Russia, Ukraine and imperialism

Andrew Burgin writes: On February 24 the Russian army invaded Ukraine. Left Unity, along with the overwhelming majority of the socialist left, condemned the invasion and called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops. Alongside the international peace and anti-war movement we also condemned the expansion of the NATO military alliance into Eastern Europe. That decision, in the wake of the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, to maintain NATO and expand it – including into former Soviet republics with Ukraine next on the list – is a key factor in creating the political situation that led to the Russian military invasion. This understanding does not justify the Russian action but it is necessary to explain the sequence of events that has created the most dangerous and explosive situation that the world has faced since the end of the Second World War. It brings closer the prospect of a new global war which would be catastrophic for humanity. Ukraine is the epicentre of major global shifts and it may be impossible to contain the conflict within the borders of Ukraine – or even within that region.

I want to locate what I write here within the debates taking place on the left and to try and negotiate the complex political terrain on which we are situated.

Left Unity has argued that the war has a dual character. We recognise Ukraine’s right to national self-determination and call for an end to the Russian invasion. We also understand the role that US imperialism has played in not only creating the conditions that led to the war but also materially, in sustaining the war in its own interests. We are not obliged to support every demand that arises in the context of Ukraine’s struggle to defeat the invaders, and this extends both to the billions of dollars of arms that the NATO is sending to Ukraine and to the punitive sanctions regime that the US is imposing on Russia.

The roots of the present war lie in the response of the West to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved, Germany was re-unified and the Russian Federation was given security assurances that NATO would not move ‘one inch closer’. The US had no intention of respecting that agreement. US policy from 1992 was based on its understanding that it was the world’s only remaining superpower and that its main objective was to retain that status. No country should ever again be allowed to challenge the US, thus NATO expanded steadily eastwards. This expansion created the conditions for the rise of Putin, the start of a new cold war and the development of Russian ultra-nationalism which is fuelling the present war. Of course, explaining the historical process does not justify what is taking place in Ukraine now or in any way exonerate the Russian leadership for the crimes being committed today in what Russian anti-war activists have described as ‘the most brutal invasion of one country by another since the US invasion of Iraq’.

Inter-imperialist conflict?

Is the war to be understood as part of an inter-imperialist conflict between the US and Russia? This is an abstract and inaccurate formulation, and does not help explain what is actually going on.

The First World War was an imperialist war. In 1914 the two main great powers were Britain and Germany. While Britain was declining from its economic peak, Germany had been a rising economic power for some time; by the late-nineteenth century it was Europe’s leading steel-producing country, and was dominant in global chemical production. Germany increased its colonies rapidly at this time, to develop its trade, sources of raw materials, export markets and opportunities for capital investment, threatening British colonial interests; Britain was determined to protect its empire. This rivalry was fuelled by a European arms race which led to the Great War in which 16 million were killed in an industrial slaughterhouse.

Today the US continues to be the most powerful state in the world, and at the moment it faces no serious global competitor. And sustaining this situation is the central aim of US national strategy. Russia is not a serious competitor to the US and is not seen by the US as such. Russia is not a rising capitalist power, certainly not in the way that Germany was at the beginning of the 20th century. If imperialism is to be defined as the highest stage of capitalist development, as a mode of capitalist exploitation of the rest of the world – the dynamic which triggered the conflict of 1914 – then Russia can hardly be understood in that way; its economy depends heavily on exports of oil and gas, and its main trading partners in both imports and exports are China and Germany. Defining Russia as an imperialist power does not help us to understand the specific nature of the economic and political situation in Russia nor to locate the origins of the Ukraine war itself. If the term ‘imperialism’ is to be used in more than a pejorative sense in respect of Russia we need a better analysis of the capitalist state that emerged from the break up of the Soviet Union, a state whose deficiencies have been sharply exposed by this war.

