The German left debates Putin’s war

First published at ak in German. Translated by Portside.

How to position oneself on the war in Ukraine? This question has been dividing the left here for more than a year. At the beginning of June, the Projekt Revolutionäre Perspektive (Revolutionary Perspective Project) from Hamburg moderated a debate between Ingar Solty from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and ak editor Jan Ole Arps on this question. The following conversation is based on this discussion.

Projekt Revolutionäre Perspektive: Before we discuss left positions on the war in Ukraine, I would like to talk to you about the nature of the war. What is this war about?

Ingar Solty: First, it is an invasion by Russia in violation of international law. At the same time, it has become a proxy war played out in the context of geopolitical rivalries. To make matters worse, it grew out of a civil war. As for Russia's war aims, I think there are two. The Russian state has been forced to make social cuts in recent years because of the failure of its economic diversification strategy. In particular, the 2019 pension reform was extremely unpopular. About 80 percent of the population rejected it. There were mass protests. Putin's foreign policy position that the West is trying to encircle Russia, in turn, is also shared by about 70 to 80 percent. Confrontation externally therefore also serves to stabilize rule internally. In addition, there are security interests. The Russian government does not want to accept further advances by NATO.

The green-liberal ideology is not convincing: “Look at Putin’s speeches, they are ethnocentric, Great Russian, he denies Ukraine the right to exist, this is a war of extermination.” The military strategy does not allow for that. You don't control a country with a population of 43 million at the time and more than 600,000 square kilometers with 190,000 troops. I think the original war objectives were to bring about regime change and to stabilize the Donbass militarily. The West also thought that the Ukrainian forces would collapse within a few days and suggested to Zelensky that he should flee. Putin probably believed that a quick push on Kiev would see the government leave the country and create a power vacuum. Then Viktor Medvedchuk would have been installed as a Russia-friendly president, guaranteeing Ukraine's alliance neutrality. This policy has failed miserably. Now Russia is trying damage control: securing land access to Crimea and the territory it has conquered so far.

Jan Ole Arps: I also believe that Putin probably imagined the course of the invasion very differently. In 2013/14, since the Maidan uprising and the subsequent change of government, Ukraine began to break away from the Russian sphere of influence and orient itself toward the West; it sought EU membership. The Crimean annexation and the Russian military intervention in the Donbass were attempts by Putin to stop this development. They did not work. The Marxist author Ilya Matveev describes well, in my view, how Putin’s actions since then have become disconnected from the interests of Russian capital. Then in 2020 and 2021, there were massive protests in Belarus that put Lukashenko, Putin’s ally, the ruler there, in severe straits. Just a few weeks before the invasion, there was an uprising mainly of the working class in Kazakhstan, which was only ended by the intervention of Russian troops. What Russia considers its backyard was about to break apart. Putin wanted to put a stop to this and establish a few facts on the ground in Ukraine.

Even if different elements play a role in the war – imperialist invasion, proxy war, defensive war – a leftist stance must not relativize the fact that Putin invaded without provocation. The starting point must therefore be solidarity with the population under attack. Unlike at the beginning of the war, when many on the left were shocked by their own misjudgments, many have now fallen back into old positions and are emphasizing the proxy war element in order to be able to look to NATO for responsibility.

RPR: What about the classic imperialist states, i.e. the USA? And what about China? What is their role in this war?

Ingar Solty: One cannot understand the war without the U.S.-China conflict, that is, the major conflict of the 21st century. The USA became the hegemonic world power after 1945. As such, it also determined the rules of the game under which capitalism globalized after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The high-tech rival China is now the giant challenge. The U.S. is concerned with preventing its relative decline and containing China's rise.

When people say that the war was provoked by the USA, that is conspiracy thinking. But it is a “lucky break” for them. They are the only winner. The U.S. is not only interested in the "longterm weakening” of Russia, but in the division and weakening of Europe, in forcing a transatlantic division of labor and new bloc confrontation against China. That is why the U.S. is putting so much money into this war. The Ukraine war is the catalyst for a new world order.

