From the March-April 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Ron Kelch
On Feb. 24, in the dark of night, Russian president Vladimir Putin started a totally unprovoked invasion of Ukraine from three sides after a months-long buildup of 190,000 troops. Along with streams of troops and tanks came a barrage of land- and sea-based missiles to induce “shock and awe” and submission. Instead, Putin’s latest and most massive grisly invasion confronted a fierce resistance in Ukraine as well as opposition he did not expect on Russian streets.
The U.S. offer, indeed plea, to fly Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky out of the country to safety, reflected the near universal expectation of a quick Russian victory. Zelensky responded, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
He opened Ukraine’s armories, distributing 18,000 automatic weapons to citizens for defense against the Russians. Zelensky’s popularity skyrocketed to over 90%, as Ukrainians organized to make Molotov cocktails, ambushed armored vehicles, and stood unarmed in front of advancing tanks. Knowing Putin’s history of unbridled brutality, over two million have already fled with their children to the western borders.
As Ukrainian civilians, soldiers and militia, risking death, stalled the planned advance of one of the world’s most heavily armed militaries, Western European countries finally supported stiffer economic sanctions and promised to get more arms into the hands of Ukrainians.
RUSSIAN DEMONSTRATORS UNDERMINE PUTIN
The bravery of Ukrainians echoed in Russia, where protesters in over 50 cities dared to denounce the war, knowing full well that they risked arrest, blacklisting, even torture and death, which Putin’s regime has often dealt to dissidents. At the war’s start over 1,700 “No to War” protesters were arrested as the open defiance of the regime spread to many other forms of expression.
Normally non-political public figures like singers and athletes creatively proclaimed their opposition to the war. Disgust with Putin exploded on the internet. In Moscow, where demonstrators marched under the banner “Ukraine-Peace, Russia-Freedom,” Elena Chernenko, an official foreign relations journalist, published an open letter in opposition to Russia’s war, which 280 other journalists signed. The shock for Chernenko, who immediately lost her journalist credential, and for others was that Putin’s drawn-out troop maneuver was not a clever bargaining strategy but preparation for a full-scale invasion that began with bombing the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv.
The demonstrations continued and within a few days over 6,000 were arrested. By March 8 the number rose to 13,500. Many more signed open letters against the war: 6,000 medical workers, 3,400 architects and engineers, 500 teachers, 1,500 elite graduates of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. A Russian feminist group announced that March 8, International Women’s Day, would be a day of protest against militarism and Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, recreating that day’s original meaning instead of the sort of patriarchal mother’s day it had become.
RUSSIAN PAYING A LESSER PRICE
What is clear through the fog of war so far is the onset of a very bloody and costly conflict, especially for Ukrainians but also for Russians, who have thousands of casualties and whose economy is now in the midst of a precipitous downturn due to unprecedented sanctions imposed through institutions of international finance that are controlled by the U.S. and Europe.
From the start Putin crowed about his advanced nuclear weapons—presumably his “doomsday” hypersonic missile—and promised to “crush” any direct aggressor. Then he put his nuclear forces on alert and the Kremlin threatened that the West’s “economic war” against Russia could become a “real one.”
A major conventional-war-nuclear-catastrophe was luckily avoided when the Russian army’s shelling, which caused a massive fire at the Zaporizhzhia complex, was not a direct hit on one of its six nuclear reactors.
RUSSIA’S WAR IS AGAINST CIVILIANS
Russian units, which reached the main cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, bombed civilian infrastructure, using thermobaric and cluster bombs intended to pulverize urban areas. A relentless rain of artillery and rockets poured down on Kherson and Mariupol, where Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the shelling was so fierce they couldn’t rescue the wounded from the streets and apartments. An aide to the mayor, Pyotr Andriushchenko, said like Aleppo in Syria “they’re trying to wipe this city off the face of the earth,” signaling Putin’s plan for all of Ukraine.
Sanctions, mass demonstrations in solidarity with Ukrainians throughout the world—especially in Europe where hundreds of thousands came out in major cities like Madrid, Berlin and Prague—and a lopsided vote for condemnation in the UN, failed to deter Putin from going forward with the brutality he honed in the war on Chechnya that he used beginning in 1999 to consolidate his power.
Testing his more advanced weapons in 2015, Putin carried out a similar bloodbath in a military intervention that saved Bashar al-Assad’s counter-revolutionary genocide in Syria, which deliberately targeted hospitals, markets and other civilian locations.
Yet Putin’s 40-mile convoy of tanks and supplies, meant for encircling Kyiv and executing a prolonged siege, faced stiff resistance and, as we go to press, remains stalled after more than a week just outside the city. Some Russian troops—hungry and ill-informed about their mission—have surrendered en masse and sabotaged their vehicles by punching holes in gas tanks and tires. Captured soldiers were allowed to call their moms back home, where families had no idea they were at war.
