Putin's war: A tragedy for Ukraine and Russia, a gift to US imperialism

Russian troops

Dave Holmes, in his article "Key issues of the war in Ukraine one year on", claims that "A Russian defeat at the hands of the US-NATO-Ukraine forces would be a victory for imperialism".[1] In my view, Russia is an imperialist power.[2] Hence a victory for Russia would be a victory for imperialism.

But even those who deny that Russia is an imperialist power should recognise that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a gift to US imperialism. It has undermined opposition to NATO in other European countries, and caused Sweden and Finland to apply to join this US-led alliance. It has provided a pretext for increased military spending in western Europe. 

Holmes says:

There is no doubt that the West has used Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine to expand NATO. Finland and Sweden are in the process of joining NATO. This will need the approval of NATO member Turkey and gaining that will require a dirty deal with Turkey at the expense of the Kurds. There is even talk that Finland has agreed to NATO stationing missiles there.

But Russia’s intervention is not to blame for this. It is the result of the all-out propaganda offensive waged by the West using its control of the media to demonise Russia and its leader, lie about Ukraine, and lie about the West’s involvement and war aims.

In reality, the Russian invasion of Ukraine created the preconditions for the success of pro-NATO propaganda in Europe, and specifically in Sweden and Finland. If Russian president Vladimir Putin had not ordered the invasion, it is unlikely that these countries would have sought to join NATO. If Putin, recognising that the invasion was a blunder, were to withdraw his troops from Ukraine, this would ease the fears of people in Europe and reduce their felt need for NATO protection. Unfortunately, there is no sign of this happening.

Putin's war has benefited US imperialism. It has also been the pretext for increased repression in Russia, and the promotion of Great Russian chauvinism. A Russian victory would strengthen Putin's reactionary regime. Hence Boris Kagarlitsky has argued that a Russian defeat would be the best outcome for the people of Russia:

If this regime gets reconsolidated again after what happened, it’s going to be the most tragic outcome for Russia, which you can only imagine. So in that sense, the defeat of Putin is definitely a better outcome for Russian society and for the Russian people than his victory.[3]

Holmes claims that Russia's actions have been defensive. He denies that Putin ever wanted to invade Ukraine. He says:

But this war is not about Ukrainian self-determination. Russia is not trying to take over the country. Ukraine’s national sovereignty is not under threat....

To actually occupy a country of the geographical size and population of Ukraine, millions of troops would be needed. All up, Russia and its allies (including the Donbas militias) originally deployed at most 200,000 soldiers and probably far fewer.

The Russian military’s plan was never to fight its way into Kyiv and occupy the city. The forces deployed were not remotely capable of that.

But then he says:

Perhaps initially Putin deluded himself into thinking that the Volodymyr Zelensky regime would collapse in the face of a show of force or a lightning strike aimed at beheading the government.

Exactly! Putin expected the collapse of the Zelensky government and an easy victory. He did not expect much resistance. Putin was undoubtedly aware of the unpopularity of the Zelensky government at that time. He seems to have assumed this meant that few people would fight to defend it.

Putin underestimated the strength of Ukrainian national feeling. Perhaps he believed his own propaganda about how Ukraine is not a real nation but an artificial creation by Vladimir Lenin. Clearly Putin was wrong, but he refuses to admit that he made a mistake. To do so would damage his prestige, and could lead to his downfall.

Holmes blames the Ukrainian government for the war. He says:

Ever since the 2014 Maidan protests and the coming to power of a far-right ethno-nationalist regime, there has been a civil war, prosecuted by the Kyiv regime against the rebel Donbas “people's republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. The population here — whether ethnic Russian or not — is deeply distrustful and fearful of the central authorities in Kyiv.

It is true that the people of Donbas distrust and fear the Ukrainian government. But they also distrust and fear Russia. Russian troops entered Donbas in 2014 to repel the Ukrainian forces that were trying to crush the rebellion. But Putin also wanted to control the Donbas rebels. This meant imposing a puppet regime and repressing those who resisted. Some leaders of the Donbas revolt were murdered by Russian agents. According to Boris Kagarlitsky:

Those Donbas progressives, Donbas people, Russian progressives and leftists who supported them, they lost that battle in 2014 and 2015. Quite a few people who were central to this movement, to this effort, were actually killed. They were not killed by Ukrainian troops. They were killed by security forces within Donbas.[4]

Holmes says:

The Donbas is fighting for self-determination. This could mean separation, joining Russia or some sort of self-government within Ukraine (as envisaged in the original Minsk accords of 2014-15, endorsed but then immediately flouted by the Kyiv regime).

In 2014 the people of Donbas had legitimate reasons for opposing the post-Maidan Ukrainian government. But there was also intervention in Donbas by the Russian state and reactionary Russian nationalist groups. The situation was complex. According to Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous:

Perhaps the best framework to explain the war in the Donbas is that of the conflict between two nationalisms, in which people of different views, including the left and the far right, took part on both sides.

On the pro-Russian side, the main three actors were: the grassroots movement, which emerged as a reaction to Maidan’s victory; the regional elites who tried to use the separatist movement to maintain their power, which they saw threatened by the new post-Maidan government; and Russia, whose actions have intensified violence and deepened the gap between the warring parties.[5]

Today the situation is much simpler. The Donbas "republics" are not vehicles for self-determination. They are agents of the Russian state. Kagarlitsky, who supported the Donbas rebellion in 2014, says that today the leaders of the Donbas republics are "totally corrupt puppets installed by Moscow."[6]

Holmes says:

Russia has intervened on the side of the rebel provinces. The odious Putin regime notwithstanding, Russia is clearly waging a defensive struggle against NATO and its Ukrainian client, not a war aimed at occupying the country. It is defending the Donbas and Crimea.

