Despite the carnage in Chechnya, Putin was at first feted by Western leaders. Tony Blair would describe him in 2000 as a leader who “talks our language of reform”, adding: “I believe that Vladimir Putin is a leader who is ready to embrace a new relationship with the EU and the US”.35 This view would be relatively short-lived. As the Russian economy rebounded from the recession of 1998, buoyed up by rising energy prices, Putin sought to consolidate his rule, to further extend Russian influence abroad and to push back against NATO’s advance.36 The partial restoration of Russian power that took place from this time was unwittingly assisted by the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which drove a sharp rise in energy prices and, through their failure, created greater space into which rival imperialisms could insert themselves.
The Orange Revolution
Ukraine found itself at the seamline of the resulting clash of imperialisms, with these external tensions finding an echo in the country’s domestic politics. That is not to say that we should accept a simplistic concept of “two Ukraines”, which severs the country neatly into pro-Russian and pro-Western constituencies. Although it is true that the country has a substantial Russian minority concentrated in the east, there are multiple, overlapping differences of ethnicity, culture, language and religion, reflecting the country’s complex history, including its domination by external powers.37 Moreover, as Rob Ferguson argues, bilingualism has tended to rise—at least up to 2010—particularly among the young: “Most ethnic Ukrainians and Russians are bilingual. They intermarry and converse in both languages”.38
Nonetheless, Ukraine’s oligarchic elite has sought to manipulate the divisions, as well as appealing to sources of external support such as Russia, the US and the EU. Yuliya Yurchenko argues: “In order to service their accumulating ambitions, fractions of the competing…capitalist class of the newly emerged kleptocratic regime designed political shell parties… Although the fractioning of the ruling and capitalist class bloc is real, the political differences between them are arbitrary”.39 In particular, she identifies two key blocs, originating from the industrial regions of Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine and Donetsk to the east, that have tended to dominate the country’s political system.
In this context, popular movements risk being subverted in the interest of imperialist powers or sections of the domestic elite. During the cycle of “colour revolutions” in Eastern Bloc states—Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005—Ukraine was probably the instance with least genuine popular initiative and the highest degree of manipulation.40
The immediate context for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was the departure of President Leonid Kuchma after two terms in office. Kuchma was close to the Dnipropetrovsk capitalists but had to accommodate the growing power of those emerging from the Donetsk region. He also sought to balance between the US and Russia, seeking to secure loans from the Western financial institutions and cheap gas from Russia.41 By 2004, his regime was hated for its corruption, fraud and criminality—including the suspicious death of a Ukrainian journalist critical of the political elite.
When a fraudulent election gave the presidency to Viktor Yanukovych, the main candidate of the ascendant Donetsk capitalists, and backed by both Russia and Kuchma, his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, backed by the Dnipropetrovsk capitalists, some of the Donetsk oligarchs, the US and the EU, called on his supporters to take to the streets. This they did, and a well-prepared protest camp was funded by Yushchenko’s wealthy patrons—including US foundations and Ukrainian NGOs backed by the US State Department.42 Initiative shifted quickly away from the streets and into Ukraine’s Supreme Court, which ruled that the election had to be re-run. Yushchenko emerged victorious and appointed another Orange Revolution leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, an influential Dnipropetrovsk oligarch turned politician, as his prime minister. Yushchenko rapidly began to drive through legislation aiming at closer relations with—and ultimately integration into—the EU and a rapprochement with NATO.43 Within months, Tymoshenko, who had declared a “war on the oligarchs” through which she sought to settle scores with her rivals, was forced out by Yanukovych’s supporters in parliament. She would again assume the role after 2007 elections, when her party gained seats in parliament, but the squabble between the two leaders of the Orange Revolution now dominated politics, undermining Yushchenko’s rule.
Moreover, the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko government was about to confront three major crises that erupted in 2008. First, there was the global economic meltdown that began that year. Ukraine was hit particularly hard as its weak banking system seized up and the market price of steel, one of its major exports, slumped. Those Ukrainians who had taken advantage of loans or mortgages issued in dollars found they could not repay them as the local currency collapsed.
