By Karyn Pomerantz and Ellen Isaacs
March 2, 2022 The Multiracial Unity Blog, editors
Working class “cannon fodder” soldiers sacrifice themselves for imperialists on all sides.
As this is written, Russia’s rulers are invading Ukraine with increasing brutality and even threatening to use nuclear weapons. Neither workers in Russia, Ukraine, the US or anywhere in the world have anything to gain from this conflict. We will only suffer bodily harm, economic turmoil and confusion from imperialist propaganda. Like all inter-imperialist conflicts, this one represents a struggle for territory, resources, and economic and military superiority. Sometimes such conflicts, like this one, threaten to pit great powers against one another, but more often there are proxy wars as in Syria or Yemen. In this article we will provide some history and analysis of this conflict and argue for international anti-war solidarity, opposition to all inter-imperialist fights, and building a worldwide workers’ struggle for a society we run in our own interests.
Background History: 1917-WWII
The nation of Ukraine with its current borders did not emerge until 1917, and it became a founding member of the Soviet Union in 1922. Previously, it had been a fragmented area ruled by a variety of powers, including the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia, and Poland and only gained some cohesion in the late 18th century, when it included areas now part of Poland. As the USSR formed, the Bolsheviks made an early decision to grant autonomy to the ethnic minority states that had previously been part of the tsarist Russian Empire, allowing them to maintain their own language, culture and the right to secede. This compromise, promoting nationalism instead of the principle of working-class unity for communism, was one that would contribute to the failure to achieve a communist society and promote the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Soon after the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, 14 capitalist nations, including the US, invaded the USSR to try and topple the revolution. Right wing Russians and anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists were defeated along with the capitalist invaders, but they proceeded to create anti-communist myths such as that surrounding the Ukrainian famine of 1931-2. Periodic famines were a staple in Ukraine, and this one was real and severe. However, the Soviet government actually made attempts to alleviate it as much as possible given food shortages throughout its territories. Nonetheless, false pictures of starving peasants from 20 years before were shown around the world as Stalin was accused of mass murder. (The Hoax of the Man-Made Ukraine Famine of 1932-33 at https://msuweb.montclair.edu/%7Efurrg/politics.html#STALIN, https://www.villagevoice.com/2020/11/21/in-search-of-a-soviet-holocaust/)
Ukraine was the most populous part of the USSR and became a main site of production, providing huge amounts of steel to the Soviets and three quarters of the coal. 99% of agriculture was collectivized and grew 20% of the USSR’s wheat. As the westernmost part of the USSR, Ukraine suffered the worst under the WWII German invasion. To prevent the Nazis from taking over this industrial behemoth, much of the industrial plant was dismantled and moved east. During the war about a quarter million Ukrainians, primarily from the area near Poland, fought along with the Nazis, whereas almost five million fought for the Red Army (https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Ukrainian_collaborationism_with_the_Axis_powers). Overall about 10 million Ukrainians out of 40 million perished during the war. After the Nazis were driven out in 1944, a massive rebuilding plan was begun which replaced much of the lost production over the next 10 years (The Pattern of Soviet Power, Edgar Snow).
Once WWII ended, the West embarked on an anti-communist crusade against its former Soviet ally. The North American Treaty Organization (NATO) of the US and European nations was established in 1949 to limit Soviet influence in the region and to weaponize Europe. Twelve nations joined initially, and Germany, replete with Nazis, was admitted in 1955. The USSR made its own treaty organization with Eastern European nations, the Warsaw Pact, which dissolved in 1991 as the Soviet Union imploded. In 1997, NATO signed an agreement with Russia not to expand eastward, but nonetheless in 1999 it added Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. It now includes 30 nations and recently added Macedonia. Weaker, less rich countries seek membership since all members agree to defend others under attack (“collective defense”) and to establish military arsenals. Since Trump’s presidency the US has sent armaments and cancelled missile treaties, which increased Russia’s fears of nuclear weapons near its borders. Turkey has recently supplied drone weapons to Ukraine with US approval. NATO has also exceeded its original purpose of opposing Russian influence to enter conflicts in Yugoslavia, Libya and Afghanistan.
In 2008, several years after US backed Saakashvili ousted the elected President of Georgia, NATO expressed a wish to eventually include both Ukraine and Georgia. This increased the specter of nuclear weapons miles from the Russian border, the threat that induced Russia to invade Georgia at that time. The European Union (EU) offered to incorporate Ukraine in 2014 in a deal involving extreme austerity, which was refused. The West supported protests by those who wanted to join EU, which included Svoboda and the Azov Battalion, two Nazi organizations that attacked Jewish, communist, and Roma people and had been fighters for Germany during WWII. The US invested $5 billion in right wing “pro-democracy” groups, with whom Senator John McCain was meeting. A long and violent series of protests orchestrated by the right at Maidan Square ensued.
