The Worker

The lesson from the Donbass: U.S. imperialism can only be defeated through the sacrifices war entails


Above: the Prizrak Brigade, the Donbass volunteer fighting group

When the DPRK diplomat Kim Yo-jong recently stated that “We will always stand in the same trench with the service personnel and people of Russia who have turned out in the struggle to defend the dignity and honor of the state,” she was speaking on behalf of a certain strain of thought within the global communist movement. A strain whose views on war are informed by the investigation of a simple question: “does this military action help or harm imperialism?”

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A non-committal anti-imperialism on the left

The answer this strain has found to this question in regards to Ukraine is that Russia’s intervention represents a historically revolutionary development, due to its weakening fascism and imperialism. Which is also articulated by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation: “Russia is not going to occupy Ukraine. The purpose of the operation is the liberation of Ukraine from the Nazis and its neutrality (refusal to join NATO). The tactics of the Russian troops is, while attacking military facilities, to minimize the casualties among civilian population and Ukrainian military, to avoid destruction of civilian infrastructure. They are brotherly people. We will continue to live together. However, the Bandera Nazis use the most disgusting tactics of the German fascists, using civilians and their houses as human shields. They install artillery and tanks in residential areas, forbid citizens to leave war zones, turning hundreds of thousands of people into hostages.”

In contrast to the elements within the communist and broader left movements that are opposed to Russia’s action, the element that parties like the CPRF and the ruling Workers Party of Korea represent is the one which has the correct type of anti-imperialist analysis. It has the right analysis because it has the right priorities. It isn’t concerned with alienating too many liberals by taking a principled anti-imperialist stance. It isn’t concerned with what the imperialists will do in response to the actions of freedom fighters. It’s concerned with which route is optimal for accelerating the transition towards multipolarity, and therefore towards bringing revolution in the imperial center. With such a revolution, this multipolar order can then be replaced by an order where the U.S. empire has gone away entirely.

As the U.S. empire has provoked Russia into taking action, and the geopolitical conflict has intensified, a boundary of demarcation has appeared between these committed anti-imperialists, and the side that talks about U.S. imperialism’s role behind the conflict while at the same time condemning Russia. This side’s arguments, and the self-defeating impact that they have due to their contradictory nature, are represented by this part from one analysis by the leftist source Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: “It is impossible to know for sure whether the Biden administration shared this sense that there would be an upside to a Russian invasion, but the incentives are clear, and much of what these op-eds predicted is coming to pass. None of this is to say that Putin’s invasion is justified—FAIR resolutely condemns the invasion as illegal and ruinous—but calling it ‘unprovoked’ distracts attention from the US’s own contribution to this disastrous outcome.”

When you’ve seen the content that this statement comes after, it’s apparent how odd FAIR’s conclusion comes across. FAIR covers how the U.S. empire has endangered Russia’s security, aided Nazi terror in Ukraine, and carried out a coup designed to create the optimal environment for this terror. Then it says Russia isn’t justified for working to take away the tools of the coup regime to exact violence. There’s something fundamentally missing from this analysis. Something that the CPRF/WPK analysis doesn’t miss.

What the principled anti-imperialist perspective takes into account is two realities which are crucial for understanding the Ukraine conflict: that military action was the only realistic way to rescue the Donbass people from genocide by fascist Kiev; and that the U.S. empire has declined to the point where an action like Operation Z will end up harming imperialism more than helping it. Recognizing these things enables one to see the other piece of context which justifies Z: that Z was undertaken not with the profit interests of the Russian bourgeoisie as its foremost motivator, but primarily to fulfill the Russian people’s mandate for an effort by the government to defeat fascism.

There having been an imminent ethnic cleansing threat towards the Donbass is the easiest thing for these soft anti-imperialist types to grasp, as they themselves frequently discuss how the U.S. has nurtured Nazism within Ukraine. Yet when they talk about Ukraine’s fascist movement, there’s a crucial barrier that they don’t cross: calling Ukraine a Nazi state. The statements this leads to can be fascinating in their absurdity. In a commentary on Ukraine’s Nazi presence, the social democrat magazine Jacobin has to discuss the question of the Ukrainian state’s character in specifically worded terms to justify still condemning Russia:

A Western public uninformed about the dangers of the far right is watching its governments, with no debate, send an avalanche of weaponry into the country, where it will fall (and some has already fallen) into the hands of extremists — the same extremists who have serially attacked vulnerable groups, want to institute a dictatorship, have repeatedly threatened and carried out violence against the government, and have already helped overthrow one president. With Zelensky now envisioning a postwar Ukrainian society with more armed people in the streets, and members of the military and National Guard — both institutions where extremists have made a home — patrolling everyday locations, this risk is all the bigger.

