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The War Over Ukraine: A Class Perspective

The Russian military invasion of Ukraine has begun. The war of words, diplomatic shenanigans and military preparations are over. Already, the invaders are on the doorsteps of the Ukrainian parliament. A Russian military victory seems inevitable. However, the people of Ukraine, who rose up against the pro-Kremlin regime of Viktor Yanukovych, will not passively accept a puppet government led by the likes of the Ukrainian oil millionaire and Putin ally, Viktor Medvedchuk.

Meanwhile, on Ukraine’s Western border, NATO is deploying more forces in Poland and the Baltic states as part of an expansive strategy of military encirclement of Russia, a strategy which could include Ukraine as an essential gambit. The stage is set now for what could become the first inter-imperialist conflict in Europe since the end of the 2nd World War in 1945.

Whether this happens, does not depend entirely upon the intentions of either Washington or Moscow. As with the last world war, the escalating conflict can have a dynamic of its own, transcending its original parameters. In both instances, their stance is governed not by principles, but by naked capitalist interests which happily trample over oppressed nationalities and the needs of working people both at home and abroad. In its essence, this is a turf war between two gangs of thieves over a disputed territory, which itself is run by some of the biggest crooks going.

Westminster is following the same path, not just as a central pillar of the NATO alliance, but as an independent force with a major stake in the outcome. If anything, the Tories and the Labour Party are vying with each other in their jingoism and common claims that British imperialism is standing up for democracy against authoritarianism.

NATO mythology

The Labour leader, Sir Keith Starmer, is a keen NATO stalwart and proponent of even tougher economic sanctions against Moscow . Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Starmer painted NATO in glowing terms:

It was to prevent such needless wars that the generation of Attlee and his foreign secretary, the formidable trade union leader Ernest Bevin, were the midwives of Nato. With the failures of appeasement and the spectre of Munich fresh in their minds, they knew that the best way to preserve peace is to show that you are prepared to stand up to aggression. Indeed, on the day the treaty bringing Nato into being was signed, Bevin spoke of the new alliance as “a consecration of peace and resistance to aggression”.

This nonsense bears no resemblance whatsoever to the reality of NATO. Both in its origins and its evolution, NATO has always been a reactionary imperialist alliance. It was formed in 1949 as the main instrument of the Cold War aimed at restoring capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In many respects, Russia today is a creature of that Cold War. At the time, however, the Kremlin even applied to join the new alliance but was refused admission. It was only later, in 1955, that Moscow set up the Warsaw Pact as a rival military alliance.

NATO’s principal founders, Britain and the USA, recruited, trained and armed former bands of Nazis to help prosecute the Cold War. They were also the primary forces engaged in the Korean war and in suppressing national liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Most notable of all was the war in Vietnam, prosecuted by Washington and supported unconditionally by Harold Wilson’s Labour government. In doing so, they supported (and continue to do so) some of the most hated despots and dictators the world has ever known. Included amongst these was the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal which was part of founding group of NATO mebers. It also went on to include Greece despite the military coup of 1967.

The fact that this military formation extends to the Mediterranean countries of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy belies its North Atlantic credentials. Indeed, as the next NATO summit planned to be held in Spain this year reveals, there is pressure to expand its field of operations even further to defend western capitalist interests in north and central Africa.

Speaking ahead of a Madrid summit intended to modernise the alliance’s strategy in June,” reported Daniel Dombey in the January 31 Financial Times, "José Manuel Albares, foreign minister [of Spain], argued that Nato should look south as well as east at potential threats to security.

The article went on to cite Spanish gas interests in Algeria and Morocco and the mounting disorder in the Sahel region to the south of those countries.

The Mediterranean, the Maghreb, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa are vital for Nato and for Europe,” said Albares in an interview with the Financial Times.

Despite its claims to be defending democracy, NATO is probably the least democratic structure on the entire planet. Overall command of all NATO forces rests with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), who has always been a U.S. general. The SACEUR is appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate before being approved by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest decision-making body. In other words, it is Washington and the Pentagon that holds all the dogs on a tight leash and will decide when and where to let them loose.

It was under its mandate that NATO waged several operations in the non-member state of Yugoslavia. Beginning with the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993, NATO carried out several bombing campaigns, the last of which, Operation Allied Force in 1999, lasted for 78 days and deliberately targeted non-military installations, resulting in the death of around 500 civilians.