Throughout his period in office, Putin has sought to restore Russia’s international standing, both politically and economically – the loss of great power status in the immediate post-Soviet period was a massive blow to a country and population reeling from the ‘shock therapy’ neo-liberal economic reforms introduced by Yeltsin and the IMF in the early 1990s. Even before the invasion, Russia’s economic capacity was hardly capable of sustaining an empire; it has yet to fully recover from the calamitous economic decline it suffered after 1991 – the greatest peacetime industrial collapse of any economy in history. Its economy today is a hybrid of the most inefficient remnants of the old Soviet economy, the military industrial complex, tied to a deeply corrupt and tiny oligarchic class which rose to prominence through the theft of state assets during the 1990s. These assets were also sold to western investors at rock-bottom prices. The country was plundered by a gangster capitalism and the settlement following the collapse of the Soviet Union created a Russian Weimar type society where hyper-inflation rose to 2,520% in 1992. It was a national humiliation, the breeding ground for the rise of the reactionary nationalism that Putin represents.

Modern day Russia suffers from a host of deep-rooted social and demographic problems. Its economy is insignificant when compared with that of the US, its GDP is roughly the same size as South Korea’s – a country that no one would declare a major imperialist power. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a product of its current weak political and economic position not of its rising power.

In one sense though Russia does remain a ‘great power’ and that is because of its nuclear arsenal. However relatively weak Russia may be economically, it remains one of the two most important nuclear-armed powers in the world. While the New START bilateral nuclear reductions treaty between Russia and the US is still on the books, the US has withdrawn from a number of key arms control/military de-escalation treaties, precipitating their demise and the likelihood of a new arms race, particularly in medium-range missiles which had previously been outlawed. The dominant ethos – that nuclear weapons should never be used again – appears to have been abandoned and in recent weeks both the US and Russia have openly discussed their possible use. The risk of nuclear war would appear to be higher now than it was even at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. A significant difference is that whereas during the 1962 events there was mass opposition to the existence and use of these weapons, the anti-nuclear movement today does not have the purchase on mass consciousness that it had at that time. This may change of course – and quite rapidly – as the current crisis develops. Yet in a recent poll, some 74% of Americans said that the US should impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine even though this would likely lead directly to war between Russia and NATO and thus create the dreadful possibility of an exchange of nuclear weapons.

Both the US and Russian nuclear policies allow for the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats, even against states without such weapons. The degradation of language by reference to the use of so-called ‘tactical’, ‘low-yield’ or ‘usable’ nuclear weapons gives the impression that a nuclear war could be won whereas the reality is that their use would be apocalyptic. This is a hugely dangerous moment in which a global conflict is taking place; for now, it is localised in Ukraine but there is a real possibility of it developing beyond that country. Every effort, on every level, must be made to prevent that happening. We are facing an existential threat.

The US – a two pronged offensive, sanctions and arms

On March 21st in a speech to business people at the White House, President Biden outlined US strategy towards Russia. He said, ‘the equipment we’ve given them — and the United States alone has committed over $2 billion to NATO… They have every — every equipment — every piece of equipment that makes rational sense, based on our military and NATO’s military, for them to be able to do what they’re doing. And they’re wreaking havoc on the — on the Russian military, whether it’s their tanks or their helicopters or their aircraft.’ …‘And now is a time when things are shifting. We’re going to — there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it.’ NATO is deploying an additional 40,000 troops on its eastern border and putting other ‘assets’ into the region to support this goal. Washington sees the war as an opportunity for the US to demonstrate its continuing superpower credentials – in part to restore its image after the disastrous failure of the war on Afghanistan. The US, the UK and the EU have sent Ukraine large quantities of military equipment including tens of thousands of anti-tank missiles and several thousand stinger anti-aircraft missiles. We are now 6 weeks into the war and there are credible accounts of serious Russian military setbacks, as invading forces confront people determined to defend their own country, armed with superior western weaponry. As Russian troops retreat in some areas, there are reports of atrocities, all of which must be investigated and those responsible held to account. The same principle must apply in all conflict zones, from Palestine to Iraq and Yemen and beyond. The immediate response from NATO to these reports from Bucha is to commit to providing the Ukrainian army with armoured vehicles, tanks and fighter aircraft for the continuing war in the east of the country as Russian troops now redeploy to the Donbas. Here we can see the step by step escalation of the war which in the short term will create a military stalemate but in the longer term threatens a disastrous expansion of the war.

