Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) opposes and condemns the Russian military invasion of the independent nation of Ukraine. We oppose it without reservation––without qualifications or excuses, without the whataboutism (“but what about the role of the US and NATO in all this?”) that some of the so-called left continues to put out.
Russian Imperialism vs. National Self-Determination
Russia’s invasion is motivated by naked imperialism, as Russian President Vladimir Putin himself explained in seemingly deranged speeches right before he invaded. On February 21, Putin declared that he is rebuilding the former Russian empire—the empire of the Tzars as well as Stalin’s empire. He denied that Ukraine is a separate nation from Russia, stating that their peoples are “bound by blood, by family ties,” that Ukrainians used to identify as “Russians and Orthodox Christians,” that Ukraine has “historically been Russian land,” and that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by … Bolshevik, Communist Russia.”
Putin went on to scoff at the principle of national self-determination. He claimed that Lenin put forward “a slogan about the right of nations to self-determination, up to [the right of] secession,” in order to appease “nationalists” (i.e., non-Russians in Russian-controlled territory who sought self-determination). Thus, “Soviet Ukraine … can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’” Yet, according to Putin, “Lenin’s principles of state development were not just a mistake; they were worse than a mistake” (emphasis added).
Putin’s plan is to absorb Ukraine into Russia or, more likely, to set up a puppet government. He has carried out this strategy in stages. First, he declared that two areas in Eastern Ukraine with large Russian populations, Donetsk and Luhansk, also known collectively as Donbas, were independent nations. The next day, he claimed that these newly-minted nations had invited Russia in to “defend” them against a non-existent threat. And on the third day, he invaded.
This repeats the manner in which Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The fact that Putin suffered little retaliation for that act has undoubtedly emboldened him now.
As his February 21 speech made clear, Putin’s justification for his invasion of Ukraine is rooted in a repudiation of the Marxist principle of national self-determination. So-called leftists, in the West and elsewhere, who condone Putin’s invasion, similarly do so in blatant disregard for the principle of national self-determination.
In contrast, MHI stands firmly on the ground of Raya Dunaveyskaya’s Marxist-Humanism, including its further development of the principle of national self-determination articulated by Lenin. We consider the self-determination of each nation to be a fundamental, inviolable right. That right includes the right of people everywhere to determine for themselves whether they constitute a people, a nation. It is not up to Putin to decide what constitutes a nation, or whether the people of Ukraine are a nation, as he tried to do in his February 21 speech. It is up to the people who live there.
Protesters in Melitopol, Ukraine singing the national anthem. Credit: Franak Viačorka.
This does not mean that MHI supports the government of Ukraine (or any government). It means that we support the population’s right to have its own nation, to choose its own government––and to repel and defeat Putin’s invasion in order to defends these rights.Putin’s claims of Ukrainian aggression are ludicrous. For months, Ukraine was surrounded on three sides by tens of thousands of Russian troops—150,000 strong as of February 24, when the full-scale military invasion began.
Moreover, Russia has spent the last two decades grabbing off pieces of Eastern Ukraine and incorporating them into Russia. Earlier, while still under the control of Stalinists, it fought the Afghans for control of their country for 10 years. More recently, it intervened in Syria, adding massively to the death and destruction there. So anyone who doubts that Russia is imperialist had better think again.
What is the current basis of Russian imperialism? As long as there is capitalism, whether in its private form or its state form (like the Soviet Union), there is competition for control of the world’s resources and markets. This competition for control often crystallizes in the form of competition between nations and blocs of nations. War is the ultimate result of this competition. So it is no surprise that the current state of Russia’s economy––its weakness and dependence on energy revenues––enticed its dictator, Putin, to seek a more favorable military-strategic position, as well as land and glory, by conquering its neighbor. Putin says explicitly that he is restoring the Russian Empire. At the least, he is trying to stabilize his regime by distracting the Russian masses from their poor economic conditions.
After Ukraine became an independent country in 1991, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia maintained a collaborative government there until 2014, when a popular uprising set the country on a different track. Putin is still fighting this diminution of his power in the world—now by direct military conquest.