Jan Ole Arps: I would agree with Ingar that the U.S. is currently the only winner of the war. On that level, I don’t think we have much of a contradiction.

PRP: It has now been over a year since the war broke out. What are the perspectives on how it will stop?

Jan Ole Arps: I’d like to know that, too. It will probably end with negotiations at some point, unless unexpected events cause one side to completely collapse. Putin cannot end this war with a bad outcome, that would mean his end. And for the vast majority in Ukraine, life under Russian occupation is far too dire a prospect. As terrible as it is, I can’t imagine a situation right now where this war will end soon. It will foreseeably end only if one or both sides were forced into an adverse cease-fire. That could happen if the burden of war becomes too heavy for Ukraine – hundreds of soldiers are already dying every day – or if a major internal crisis breaks out in Russia. Otherwise, at best, the major powers, i.e., the U.S., without whose support Ukraine cannot successfully continue to wage war, or China, on whom Russia has become more dependent, might be able to force a cease-fire. But whoever might be capable of ending this war, it will not be the German left.

Ingar Solty: I agree with most of what Jan Ole says. The war has entered a phase where neither side can be victorious without the collapse of the other side’s front. It is now a bloody war of position and attrition. Especially on the Russian side, it is the poorest of the poor from the outermost provinces who are being burned out so that no one in Moscow and St. Petersburg will notice what a cruel war this is. On the Ukrainian side, tens of thousands have also tried to cross the border into the EU to avoid military service and have been sent back. There are forced recruitments on the open street, which cannot leave leftists cold. So one is the bloodshed, the other is the enormous potential for escalation in Ukraine and beyond its borders, into a nuclear-led Third World War. Russia has already committed the terrible war crime of destroying energy and water infrastructure in the middle of winter. And what, for example, does it mean when the Ukrainian state allows neo-Nazis to enter Russian territory with NATO military equipment? Then there are the consequences for the working classes worldwide.

If you ask what can the left do, it is not to wait for Washington or Moscow to realize at some point that they are not getting anywhere militarily. We actually have no influence on how many weapons the U.S. supplies or how much military Russia pulls together to continue the war. But we do have other options for action. International solidarity begins with the message: the war must end as soon as possible in the name of those on whose backs it is being fought, in the name of those who are being burned in this war, but also in the name of those who are bearing the costs of the war worldwide through inflation. Even in Germany, one-third have no savings, and almost two-thirds are using their entire monthly income to cover current expenses. In this rich country, the government can at least temporarily cap the price of energy. This is less true for southern Europe and not at all for African countries. Inflation hits their working classes unchecked, which is why they are pushing so hard for negotiations. Extreme conflicts over distribution will arise, and governments will only remain in power if they promote ethnicization and confessionalization, that is, if they protect certain groups at the expense of others. This is another reason why this war must end as soon as possible, and why peace politics is a prerequisite of internationalist class politics.

PRP: Jan Ole, you represent a different position in the left-wing debate.

Jan Ole Arps: The consequences and dangers that Ingar describes are real. But there is more to say about the context. I assume that capitalist competition systematically drives states into conflict, and thus ultimately into war with each other. Ingar has already pointed this out: We had a violent but semi-stable situation in which the U.S. could decisively determine the rules of the game of capitalist competition. That time has come to an end, and this increases the potential for large-scale wars enormously. We are witnessing an intensified competition for increasingly scarce resources between the capitals and the states. Add to that climate change, which makes the pie smaller to fight over. I am therefore convinced that the only way to stop wars now and in the future is an internationally organized left that overcomes capitalism. That sounds very far away at first, but I just don't see any alternative to it. We will not get far by trying to defend the existing international order. It's hopeless, first of all, because the upheavals are driven by the dynamics of capitalism and the ongoing global warming. And secondly, as Rosa Luxemburg once said: If you build on international institutions, you defend yesterday’s imperialism against today’s imperialism. From a communist point of view, this cannot be the solution.