The US is increasingly confident that this war is an opportunity to further weaken Russia and is working alongside the Ukrainian government to achieve this. Some on the left support NATO’s arming of Ukraine and argue that a resulting Ukrainian military victory over Russia would be a progressive development leading to positive changes in Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Europe. There is no evidence to show, from previous experience, that what would essentially be a victory for US imperialism, would be in any way a step forward for the working class. The US is working for its own interests in this war and is clear about its strategy: Russia should accept its real position as a semi-colonial state, and the EU accept its vassal status in relation to the US. Neither would a Russian victory advance the interests of the working class in Ukraine, Russia or elsewhere. There is no military solution to this conflict which can resolve the complex issues facing the region and its peoples; a political solution must come sooner or later and the first steps are a ceasefire and serious negotiation. But while both sides think they have something to gain from continuing the fighting, this may be a long time coming. A policy of non-alignment, of opposing the war and opposing NATO is essential to end the war as soon as possible and to ensure the smallest number of casualties. Negotiation must be based on two fundamental points: military de-escalation and Ukrainian neutrality and independence. At the same time, the role of NATO must be clarified: it is not a force for peace and security, it is an aggressive and expansionary war machine for US unipolar domination, and that is being intensified as a result of this war.

In the wake of the invasion, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Tod Wolters has already outlined NATO’s expansion plans. Wolters said that the war had created ‘the opportunity to re-examine the permanent military architecture’ and that this would include air policing and standing naval groups. There will be more permanent military bases in Eastern Europe. All NATO countries will increase their military budgets. In the UK, the Labour Party is calling for ‘a post 9/11’ -style increase in defence spending in response to the war; it has found support for this from some on the left. The journalist Paul Mason, who is strongly pro-NATO, has called for the UK to increase its military spending to 3% of GDP.

We are now entering a global arms race precisely at the point where the world economy is breaking up and economic recession is on the way. Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, has already announced a huge increase in military spending. Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in a special session of parliament that Germany would set up a €100 billion fund to modernize the military; this would include buying the US F-35 as the next generation of nuclear-capable aircraft. Germany will ramp up defence spending to meet the NATO goal of 2% of GDP. This new arms race, which will be paid for by the working class of all countries, will further de-stabilise world politics and create the conditions for the Third World War.


The imposition of sanctions has some support on the left and those who take this position argue that these are a non-violent means of pressurising Russia over its invasion. However this argument ignores the fact that sanctions have a hugely deleterious effect on the ordinary people of the sanctioned country. As an example, it is widely accepted that at least half a million children in Iraq died as a result of the sanctions imposed on it in the 1990s.

The US and the West have imposed on Russia the most punishing and comprehensive sanctions that any country has ever faced in history. The US has weaponised its control of the world’s financial system. In their scope the sanctions are more extensive than those imposed on Iraq and Iran. In the international financial system the US has overwhelming power to impose sanctions on any country in the world. Russia is now subject to a full financial blockade. Sanctions are a key weapon of US imperial control.

Banks and financial institutions are now prohibited from carrying out any transaction with Russia’s central bank which has been cut off from foreign exchange; all Russian banks are excluded from clearing. The Central Bank of Russia’s substantial reserves stockpile has been frozen, so Russia’s rainy day strategy of building up substantial foreign exchange reserves is useless. The US government now frequently targets the central banks of its enemies and is able to do so with impunity.

The US, the EU and the UK agreed to exclude key Russian banks from the SWIFT system, the world’s dominant financial messaging system, thus stopping these banks from conducting their financial transactions worldwide.

Russian airlines have been cut off from aviation insurance and from global air travel. All Russian imports of oil, gas and coal to the US are prohibited and secondary sanctions threatened against countries that break that embargo. And these sanctions are supplemented by the withdrawal of US and Western business from Russia: Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, Microsoft, Apple, GM, Coke etc. The sanctions are accompanied by cultural and sports boycotts and the ideological demonisation of the Russian people. The aim of the sanctions is to destabilise the regime but in the short term they have the effect of increasing its support and indeed so far support for Putin in Russia has increased since the war began. In the longer term, the full-scale recession that the sanctions create together with the war and the exodus of tens of thousands of young people seeking to escape conscription may well undermine the regime but at an enormous cost to the ordinary people of Russia. Already the sanctions have created shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines and there is panic buying and mass unemployment. This situation will deteriorate as the war continues. There have been many Ukrainian civilian deaths, and the people are suffering terribly, facing appalling conditions with their towns and cities under attack; more than a quarter of the population is displaced and more than four million Ukrainians are refugees.