Second, there was a sudden reassertion of Russian power as it warmed up its frozen conflict in Georgia. The Russian move came in the wake of the Bucharest NATO summit that had acceded to Bush’s push to expand the alliance. According to the official declaration on 3 April 2008:
NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO. The Membership Action Plan (MAP) is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to NATO membership. Today, we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP.44
Two weeks later, Putin recognised the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When, in August that year, Georgian troops entered South Ossetia in response to the shelling of Georgian villages, Russia launched a full-scale offensive, forcing the Georgian army into a humiliating retreat.
Third, a brewing dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies came to a head. Already, in 2006, Russia had briefly cut off its supply to Ukraine after accusing it of diverting supplies away from their intended markets in the EU. Now, a dispute over debts owed by Ukraine to Russia led to new disruption to supplies, impacting not just Ukraine but 18 European countries reliant on Russian gas.
The failure of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko period to bring about the radical change promised by the Orange Revolution, along with these multiple crises, allowed Yanukovych to capture the presidency.45 He won the 2010 election and proclaimed a “balanced policy”—continuing to promise cooperation with the EU but pulling back from the aspiration for NATO membership.
NATO was, anyway, by now deeply divided over its expansion policies. France and Germany had already blocked granting immediate membership action plans to Ukraine and Georgia at the April 2008 summit, and now they would double down on this, preventing any further steps towards membership.46 The continental European powers were highly dependent on supplies of gas from Russia, home to the world’s largest reserves. Indeed, the German government had, against the wishes of the US, Britain, Poland and Ukraine, invited Russia to build a new gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2. This would run in parallel to the existing Nord Stream 1, conveying gas directly from Russia to Germany—the plans were shelved only in 2022 as the invasion of Ukraine took place. France was not quite as dependent as Germany on Russian gas, which, prior to the invasion, covered about half of Germany’s needs and a quarter of France’s. However, France has also sought to assert an independent role for the EU, and a reduced role for the US, in relations with Russia.
Maidan, Crimea and the Donbas
By the time Yanukovych came to power in Ukraine, the government was desperate for hard currency to bail out the stuttering economy. In an effort to secure external backing, Yanukovych flirted with both Russia and the EU. Russia offered Ukraine entry to a customs union, alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan, while the EU offered a free trade agreement, together with an association agreement designed to pave the way for eventual membership. As one journalist put it:
Yanukovych had hoped for generous concessions on Russian gas prices that would help him arrest Ukraine’s plunging economy. Instead he received a small temporary price drop—further evidence, if any were needed, that Putin is unwilling to dole out favours for free. Putin offered to slash gas prices by nearly 40 percent…but only if Kiev accedes to the customs union… The International Monetary Fund has suspended loans to Kiev because Yanukovych refused to make the belt-tightening measures recommended by the IMF due to fears that they would lose him votes. However, Moscow’s intransigence about gas prices could yet propel Kiev towards the EU choice.47
Yanukovych’s ultimate refusal to sign the deal with the EU led to the Maidan protests in 2013-14, initially involving students and young people who resented the misrule of the Ukrainian oligarchs and saw the EU as providing an alternative. It was when the president unleashed interior ministry troops, known as the Berkut (“golden eagles”), to break up these protests that the movement was transformed into one involving hundreds of thousands.48 The Maidan protests, named after the central square in Kiev, spread throughout central and western areas of the country.
A variety of different forces were involved in the demonstrations. Many ordinary protesters were sceptical about the entire political set-up in post-1991 Ukraine and hoped to see significant changes, and many more were angry at the police repression; however, very few claimed, when polled for their view, that they were there because of the calls of opposition politicians.49 Nonetheless, in the absence of a credible organised force capable of challenging the established order, pro-Western oligarchic parties would emerge as the movement’s official representatives. Alongside these were a highly visible minority of fascists and far-right nationalists associated with the Right Sector organisation. Although the portrayal of the movement as a “fascist coup d’etat” by the Russian state media is a myth, these forces were nonetheless among the most organised and visible in confronting the Berkut.50
As the movement grew, Yanukovych fled to Russia and his party began its disintegration. The official opposition stepped in the vacuum. Fearful that Ukraine might depart entirely from its sphere of influence, Russia annexed Crimea, which already hosted a naval base leased by Russia and was home to its Black Sea fleet. Crimea was a bridgehead into eastern Ukraine. Veterans of Russia’s prior proxy wars moved into the Donbas region and began an uprising against the government.51 There is little evidence that the majority in Donetsk and Luhansk supported separatism.52 Nevertheless, deadly clashes in which 42 Russian nationalists were killed in Odessa and Kiev’s reliance on militias, often linked to the far-right, to substitute for the dilapidated Ukrainian army helped fuel the separatist cause.53 In Donbas:
The conflict gradually grew into a full-scale war with a flow of volunteers, supply of arms, and equipment from Russia, and ultimately an incursion of Russian regular forces during the decisive fighting in August 2014… Two rounds of international negotiations in 2014 and 2015 in Minsk, Belarus, led to an agreed road map for political solution of the conflict; however…a stable ceasefire failed to be secured.54
Ukraine now had its own frozen or, rather, simmering conflict.
