Understanding the contradictions of Ukraine

Divisions on the left over the war in Ukraine were once again highlighted by the discussion at the TUC conference in September. rs21 member Sam O’Brien argues for a more nuanced understanding which sees both the struggle for national liberation and rivalry between imperialist powers as driving the war.

War damage in Kyiv – picture by Ales Uscinov via pexels.com

A successful motion from the GMB and ASLEF unions on the war in Ukraine which was debated at last month’s TUC conference in Liverpool has reawakened a wider discussion on the left about how we should view the war.

The original motion called for amongst other things: ‘The continuation and increasing of moral, material, and military aid from the UK to Ukraine.’

Most unions have been involved in raising solidarity in support of Ukrainians since the beginning of the war in the form of humanitarian aid and support for refugees. However, a direct appeal to the British government to provide military aid has different implications for the trade union movement. The arms industry is an integral part of British imperialism. If Ukraine is to resist the Russian occupation, it needs to get its weapons from somewhere, and the left should not argue for an arms embargo as we do for British weapons exports to Saudi Arabia or Israel. But equally the supply of arms is not something we should be actively calling for, as this will necessarily be tied to the interests of British arms manufacturers and the British state, rather than from any concern for Ukraine’s independence.

That part of the motion was amended to remove reference to military aid before it was passed so that it now says the TUC supports: ‘Ukrainian unions’ calls for financial and practical aid from the UK to Ukraine.’

But the motion still begins by noting: ‘Appeals from Ukrainian unions for moral and material aid, including the means of Ukraine’s self-defence.’ So while the demand for continuing military aid was removed, it still retains some ambiguity. Does practical support include military aid?

Critics of the motion have rightly condemned this conflation of the interest of the Ukrainian people and the interests of the British arms industry, but the way that many of them frame the debate is also wrong.

They believe that Ukraine and Russia are now locked into a bloody stalemate like the First World War, with neither side able to progress. Western support for Ukraine simply prolongs this stalemate, and on this view a ceasefire with no pre-conditions is the only way to end the bloodshed. Some have even claimed that by attempting to take back Crimea, Ukraine could provoke a nuclear war. A lot is said about Crimea, but it is less clear what peace with no pre-conditions means for Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhya – especially for the parts of those provinces claimed but not actually occupied by Russia.

This conception of the war and the path to peace is mistaken in several key respects.

Firstly. although the pace of territorial gain has slowed it seems far too soon to conclude that this has become a stalemate. It is true that the ‘summer offensive’ failed to live up to the hype, but the Ukrainian army is now making slow progress in the south. It has proved that it is capable of making sudden rapid advances as it did in Kherson and Kharkiv last year. Who knows if they can repeat these successes in the coming months. Maybe they can. Maybe they can’t. But emphasising the difficulty of liberating territory from the Russians and pushing for peace negotiations with no agreement to end the occupation at this point can only benefit Russia.

Critics are right to say the conflict has become a proxy war between NATO and Russia. But the war has a dual character. It is both a proxy war and, at the same time, it is a war for national liberation against Russian occupation. Any analysis that focuses too much on the proxy war aspect and does not say enough about the fight for national liberation is mistaken. In what other war for national liberation would we call for the occupied nation to give up its territorial claims to land occupied by the colonial power and to sue for immediate peace?

This mistake in emphasis stems from a view of imperialism where all conflict is reduced to rivalry between the pro-US camp and the powers that oppose it. For some, this extends to a form of ‘campism’, which means rooting for the opposite side to the US wherever they are involved in a war, rather than understanding that imperialism practiced by lesser imperialist powers such as Russia is still imperialism.

Ultimately peace can only come through Ukrainian resistance to the occupation and rebellion against the war in Russia itself. The authoritarian nature of Putin’s Russia makes it hard to see how such a rebellion can win at the moment. The early attempts by the peace movement within Russia to oppose the war were brutally crushed. One thing is for certain though. We know from the histories of Ireland, Vietnam and other former colonies that accepting partition and occupation is not a recipe for peace, and will only create the basis for further oppression, misery and future wars.

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