Ukraine: Biden ups the stakes
Does America’s arms commitment change the character of the war? No.
This was the week America took charge of the Russia-Ukraine war. It stated two war aims:
- the weakening of Russia to the point where it can no longer threaten its European neighbours;
- and the defence of an armed, sovereign and democratic Ukraine (though indeterminate as to the territory it would exist on).
And then it began to mobilise the means. It convened the Ukraine Defense Consultative Group of 40 countries, to co-ordinate the continous supply of heavy weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. And Biden asked Congress for a $33bn war chest: $20bn for arms, $8.5bn for economic assistance and $3bn for humanitarian aid. They even revived the Lend-Lease Act to authorise donation of arms to Ukraine.
For those like me, on the left, who’ve supported Ukraine — including calling for sanctions, aid, debt relief and arms — it poses an obvious question: is this about to become a 1914-style conflict, in which the Ukrainian people are just pawns in a bigger game, with nothing progressive at stake for the working class?
That has been the line peddled by the pro-Russian left since the start, along with whole side-menu of slanders: that the entire 102,000 Ukrainian National Guard is fascist, that Zelensky’s repression of various pro-Russian national bolshevik groups is unjust, and that the Donbas separatists are resisting genocide.
But because supporting Putin’s war justifications largely bombed outside the dedicated circles of Neo-Stalinists, a softer argument was advanced through various front initiatives: ceasefire now, negotiations, no to arms supplies because they can “only prolong the suffering”, and in addition might trigger a nuclear war.
This came in different variations : the leadership of the old German peace movement, for example, demanding the surrender three Ukrainian cities to Russia which are not even under siege.
Stop The War in Britain even argued that they were supporting Zelensky by calling for a “ceasefire and neutrality” — ignoring the fact that Zelensky’s negotiating position called for an armed neutrality guaranteed by Western powers (ie a Nato-style defence pact).
Biden’s offer decoded
But that phase of the war is over. America’s offer to Putin, decoded, is pretty clear: we don’t want to overthrow you, we don’t want to destabilise you; but the more of your army you throw into Ukraine, the more it’s now going to get smashed by superior weapons and realtime intelligence supplied by Western allies, and an increasingly NATO-ised Ukrainian army.
It is without doubt that, during the phase when Kyiv and Kharkiv were at risk, there was a faction of the USA prepared to fund a trickle of arms into Ukraine, to keep Putin weakened and off balance, so they could get on with their primary obsession: confronting China.
But they seem for now to have lost the argument. The USA spies a bigger prize. If Putin refuses to disengage soon, it has the chance to do to Russia what Russia did to the West over Georgia — inflict geopolitical retreat and humiliation, strategically removing Putin’s appetite for aggression, and his ability to deploy a serious land component in the near future.
Since, on 4 February, Putin and Xi declared that the world is now composed of three power blocs, and the rules based global order is over, US strategists have seized the chance to make sure that the weakest of those power blocs becomes weaker.
There is, of course, the chance that the realisation of his predicament will trigger Putin to use nuclear weapons. But the risk of nuclear war lies in Putin’s brain, not in any action the West might take (short of NATO actively seeking conflict with Russian forces).
As I wrote last week: when a totalitarian narcissist starts making nuclear threats, there are no good choices.
If Western civil society, and parts of the Western left, want to begin from the premise that “nuclear war must be avoided at all costs”, the logic is that, at the moment it becomes real — say Putin drops a small bomb on the battlefield in Ukraine — we have to surrender Ukraine plus see the half of Europe he wants demilitarised and neutralised. In addition we must accede to his demand (co-signed with Xi) for no more colour revolutions (aka no more capacity building for opposition parties and human rights groups by the West).
It’s a logical position. You could even justify it in the same way the pro-appeasement wing of British imperialism did between 1937 and 1940: if we leave Hitler alone to destroy Europe he won’t touch us. For genuine religious and ethical pacifists it’s an understandable position to take.
But for the left it would be the wrong position. The Ukrainian left, human rights groups and trade unions are actively supporting the war of resistance because they know: there is no space for survival on the other side of the lines. Not for unions, not for the left, not for LGBTQ+ people, not for minorities — not even for the Ukrainian school curriculum and language, if we judge by the horrific antics of the Russians in Kherson.