Petro Poroshenko, one of the wealthiest oligarchs in Ukraine, now won the presidency, ushering his allies into positions of power and influence. The EU association agreement was signed, and later the constitution was amended to commit the country to join both the EU and NATO. Roughly $1.8 billion in US military aid would pour into the country over the next six years.55 A $3.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan was obtained, in exchange for which the government agreed to raise household gas prices and impose cuts to its budget deficit.56 Together with continued rampant corruption, the resulting austerity programme led to Poroshenko’s crushing defeat in the 2019 presidential election. His successor, Volodymyr Zelensky, stood as a political outsider, best known for playing a character who wins Ukrainian presidency in a hit comedy show. After his landslide victory, many expected Zelensky would finally tackle corruption, tame the oligarchs and end the conflict with Russia.
In fact, following a brief early phase of anti-corruption measures up to March 2020, Zelensky’s reforms quickly stalled as the government sought to balance between competing imperialist forces externally and rival groups of oligarchs internally.57 This included some increasingly influential oligarchs with Russian connections, particularly Viktor Medvedchuk, who was able to massively expand his media empire during these years. By early 2021, the popularity of Zelensky and his party had fallen considerably.
Meanwhile, Moscow, initially hopeful of obtaining concessions from Zelenksy, claimed increasing frustration at the failure to implement the “Minsk agreements”, which would have reintegrated Donetsk and Luhansk into Ukraine with a special autonomous status. If Zelensky was unwilling to yield to pressure from Russia, his most likely successors among the opposition forces were felt by Moscow to be even less pliant.58 Moreover, the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president in early 2021 suggested that pressure might grow in Ukraine for reform. Indeed, Zelensky did now begin to target specific oligarchs—particularly those deemed problematic by Washington, such as Medvedchuk and Ihor Kolomoisky, whose “1+1” channel used to broadcast Zelensky’s television shows.59
It was in this context that the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border began in spring 2021, accompanied by demands that Washington honour Russian security interests. Biden, whose presidency had stuttered since he announced the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, hoped to restore his fortunes by calling Putin’s bluff, setting in motion a spiral of escalation.
Following the pattern of previous conflicts, such as that in Georgia, Moscow first gave official recognition to the two breakaway regions in Ukraine before launching an invasion.
Responses to the invasion
The response of Zelensky has been to seek to draw the Western powers into the conflict—a request that met with its most positive response from Central and Eastern European countries drawn into the EU or NATO. Biden has been more muted when it comes to direct involvement, France and Germany even more so. Thus far, calls from Zelensky and others for a “no fly zone” over the country have been resisted. Such an initiative would be a disaster—making a direct military clash between NATO and Russia almost inevitable. The US has also rejected a Polish plan to transfer MiG-29 fighter jets to the US and then on to Ukraine. A Pentagon spokesperson commented: “The prospect of fighter jets ‘at the disposal of the US government’ departing from a US base in Germany to fly into airspace over Ukraine that is contested with Russia raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance”.60
However, the West has escalated the conflict in two other ways. First, there is indirect military support. This includes a package of $3.5 billion in military supplies authorised by the US Congress in March, and a further $3 billion to deploy US forces in allied countries in Europe and to provide intelligence support. Military aid includes portable drones that detonate on impact with their target, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin anti-tank weapons and the Patriot air defence missile system. Germany has reversed its historic policy of not sending weapons to conflict zones. The country’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party, also pledged to spend €100 billion to renew the German armed forces and increase its defence spending to above 2 percent of GDP.