Putin has since shut down social media and destroyed the last vestiges of independent media and then passed a law imposing a 15-year prison sentence on any journalists who use words like “war” or “invasion” or who contradict in any way the official government account of its “special military operation.” Troops believed they would be greeted as liberators with flowers and, like most Russians, up to the last minute believed Putin’s repeated insistence that there were no plans to invade the whole of Ukraine.
Indeed, the focus of Putin’s Feb. 21 speech was announcing recognition of two new independent republics in the Donbas. There the popular 2014 Ukrainian revolution for independence had been met with Putin’s imperial intervention promoting Russians vs. Ukrainians in an ethnic war, in which over 14,000 have been killed. That war devastated this industrial region, where multi-ethnic opposition, including especially workers’ strikes, had been critical to overthrowing the Soviet Union’s brutal state-capitalist regime and supporting Ukrainian independence.
PUTIN’S LOSS WOULD GIVE RUSSIANS FUTURE
Taras Bilous, a Ukrainian historian and activist who worked with the civilian victims on both sides of the Donbas war, knows well the Ukrainian ultra-right as well as the exaggerated presence given to it by those who don’t know the reality on the ground. Bilous, who tried to promote dialogue on the war and personifies the spirit of the new Ukraine, wrote “A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv,” signing off his blog to join a territorial defense unit while Kyiv was under artillery attack.
Bilous denounced the “campism” of Leftists who view Putin’s assault on his country as “the division of ‘spheres of interest’ between imperialist states” wherein Ukrainians are victims or collateral damage, but not humans battling for their lives against Russia’s imperialism and striving to be free to live in a multi-ethnic country led by a popular leader who is Jewish and whose first language is Russian. Bilous ends by urging the Russian people to “hurry up and overthrow the Putin regime. It is in your interests as well as ours.”
That sentiment was echoed in the Russian Socialist Movement by many like Danya P.’s “For revolutionary defeatism” (translated by Simon Pirani at People and Nature): “I hope that the armed forces of the Russian Federation are defeated in the war that has started. My hopes grow not out of hatred, but out of love. The Putin regime’s military victories will bring nothing to Russia’s citizens, except deaths of loved ones, the final collapse of the economy and the strengthening of the regime. These victories can produce only short-term euphoria, the narcotic effect of which just diverts attention from Russia’s endless problems and from the recognition of the need to solve them.
“Every town that is seized, every village that is occupied—that is more people whose future will be stolen from them. Because for the Putin regime there is no room for the future, there is only the rotten present and the effort to drive us all back to the even more miserable past. This regime strains every muscle to turn the wheels of history backwards, to return the economy, culture and society back to a more primitive state. Defeat in war would give the people of Russia a future, open their eyes to the essential character of the Putin regime and give them the strength to struggle for democracy and social justice.”
CAPITAL’S ESSENCE APPEARS
Putin’s Russian imperialism is but one manifestation of a desperate capitalist system that can’t provide for its population or address this society’s total threat to its own life-sustaining environment. As shock of Putin’s barbaric assault on Ukraine came to light, a blip in the news cycle was an update from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning of the irreversible damage and immense human suffering already baked in because of unequivocally human-caused climate change. (See “Climate change report,” p. 11.) Without immediate action there is no hope to “secure a livable future” for humans on the planet.
The ultimate currency now is militarism. The means of total destruction are much greater now than at the time of the global capitalist collapse of the 1930s Great Depression and its deglobalization, which led to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. The scale of Putin’s brutality toward a neighboring country in Europe revives this gruesome memory.
Putin’s now global pariah status is especially deep in Europe. Even Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, his closest ally, accepted EU sanctions against Putin’s Russia and, along with Poland, opened the borders to fleeing Ukrainians.
RACISM: CAPITALISM’S ACHILLES HEEL
Yet African students and other non-Europeans studying in Ukraine reported a much harder time crossing after being separated from locals by Ukrainian guards at the border. Hungary and Poland had been the staunchest opponents to granting asylum to refugees in general and especially the EU’s push to open their borders to the millions fleeing Syria when Putin, helping Bashar al-Assad, demolished their country in a genocidal siege. This racism controverts the human solidarity necessary for a genuine revolution.
Because of the cost to their own economies and political support, the Biden administration only belatedly succumbed to pressure and paid the price of shutting down Putin’s oil and gas revenue even as he unleashes what that revenue makes possible—a machinery of death, including the threat of nuclear annihilation if anyone interferes. Putin’s Ukraine war is just the latest moment in the widespread angst and despair over the future of humanity and nature under capitalism.
