By Greg Godels
March 5, 2023
February 24th marked one year since Russian troops crossed the border with Ukraine and began its overt military intervention in what was a de facto civil war. From 2014 and the Western intervention resulting in that year’s coup against President Yanukovych, Ukraine has been a divided country engaged in a bitter, violent struggle over its future alignment. Indeed, that struggle had been simmering since Ukraine left the Soviet Union, with roots going back even further. Ukrainian nationalism has almost always sought to link independence with the protection of one powerful sponsor or another.
Like other civil wars, this war is the continuation of simmering, expanding political, economic, and social issues– politics by other, more violent, brutal, and dangerous means. Except for the Soviet period, there has never been a stable, viable, enduring Ukrainian state. Nor has there been a Western-style “democracy” with sufficient popular support and legitimacy.
But the war is something more than a civil war. It is also an imperialist war contested between great powers claiming to defend the interests of factions engaged in the civil war. As with other imperialist wars, the great powers are contesting over direct and indirect economic interests while seeking to maintain or establish spheres of interest.
Russia, for its part, as a relatively new, emergent capitalist power, has an unbalanced economy, relying heavily on the export of its abundant natural resources, principally gas and oil. As a result of Cold War aggression, Russia also has a highly developed military-weapons industry as a legacy of the Soviet Union. Its role in the imperialist conflict revolves around defending its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the economic links established during the Soviet era, maintaining and expanding its share of the Western European energy market, and burnishing its position in supplying weaponry in the ever-expanding global armament frenzy.
The US, on the other hand, as the self-styled leader and police of the capitalist world order, opposes Russia’s independent foreign policy and economic and political influence in Eastern Europe. Support for Syria, a country at odds with US and Israeli interests in the Middle East, undoubtedly brought Russia into even sharper conflict with the US. The dream of unchallenged US global hegemony was, no doubt, interrupted by Russia’s failure to pay obeisance.
But the battle over natural gas markets– seen as the transitional “clean” carbon-based energy source– played an oversized role in motivating the conflict. With US potential natural gas production nearly limitless thanks to new technologies, the US urgently needed new markets. Most recently, investors were backing away from the industry because of low prices and shrinking profits.
As I wrote on February 2, 2022, more than three weeks before the Russian military invasion started:
…Biden’s administration harps on Trump-like sanctions aimed at the Russian economy and, not least of all, its energy sector.
If oil was a motivating factor in US foreign policy activism in the 1980s and 1990s, then natural gas is a decisive motivating factor today. Where the US was determined to secure oil resources in the past, energy independence and the fracking revolution motivate US policy makers to secure natural gas markets today.
In essence, the US is baiting the Russians into actions that will encourage the Europeans to reject their dependence upon cheap Russian natural gas. Instead, they want Europe to rely on expensive US liquified natural gas, a change that Europeans have, so far, resisted. War hysteria is meant to frighten the Europeans into rejecting the nearly completed Nord Stream pipeline and, instead, build costly liquified natural gas terminals to accept US gas. Thus, the underlying strategy is economic– a not-so-subtle bullying of Europe into aligning with US economic interests.
The goal is to restart the botched, overinvested, badly managed fracking revolution that would now ride the tide of high energy prices.
The criminal destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines by the US and its allies only underscores the above analysis.
Today, the US is the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG). Also, oil purchases from the US by the UK, Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain, and Germany have increased by 344,000 barrels a day since last February, according to The Wall Street Journal. The WSJ article quotes Daniel Yergin, an oil energy historian and vice chairman of S&P Global: “America is back in the most predominant position it has been in world energy since the 1950s… U.S. energy now is becoming one of the foundations of European energy security.” Those who see US imperialism as in a stage of irreversible decline might find this statement sobering.
The stakes of inter-imperialist conflict were established well before the intervention of February 24. To anyone paying attention, the worsening conflict was about much more than Ukrainian self-determination, democracy, or sovereignty. The encroachment of NATO was motivated by far more than protecting Eastern Europe from Russian aggression. And the Russian interests were less idealistic than simply liberating Ukrainians from themselves or neo-Nazis.
In response to the many who found noble motives on one side or the other, I wrote on February 14, ten days before the operation:
Those who remain skeptical of the economic motives behind the US warmongering must explain why Biden placed natural gas politics ahead of any other matter before him and his German ally [Scholtz] in this first significant policy exchange. Biden’s glee– not shared by his German counterpart– reveals the importance the US government places on seizing the natural gas market from the Russians, their rival in the energy business.
The Ukraine crisis presents other economic advantages as well. In less than two weeks, the US has sent eight cargo planes to the Ukraine with military supplies, part of the $200 million Biden authorized in new military aid. The xenophobic, ultra-nationalist Baltic states and Poland have sent massive amounts of military equipment to Ukraine as well, much of which is sourced from US corporations and will be replaced by aid or purchases from the US.
Whether Ukraine joins NATO or not, Ukraine is being militarized and will continue to be a destination for US arms. On this front, the US military-industrial establishment will win, regardless of the crisis outcome.
Adversaries on both sides of the Cold War-like divide will be armed to the teeth and the possibility of war raised accordingly.
US “aid” to Ukraine since last February is rapidly approaching 100 billion dollars– far more than US aid to any other country or any other country’s contribution to Ukraine’s war effort.
With the Russian military invading on several fronts on February 24 of last year, the civil war reached a qualitatively greater intensity, with NATO sharply increasing its participation. Weapons poured into Ukraine, guaranteeing a conflict of a dimension unseen in Europe since World War II. Predictably, the Western propaganda machine spoke with one voice, portraying Ukraine as a hapless victim of unprovoked Russian invasion.