Eventually, pro-Russian President Yanukovych, known for his corruption, accepted $15 billion dollars from Russia, negotiated a deal to accept elections, and fled the country as fascist-led protests increased. The next day rightists stormed the parliament, seized power and banned the Russian language. The US seized the opportunity to engineer a coup to seat someone close to the EU and US. Victoria Nuland, Biden’s Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs for Europe and NATO and former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe under Obama, was recorded in a conversation with another US diplomat, Geoffrey Pyatt, as she discussed several candidates, favoring Arseniy Yatsenyuk who served as the Ukrainian Prime Minister from 2014-2016. Biden helped support this change; soon after it, his son, Hunter, became a Board member of the Ukrainian Burisma, Ltd. Natural gas company.
In 2014, soon after these events, Russia seized Crimea, a seat of widespread pro-Russian sentiment and site of Russia’s critical Black Sea naval base. Fighting in eastern Ukraine between rightist militias and pro-Russians has been continuous since 2014, with over 14,000 deaths. The fascists are less well represented in the rest of Ukraine, having received only 2.1% of the vote in the last parliamentary election, but they are incorporated into the military and the police, and they provide training to American and international Neo-Nazis.
Under “democracy,” Ukraine has remained a corrupt and stratified economy. According to the 2021 report of the European Court of Auditors, “Oligarchs, high-ranking civil servants and corrupt prosecutors and judges are still dividing up the state among themselves” and control the courts and political parties (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/01/22/ukra-j22.html), while the average worker’s net annual income is $10,430. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s major capitalists have each lost over $1.46 billion from sanctions, a mere fraction of their wealth (https://www.forbes.com/sites/giacomotognini/2022/02/24/richest-ukrainians-with-billions-to-lose-close-ranks-as-putin-unleashes-war/?sh=31a1fc266d72)
Not a New Strategy for the US
Inciting coups is nothing unusual for the US, which has deposed and replaced rulers in numerous countries. In the Congo, Kennedy had the radical new president Patrice Lumumba killed and installed the repressive Mobutu in 1961. In El Salvador, the US supported and trained Arena death squads to kill civilians and FMLN national liberation fighters. The US occupied Haiti for 15 years to support the fascist Duvalier regimes while impoverishing Haitian workers. In other Latin American countries, the US installed presidents who allowed US companies, such as United Fruit, to run the economy.
William Blum, author of Rogue State (Common Press, 2015) documented that the US:
- Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments.
- Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
- Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.
- Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
- Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries.
- Led the world in torture: performed by Americans upon foreigners, providing torture equipment, torture manuals, lists of people to be tortured, and in-person guidance by American teachers.
With this history, no one should trust that the US capitalists serve the working class anywhere. Their imperialist needs for profit and influence drive their wars. News coverage of their interventions are replete with lies and denials.
It’s All About Resources
Ukraine is important to Russia and the West not only for its location but for its rich resources. Ukraine has over 5% of the world’s mineral resources. It has close to 8,000 deposits of minerals used in production, including manganese, titanium, and iron. It has one of the world’s largest coal deposits, mostly in the contested Donbas area. Although there are extraction problems, Ukraine exports many of these and other minerals, such as copper, which is essential for a digital world. Known as the “breadbasket of the world,” Ukraine provides food, such as wheat and seed oils, to Egypt, the US, Yemen, and other countries. Egypt imports 70% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Many starving people in food insecure countries rely on these exports and will suffer greatly without them.
Russia supplies 15% of the world’s oil and 40-50% of the gas for Europe through the North Stream I pipeline. Germany receives 55% for a transit fee of $7 billion that comprises 4% of Ukraine’s GDP (https://www.msn.com/en-in/money/topstories/are-ukraines-vast-natural-resources-a-real-reason-behind-russias-invasion/ar-AAUhvBt). Russia’s Gazprom company built the Nord Stream II, doubling the capacity of Nord Stream I, with partial funding from Shell Oil Company. Its operation was delayed due to tensions in 2014 when there was conflict in Crimea. Due to concerns that it gives Russia a monopoly as the source and supplier of the gas, and as punishment for Russia’s aggression, Germany refused to approve its use. As a major financial source of income, Russia would like to secure this market for itself. The US also wants to profit from sales to European nations, who would purchase more from the US without the pipeline, but it would be more expensive and the port facilities to accept it would take several years to build (https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/03/01/some-economic-consequences-of-the-war-in-ukraine/).
Why Russia is Attacking Now
It is clear that Russia has much to fear if the West were able to arm and control the nations and their resources on its borders. Would the US ever allow Russia to have military and economic control of Mexico or Canada? At this moment, Russia also sees the US as being in a weakened state. Having lost every major war since WWII, recently suffering a humiliating pullout from Afghanistan, and riddled with internal political conflicts, there is no American appetite for armed conflict. Russia wants to make it clear that they have re-emerged as a world power and that Ukraine will never be a part of NATO. They also want to deal a final defeat to the fascists operating in Eastern Ukraine. In any case, Russia has no compunction about killing large numbers of civilians, as they did in Chechnya.