The defence of Donbas and Crimea is one of Putin's pretexts for the invasion.  The threat of NATO expansion is another. But Putin has given several other justifications for the invasion. One is that Ukraine is not a real nation and should be part of Russia. He claimed that "modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era." [7] He blamed Lenin for supporting the right of nations (including Ukraine) to self-determination, saying:

The right for the republics to freely secede from the Union was included in the text of the Declaration on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and, subsequently, in the 1924 USSR Constitution. By doing so, the authors planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the leading role of the CPSU was gone, the party itself collapsing from within.

Another pretext for the invasion is that Ukraine needs to be "denazified". The implication (not usually spelt out) is that the supposedly fascist Ukrainian government needs to be overthrown by the invading Russian army and replaced by another (supposedly non-fascist) government. In my opinion, Russia under Putin is closer to fascism than Ukraine under Zelensky. The Putin regime severely represses dissent and promotes Great Russian chauvinist ideology.

Holmes claims that:

The Russian action was a response to the threatened assault across the Donbas line of control by Kyiv’s forces, and the ever-increasing integration of Ukraine into NATO.

In reality, Russia had been building up its forces on the Ukrainian border in preparation for the invasion since early 2021. Between 2018 and 2021 there was a decline in armed conflict on the ceasefire line, according to the reports of the ceasefire monitors from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The number of deaths fell from 162 in 2018 to 44 in 2021.

Nevertheless, beginning in 2021 Russia built up its forces on Ukraine’s border, in preparation for the invasion. Troops were brought in from Russia’s far east, close to the Chinese border. Kagarlitsky describes how he received reports about large scale movements of troops and military equipment along the Trans-Siberian Railway. [8]

Holmes says:

From the formation of an independent Ukraine in 1991, the US worked non-stop to tear the country away from its traditional links to Russia and draw it into the anti-Russia Western alliance — politically, economically and militarily.

This is an oversimplified picture. In 1994 the US encouraged Ukraine to transfer the nuclear weapons on its soil to Russia. At that time Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia. He was very subservient to the West.

When Putin became president, he sought greater independence, which naturally displeased the US. Putin's independence from the West has some positive aspects (e.g., trading with Cuba and Venezuela in defiance of the US blockade). But this does not mean that Russia is now anti-imperialist. Rather, it reflects a growing rivalry between the US and Russia.

Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, is one area of rivalry, but not the only one. Russia has intervened militarily in Syria, supporting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The Russian air force has bombed rebel-held towns, causing great destruction and loss of life. The Wagner private military company is active in several African countries, with the approval of the Russian government.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia suffered a severe economic decline. Russia was economically weak. But it had nuclear weapons and a fairly strong military. It also had a sphere of influence in many of the countries that had been part of the former Soviet Union.

Like Yeltsin, Putin waged war against the Chechens. He has intervened in the former Soviet republics of central Asia and the Caucasus. Under Putin, Russia recovered economically to a certain extent. It also began to intervene militarily far from its borders, for example in Syria. In my view, Russia has now become an imperialist power, and a rival to US imperialism.

Holmes says:

Following the 2014 Maidan coup things escalated dramatically. A pro-US, far-right, ethno-nationalist, anti-Russia regime was installed and immediately went to war against a section of its own people, provoking a huge backlash and a civil war which has continued to this day.

This is an oversimplified summary of a complex history. It is true that the post-Maidan Ukrainian government antagonised the people of Donbas and tried to repress their rebellion. But the intervention of the Russian government and Russian ultra-nationalist groups exacerbated the conflict.

Since 2014 there have been significant changes in Ukraine. The election of the Zelensky government on a peace platform reflected the declining influence of the ultra-nationalist extreme right. Zelensky failed to bring peace, and his neoliberal policies alienated people, but the fact that he was elected showed the potential for progressive change in Ukraine. There was no need for the Russian army to invade on the pretext of "denazifying" Ukraine.

Meanwhile in Donbas, any progressive aspects of the 2014 rebellion were suppressed by the Russian state, Russian ultra-nationalist groups and Wagner mercenaries.

Holmes says:

A more desirable outcome is that there are actual peace negotiations. But these can only get anywhere if the Ukrainian government gives up its ultimatist, intransigent positions. It needs to give up on NATO membership,  forget about Crimea, and to accept that the Donbas population wants nothing to do with Ukraine. And any peace deal will likely involve a big confrontation with the tiny minority of ultra-right ethno-nationalists who exert a big leverage on Ukraine's political and administrative processes, through their strong implantation in the 'power ministries'.

In my view, peace negotiations will only succeed if Russia ends its invasion. Russia should withdraw immediately and unconditionally from territory seized since February 24, 2022. Then there can be negotiations about Crimea and Donbas. There should be referenda in Donbas and Crimea, supervised by the United Nations, after those refugees who wish to return have had time to do so. 


[1] https://links.org.au/key-issues-war-ukraine-one-year

[2] https://links.org.au/russian-imperialism-economically-weak-militarily-strong

[3] https://links.org.au/video-boris-kagarlitsky-how-will-war-ukraine-end

[4] https://theanalysis.news/putins-war-driven-by-domestic-politics-boris-kagarlitsky/

[5] https://www.officineciviche.it/divulgazione-2/ucraina-una-prospettiva-solidale-e-popolare-ne-parliamo-con-taras-bilous/

[6] https://theanalysis.news/putins-war-driven-by-domestic-politics-boris-kagarlitsky/

[7] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

[8] https://theanalysis.news/putins-war-driven-by-domestic-politics-boris-kagarlitsky/