Putin’s war also reveals a changed world of shifting alliances between competing centers of capital accumulation, which is in a state of stalled accumulation globally, devolving into militarism and other-hating fascism and fomenting new forms of genocide.
XI’S CHINA, PUTIN’S RUSSIA CHALLENGE U.S.
Xi Jinping’s China, for its part, has solidified a new partnership with Russia. At a Xi and Putin meeting just before the Winter Olympics, Xi asked Putin to postpone his invasion so as not to distract from his Olympics spectacle, boycotted by officials of many countries over China’s human rights and genocidal practices against the Uyghurs. Xi also declared the new friendship of China and Russia had “no limits,” meaning China will enable Putin’s war drive by expanding the two countries’ trade in oil, gas, wheat, weapons, technology and other areas.
The combination of two nuclear powers—China’s advanced economy and manufacturing with Russia’s energy—is out to challenge U.S. imperialism. The capitalist system in crisis ever veers, behind the veneer of democracy, toward plutocracy, oligarchy and war. At the same time, as in the run up to World War II, no one knows what other realignments and betrayals will take place until the final global showdown. Putin is not so much the exception but the embodiment of the ongoing shift in world politics, signaling the future this system holds in store for the world if left unchecked. The destruction of democracy and the move to the Right in the U.S. and the world, which Putin has aided, help set the stage for that nightmare.
LENIN VS. PUTIN’S COUNTER-REVOLUTION
This shift is counter-revolutionary to the core. Nothing makes this clearer than Putin’s rant against Lenin. For Putin, who is taking Russia “back to the even more miserable past” of empire, there seems to be no enemy more hated than Lenin, who supposedly invented the nation of Ukraine. In reality, Lenin insisted that Ukrainians are an independent people/nation, free to go their own way, as he warned against Great Russian chauvinism, which he later further warned was personified by Stalin. It is Stalin that Putin, despite his denunciation of Communism, glorifies.
National self-determination is not merely a principle, to which Leftists were supposed to subscribe. Lenin also saw that it could be a catalyst for proletarian revolution. Just look at the depth of Ukrainians’ self-organization and self-activity—drawing in all layers of the population, acting individually and collectively on their passion for independence and freedom from imperial overlords. It has inspired the world. Ukrainians have certainly brought new life to the idea of democracy. Considering the sorry state of actually existing bourgeois democracies, the fight for overcoming barriers to living free cannot stop there.
In the U.S. a 10-year $1.2 trillion “build back better” proposal, to be paid for with a small tax on U.S. oligarchs—which would have made a significant dent in child poverty and allow some first, feeble steps to address the unfolding environmental catastrophe—faced, in spite of its popularity, the staunchest total opposition from Republicans. Yet, what received hardly any attention and passed in a blink of an eye with wide bipartisan support, was a so-called “defense spending” bill, which, projected over 10 years, will be more than $8 trillion. This is the old cold-war warrior President Joe Biden’s bipartisan war budget. The international competition between state-capitalist orbits is driven by production and preparation for total war.
WAR AND CAPITALISM
Nothing shows this more than the trade war between the U.S. and China, started under Trump and continuing to this day. It had, as a central issue, the 2019 battle over 5G telecommunicatios. (See “Is nuclear war on the horizon?” News & Letters, March-April 2019.) U.S. imperialism used sanctions to enforce a purge of Huawei equipment, which was more advanced than U.S. technology, from all Western countries. In 5G’s ability to connect things, the paramount consideration is the unimpeded ability to deliver smart weapons. The cost of supply chain disruptions, including those caused by sanctions, will be tremendous and affect all economies and will be paid for by workers.
The unity of economic and war policies has only intensified. Now the microchip industry and many other industries are a “national security” issue. Chip manufacturing companies are being subsidized to bring that manufacturing back to the U.S., even as talk about “winnable nuclear war” with China is getting traction among some in the Pentagon. The unity of economic and war policies is an absolute threat to life.
The opposite of permanent war is permanent revolution, which does not stop at political freedom and national self-determination. To Karl Marx permanent revolution meant realizing democracy and self-determination in everyday life activity, especially in the capitalist workplace where work is reduced to a mere means to life. In place of capitalist science that goes into the machine—the robot, the algorithm and the machinery of death to dominate and destroy—science is a lie unless it is one with life and human self-actualization. The absolute opposite of capitalism’s alienated labor—that not only alienates humans from each other, from nature, and from the very activity of creating the things that reflect back innate human capacities—is the Idea of freedom.
In doing everything possible to act in solidarity with the Ukrainian struggle for national self-determination against Putin’s absolute barbarism, our time demands giving voice to that self-determination of the Idea of freedom.