Calls for “peace” are clearly futile. “Peace” may make the objective tendency toward imperial domination operate more slowly, but it cannot abolish the tendency itself. This is why Marxist-Humanism has put forth the same antiwar slogan for many decades:
The opposite of war is not peace; it is social revolution!
Slaughter of Civilians
The fighting has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of people already. The victims include many civilians killed by Russian bombs and many Russian soldiers who have died in combat. Russia aimed to capture the capital city of Kyiv within a few days, but its military has been slowed by mass popular resistance and trouble with its supply lines. As we write, a 40-mile-long convoy of Russian army vehicles is on the way to the capital from the east, but supply problems (and, perhaps, Ukrainian military counterattack) have halted its progress.
Meanwhile, the population of Kyiv is fleeing to the Polish border or living in the subways for shelter from the bombs. Refugees are fleeing from the whole country—more than 1.7 million people thus far. Other Ukrainians are becoming internal refugees, fleeing the fighting for parts of the country where the invasion has not yet reached. All men between 18 and 60 are required to stay and fight, and many women are voluntarily learning to fighting as well. Only Kherson, a city of about 300,000 near the Black Sea, has thus far fallen to Russian troops.
The Ukrainian people are fighting with a military that is a fraction of Russia’s in numbers of soldiers, arms, tanks, and airplanes. Yet civilians are constantly joining the fight, even as the cities are being bombed. People who never held a gun before are teaching themselves how to shoot. Molotov cocktails are the weapon of choice for many, who throw them at the Russian tanks rolling into town. Some brave souls are putting their bodies in front of tanks to stop them. It is clear that even if Russia technically conquers the country in a short while, it will face months and years of resistance from the population, including guerilla warfare.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the largest land invasion in Europe since World War II. Unless Putin is stopped, as many as 50,000 Ukrainian civilians may be killed and 3 to 5 million refugees may flee the country. We can also expect additional Russian incursions into nearby countries.
Massive Opposition within Russia
From the start, there have been protests against the war throughout Russia, even though protests are illegal there and Putin’s government has now shut down the few independent media outlets that still existed. On the very first day of the war, about 90 protests broke out. By the fifth day, 6,000 people had been jailed for protesting. In St. Petersburg, their signs read, “Against war, for freedom at home.” And yesterday, in response to a call by opposition leader Alexei Navalny for antiwar protests, Russians demonstrated against the war in 56 different cities. More than 4300 protesters were detained by authorities. Opposition politicians and sports figures are denouncing the war as well.
Sometimes the act of resistance
doesn’t have to be loud or bold,
it just has to be.”
Photo and caption credit:
Belarus Free Theatre
Opinion polls by Levada, an independent pollster, show that fewer than half of the Russian people support the war. This is very different from 2014, when Putin invaded and annexed part of eastern Ukraine, including the province of Crimea. Tellingly, there have been no demonstrations in support of the war. And we can expect to see even more intense opposition in Russia as more of its soldiers return home in body bags.
Meanwhile, the invading army is suffering desertions and leaving some dead soldiers behind; this is greatly demoralizing. Russian soldiers look surprised when they are confronted by Ukrainian civilians yelling at them, telling them to go home, and physically blocking their way. It seems that many, if not most, of the invading troops had been misled by the Putin government about the nature of their mission in Ukraine. Some Russian soldiers have said that they were not even told that they were going to Ukraine.
In contrast, Ukraine has been unified in opposition to the invasion. Once notoriously anti-Semitic, the Ukrainians now stand firmly with their Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who refuses to go into hiding, or to leave the capital, in spite of being target number one on Putin’s kill list.
Putin has shut down every independent group within Russia, including mothers’ groups, as well as all independent media. The war is not discussed on Russian TV. In fact, it is illegal even to mention that there is a war taking place. Thus, many if not most Russians do not know that their government has invaded Ukraine, much less why. Nonetheless, opposition within Russia to Putin’s war is strong and growing. How much stronger will it get if he can subdue Ukraine only by means of a protracted and costly war that he can’t hide from the Russian people?