Speaking after some of these civilians in the Belgrade Radio Television station were buried alive in the bombing, the Labour leader Tony Blair declared that they deserved to die and that more such bombings would follow. Such terror bombing was not new, as the people of Dresden can testify to after British bombs had created a firestorm throughout civilian areas. In one night alone, on 13 February, 1945, Britain dropped 2,700 tons of bombs which literally incinerated tens of thousands of civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly.

Starmer’s attempt to rewrite history was correct in one respect only: the Labour Party has always supported NATO and, we might add, every other imperialist war and atrocity of both the 20th and 21st centuries.

Inter-imperialist rivalry and Russia’s war on Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is part of an offensive that began years ago and accelerated in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Since the break-up of the former Soviet Union and the recognition of an independent Ukraine, a wave of privatisation swept over the nationalised economies. This laid the basis for the emergence of a new capitalist class, not only in Russia but in all the former countries of the Warsaw Pact, including the newly independent states.

This new class was now forced to square up with its international rivals, especially in the European Union. Two capitalist trading blocs now faced each other on European soil. On the one side was the EU which sought to take advantage of the frail economies of the former Soviet states: and on the other, was the new CISFTA (Commonwealth of Independent Free States Area) formed in 2011 and comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Moldova and Armenia.

The competition between the two blocs had always favoured the EU. By 2009, eleven of the former Soviet States had already joined the EU. Just three years after the formation of CISFTA, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine all signed an EU “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement”. For Russian capitalism, the loss of Ukraine was a step too far.

Ukraine is the largest country entirely in Europe, with the seventh largest population It is amongst the highest ranking in mineral deposits - iron ore, uranium, titanium and coal – and boasts first place in the total arable land mass as well as sunflower oil exports.. It shares borders with Hungary, Slovakia and Poland to the west; Belarus to the north; Russia to the north and east; and Romania and Moldova to the south. It also has a crucial strategic coastline on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, looking across to Turkey and the Caucasian states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

It is a prize asset both for the EU as well as Russia.

Russia had long been Ukraine’s main trading partner and both economies were deeply interlinked from Soviet times. All of this was threatened as the Ukranian oligarchy was enticed by European capital on its western flank.

For a period of time, the Ukrainian capitalists straddled both blocs, until eventually push came to shove. In the midst of an economic crisis, which was a catastrophe for working people, the decision of the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych regime to block a trade deal with the EU was the final straw leading to the 2014 popular uprising known as the Maidan. In reality, the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine had already begun. In retaliation against the EU trade deal, the Kremlin initiated an undeclared trade war with Ukraine, beginning in July 2013 with a trade embargo leading to all Ukrainian imports being put on an “at risk” list. By the middle of August, hundreds of Ukrainian trucks and railcars were held at border checkpoints.

The trade war had its desired effect, with Yanukovych suspending the EU deal 3 months later. This fueled the initial protests in what eventually turned into a popular revolt called the Maidan in 2014. Underpinning this, however, was a deep-seated opposition to an already existing economic crisis arising from the Ukrainian regime’s neo-liberal policies.

Annual inflation in Ukraine for the period 1993-5 had averaged a staggering 2,001 percent per year. Living standards plummeted and lifetime savings and pensions evaporated; Ukraine was at the eye of the neoliberal economic storm. By 2013, Ukraine was the only Eastern European state whose level of production stood at pre-1993 levels. This was reflected in one of the lowest per capita incomes of all the former Soviet states, meaning that the average salary in Ukraine was 2 to 2.5 times lower than in Russia and Belarus, and much lower than in the EU.

The EU seemed to offer an alternative but it was only when the Yanukovych regime responded with widespread police brutality, that the initial protests turned into a virtual uprising.

The Kremlin’s response to the overthrow of Yanukovych was to seize Crimea and stoke a separatist insurgency amongst the ethnic Russians in the Donbas region. This led to the creation of two separate entities known now as the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, which the Kremlin has just recognised as part of its current offensive.

Besides their strategic geographical importance, this region of Ukraine is highly industrialised with coal mining, steel, rail, machine tools and agricultural machinery enjoying pride of place. The annexation of the region would be a huge loss to Ukraine whilst ensuring vital supplies to the Russian economy on more beneficial terms.

The Kremlin’s proxy war in the Donbas region at that time was a form of economic warfare, to weaken Ukraine and turn it into something akin to a failed state. As yet, the Kremlin had not expressed its view that Ukraine should never have been granted its independence. Ukrainian capitalism was already weak and its separation from many of its most productive industrial assets tipped the balance to the brink of economic collapse.

The Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, lost about 70 per cent of its value against the dollar and inflation continued at around 60 per cent. The economy contracted by 6.6 per cent in 2014 and a further 9.8 per cent in 2015, a more severe downturn than the one experienced by Greece. As Kiev turned to the EU and the IMF, it embarked on a neoliberal package that saw swingeing attacks on the working class.

For the year 2015, unemployment ranged from 15 to 18%. and wage arrears soared. Employers owed workers in Dnipropetrovsk 131 million hryvnia, 136 million in Kiev, and 142 million in Kharkiv. Hyperinflation produced skyrocketing prices for basics such as sugar up 39%, dairy products up 32%, and bread up 21%. Poverty hovered around 33%. Overall, 80% of Ukrainians lived on less than $5 a day,

Essentially, it was this economic crisis which forced the Ukrainian government into the Minsk agreements. ceding changes to Ukraine’s constitution and greater autonomy for the Donbas region

These agreements only served to paper over the cracks in what was a gaping divergence between the economies of Ukraine and Russia. With huge loans from the IMF, the World Bank and the EU itself helping to bail out Ukrainian capital, a reconciliation between Kiev and Moscow became impossible. As Ukraine became increasingly integrated into the EU market, Moscow became ever more belligerent and upped the ante with its chauvinist rhetoric.

Class and nationality in Ukraine

Russia’s war on Ukraine is a flagrant violation of its right to self-determination. Like most of the nationalities imprisoned within the Czarist empire, both Crimea and Ukraine established autonomous republics following the October 1917 Russian revolution. This was in line with the internationalist policy of the Bolsheviks which advocated self-determination and voluntary association within a federated union of socialist republics. Before the Stalinist counter-revolution, this produced to an astonishing renaissance of literary and cultural activity in Ukraine, leading to the appearance of scores of new writers and poets and the formation of dozens of literary groups that changed the face of Ukrainian literature.

It is this policy which Putin now describes as a disaster, not for working people in Russia or Ukraine, but for the new class of capitalists who hark back to the days of Czarist imperialism.

Putin’s order to invade Ukraine has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘de-Nazification’ and everything to do with Russification, i.e., assimilating Ukraine back into the so-called historical Russian territory.

The rightist character of the current Ukrainian government and the class interests which it serves, is indisputable. Its entire course of action has also been a major factor in shaping the crisis. Naturally, as a sovereign government, it has the right to determine its own foreign policy, trade and economic relations with whomsoever it chooses. However, those choices have been limited by its class interests in opting between one imperialist power or another. It has been unable to harness the popular energy, exhibited in the Maidan uprising, to forge a genuinely independent course based upon the conscious participation and mobilisation of the Ukranian masses. Quite the contrary, the past few years have seen a series of labour struggles against some of Ukraine’s biggest corporations.

This is hardly surprising given that the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a willing servant of the billionaire capitalists and oligarchs who demand even more austerity measures and who are striving to shackle the power of the labour movement. As the British-based Ukranian Solidarity Campaign put it,

“Ukraine has been in deep and tragic crisis since the defeat of the authoritarian government of our former President Yanukovych last year. Ukraine has been squeezed between an aggressive power in our East and neo-liberal economic policies from the West, the working people of Ukraine are suffering from both the terrible cost of war and of austerity.”

The current expression of this was reported by EPSU (European Public Services Union):

“The Ukrainian government of the President Zelensky has introduced reforms of the Ukrainian labour market to weaken the influence of workers and their unions. It has further proposed changes to the trade union law aiming to take away properties and assets of the unions. Together these changes would significantly reduce the voice of workers. The aim is to strengthen employers, oligarchs and the rich and promote the neoliberal project of reform of the economy. The trade unions have been successful in blocking the proposals.”

Almost on the first day of the Russian invasion, the first instinct of the Zelensky government was to curb the power of the Ukrainian people. The imposition of martial law – facilitating curfews, suspending legal rights and allowing court martials – is a typical measure of authoritarian regimes that lack popular support. Such was its usage in the Tiananmen Square protests, the French occupation of Algeria, the British colonisation of India and, most famously, under the Nazi occupied territories of World War II. It will undoubtedly be maintained and strengthened should the Russian forces succeed in occupying Kiev and other cities.

There is no doubt that the labour movement will have to settle accounts with the Ukrainian capitalist class, all the more so in the context of an occupation in which all the major branches of the Ukranian economy will be asked to collaborate with the new regime.