In order to justify himself, Putin is appealing to the right in Russia by attacking Lenin, blaming him for creating Ukraine as an autonomous republic but also for deserting the nationalist cause of defending the Tsar during WWI. He is also claiming a very broad influence of Nazis in Ukraine, beyond defeating those attacking the Russian controlled provinces. There have been significant anti-war protests in Russia, resulting in 6000 arrests so far, although it is not clear just what their ideology is.
The Fallacies of the Ukrainian Nationalist Response
Many Ukrainians are fighting back against the invasion on the basis of nationalism, and they are being supported by millions around the world. However, the pro-Western Ukrainian government has operated solely for the benefit of Western capitalism rather than in the interests of Ukrainian workers. A $27 billion dollar commitment from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) required reducing wages, cutting back on health and education, and decreasing subsidies that made natural gas affordable in order to attract more foreign investment (https://fair.org/home/what-you-should-really-know-about-ukraine/).
The media push the ruling class outlook in order to back capitalist interests and whip up nationalism. They also ignore racism, such as the refusal of Ukrainians to allow Indian and black African exchange students to board border crossing trains at Lviv (https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/28/europe/students-allege-racism-ukraine-cmd-intl/index.html) and the willingness of Eastern European nations that have refused non-European refugees to admit white Ukrainians. There have been an overwhelmingly number of articles and speeches in newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, radio interviews, Biden press conferences, TV newscasts, and Internet sources that hide the real history and reasons for this war, drum up support for Ukraine and vilify Russia. It is reminiscent of the coverage in 1964, when the US faked the Gulf of Tonkin incident to enlarge their attacks on Vietnamese liberation fighters, and of the the Bush Administration’s justification of the invasion of Iraq by alleging weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s. The US cited humanitarian disasters in Bosnia, Syria, and Afghanistan to intervene militarily, funding wars that decimated those economies and left their citizens in graves. Attacks on Iraq and Libya created failed states, also excused as liberation struggles to remove despots. And of course, in Israel, the US has painted Palestinian workers in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as terrorists who need to be controlled with US financed arms. In Yemen 90% of people suffer severe malnutrition from a war they “deserve” for opposing US ally Saudi Arabia.
Currently the US and the EU are intervening in the Ukraine war only by supplying weapons and instituting sanctions. Already, the US has frozen Russian assets in US banks, removed Russia from the international SWIFT messaging system, prevented the Russian Central Bank from using dollars, opposed the Nord Stream II pipeline, stopped airline flights from Russia, sanctioned oligarchs and expelled 12 UN diplomats. Products for industry that rely on Russia, like aluminum for cars, have been exempted from sanctions. Overall, sanctions have not only caused a drastic fall in the ruble, but have already greatly increased oil and gasoline prices in the US and Europe. The US economy will suffer higher inflation rates, currently at 7.5%, up from 4.2% in April 2021 with gas, food, housing, and medical care leading the way. There will be dire consequences for people in the EU and the US who are already dealing with price increases higher than in the 1940s. Many US unions endorse these measures as they line up behind US capitalism instead of remaining pro-working class and rejecting all bosses.
Big business only cares about starving workers if they threaten to rebel. Violence and its disruption to food production, food supplies, and transportation often lead to resistance; hunger kicked off the Arab Spring in Tunisia. Many North African countries depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat and other foodstuffs to survive. According to Shirley Mustafa at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at the UN:
“Although most violence does probably not occur because of higher food prices, but are caused by broader economic conditions or political grievances, these income shocks can be a trigger to engage in violent events (https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2022/2/27/22950805/russia-ukraine-food-prices-hunger-invasion-war).”
This conflict between imperialist interests does not serve the interests of any workers of the world. As in Russia and the US, Ukrainian workers live in a highly inegalitarian society dominated by a small group of the super-rich. But as always, nationalism and racism are being used to inspire soldiers and civilians to fight and die in the interests of their local capitalist rulers. The history of competing interests between various governments, the huge behind- the-scenes manipulations of events and policies by imperialists, and the disregard for the well-being of ordinary citizens is lost in a blitz of misinformation and patriotic posturing. What has begun as a local war with conventional weapons could possibly escalate into a larger one, even with nuclear weapons, as either side experiences unexpected losses.
Should this conflict be resolved without cataclysmic consequences, even though thousands will suffer death, injury or deprivation, more and larger wars will occur. China and the US are on a path of confrontation that is sure to be catastrophic, with Russia likely aligning with China against the West. Meantime an uncontrolled pandemic ravages the world that refuses to vaccinate those who cannot pay, and climate change threatens to obliterate the planet. The only path of escape is for the workers of the world to unite in opposing capitalism and imperialism and recognize their fundamental unity as a class and wage war on, not with, their oppressors. This is a difficult but an urgent task.
Some videos of interest:
Becker, Brian. Ukraine: Questions for the US Anti-war Movement, https://youtu.be/JAEybTns0Lg
Stone, Oliver. Ukraine on Fire, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHH10jIRJmQ