Putin hoped to subdue Ukraine in lightning-swift fashion, with minimal losses. That strategy failed miserably. His apparent belief that pro-Russian Ukrainians, and Russian people residing in Ukraine, would organize a “fifth column” to assist his war effort has failed as well. In southeastern Ukraine, the supposed center of pro-Putin sentiment, the population has prevented Russian tanks from staying in the town squares. Putin’s military has starting bombing these areas.
So Putin now has to fear that the war will indeed be protracted and costly. Even worse, he now has to fear that internal opposition to the war within Russia, as well as the economic hardship that foreign sanctions are inflicting on Russia, will cause him to be ousted from power.
Opposition throughout the World
There are huge protests taking place throughout Europe and around the world. Far from the war bringing it international glory, Russia is now being widely ostracized and excluded from sports and cultural events.
Nations around the globe are imposing economic sanctions that will further weaken the Russian economy and drastically hurt its financial markets. Some of the sanctions will hurt Putin and his oligarch cronies personally.
Since he is a multi-billionaire and has assets all over the world, Putin may not care about having some bank accounts frozen. He is out for worldwide power and influence, even if world dominance is not possible. And the West’s previous economic sanctions did nothing to deter his drive to war, at least in part because they were weak. The countries that imposed sanctions purposely kept them weak, because strong sanctions would hurt their own economies as prices of imported heating fuel and gasoline rose.
But economic sanctions have now been strengthened substantially, even by energy companies and others that need to trade with Russia. The exclusion of Russian entities from the SWIFT international banking network, and Russian banks’ sudden inability to do business with banks abroad, will undoubtedly have a big impact on Putin and his oligarch cronies as well as on ordinary people.
In fact, due to the central bank’s inability to use foreign currency reserves to buy rubles, the ruble is in danger of collapse. Its value fell by 25 percent by Day 5 of the war. At the moment, the decline in its value since the invasion began exceeds 40%, and Russian debt has been downgraded to junk-bond status by Moody’s, which deems the risk of default as serious.
The value of the ruble would have fallen much further, if Russia’s central bank had not responded to the emergency by boosting a key interest rate by more than 100%. There is a clear limit to how much further the interest rate can be raised. If and when the limit is reached, massive deprecation of the ruble will be inevitable.
Thus far, however, Western economic sanctions contain serious loopholes and exceptions, largely because the countries that have imposed sanctions are unwilling to take measures that threaten their importation of cheap Russian energy. Their support for Ukraine only goes so far. It is still unclear how much damage to Russia’s economy sanctions will actually do, and how seriously they will impede the Putin government’s war against Ukraine, unless and until the loopholes and exceptions are closed.
Blaming the US and NATO
In the run-up to the war, much of the so-called left tried to blame the Ukraine crisis on the US and NATO. That effort did not stop once Putin invaded Ukraine.
On February 24, right after the invasion started, the Stop the War Coalition, a British group, blamed the invasion––which it delicately called “the movement of Russian forces into Ukraine”––not only on the Russian government, but also on the Ukrainian government, and on the “expansion of NATO and US hegemony,” and on “major wars of aggression by the USA, Britain and other NATO powers.” Putting forward this “evenhanded” perspective at the very moment when Putin is invading Ukraine, and when people throughout the world are responding with disgust and horror, can only lend assistance to Putin’s war effort, by blunting the opposition to it.
Also on February 24, Thomas Palley, co-editor of the Review of Keynesian Economics and former Assistant Director of Public Policy at the AFL-CIO, wrote that
The inevitable has happened. Russia has invaded Ukraine. It was inevitable because the US and its NATO partners had backed Russia into a corner from which it could only escape by military means.
This is complete nonsense. In the first place, there is widespread opposition to Putin’s war even within the Russian government and military. How “inevitable” can a war have been if much of its leadership opposes the war even after it has begun?
