The War in Ukraine and the Working Class

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There has been a lot of commentaries and debate on the war in Ukraine over the last two months. There has been a massive outcry in Europe against the Russian invasion, and support for the Ukrainian people, a quarter of whom have been displaced from their homes.

In Africa, many on the left argue that the incursion of NATO into its sphere of influence provoked Russia. Even when they stand with calls to stop the war, they support the demand for assurances that Ukraine will not join NATO as a precondition.

Our analysis of the situation must grasp it in the concreteness of all its aspects. And this must rest on the standpoint of the working class. 

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, justified his mobilization for war before the invasion, in two ways.

One was his demand that Ukraine should not join NATO, and rather, the NATO expansion into the Russian sphere of influence since 1997 should be reversed.

The second was the invocation of Great Russian nationalism that Ukraine had always been part of the Russian Empire. He blamed Vladimir Lenin, the 1917 Russian Revolution leader, for creating an independent Ukrainian state.

The continued incorporation of former Soviet Union republics and satellite states into NATO and the European Union does represent an expansion of the reach of US-led Western imperialism into a region that Russia considers its sphere of influence.

It could be argued that Russia was provoked as Putin and many on the left have done. But this argument often goes along with the characterization of Russia as some form of anti-imperialist rallying point.

As the International Socialist Tendency noted in February, “Putin is no friend to the international working class.” He has been no friend of the Russian working class as well. And the war being waged against Ukraine does not represent the interests of working-class people in Russia. 

Probably nothing is as damning of the Russian state’s invasion as the mass resistance to the war in Russia itself. Despite severe penalties, there has been a groundswell of anti-war protests.

Within the first week of the invasion, more than 6,000 protesters had been arrested. By mid-March, the number had risen to 15,000. 

A second problem with the NATO provocation argument is that it is no secret that NATO was not going to grant Ukraine membership.

Any prospective requires unanimous consent of all existing members. Germany and France have made it clear that they would not grant this.

Even the United States has not been keen on admitting Ukraine, despite all the grandstanding. It escalated the Russian-Ukraine conflict that had been simmering since 2014 by dangling a carrot it never intended to give because it is already tied to several landmines.

All these were not lost on Putin. But NATIO’s monkey business provided a pretext for Russia to take military action with the intent of reclaiming Ukraine as part of its empire as in the days of the Tsars. This would give it an advantage in its inter-imperialist rivalry, where it has been the weaker of the competing imperialist interests.

For the United States and the West, Ukraine has been just a pawn in Western imperialism’s gambit to keep Putin at bay. This is a proxy war in which both sides are, in their different ways, screwing Ukraine.

Revolutionary socialists take a principled opposition to war. This is not to say we are pacificists. We would readily wage civil war against the oppressors in our country. And we support national liberation wars by people fighting for their right to self-determination.

In the light of this, we stand by the struggle of the Ukrainian people, to stop the devastation of their lands. The argument that this in any way plays into the hands of the Western backers of the Ukrainian rulers does not hold water. As Vladimir Lenin noted:

“The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain circumstances, be utilized by another “Great” Power in its equally imperialist interests should have no more weight in inducing Social Democracy to renounce its recognition of the right of nations to self-determination.”

We equally demand a stop to sanctions against Russia. In the most brutal manner, it is working-class people who bear the brunt of these. The left in Ukraine should stand up for this as well.

The unity and solidarity of the working class across the firing lines in Ukraine require concrete demands such as this from within Ukraine, just as Russian workers stand up against Ukraine’s invasion by the sections of their country’s ruling class represented by Vladimir Putin.

It is also pertinent to note that it is not only working-class people in Ukraine or Russia that are being battered by the ill winds of this war. It has triggered skyrocketing prices of food across the world. Between them, Russia, and Ukraine account for over 28% of global wheat production.

We have seen the impact of this even in Nigeria, with sharp increases in the prices of loaves of bread. Both countries together also produce 60% of global supply of sunflower oil, used as vegetable oil. There are now serious shortages of this across Europe. In Spain, limits are put on how many bottles you can buy in the grocery shop. And in several countries, its price has more than quadrupled.

Fuel pump price has also shot through the roof in many countries as a result of the war. Russia, which is the third-largest producer of petroleum in the world has been slammed with sanctions, sharply cutting down global supply.

All these added together on the back of a world economy that had gone from wobbling before the pandemic to trying to crawl out of the added impact of the pandemic amount to a backbreaking burden for working-class people.

Workers in the United States are facing the highest inflation rate since 1981. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya had to increase the minimum wages by 12%, unilaterally, to ease the impact of inflation.

The international financial institutions are bothered, not by our suffering but by what it can lead us to do. At the end of April, the IMF warned that “social unrest” is likely to spread across Africa due to the monumental surge in food and energy prices. But that has not made it to stop its anti-poor loan facilities’ conditionalities.

Alongside the added suffering that this war has brought on the working class, it has also confirmed that racism is wired into the logic of capitalism. Black people: students, workers, athletes, and women, have faced the most horrendous racist discrimination in Ukraine and on the Ukraine-Poland borders as if their lives mattered less.

Fortress Europe, which barred its gates to black and brown refugees of wars sparked by neoliberal policies and geopolitical maneuvers of Western imperialism, open its arms wide with big smiles to white-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed Ukrainians.

The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres confirmed the extent of institutionalization of systemic racism at the beginning of the war when he described the Russian invasion as the “saddest moment in my tenure.”

This is of course the same tenure in which the situation in Yemen has gone from bad to terrible, with two out of every three people there now in need of humanitarian assistance. And what did the United Nations do? It withdrew its monitors in October last year, resulting in the doubling of civilians killed in this brutal war going on there, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The continued bombardment of Gaza by the apartheid regime in Tel Aviv is equally not as saddening as 28 February for Mr. UN Secretary General. And what of Syria, Libya, or Ethiopia, where according to Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director General “where the health of millions of people is under…threat” than anywhere else in the world?

We stand against the war in Ukraine without any equivocation. But this is not enough. Without losing sight of the specificities of that war, our stand is against all rapacious wars and the system which generates them.

This also entails a stand against all mechanisms of this capitalist system: military, political, economic, and ideological, which brew wars.

NATO is a central military mechanism of the war-mongering system. We demand its immediate scrapping and a stop to the arms race. Resources dedicated to war are enough to make every single woman, man, and child in the world live decent lives, and also halt the climate and ecological disaster consuming the Earth.

 It makes absolutely no sense to working-class people that $3 trillion is spent on arms every year while just $175 billion per year is all that is needed to end absolute poverty. And also, it is just $300 billion spread over 20 years that is needed to stop climate change. But world leaders find it difficult to cough this out, despite the fact that we have no other home but this earth.

The war in Ukraine is a symptom of the tragic obsolescence of capitalism. This system is in a terminal state of barbaric decline. We are sinking deeper into what Alex Callinicos rightly describes as a “new age of catastrophe.” The only way out of this malaise of wars, hunger, and starvation for the 99% in the face of abundance, the frustration of working-class people, and climate catastrophe, is for us to turn the war against the parasitic bosses, smash their system of capitalism and build a new global order, based on international socialism.

The way forward will be tenuous, but we have to be clear about what is to be done. We must stop losing sight of the woods for the trees. The future that we must start building from the ruins around us is socialism. We cannot afford to fail, for the alternative will be worse than a thousand wars in Ukraine. It will be the calamity of extinction.

by Baba AYE

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