What I would like to see, therefore, is for leftists to start working on the re-emergence of something like a left-wing international that can work out joint positions in the first place and derive joint actions from them at some point. That is my political compass for the question of what the left should do in international conflicts and wars. The second compass would be that those who are affected by conflicts should have a say in their resolution. I know that conflicts involving major powers are rarely decided by the people it affects. But in order to work credibly on international networking, the first step is solidarity with and interest in comrades on the ground. And because it was about the message: In an imperialist war of aggression, the message of the left must be solidarity with the attacked, not understanding for the aggressor. Of course, from our desks in Germany we can and should think about how the concrete war could be ended. But we cannot issue slogans without having talked about them with our comrades in Ukraine.

PRP: You’ve talked to comrades on the ground. What is it that they want? And what are your conclusions?

Jan Ole Arps: The leftists I spoke with emphasize the desire for self-determination and the horror of living under the terror regime of Russian occupation. After all, the memories of the crimes in Butscha and other places are still fresh. There is a great desire to support the struggle against the invasion, through arms deliveries, but also through political solidarity. From my point of view, it cannot be deduced from this that leftists here have to advocate arms deliveries to Ukraine. However, I think that the discussion about arms deliveries here primarily follows a need to be able to maintain existing positions and to keep the disturbing demands of Ukrainian comrades at bay by labeling them as nationalistic and bellicose.

PRP: In the end, doesn’t it boil down to the central question of how we as a radical left relate to our government supplying weapons?

Jan Ole Arps: I don’t think that's the central question. The central question is: How do we get closer to an international left organization? There are many other important questions: How do we prevent the German rearmament? How do we go against the history slandering that is going on around this rearmament project? Or against the peacewashing of NATO? NATO is not a peace alliance, but a war alliance. What do we do about the German economy’s hunger for energy? The German export model is based on cheap energy, which used to come from Russia and has now been bought up on the world market at the expense of poorer countries in particular, so that German companies can continue to produce and make profits as before. There are many possible approaches for radical leftists. There are also very practical things we can do. We can stand up for asylum seekers, deserters or conscientious objectors. I am in favor of talking less about state arms deliveries and more about how we can support our Ukrainian comrades, for example, in their struggles against the dismantling of labor rights, in their demand for a debt cut, or by scandalizing the raids of German companies on the Ukrainian market.

PRP: What are your proposals for action for the left, Ingar?

Ingar Solty: I agree that one must scandalize the IMF-orchestrated plundering of Ukraine by Western corporations. But one must also be clear: Arms supplies prolong the war. More people are dying, although the borders will probably not be pushed far compared to the current course of the front. In addition, those who say arms deliveries not only have no arguments against the rearmament that replenishes the emptied arsenals of the West. Anyone who says arms deliveries is ultimately also saying NATO troops and thus World War III. Not because Russia will necessarily escalate if NATO continues to supply weapons, but because there are simply not enough people to operate the weapons and be burned up by Ukraine as cannon fodder. This is also why Western (military) elites are now becoming skeptical, even secretly negotiating with Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov and discussing whether Washington will give Zelensky an ultimatum. Regardless of whether one thinks Ukraine should decide that, it will be decided in Washington.

Of course, people want to show solidarity. For Western countries, that means support for the Ukrainian government. For leftists, it has to be solidarity with the majority of the population, yes. And it is a dilemma for international solidarity that many Ukrainian leftists are also still calling for arms deliveries. But there is a dialectic of war. At the beginning, a patriotic mood dominates, especially the opinion-making intellectuals are in favor of it, similar to 1914. But the more people feel the consequences of war, the more soldiers come home psychologically shattered, physically injured or dead in a zinc coffin, the more the willingness to continue to support the war decreases. It was no different in the First World War: first came inflation and turnip winter, then the women’s riots against butter and bread prices, then the strikes in the armaments factories and finally anti-war revolutions from Ireland to East Asia.