Secondly, Palley would have us believe that the invasion was inevitable because “Russia” was backed into a corner once NATO refused to exclude Ukraine from the alliance in perpetuity. However, Putin would have attempted to take over Ukraine even if NATO had agreed to that demand. As he made clear in his speech of February 21, Putin’s aims are not merely, and not mostly, defensive. He wants to obliterate an independent Ukraine, to bring the country under his control, to re-establish a Russian empire and to widen his regime’s global power and influence.
Most importantly, it is not inevitable that Russia be ruled by a bloodthirsty, klepto-fascist, imperialist dictator like Putin. A pro-democracy Russian government would not be waging this war!
It was not even inevitable that Putin emerged victorious over political opponents who were quite different from him. He wrested his near-total power slowly, bit by bit, suppressing, intimidating, poisoning, and murdering dissidents and political opponents in the process. And as he did so, he profoundly altered Russia’s geopolitical orientation, making the rebuilding of empire a top priority.
But although empire is Putin’s top priority, it is not the top priority of the Russian masses or of pro-democracy Russian forces. And because the continuation of Putin’s rule is not inevitable, it is also not inevitable that imperial conquest remain the top priority of Russia’s government.
Rhetoric like Palley’s hides all of these realities and possibilities. It is far worse than mere “whataboutism.” The crucial but unstated premise behind the claim that “Russia” was backed into a corner is the falsehood that Putin’s rule and Putin’s goal of rebuilding a Russian empire are inevitable––or, at least, that these are settled facts that we have to accept unquestioningly. By trying to foist this unstated premise on us, Palley and others like him are trying to get us to join them in tacitly supporting authoritarianism and imperialist warmongering. They want us to support authoritarianism and imperialist warmongering at least to the extent that we accept these things unquestioningly, instead of searching for and working for a revolutionary alternative.
But another world is possible; and another Russia is possible. Putin’s heavy-handed overreach and blundering have made it more possible than it was just two weeks ago. To repeat, the opposite of war is not making peace with imperialist dictators, but social revolution.
Putin Aims to Destabilize the West, Establish Multi-Polarity
Putin’s primary foreign policy aim is to weaken and destabilize the US and NATO. Their weakening is seen as the way to restore Russia’s relative political and economic influence––in effect, to return to the Cold War era, when the world was bi-polar and all countries were in one camp or the other.
Some of the so-called left has cheered Putin on because it likewise thinks that “multi-polarity” is a great way to weaken US hegemony. It looks forward to the replacement of the uni-polar world, that prevailed after the end of the Cold War, with a world in which US power is challenged by Russia and China and perhaps other countries like Brazil, India, Iran, and so on.
This vision of a multi-polar capitalist order is not in the interests of the working people of this world. It has nothing in common with anti-imperialism. As the invasion of Ukraine shows, multi-polarity means multi-imperialism. The drive to restore multi-polarity is, for the masses, the drive to subject them to the domination and oppression and violence of multiple imperialist powers instead of just one. This is no substitute for social revolution, and multi-polarity is not the road to social revolution.
It is not even an improvement over the status quo. In fact, the drive for multi-polarity has exposed the people of the world to a renewed threat of nuclear annihilation, as Putin threatens to launch nukes against those who would dare interfere with his conquest of Ukraine. The threat of nuclear war had greatly subsided after the end of the Cold War—that is, after the end of the bi-polar struggle of the US and the USSR for world domination. Now it is back with a vengeance.
The Effort to Impose “Neutrality” on Ukraine
Influential voices, some of them on “the left,” contend that the solution to the Ukraine crisis is to impose neutrality on Ukraine. In a 2014 article in Foreign Affairs, University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer, an architect of the “offense realism” school of geopolitical ideology, blamed the Ukraine crisis of that time on liberals in the West, and he called for “a deal that guarantees Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence in exchange for guaranteeing its neutrality.”
This “realism” has been and continues to be repeated by some on the left. In a Washington Post piece of February 15, 2022, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, pretended to affirm that “Ukraine certainly has the rights of a sovereign nation.” Yet, in a verbatim repetition of Mearsheimer, she called for “a deal that guarantees Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence in exchange for guaranteeing its neutrality.” Similarly, in his blog post of February 24, Thomas Palley opined that
Ukraine must agree to permanently being a neutral state, as were Finland and Austria in the Cold War.