Sadly, the social democratic and liberal left in Europe and the US– blinded by the missionary zeal of the twisted doctrine of “humanitarian interventionism” and intoxicated by a media smear of everything Russian– quickly fell in line with NATO’s militarization of Ukraine, going so far as calling for a military victory over Russia and regime change in Moscow.
Western ruling classes proved adept at winning the broad center-left to the bizarre notion that a moral defense of Ukraine constructed around the principle of self-determination could be applicable to a regime that itself violated the democratic principle of self-determination by staging a violent coup d’état eight years earlier.
As in 1914 in the early stages of World War I, the liberals and social democrats betrayed any anti-war principles to the fever of war. No anti-war movement was forthcoming from this camp.
In the US, this left-center opportunism is firmly held in place by fealty to the Democratic Party, whose imperial adventures are only softly challenged by liberals or social democrats.
Others on the left– whether from a nostalgic conflation of Russia with the Soviet Union or a failure to understand Russia’s role in the imperialist system– portrayed the Russian government as a liberator or as a paragon of anti-imperialism. This naive view turned reality on its head and imagined a corralling of imperialism– a step towards a multipolar utopia– as an anticipated result of Russia’s defeat of NATO’s surrogates on the battlefield of Ukraine.
How Russia prevailing or any other alternative military outcome could benefit the working classes of Ukraine, Russia, or the West is beyond credulity. Illusions of a Russian version of humanitarian intervention unfortunately infect some elements of the left. Meanwhile, the bodies are piling up, homes are destroyed, and families are forced to flee.
Too few of us on the left rejected the two misguided choices, recognizing the essence of the war as imperialist conflict.
As the war ground on, I wrote on May 9, 2022:
The great tragedy is that the broad left– the historical foil to war and imperialism– remains divided, confused, and inactive while a bloody, destructive war rages, threatening to expand and escalate. As the war continues with no resolution, the only winner is US imperialism.
Trade union militants in Italy and Greece took to the streets to oppose the war, along with Greek Communists. Thousands marched in Prague in September against rising energy and other costs as a result of the war in Ukraine. Yet no national action against the war occurred in the US, and little in the rest of Europe.
The fact that the Zelensky regime outlawed political parties, stripped labor regulations, and criminalized the opposition found most of the liberal and social democratic left unmoved (The AFL-CIO– a strong supporter of Zelensky– was eventually forced to object on behalf of its favored anti-Communist unions).
Efforts for a peaceful settlement were persistently undermined by the Western powers– the US, UK, and their NATO partners.
In the face of intransigent Western governments and a lame, disputatious left guilty of misguided partisanship, the cause of peace was left to others. The populist right has attempted to take on the role of peacekeeper, at least to the extent of questioning the unconditional support for the further escalation of the war. As the war stalemated, right-wing politicians in opposition found mismanagement of the war to be a fertile field for political advantages. For a vivid example of right-populist war skepticism, see Representative Matt Gaetz’s scathing rebuke of US Defense Department officials, concluding that US money spent on guaranteeing Ukrainian pensions would be better spent in the US on bolstering pension reserves here.
Democratic Party elected officials, on the other hand, have been unmoved, staying solidly behind Biden’s instigation and expansion of the war.
The notorious corruption of successive Ukrainian regimes, the mobilizing of more troops and the introduction of more lethal and longer-range weapons, and weariness over the dwindling prospect of early victories are spawning questions and doubts. As the conflict is prolonged, support in the opinion polls is now sagging. This is reflected in less cheerleading and more nuance in coverage by leading newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
A recent feature article in The Wall Street Journal, Domestic Political Troubles Return for Ukraine’s Zelensky, recounts both the checkered trajectory of Zelensky’s career and his immersion in a sea of corruption. Recently, a large number of his colleagues were ousted or forced to resign for serious corruption.
The article cites opposition politicians who portray the leader as “authoritarian” over his total dominance of the Ukrainian media. In addition, The WSJ reminds us that Ukrainian trust in Zelensky was down to 28% before the war. In short, the lengthy article tarnishes the image of the celebrity figure formerly viewed by the media as whistle-clean and selfless, perhaps a telling sign of some cracks in ruling class consensus.
Also, the sunny prospects of Ukrainian victory with advanced Western technologies are beginning to turn a little gloomy; in late February Zelensky fired a top general serving as the commander of the joint forces of Ukraine. Apparently, Russia has seized the military initiative in Eastern Ukraine to rhe chagrin of Ukraine’s leaders.
Most countries are refusing to be bullied by US efforts to steer them into condemning or sanctioning Russia. Both Peoples’ China and Lula’s Brazil have proposed plans for all parties to cease fighting and negotiate.
These and other changes and initiatives offer hope that resistance to the war will grow. This year, two encouraging national actions in opposition to the war were planned to rally in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the organizers of the events engaged in bitter Internet battles where some questions of substance were poisoned by egos, turf wars, and pettiness. Historically, rival peace organizations settle their differences and validate their approach in practice. We have seen factional and sectarian conflict in the peace movement before. At least, there is now motion to halt the war and negotiate, with another rally scheduled for March 18.
Recent actions in Europe are encouraging, as well. Thousands have marched in Berlin, London, and other cities.
Maybe we are seeing the first shoots of a soon-to-blossom movement to end the war and reject militarism.
As I wrote last September 7:
The war in Ukraine is the logical outcome of the unwinding of globalization, a process that began with the 2007-2009 world economic crisis…
Competition intensified and rivalries became more virulent. Inevitably, economic competition leads to confrontation and confrontation leads to war.
The circumstances of war become less important and the deadly outcomes and possible escalations take center stage. Today, the likelihood of a long, bloody war and its potential expansion beyond borders demand action.
As this tragedy unfolds, the only answer– the working-class answer– is to pull out all stops to end it. We desperately need a militant movement to stop this war.
The need is even more urgent today.