If Liebknecht had acted like that in 1914: What did the attacked population want when the tsarist troops invaded East Prussia? Did they want to defend themselves? Sure. Were there war crimes against civilians? Sure. Were there occupation and territorial appropriation plans? Yes. At that time, too, the left was divided; opponents of war were not able to gain a majority. But should Liebknecht have said because of that: Well, then we must be for war and war credits? Should Luxemburg have remained silent on the war? If that had been correct, then the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation would today be called the Eduard David Foundation. But today, no one knows David anymore, and the whole world knows Luxemburg. Because she was right. That’s why we have to endure the contradiction now. It is good to keep up the dialogue with the Ukrainian comrades. But one must also say: We beg to differ. In order to hopefully find a common position again at some point.

Jan Ole Arps: In my opinion, the comparison with 1914 is not correct. Before the tsarist army invaded East Prussia, the German Empire had already declared war on Russia and France and invaded Belgium, and the SPD had agreed to war credits. Ukraine, unlike the German Empire and the Tsarist Empire, is not a great power; it is a dependent country with a long, cruel history of domination by major European powers, not least Russia. No great power has attacked another; Putin has invaded Ukraine because it has moved outside Russia's zone of influence.

I think for the people of Ukraine there is no good solution, they have a choice if any between two terrible solutions: to live under Russian occupation or for the war to go on for a long time and for many more people to die. Of course, arms deliveries prolong the war because they enable Ukraine to defend itself against the invasion in the first place. Without the weapons from the West, that would not be possible; Ukraine would also be defenseless against the rocket fire. As I said, this does not mean that leftists should pretend that arms deliveries are the easy solution. The weapons don’t disappear when the war is over. And the boosted arms production here will encourage the emergence of a military-industrial complex in Germany, which is also necessary for German rearmament. One should not pretend that these are not serious political problems. But one also cannot hide the fact that without the weapons no successful resistance would have been possible and that today there would be nothing for Ukraine to negotiate, only the possibility of surrendering to the occupation sooner or later.

Ingar Solty: It is claimed that the refusal to deliver weapons to Ukraine forces the country to capitulate. But this claim is an attempt at moral blackmailing. And it is not convincing. Compared to the volume of US weapons deliveries, the German ones are a drop in the bucket. How the war proceeds does not depend on German weapons, and certainly not on left-wing radicals who call on their imperialist state to send weapons to another capitalist state that is also burning up its working class.

PRP: So no agreement on the question?

Jan Ole Arps: On the question of where radical leftists should start, I think we are talking on different levels. It is a justifiable position that a continuation of the war does not have much chance of success for Ukraine and that an earlier end, regardless of the conditions, will prevent more suffering. But then one should have this discussion with the Ukrainian comrades and also listen to their arguments. Otherwise, the left will give up its claim to be internationalist, and make politics primarily for itself. I repeat this again, because it is my central point, and I want this to be understood: If we don’t work with priority on international organizing, all the slogans are worthless. For a year and a half we have had the opportunity to make progress here. It hasn't happened, and I don't understand why. It is a blatant political failure and a declaration of bankruptcy for internationalists.

Ingar Solty: You yourself admit that wars are not ended from below. Or rather, only when those at the bottom no longer want to fight as those at the top demand. Therefore, you cannot avoid the question of arms deliveries and negotiations that prolong the war. This is crucial, also in the interest of the international alliance from below that you want. As I said, if this war goes on much longer, we will see catastrophic state collapse in Africa. European asylum laws have already been tightened, the extreme right in Europe is on the rise. This is another reason to say loudly: this war must end as soon as possible. And force the state to take up the peace proposals from Brazil, Africa and China and mediate negotiations. Even the former head of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, says that the government must jump on this bandwagon, reflecting the fact that the majority of the population does not follow the opinion published in the media, and is in favor of negotiations. These are good starting conditions. I think it would be wrong not to want to take a position on this.

PRP: Is your contradiction ultimately that between a more geopolitical-analytical view and a more movement-political view?