The [sic] Ukraine should be reconstituted as a federal state, and it may even need to be partitioned given the new facts that have been created. With US encouragement, Ukraine played with fire and it has gotten burned.
Palley’s utter lack of empathy for the Ukrainian people is appalling enough, but the key point here is that he, and other elite foreign-policy “experts” like Mearsheimer and vanden Heuvel, have no business dictating the fate of Ukraine and its people. That is totally antithetical to the right of national self-determination.
Clearly, the right of national self-determination means nothing to such “experts.” But it is an inviolable principle of socialist internationalism. We must uphold and defend the right of the Ukrainian people to decide whether they want to be an independent nation––truly independent, not “neutralized,” partitioned, or otherwise “reconstituted” through the machinations of big-power politics. We must uphold and defend their right to ally with those they wish to ally with, just like every other sovereign, independent nation. (Is it any wonder, in light of the Russian government’s brutal war against the Ukrainians, that they have chosen a different ally?) Mearsheimer’s and vanden Heuvel’s fusion of imposed neutrality with sovereignty and independence––talking about them as if they were parts of one and the same thing, rather than opposites––is just high-falutin doubletalk.
To avoid being taken in by those who call for Ukraine’s neutrality––that is, to avoid thinking that such calls are truly in the interests of neutrality rather than clever argumentation that serves Putin’s aims––ask yourself, “Why is Ukraine is being singled out for neutralization?” Why not call for the Russian military to remain neutral in this war? Why not “solve” the crisis by making the Russian government agree to permanently be neutral, neither on the side of the US and NATO, nor on the side of Putin and Russia’s oligarchs?
It then becomes clear that the calls for Ukraine’s forced neutrality flow from an imperialist mentality much like Putin’s, according to which Russia is a real nation, with legitimate security concerns that need to be accommodated … while Ukraine is not. Efforts to impose neutrality in a one-sided way––on weaker, peripheral countries, but not on stronger, core countries––make sense only if one accepts imperialism and takes its existence for granted.
In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud
Many commentators fear that Putin will become increasingly desperate as victory evades him, and will increase the slaughter of troops and civilians. He may begin to carpet bomb the cities, as Russia did during Chechnya’s war for independence in 1999–2000, killing tens of thousands.
The US and the European NATO countries are sending military aid but not troops to Ukraine. Nonetheless, the situation is ripe to start World War III, by accident or by Putin’s design. He might, in desperation, use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin has even raised that prospect. Some foreign-policy experts worry that he is losing his grip on reality and might actually do it.
Consider that, in the war on Ukraine, one of the first tasks of Putin’s invading army was to seize Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident in 1986. The area still contains dangerous radioactive material. And last Friday, Russian forces shelled the largest functioning nuclear power plant in Europe, in Zaphorizhzhia, setting it on fire. Luckily, the Ukrainian army fought off the Russians and extinguished the fire before radiation was released, preventing a disaster that could have been ten times worse than Fukushima. Zelensky termed the attacks “nuclear terrorism.”
Although nuclear weapons are inherently frightening, a generally accepted policy of deterrence, “mutually assured destruction,” prevented the use of nukes during the Cold War that followed World War II. But Putin, like Donald Trump, has a different perspective. Fiona Hill, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution and longtime Putin-watcher, recently said that
if [Putin] has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t? He’s already used a nuclear weapon in some respects. …
The Russians have already used a weapons-grade nerve agent, Novichok. …
So if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, “No, he wouldn’t, would he?” Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.
The Struggles Against Trumpism and Putinism
The struggles against Trumpism and Putinism are two facets of one and the same struggle.
There should no longer be any doubt that the Putin regime is the image of the US’s own future if Trump manages to return to power––authoritarian, anti-democratic, brutal, kleptocratic. The US already has traveled far down that road since Trump became president.