The US strategy of arms and sanctions seeks to tie Russia down and further weaken the country in order for it to accept, what the US considers to be, its reduced status. Behind this strategy lies another objective of US policy, – to stop the rise of China, the only country capable of economically surpassing the US in the near future. This strategy has been unfolding militarily for over a decade with the Pivot to Asia, the Quad, AUKUS and a whole range of developing regional alliances designed to isolate China. Part of that is the increasing focus on Taiwan. Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State who may run in the next Presidential election, visited Taiwan in March and said, ‘The United States government should immediately take necessary and long overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing: that is to offer the Republic of China, Taiwan, America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country.’ The US has warned China not to supply Russia with any military aid nor to break the Western sanctions that have been imposed. So far China has done neither but it does not support the sanctions and has called for peace negotiations.

Labour, NATO and the war

The anti-war movement, including Stop the War and CND, opposed the invasion and called for the withdrawal of Russian troops. The STW statement opposing the war outlined NATO’s role in creating the conditions that led to the war. The statement was signed by 11 MPs on the left of the Labour Party. Labour leader Keir Starmer told those who had signed the statement that they would lose the whip if they didn’t remove their names. All 11 withdrew leaving Jeremy Corbyn, who is no longer a Labour MP, as the only MP on the statement. This was an act of political cowardice from socialists alongside whom we have campaigned for many years. It is a sad and dispiriting moment but one that cannot be ignored – however difficult it is to make that criticism of comrades.

At a subsequent meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Starmer said that the creation of NATO was one of the ‘great achievements’ of the post-war Labour government and made clear that any member who attacked the organisation would have their Labour membership terminated.

When the anti-war movement marched to Trafalgar Square calling for an end to the war and Russian withdrawal, no Labour MP was prepared to speak on its platform. This silence may not save the left MPs from Starmer’s purge. Several of his shadow cabinet ministers are calling on him to remove Labour MPs who signed the statement whether they withdrew their names or not. This action by the left MPs weakens the anti-war movement. Stop the War itself has come under vicious attack as war fever has taken hold across the country. In response to this new situation, sections of the Labour left – supported by some others on the left – are now trying to build a new anti-war movement on a basis which ignores or even denies NATO’s expansionist project. They claim this to be an attempt to unite the left but this is spurious as it will further divide the left and isolate the existing peace and anti-war movement. There is nothing to be gained for the left in ignoring the complex issues which have led to this war and ignoring NATO’s role.

Economic consequences of the war

The most immediate impact of the war is the destruction of the economies of Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian economy will suffer a 30-40% decline as a result of the invasion, with much of its infrastructure destroyed. The Russian economy has already fallen by 8% and this will rise to 15% if the war continues throughout 2022. At the moment European countries are still importing Russian oil and gas but are under increasing pressure to stop, whatever damage results to their own economies. After the reports of the alleged atrocities in Bucha all the Baltic states ceased their purchase of Russian gas and are urging other European countries to follow suit. Of course neither Russian nor Ukrainian oligarchs will suffer as a result of this. They will remain rich and secure, many with their golden British passports.

Meanwhile those people fleeing from war and its wider consequences, usually face massive problems of racism, persecution and exclusion. The widespread solidarity extended to Ukrainian refugees by the people of Europe is to be welcomed. This war has received extraordinary media attention which has generated a wave of humanitarian sympathy for the people of Ukraine. Countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Netherlands which have been hostile to previous waves of refugees have opened their borders to Ukrainians. The media and our governments are inconsistent in their response to war and often ignores the suffering of other peoples – from Afghanistan, Syria and the ongoing civil war in Tigray in Ethiopia. In respect of the Ukrainian refugees the European Union has activated its Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) which gives all refugees from Ukraine the right, for a period of three years, to legal residence, healthcare, education, housing and the right to work. The TPD does not apply in Britain so we must campaign for those same rights for refugees here.

No previous refugee groups have been protected under the TPD but we have to ensure that these rights are extended to all those fleeing from war – not least the many wars that Britain and its allies have been responsible for. We cannot accept double standards from western governments in their treatment of refugees.

The war will have a huge impact on working class people in the countries of the Global South and on the poor in the West. Poorer countries in northern Africa, Asia and the Middle East depend heavily on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine which play a significant role in global food production and supply.

