based on the class struggle, and even benefits from the rallying, on a social-chauvinist basis, of certain currents that used to call themselves extreme leftists.

The Russian and Ukrainian regimes both emerged from the mold of the post-Stalinist bureaucracy. Despite the increasingly notable differences between them, despite the fact that they find themselves on opposing sides—in the case of Ukraine, that of imperialism, which for decades has opposed Russia in order to push it out of its zone of influence—nonetheless, Moscow and Kiev have a fundamentally similar attitude toward their populations.

While claiming to be defending the population against the opposing camp, the Russian regime and the Ukrainian regime are both waging a social war against their people, intensifying a class war that far predates February 2022. It pits the working class of these countries against the heirs of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the person of senior bureaucrats and their oligarch friends, the industrial and financial tycoons who built their fortunes by plundering the state-run economy when the USSR collapsed. These predators are joined in Ukraine by American and Western European capitalists, whose hold on the country is growing ever stronger.

The Russian and Ukrainian governments, each in its own way, defend the parasitic classes and social strata that dominate their country, and a state apparatus corrupt to the core that finds in war a new and rapid means of enriching itself on the backs of the population.

It’s not a question of siding with one side or the other, as some far-left currents more or less shamefully do, but of defending in this war the interests of Ukrainian and Russian workers, of the international working class in the face of its exploiters and oppressors, in the face of the generals on the battlefield and the diplomats behind the scenes who all stand with the exploiters.

It’s vital to defend this program at a time when the sound of boots can more and more be heard from one end of the planet to the other. But to defend it, the working class needs a revolutionary communist party, an International worthy of the name, like the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky’s time. Neither this party nor this International exists. Not in Russia, Ukraine nor anywhere else. For militants who want to throw down the imperialist system and the dictatorships that may contest with it but are fundamentally complicit in it, the most urgent task is to set about building this party and this International.

Workers of all countries, unite!

The workers have no homeland,

The main enemy is in our own country!