I’ve argued, since the crisis started, that there are three aspects to the conflict:
- Ukraine’s justified struggle for sovereignty and self-determination, made doubly just by the genocidal actions and intent shown at Bucha, the forced population transfers, the linguistic imperialism and the organised sexual violence.
- Inter-imperialist rivalry between a declining US superpower, allied to an emergent EU seeking “strategic autonomy”; versus an imperialist Russian rentier state that knows it is doomed once the carbon age ends; backed (passively) by a rising Chinese imperialism, which sees the conflict as a chance to enlarge its own geostrategic space.
- A systemic conflict, declared on 4 February 2022 by Putin and Xi, in which the charter system inaugurated by the UN is to be replaced by great power politics, and in which the Western system based on bourgeois democracy and the rule of international law will be aggressively undermined by totalitarian and anti-modern ideologies, spread through greyzone warfare.
The question for the left is: which aspect is dominant; and what does this interplay of class, national and geostrategic forces mean for the working class?
Richard Seymour, in his Patreon newsletter, engages more intelligently with this conundrum than most of the Leninist left, who cannot see beyond the 1914 parallel, and are blindly “applying” a 105 year old theory, seemingly oblivious to the intervening decades of theoretical debate and historical change. (I’m writing something big on this…)
Seymour grants that Ukraine has the right to arm itself, and that it can only get such arms from the West. That’s a commendable position for a leftist from the Cliff-ite tradition to take.
But, he says, the left should not try to “support, or radicalise, the policy of imperialist states who are planning for a long war in which Ukraine’s defences are reinforced but there is no decisive military intervention”. He also opposes the left demanding arms for Ukraine because of the danger of nuclear rhetoric.
But what’s the alternative? When a group of British Labour activists bought a pile of kevlar jackets to send direct, in a van, to Ukrainian trade union militia members in the Donbas, there was no legal way of getting them across Europe other than in the British imperialist diplomatic bag. It’s not even possible for civilians to legally buy a night-vision device in large parts of Europe, let alone get it into the right hands in Ukraine.
(Here by the way, if we’re using First World War parallels, is the exact same problem faced by both Roger Casement and Lenin, both of whom had to rely on German imperialism to aid their anti-imperialist efforts.)
For me, the decisive issue is the systemic character of the war. Seymour believes this is an impossible position for a Marxist to take — but it was the de facto position of the communist-led resistance movements in Axis occupied Europe and China. They saw the war not simply as just and defensive, but potentially transformative.
Just as in the Second World War, there is no space for survival for the left, the workers’ movement, feminism, human rights defenders — and I mean absolute zero space — either in the Chinese or the Russian totalitarian system.
Yes, the West — via UN-sanctioned NATO interventions and via direct and illegal intervention — has committed horror upon horror, from Yemen to Afghanistan and Iraq. Yes it is run by a rentier financial elite. And yes we should go on prosecuting the domestic class struggle — against everything from shit landlords to the Nationality and Borders bill.
But we need to support the new determination to arm Ukraine.
On Lenin’s principle that “the truth is always concrete”, look at it from the point of view of a worker in the militia in Kryvyi Rih, a proletarian stronghold lying right in the path of the advancing Russian army.
They’re armed with AKs and molotovs and, if they’re lucky, have something better than a 1944-issue Maxim gun. They’re ready to fight because they’re defending their national sovereignty, their linguistic existence, and their physical bodies from execution, torture and sexual violence.
They’re defending a democracy that has, under the cover of EU orientation, tried to privatise their industries, cut their pay and conditions, and de-recognise their unions. But its systemically preferable to what’s coming their way.
For them, the inter-imperialist character of the war is, if they are class conscious, something they will have to deal with later. Right now they need the professional army defending them to have tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft guns and a steady supply of ammunution.
The apparently separate qualities of the war — national, inter-imperialist, systemic — merge concretely into a single reality, whose immediate problem is: how to avoid the city being devastated and its inhabitants subjected to crimes against humanity.
Critics of the arms supplies should forget the question of “offensive versus defensive” weapons. All weapons kill people. You could smuggle an NLAW into a Russian city and fire it at a busload of civilians if you wanted to.
And forget the question of which territory weapons are allowed to fire on. Russia is claiming all occupied territory as Russian — it has just issued the first Russian birth certificate to a baby born in Mariupol. So forbidding attacks on Russian territory is a meaningless condition for arms supplies.