Ingar Solty: I am also for a consistent internationalist class politics from below. But the possibility of this in all countries depends on the world order and the question of the new bloc confrontation. You say we can’t prevent the upheavals. What you say, Jan Ole, would mean, if I understand you correctly, that we keep an equidistance to the Chinese state and to the NATO states, as in: They are all imperialist, and we only make solidarity with small groups of struggling workers in China, in Russia, in Ukraine. But at the same time, the conditions under which these small groups fight are deteriorating everywhere when there is a bloc confrontation. I exaggerate: A new bloc confrontation means deindustrialization in Germany. Deindustrialization means the end of IG Metall, that is, of the most powerful groups of employees. The end of IG Metall and industrial value creation means the end of the welfare state, and its end means the end of democracy. Then the AfD will be at 60 percent here.

Politically, I am with Engels, who said before his death that if we prevent the world war, then socialism is unstoppable, because then the contradictions unfold internally and are not concealed by outside factors. Of course, we do not currently have the strong movements that dream of socialism, but we know about the inside-outside dialectic. The new Cold War ideology is “democracies vs. autocracies,” mirrored by “developing countries vs. neo-colonialists.” Authoritarianism, however, comes not from without but from within: The new bloc confrontation will be accompanied by de-democratization, illiberalization and de-civilization all over the world, worsening the conditions for class politics, and it will escalate the climate catastrophe. That is why the struggle against the new bloc confrontation, and for what I call in The New Bloc Confrontation: High Technology, (De-)Globalization, Geopolitics, the “new New Ostpolitik”, is in my view the main task of socialist politics today.

Jan Ole Arps: That's too restrictive for me: If this happens, this happens. These are all settlements that you make. But that’s not my main objection. It’s that we shouldn’t confuse our role. As leftists, we can’t afford to look at the world’s conflicts through the eyes of the great powers. We want to change the state of affairs. If we as a left do not try to become capable of action for our own project, we can pack up. At the moment, we can only show solidarity with our comrades and see how we can work together. If we first align our positions with the domestic political structure or the scenario of a new bloc confrontation, we lose the basis for an internationalism from below. And that is our only hope, given the dynamics of competition and war that have been intensified by the climate crisis.

This must also be our measure with regard to German domestic policy, for example on the issue of energy supply and inflation: Our political proposals cannot aim to stabilize the status quo, which is based on cheap energy for the German economy to produce and export so that there is something to distribute in the German welfare state. This model destroys the ecological basis of life. Instead, we must fight to roll back the fossil fuel infrastructure and channel funds into less ecologically destructive areas, ultimately for climate reparations and the ecosocialist restructuring of the economy. That would be internationalist class politics. And, of course, we must fight to ensure that this is not paid for by the lower classes, but by the insane profits made by fossil fuel companies and other capital holders, even during the war. Inflation is based in good part on these extra profits. This is the contradiction we must emphasize, not the return to the status quo at the expense of the people and our comrades in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Ingar Solty: We saw impressive strike movements in Western Europe this spring. Nevertheless, even the most powerful groups of workers have at best only been able to compensate for inflation. The trade union movement is therefore forced to defend the living standards of the working class through the detour of foreign policy – the prevention of war and bloc confrontation as the main drivers of inflation. Even the climate movement can no longer avoid this question. If the new bloc confrontation comes, we can forget about averting the climate catastrophe. There will be minimal chances for this only with China. So we need a new climate multilateralism, completely new institutions. As an anti-capitalist left, we cannot keep saying we’re below the level of the state, purely at the level of the movement. In other words, in the dramatic escalation of world order conflicts that we are currently experiencing, issues that have long been treated separately are suddenly converging: social, peace and climate issues. We can only move out of the political defensive with the unity of the workplace, the street and parliament – state power. On the street, I see the main task in actively creating the convergence of the trade union, peace and climate movements from the structural convergence of social, peace and climate issues, and in directing all efforts towards preventing the new bloc confrontation.