We are now seeing significant food insecurity and increases in energy prices which will impact disproportionately on these poorer countries. The war will drive up already soaring food prices and worsen the post-pandemic economic situation, many countries will face possible bankruptcy. As Vijay Prashad has observed: ‘Covid inflation combined with Ukraine inflation will create chaos across the Global South’. Already the fallout from the war has tipped two of the world’s poorest countries, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which were already suffering from deep economic problems, into full-blown crises. More countries will follow: Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and others that import the majority of their oil and gas as well as basic foodstuffs from Ukraine and Russia. Turkey, for example, gets 85% of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. It is also heavily reliant on tourism from those two countries. War in Ukraine means hunger for millions of people throughout the Global South. A huge debt crisis is gathering pace and it is the so-called emerging countries that are suffering and many will default. Millions face deep hunger and starvation because of the increasing food and fuel prices. In Sri Lanka there is already serious social unrest as the country can no longer afford to import food and people do not even have the means to cook the rice which sustains them in their daily lives.

While the West ramps up its military involvement in the war there is no international plan to support these countries and prevent this widespread starvation and deepening poverty. The left internationally must demand the implementation of such a plan and link the struggles in these countries with our own against the rise in the cost of living here.

Towards Zimmerwald 2 – the anti-war movement today

As the forces gather threatening a global conflagration, the anti-war movement and anti-imperialist left have a responsibility to develop an internationalist response to this war. We defend Ukrainian independence and self-determination. We oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine and call for the withdrawal of its forces. There must be a just settlement within Ukraine for all its people and an acknowledgement of the language and political rights of those in the Donbas. We stand with the anti-war protesters in Russia. We oppose the expansion of NATO, the massive militarisation of Europe, the expansion of nuclear arsenals and the increasing possibility of their use, the result of which threatens death for millions of people. We are seeing the break-up of the world economic system and this war is a morbid symptom of the disintegration of a capitalism that has reached its structural limits and has begun to devour itself.

As Engels wrote in 1893, in his pamphlet, Can Europe Disarm? commenting on the intense military rivalry and war preparation by the great powers over decades, “The system of standing armies has been carried to such extremes throughout Europe that it must either bring economic ruin to the peoples on account of the military burden, or else degenerate into a general war of extermination.” These levels of expenditure, he said, were bringing Europe closer to “a war of destruction such as the world has never seen.” In this Engels foresaw the First World War and we are seeing the same contradictions within capitalism playing out today. The drive to war must be opposed.

This war is a product of geopolitical struggle that has been developing for more than 30 years. It will not be permanently settled militarily by the war in Ukraine. This war may well be a stepping stone to a much larger one that threatens the future of humanity itself. It is our responsibility to prevent that by building a movement that can express the possibility of another world. We must argue for a new security settlement in Europe and the disbandment of NATO; but to make these more than propaganda demands we have to find a path to those millions of people who are suffering under this dysfunctional and brutally unfair system. We must be able to explain how, under capitalism, war is a form of barbaric social control and that it is necessary now to build a movement that meets the real needs of working people.

At the moment the anti-war movement is isolated in much the same way as it was at the beginning of the First World War. It’s difficult to break out of our isolation when the media coverage of the war has reached such a crescendo that anyone opposing the war drive, and the increased militarisation of our societies is completely marginalised. Nevertheless we will persevere as those socialists did during the First World War. In 1916 socialists and pacifists who opposed the First World War met in the Swiss town of Zimmerwald to discuss a strategy and a manifesto around which to mobilise opposition to the war. It was the beginnings of a new international movement. Today when sections of the left are bending the knee to imperialism and lining up behind their own ruling classes we need a similar movement that raises high the banner – No to War – Yes to international socialism.


This is a discussion piece and I welcome comment but also concrete suggestions about how we rebuild the socialist movement internationally – links, organisations and people. Let’s work together in these most dangerous of times – AB.







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1 comment

One response to “Russia, Ukraine and imperialism”

  1. Damien McKenna says:

    Thank you for your balanced analysis.
    It is mind boggling how large sections of the’Left’ instantly forgot the barbarism that is the US/NATO war machine, and turned cheerleaders for what is a US orchestrated plan to become the main suppliers of fracked natural gas to the EU, and to weaken Russia in order to gain access to and control the vast natural resources of Russia (as they did during the Yelstin period)
    The’Left’, by and large, have become ‘useful idiots’ promoting US hegemony

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