Second, there has been an extensive sanctions programme. What began as a commitment to target oligarchs connected to Putin evolved in a matter of days to become a broader assault on the Russian economy. This included the US pushing through, in the face of some resistance from Europe, the exclusion of many Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system, making foreign financial transactions more difficult. This was followed by a far more powerful move, as the US, EU, Japan and Switzerland coordinated to freeze Russian Central Bank assets aboard and ban transactions with the bank.61 As James Meadway argues, this reflects the way that central banks have been weaponised in recent years. The role of the European Central Bank in forcing through EU bailout programmes in Ireland and Greece during the European debt crisis of the early 2010s offer cases in point.62
These moves should be resisted. The idea that the economic warfare being waged by the West on Russia can be neatly separated from military confrontation ignores the whole logic of imperialism, which is premised on the integration of economic and geopolitical conflict. This was made entirely clear by Putin, who responded to the moves, along with frustration at the progress of the Russian military on the ground, by raising the alert level of his nuclear forces. These measures form part of an “escalatory spiral” between nuclear-armed powers at a time when the left should be seeking de-escalation.63 Moreover, the indiscriminate nature of the sanctions, which are likely to cause a collapse in the value of the rouble and a major recession in Russia, will result in untold suffering among the mass of ordinary people. There is also very little evidence that sanctions have historically led to rapid shifts in policy, as shown by North Korea and Iran.64
Beyond the West, the response has been far more mixed, a fact that can be obscured by the blanket condemnation of Russia in the Western media. Saudi Arabia, for instance, historically a key US ally, has stood aloof from condemnation of Russia. In part this reflects the way that the US has emerged as a competitor to Saudi oil exports—along with growing Saudi-Russian cooperation to maintain high prices through the OPEC+ group of countries.65 It also reflects the US-Saudi tensions over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and limited US support for the Saudi-backed forces in Yemen. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates abstained on the UN security council vote demanding Russian withdrawal.
Other countries such as South Africa and India have also avoided joining the Western chorus of attacks on Russia. Indeed India, which has ties to Russia stretching back to the Cold War and fears the growing alliance between Russia and its neighbour and rival, China, has gone further. Its central bank has engaged in talks to create a rupee-rouble trade arrangement to circumvent the sanctions, following a similar mechanism used to buy Iranian oil in the past.66
However, it is the role of China that may prove most decisive. Prior to the invasion, Russia and China had drawn closer, issuing a joint statement in February announcing a friendship with “no limits” and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”.67 However, this is a friendship in which China, whose economic weight and military spending now far exceeds those of Russia (figures 1 and 2), is the senior partner. As noted above, US-China relations involve both mutual dependence and antagonism, and China will have to weigh its desire to see NATO weakened against its desire to retain access to Western markets and the global financial system that still rests heavily on the dollar and Western central banks. At the time of writing, China had criticised the role of NATO expansion in precipitating the war but abstained at the crucial UN security council vote, rather than openly back Russia. US policy has been to seek to prevent China answering Russia’s call for economic support and weapons. Indeed, Biden has described a series of “implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia” in calls to President Xi Jinping.68
As Mike Davis argues, this also reveals something of the nature of Biden’s regime, which has rapidly lost any progressive gloss it once had:
All the think-tanks and genius minds that supposedly guide the Clinton-Obama wing of the Democratic Party are in their own way just as lizard-brained as the soothsayers in the Kremlin. They can’t imagine any other intellectual framework for declining US power than nuclear-tipped competition with Russia and China… In the end, Biden has turned out to be the same warmonger in power that we feared Hilary Clinton would be. Although Eastern Europe now distracts, who can doubt Biden’s determination to seek confrontation in the South China Sea—waters far more dangerous than the Black Sea?69
As this suggests, the issues posed by the Russian invasion go far beyond the immediate geopolitical implications for the region. It has often been said by radical left-wing opponents of war that military interventions have social consequences—that they can ratchet up class antagonisms at home—but the social impact of this war is far more immediate than most.
Economies such as Britain’s were already experiencing their sharpest acceleration in inflation for decades, driven to a large extent by rising food and energy costs.70 Now a further spike in oil and gas prices has heightened the risk of stagflation—a simultaneous rise in price levels combined with a collapse in output. According to one Goldman Sachs economist, a complete ban on EU imports of Russian energy would cut production by 2.2 percent, enough to trigger a recession across the Eurozone. British chancellor Rishi Sunak has informed colleagues that he expects the impact would be far greater, leading to a 3 percent contraction in the British economy.71
Just as horrifying has been the unseemly rush to identify other carbon-based fuels to replace dependence on Russian supplies. This led to Boris Johnson reopening the debate about fracking in Britain and threatening to reverse the moratorium imposed in November 2019. The other strand of government policy appears to involve cosying up to Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Johnson flew out to a meeting with the prince immediately after the execution of 81 people in the kingdom, with three more killed while the British prime minister was in Riyadh.72 Johnson sought to evade any questions about possible parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, which is thought to have directly killed at least 15,000 civilians.