This is not accidental. Trumpism and Putinism are two manifestations of a rising global tide of authoritarianism and rejection of liberal democracy. Furthermore, Trump has consistently been and continues to be Putin’s “poodle.” Putin’s Russia is a model he wishes to emulate. Just look at how Trump, and Trumpites like Tucker Carlson, have continued to defend and express admiration for Putin, even in the midst of his attack on Ukraine.
It is true that, owing to widespread support for Ukraine’s resistance among the American people, the Trumpites have recently begun “pulling back and biding their time for another opportunity to once again aggressively mainstream authoritarian politics,” as Salon’s Amanda Marcotte noted a week ago. But “[w]hen playing peekaboo, the fascist doesn’t just disappear because they put their hands in front of their face.”
Ideological affinity is not the only thing at work here. There are, in addition, connections between Trumpism and Putinism that bear directly on the war against Ukraine.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine is incomparably more vicious than was his assault on the American electorate in 2016, when the Putin regime colluded with the Trump campaign in a successful effort to interfere in the election and get Trump elected as president. Yet the two events are both parts of a single overarching goal: to weaken the power of the US and NATO. As Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King noted on February 25,
Putin … had his reasons for wanting Trump in the Oval Office. As with the buildup in his campaign to take Ukraine, Putin was clearly playing a long game: put in place a U.S. president who would pursue policies that weaken the European Union and NATO, the bulwarks against Russian expansion into former Soviet countries. Trump was the answer. …
The simple truth is that Putin believed Russia would benefit from having Trump in the White House, and he pushed his intelligence services to help secure that outcome. Just as he perceives that a subjugated Ukraine benefits Russia and is now working to achieve that end.
Alexander Vindman, a former US Army lieutenant colonel who is now a foreign policy fellow at Johns Hopkins University, recently pointed to another connection between Trumpism and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: Trumpism in general, and the fascistic Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021 in particular, have divided America, polarizing the population and weakening the country. They have thereby given Putin a golden opportunity to invade Ukraine. Vindman said,
The Tucker Carlsons, the Donald Trumps, the Mike Pompeos, they and other Republicans … are the reason that Russia launched this operation.
Putin could have done this at any time. The reason he acted now is not coincidental. Putin started building up his forces in the spring of 2021. This was weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Putin, like Trump, smells vulnerability and exploits it. …
There is blood on the Republican Party’s hands. They were partially responsible for what is happening in Ukraine. Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump were basically as popular on Russian TV as they are here in this country. They’re constantly being played there. What is the impression given? The United States is divided, and there’s an opportunity there.
We should also recall that the Trump regime had its own designs on Ukraine. It interfered in Ukrainian politics and withheld aid, in an effort to gain Ukraine’s help in smearing Joe Biden and thereby manipulating the 2020 US presidential election. Trump was impeached––the first time––for these actions, but acquitted because Republican senators were unwilling to cross him.
Putin is the enemy of …
The world is not divided between “an imperialist camp” and an “anti-imperialist camp,” i.e., between pro- and anti-US countries, despite what some so-called leftists contend. US imperialism is only one imperialism; Russian imperialism is another; and there are still others. The fundamental division in the world is between the rulers and the masses of common people struggling for freedom. As Raya Dunayevskaya continually emphasized, there are “two worlds in each country.”
It is obvious that Putin is the enemy of the Ukrainian masses.
As we have just explained, Putin is also the enemy of the American masses, because of his collusion with Trumpism and his interference in US politics in furtherance of his imperialist ambitions.
Above all, Putin is the enemy of the Russian masses. He has ruthlessly crushed dissent, including that of the anti-corruption movement headed by Alexei Navalny, and he has killed and harassed opposition leaders and journalists. He has presided over the failure of the Russian economy—and the looting of the economy by his oligarchic cronies and himself. And his regime is sending Russians to die in a war that they do not want, at times lying to them about what they are doing in Ukraine.
Down with the klepto-fascist, imperialist, Putin regime!
Down with “left” apologetics for Putinism!
Victory to Ukraine!
Victory to Russian pro-democracy forces!
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