What’s subtly strange about these kinds of statements is that even when they recognize that fascist terror in Ukraine is widespread, and that the government is directly assisting in this terror, they act as if this government is nevertheless worth defending. They may reply by saying they agree Ukraine’s present leadership should be replaced with something better. But that’s not happening any time soon given how Zelensky has banned all opposition parties, and it didn’t happen prior to when Russia took action a year ago. The inescapable reality is that Russia is fighting to demilitarize and territorially deprive a state which isn’t merely complicit in aiding Nazism, but directly informed by National Socialist ideology. The Jewish Holocaust survivor descendant Zelensky is only a figurehead. Ukraine’s real rulers are the heads of a national security state, one that was established after Washington’s 2014 coup. It’s in effect a junta, one that’s capable of assassinating any president who doesn’t advance its project.

This project is to forcibly remove the Donbass Russian speakers, mass deporting them to Russia so that those arbitrarily considered to be the true Ukrainians can acquire the leftover land. It’s a modern version of Hitler’s Lebensraum, the goal of erasing the Russian population in order to let the “superior” nation reach its developmental potential. That’s the logic Ukraine’s rulers are operating off of. Their being driven by it is why the Donbass people chose to create separatist republics, and ultimately vote to join Russia. It’s why Kiev responded to the formation of these republics by shelling the Donbass for eight years, despite it being constitutional within Ukraine for a given segment of the country to break away. And it’s why Kiev actively began to invade these republics one year ago, which would have brought extermination to the communities it was advancing towards if not for Russia’s saving them at the last moment.

A class analysis of Ukraine’s conditions is essential for understanding why the state has a fascist character. Because it’s not just that the U.S. empire has sought to cultivate a Nazi presence in Ukraine in the last decade, it’s that Ukraine’s post-Soviet oligarchs have long had a material interest in making an alliance with fascists. Fascism is the violent reinforcement effort of finance capital, and in Ukraine’s situation of increasingly severe class contradictions, it makes sense for its capitalists to nurture Nazism. The imperialists have taken advantage of this preexisting incentive for Ukraine’s bourgeoisie to advance fascism, providing aid to the Nazi militias and to the country’s fascist propaganda campaigns.

Upon seeing this context, it feels incomprehensible how anyone who’s aware of Ukraine’s Nazi problem could discuss these events in terms that frame Russia as anything other than in the right. The humanitarian need of the situation superseded all else, someone needed to combat Kiev and do so promptly. Ukraine is not only a corrupt state, but a Nazi state, a state that would absolutely be subjecting the Donbass people to crimes against humanity if Russia hadn’t defended them. The war crimes the Ukrainians have committed whenever they’ve captured a territory in the conflict has further proven how dangerous Kiev is. Yet even when one ignores this aspect of the situation’s history, and focuses entirely on the question of whether Z has overall helped or harmed imperialism, it’s also apparent that Z has had a more positive impact than negative.

The benefits that NATO has gained from Russia’s action, where the previous divisions within the organization have been momentarily put aside and where the organization has fully expanded to the Nordic states, have not translated to greater geopolitical control by NATO outside the imperial sphere. So is the case for the fortification of anti-Russian sentiment across this sphere, and the furthering of austerity policies during the sanctions blowback, and the censorship against dissent the war has brought, and the war profiteering by our ruling class. All of these positive developments for the U.S. empire have occurred in the context of a shrinkage of U.S. hegemony that wouldn’t have been so severe if not for Russia’s decision.

There’s strong evidence that the empire wanted Russia to intervene. What the empire didn’t anticipate is that when all the costs and benefits of this escalation got counted against each other, the costs to the empire would be far greater. That it would prompt the peripheral and semi-peripheral countries to side against Washington by refusing to participate in the sanctions or send military aid, and that this would leave the imperialist countries with severe social crises after failing to destabilize Eurasia.

The FAIR/Jacobin camp views the war’s benefits to the empire as surpassing the costs, because just as they misunderstand Russia’s foremost goal within the conflict, they also misunderstand the empire’s goal. They believe Washington provoked Russia merely to make war profits and to demonize Russia. But these were the secondary objectives. The primary one was to weaken Russia enough that it could be destabilized, leaving China vulnerable to Washington’s attempts at saving neo-colonialism from the Belt and Road Initiative. Because this objective has not and will never be met, due to the sanctions not having been as effective as the imperialists anticipated, Washington’s geopolitical gamble has failed. Its decision to provoke Russia has brought more problems to imperialism than benefits.

Z continues to bring global workers revolution closer

This wouldn’t have happened thirty or forty years ago, prior to when Washington started off its process of rapid imperial decline by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. When the USSR intervened in Afghanistan, the outcome was that U.S. hegemony became ultimately strengthened, because the empire was still strong enough and the USSR lacked the Chinese support or internal stability that modern Russia has. Now that Washington’s ability to sway the international community has been diminished, and now that a Russian-Chinese friendship has emerged, the Ukraine proxy war will not produce a victory for the empire like the Afghanistan proxy war did. This time, the U.S. will be the one that gets worn down by the fighting, and the one that experiences an exacerbation of its contradictions severe enough to make it implode.

How could this be when modern Russia is a capitalist state, whereas the USSR was a socialist state and could therefore better absorb the economic damage from sanctions? Because whereas the Soviet state was in a process of decline for its socialist project when it entered into the Afghanistan conflict, today’s Russia is in the process of having its class conflict rise again. With the war accelerating this transition towards a new revolutionary scenario for the country.

