By Charlie Kimber
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2796

What’s the alternative to Nato intervention in Ukraine?

Hopes lies with the anti-war movements in Russia and the West and Ukrainian resistance independent of Nato
Issue 2796
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg stands in front of a blue screen

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg (Picture: Nato/Flickr)

“So if you don’t want Nato to use its power and weapons, how are you going to stop the Russians? You’re letting the killers win.” That’s a question that anyone who opposes Western escalation in Ukraine must have faced. And it’s a real issue in the face of the bloody reality of Russian assaults on Kiev, Kharkiv, Mariupol and elsewhere. 

The first reply is that the genuine horrors of Vladimir Putin’s invasion are no reason to escalate to an even more appalling war. Nato’s increasingly aggressive demands and its arms shipments threaten a reckless march towards a wider conflict that could be fought with nuclear weapons.

In July 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “The programmes of the present governments, seem now as child’s play on the sloping side of a volcano before an eruption.” That echoes through Europe and globally now. Every day there are pointers to how the war can surge to new terrors.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, warned Russia that attacks on Western supply lines to Ukraine would represent an escalation. “Putin wants less Nato, he’s getting more Nato,” Stoltenberg added. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson has declared that plans—still under consideration—to supply Ukraine with Polish MiG fighters would be a “very undesirable and potentially dangerous scenario”.

But the argument not to make matters worse isn’t the whole answer. We do want Putin to fail—and to be overthrown—but it depends how that happens. 

It’s no victory if it simply entrenches the power of US imperialism that has been—and is—such a murderous force. We do not want the outcome to encourage more bloodbaths, such as the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. US imperialist backing for Ukraine will not defend its independence. The US’s support for Kurdish forces in Syria, for example, has not brought liberation. That’s because the US is interested in furthering its own imperialist interests, not freedom—and to do that it will support local forces only to drop them at a later point. 

A central element of a positive outcome has to be the Russian anti-war movement, which needs to grow and combine hatred of the war with all the other areas of working class discontent. Despite intense repression, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to condemn Putin’s war. The 14,000 arrests by Friday afternoon shows the scale of the mobilisation.

It’s impossible to know in detail how the demonstrations will develop. Socialists in Russia have written powerfully about the need to introduce “revolutionary slogans and demands into the protests”. And to direct “the discontented towards not just stopping the war, but towards turning the imperialist war into a class war”. There can be a moment when fear changes sides, when the cop and the judge are suddenly terrified of those they habitually beat and jail. Certainly the anti-war protesters are already breaking free from intimidation.

As one protester in St Petersburg wrote recently, “Despite all the intimidation, a lot of people took to the streets today! Honestly, I didn’t expect it. When I saw the photos and videos of the protesters at Isakia and on Nevsky, I couldn’t stop smiling. I could breathe easier! All the efforts of the state propaganda to frighten us, it all just looks pathetic compared to the pure hearts and fearlessness of the protesters.” Protests by millions would crush Putin’s war drive. And even when protests haven’t stopped wars, they can limit them.

The West may say it celebrates revolts against Putin. But in reality they are a challenge to them as well because they raise a refusal to back imperialist slaughter. In the same way the Russian protests against the First World War in 1917 were gleefully seized on by German generals. But then the anti-war mood sparked revolution in their country too.  

And it’s not just anti-war agitation that can hurt Putin. There was an illuminating example of the potential for workplace struggle last week. Some workers at the large Gemont factory in Nizhnekamsk struck. The workers are mostly Turkish migrants and their wages are indexed to the exchange rate between the dollar and the rouble. The collapse of the rouble caused their pay to nosedive, so they walked out.

According to the Russian newspaper Business Gazetta, instead of the state bearing down on the strikers, bosses immediately agreed to at least partly compensate workers for their losses. That could suggest a reluctance to engage in class battles at a time when there is discontent brewing over the war.

There are cheering historical examples of what happens when Russian leaders lose wars. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese war led to the 1905 revolution. The shattering reverses in the First World War fuelled the revolution of February 1917. Defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s was one of the elements weakening the Soviet Union and encouraging the 1989 revolts against the dictatorships of Eastern Europe.

One factor in all those examples was disaffection and mutiny in the armed forces. Again, nobody should rely too much on fragmentary reports during a war. But there are repeated accounts of Russian soldiers, particularly conscripts, abandoning the war in Ukraine, sabotaging their own vehicles, and telling their families about the horrors they face.

In the same way that rebellion hit the US military in Vietnam, spreading disaffection would fatally undermine the Ukraine invasion. It would rock Putin but be separate from any Nato manoeuvres.

What about in Ukraine itself? We highlight the sorts of protests we have seen in Kherson and other occupied areas. Here masses of ordinary people confront, but also argue with and fraternise with the Russian soldiers with the aim of turning them against the war.

Such opposition, free from Nato control and independent of Nato armaments, will be crucial in the longer-term even if Russia does achieve some sort of military conquest. While US imperialism won’t bring any real independence, liberation can come from below.

Puffed-up imperialisms have frequently used their vile power to defeat weaker opponents. But they then frequently faced years of lower-level resistance that handed them humiliating losses. That’s what happened to France in Algeria from 1954-62, to the US and Britain in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and to Russia in Afghanistan. 

Finally there is the role of the anti-war movement in the Nato countries. Every march and protest, every link with wider class struggle, will make it harder for the US to spread its control and turn Ukraine into a vassal state. This imposes a responsibility on us to agitate and organise for such revolt.  

These four factors—Russia’s anti-war movement, mutiny in the military, Ukrainian resistance from below, anti-war agitation in the Nato countries—are our positive alternative to Nato involvement. And they could also combine to make the war a precursor to revolt against all the ruling classes who now intensify the battles.  

The Trinidadian Marxist CLR James was a determined anti-imperialist who denounced Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. But he was clear this didn’t mean siding with other imperialisms to repulse the Italians.  James wrote, “Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism. Do not let them drag you in. To come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy.

“Workers of Britain, peasants and workers of Africa, keep far from the imperialists and their Leagues and covenants and sanctions. Do not play the fly to their spider. Now, as always, let us stand for independent organisation and independent action.” That spirit should inspire us today.

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