No to war, no to sanctions

The wide-ranging package of sanctions on the Russian economy are not in the interests of working people anywhere, not in Ukraine, not in Europe and not in the USA. Presented as an attack on the rich Russian oligarchs, it is working people the world over who will suffer from the resultant shortages and massive price hikes, particularly in people’s domestic energy bills and transport costs. When similar sanctions were imposed on Iraq prior to the invasion it had a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people. This was summarised as follows:

“The impact on earnings and livelihoods has been disastrous. Real earnings fell by around 90 per cent in the first year of the sanctions, and then fell by around 40 per cent more between 1991 and 1996. There has been a steady shift of people into casual labour. Wages in this form of employment are now much lower in Iraq than wages for casual workers in some of the poorest parts of the world. Qualitative observations on the type of survival strategies that Iraqis are resorting to confirms this impression that in many ways Iraq is now very much like some of the poorest countries in the world, whereas before the sanctions it could be placed on par with the upper Middle Income countries.” (Sanctions Against Iraq: Costs of Failure, Peter Boone, Haris Gazdar and Athar Hussain,November 1997)

According to a report issued by UNICEF in 1999, over 500,000 children died as casualties of the sanctions regime.

As things stand, sanctions are the current weapon of choice in the war against Russia. The intent could well be, as in Iraq, to soften Russia up for a future NATO offensive. In the meantime, they are bound to have a devastating impact on the people of Ukraine themselves, particularly if the Ukranian economy becomes tied to Russia’s.

Role of Westminster

The capitalist governments of the West are no friends of the ordinary people, a fact which millions of workers would readily attest to. If this was ever in doubt, then the role of Westminster should help dispel that. Following mass opposition to the first attempts at labour law reform, the British Foreign office, has been directly involved in advising the Kiev government on how to sell the anti-labour laws to the public.

This role was discovered by the European Public Services Union in 2021 who reported seeing “documents [which] show that the UK government via its development aid arm (UK Aid) and the UK embassy in Kiev is funding consultants to assist the Ukrainian Ministry of Economy in selling its neo-liberal market reforms to the Ukrainian people.”

According to Vasyl Andreev, president of Ukraine’s construction workers union and deputy chair of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU), the draft law could place “70-80% of workers outside of Ukrainian labour law completely – including unions, regulations on working days, pay rates, as well as healthy and safe working conditions”.

This then is the real agenda of Western capitalism in the Ukraine, to create an economy, aligned to the EU, based upon cheap, unorganised labour. As the fourth largest investor in the Ukraine, British capital already has a high stake and sees enormous potential for more profit in a deregulated market. Speaking at the recent opening of a business forum in London, dedicated to Ukraine's investment opportunities, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, invited British capital to play a far more prominent role. Describing Ukraine as “one of the most promising areas of foreign investment in Central Europe”, Kuleba called on British businesses to take an active part in the privatization of state-owned enterprises.

A people’s war is needed

Ukraine’s future in face of Russian aggression cannot depend on one imperialist block or another. Neither Washington nor Moscow have anything to offer that does not rely, in different degrees, on the subjugation of the Ukranian masses to the needs of big capital. Rather, a truly free and independent Ukraine can only be forged by the workers and farmers fighting independently of the capitalist rulers both at home and abroad.

Events are already moving very fast and it is impossible to say what the outcome will be other than a military victory for the invader. However, it is already clear that neither the Russian, American or British people want a war that serves the interests of big capital. In Russia itself, there have been remarkable scenes of street protests and this is just the beginning. The seizure of Kiev and the installation of a puppet regime will not end the war. Despite its overwhelming military superiority, the balance of forces inside Ukraine can well be shifted by the tenacious resistance of the people.

Even now, albeit belatedly and in a haphazard way, the people are being armed in different neighbourhoods. Should the tanks roll in and seize the capital, the outcome could still be dependent on street fighting as happened in Stalingrad during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It could be a prolonged war with many casualties on the Russian side Alongside the growing impact of the sanctions, this will surely fuel an ever greater resistance from the Russian people.

In this situation, the labour movement position should be unequivocal. We should give unconditional support to Ukraine’s right of self-determination. However, in place of the warmongering, anti-Russian jingoism being touted by every single parliamentary party, we need an anti-war policy based upon international working class solidarity that reaches out to the Russian workers and farmers as the most decisive ally against the war. This will become even more imperative should the conflict extend beyond Ukrainian territory and develop into a new world war.

Stop the war!

Russia out of Ukraine now!

No to sanctions!

For international labour solidarity!


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