When the Russian ruling class decided to give into the pressures from the country’s dominant communist presence and wider population, and wage a war against Ukrainian fascism, it was because this war had become only momentarily in their best interests. In the short term, Russia’s bourgeoisie can profit from the conflict, and maintain their power by keeping Russia free from client state status. In the long term, this conflict instead benefits Russia’s proletariat, because it advances their interests in the class war. This is both because the conflict has intensified class contradictions, and because the conflict appeared in the first place due to how much influence the communists have proven themselves now able to exert over the government. When a bourgeois president has to follow the foreign policy advice of the communists, a switch has come in the power dynamic. Marxists are no longer functioning under pressure from the bourgeois state, instead it’s the other way around.

The fact that over two-thirds of Russians both view Stalin as having been a good leader, and support Z, illustrates the proletarian character of the social base that’s made Z possible. The vast majority of Russians back an anti-fascist war for the same reason they would no doubt back a Marxist-Leninist revolution if given the opportunity: because the Russian people overall have a revolutionary, anti-imperialist attitude. Even after the relative improvements Putin has brought to their living standards, they’re dissatisfied with their bourgeois government’s policies, and that’s extended to their unhappiness with Putin’s having delayed action in Ukraine for eight years.

Putin’s initial purpose was to act as a continuation of Yeltsin, keeping Russia a U.S. client state. He’s tried to continue with this mission whenever this has made pragmatic sense in his bourgeois opportunistic view of statecraft. Washington, engaged for the last two decades in a wildly destructive War of Terror which blatantly disrespects international law, has made it impossible for Putin to keep treating Washington as a friend while still being reasonable. If Russia were an imperialist country, like the European powers that have stayed loyal to Washington, his calculus would likely be different. But because Russia is a semi-peripheral country that’s trying to recover from the catastrophic shock policies the empire imposed on it in the 90s, it’s made the most sense for him to break from the empire. Now that he’s fully alienated Washington by intervening in Ukraine, Russia is dependent on maintaining its friendships with China and India, and has a clear interest in not betraying these powers.

This transition of post-Soviet Russia towards being an anti-imperialist world actor has been incremental, because the individual in charge of it would keep Russia a client state if the circumstances still allowed him to. He initially wanted Russia to join NATO, and after the Ukraine coup, he refrained from working to demilitarize Kiev for almost a decade until the pressure became too much. The consequence is that the anti-imperialist movement has been frustrated, not by how Russia took action (that’s overall advanced multipolarity) but by how Russia took action far later than it should have. As the commentator Paul Craig Roberts concluded late last year:

Putin’s caution delayed Russia’s rescue of Donbass for eight years, during which Washington created and equipped an Ukrainian army that turned what would have been an easy rescue in 2014 like Crimea into the current war approaching a year in duration. Putin’s caution in waging the war has given Washington and the Western media plenty of time to create and control the narrative, which is unfavorable to Putin, and to widen the war with US and NATO direct participation, now admitted by Foreign Minister Lavrov. The war has widened into direct attacks on Russia herself. These attacks on Russia might bring the pro-Western Russian liberals into alignment with Putin, but the ability of a corrupt third world US puppet state to attack Russia is anathema to Russian patriots. The Russians who will do the fighting see in the ability of Ukraine to attack Mother Russia the failure of the Putin government. As for China and India, the two countries with the largest populations, they have witnessed Washington’s indiscriminate use of force without domestic or international consequence to Washington. They don’t want to ally with a week-kneed Russia.

As conflicts tend to do, the events of the last twelve months have strengthened all the sides in today’s major power struggles, empowering both the imperialists and the anti-imperialists according to their respective strengths. The same applies to the sides within Russia’s internal class war. The nature of today’s international landscape, where U.S. imperial decline was already accelerating prior to the operation’s start, has made it so the anti-imperialists had enough comparative advantages to ultimately emerge stronger. But the bourgeois nature of Russia’s government has delayed the full victory of the anti-imperialists, holding back the country’s commitment to fighting the empire and its Banderite proxies. Worst case scenario, this will also endanger Russia’s relationship with China and India, forcing Russia to either revert to its client state status or have a revolution. The Russian people will never allow for the former to happen, so the latter is increasingly likely.

Should Putin fail too severely, the Russian patriots—whose vanguard primarily lies in the communists rather than the recently sidelined fascists—will react by campaigning for their anti-imperialist mandate even more assertively. They’ll no longer merely try to pressure Putin, they and their allied Soviet sympathizers in Russia’s military could escalate towards a coup attempt against him. From this war could come a restoration of socialism both in Russia, and in Belarus, where the communist movement has even more influence and which is aiding Russia’s war effort. What could follow is a partial Soviet restoration.

The last year has shown that in this stage of imperialism’s decline, communists have many more chances for revolutionary wars to bring them overall benefits than used to be the case. Monopoly capital has weakened, opening up new possibilities for revolutionary struggle. This is the great hope for the proletariat as it fights against capital in Russia, France, Peru, the USA, and today’s other focal points within the global class struggle.

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