Yemen is also one of the countries likely to suffer yet more horror due to the rise in food prices and the disruption of wheat imports due to the conflict.73 This is just one consequence of a wider disruption to food supplies due to the invasion. Roughly one-third of global wheat exports come from Ukraine or Russia, and about half of the grain provided by the UN World Food Programme. The disruption is likely to impact upon 44 million people worldwide already on the brink of famine.74 Beyond this, there will be sharp increases in the price of food in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and Tunisia that rely on wheat imports.
Stopping the war
How should the left respond to all this? In countries such as Britain, the entire mainstream political establishment has united not just to denounce Russia, but also to silence any criticism of the role of NATO and the EU in engendering conflict in Ukraine. This has involved sharp criticism of organisations such as the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), which was launched in 2001 to oppose the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and which has condemned both the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the NATO expansion that preceded it.75
In the case of the Labour Party, the ferocity of the attacks reflects the desire of party leader Keir Starmer to crush the legacy of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who rose to prominence in part through his association with STWC. Just 11 Labour MPs signed a STWC statement on the conflict—and every one of them, including prominent left figures such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, withdrew their names under pressure from Starmer. This is a deeply worrying sign, demonstrating the current impotence of those who prioritise maintaining the unity of the Labour Party over constructing a vibrant, internationalist left outside parliament.
The relative narrowing of the base of support for the anti-war movement compared to the period of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars should not be grounds to abstain from protesting. At the time of writing, it was unclear how long the conflict would last or how far it might escalate. Even if a ceasefire is achieved, the gradual erosion of US hegemony, combined with the multiple crises that capitalism today faces, will ensure further inter-imperialist clashes. In that context, we should remember how much more isolated the revolutionary left were at the outbreak of the First World War, when mainstream socialist parties were swept up in the clamour to support their own ruling classes. Trotsky recalled the tiny scale of the first Zimmerwald conference to oppose the war in 1915: “Delegates joked among themselves about the fact that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches”.76 Three years later, revulsion at the conflict, together with deepening class antagonism, drove the revolutions in Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary that ended the war.
The approach of Trotsky, Lenin and their co-thinkers to the First World War is in many ways a model. They recognised it as an inter-imperialist conflict, pitching big capitalist powers against one another in their effort to plunder and exploit the rest of the world. However, they also asserted, in the words of the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, that “the main enemy is at home”.77 It was the responsibility of socialists to direct their energies and actions against their own ruling class—and to stand in solidarity with those internationally doing the same.
We should therefore take heart from the presence not just of those resisting in the West, but also within Russia itself. The scale of arrests—some 14,000 by mid-March—demonstrates both the level of internal repression in Putin’s Russia and the scale of the protests themselves. Opposition to the war was not the majority sentiment in Russia in the initial phases of the conflict. Support for an invasion probably ran at about 60 percent in February.78 Moroever, Putin retained high approval ratings. However, even official sources suggest lower levels of support than during the war in Chechnya and the annexation of Crimea.79 There is also evidence that opposition to war is strongest among young people, those living in cities of more than a million, and those who have seen their economic position deteriorate over the past year. This might open the possibility of the movement gaining traction in at least some sections of the working class.
Much will also depend on what happens on the ground in Ukraine. Here, rather than calling for the channelling of arms from the West in an effort to wage a proxy war against Russia, we should celebrate examples of popular mobilisation against the occupation. This includes the demonstration in Kherson, in the south of the country, where 2,000 protested against Russian troops, telling them, “Go home!”80 Given the level of casualties experienced by the invading army, and the apparent demoralisation of the Russian soldiers taking part, such protests can have an impact.
Ultimately, it is through a movement from below, centred on working people, whether located in Kiev, Moscow, London, Berlin or Washington, that the drive to war can best be challenged and the logic of inter-imperialist conflict weakened.
Joseph Choonara is the editor of International Socialism. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).