The social democratic, green and left parties in Europe and the Americas should go on voting for arms to Ukraine so long as the war remains just — which in Ukraine’s case means strategically defensive of its territory and its people. (Any leftist who tells you there are no just wars hasn’t read Marx, the Comintern or Che Guevara.)
Unless the Putin regime collapses I can see zero chance of the Americans letting Ukraine trying to retake the L/DNR. And even Zelensky signalled a 15 year moratorium on the status of Crimea. So practically a Ukrainian victory means driving the Russians out of Kherson province, destroying them in the Donbas and forcing an ignominous pull out to save the rest, once the Switchblades get working. The USA has gone for this because, after two months of military incompetence on the Russian side, they and the Ukranian people believe it’s possible.
I don’t know what Seymour means by “radicalising” the policy of arms supply. I am against euphemisms. The sanctions are a form of economic war; the arms supplies, in their new iteration, clearly carry the intent of proxy warfare on the American side. The question is, in all cases, is justice on the side of the defender?
However, the left — both in the West and Ukraine — should now be planning actively to place demands and conditions on the reconstruction effort. For example, at the reoccupied Chernobyl plant there is already a dispute with the workforce over contracts.
With left, right and centre now operating politically inside the Ukrainian armed forces, one point of vigilance should be to oppose any attempt to shut down the anarchist, left, trade union-dominated territorial units (while leaving the politicised far-right elements of Pravi Sector and Azov to operate freely).
Another point of vigilance should be against the predictable US/EU attempts to privatise and acquire infrastructure and real estate under cover of the reconstruction effort — and to build economic fiefdoms with the aid of Ukrainian oligarchs.
At a more strategic level, the whole Ukrainian civil society needs to understand that aid comes at an economic and political price. Lend-lease, let us remember, substantially stripped the British Empire of its power and possessions. The Ukrainian youth who dream of a Scandinavian liberalism as the result of national sovereignty may find they just get plain old American freemarket capitalism, as South Korea did.
The outcome will depend on the political struggle; whether, as the Ukrainian left group puts it, the war becomes a “people’s war”. And on how much pressure social-democrats and progressives in Europe and America can put on their own governments.
Finally, let’s remeber that the America that piles in under Biden may pile straight back out again if Trump wins in 2024, leaving the under-armed and fractious EU powers to pick up the pieces, and Ukraine yet again without guarantees.
The coming dangers
With each fragmentary engagement in the Donbas battle, it becomes more likley that Russia cannot win it. It needs to double-encircle the Ukrainians — matching its advances from Iziyum with a broader circular thrust from Kharkiv. This analysis from Ian Matveev shows how unlikely that is.
There are signs that Putin will respond to these frustrations by declaring all out war on Ukraine on 9 May. But the US move has to give him pause. The ongoing revolution in military affairs is allowing drone-targeted artillery and shoulder launched missiles to inflict serious damage on the biggest armoured force in the world.
Those who survive now sit at the end of precarious supply lines, with an increasingly active armed insurgency and effective special forces. If, by September, they are stuck there, and facing relentless attrition from NATO-standard artillery, there is a danger that Putin will “escalate to de-escalate”: drop a small nuclear bomb and rush to the negotiating table.
Even if there’s a 10% chance of that, then we are in a period more dangerous than at any time since 1945. Combined with the threat of the international far right, social networks awash with genocidal fantasies, and the ever present climate chaos it’s easy to feel hopeless or helpless.
But the workers, youth and progressive sections of society have a weapon more powerful than nukes: revolt.
That’s why for us, the outcome of the war can’t be a weakened Putin, or a frozen conflict. It has to be the overthrow of Putin and Lukashenka, and the radical democratisation of a post-conflict Ukraine, sweeping away the persistent remnants of oligarchic power, strengthening the rule of law, and constructing a genuine social-democratic party to contest elections.
And in the West, as I’ve written elsewhere, the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, together with strong social-democratic and green influence in the governments of Germany, Portugal and Spain, allows us to redefine NATO as a defensive-only alliance, setting aside the “out of area” adventures and the British Tories mad vision of a “global NATO”.
The US intervention certainly generalises the conflict, raises the stakes and the dangers. But it doesn’t change the concrete character of the war on the ground. Ukraine’s cause is just and the global labour movement should go on supporting arms to Ukraine, sanctions against Russia and capacity building for a progressive movement that can deepen democracy and social justice in Ukraine itself.
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