Next To Starting a War The Worst Thing Is To Keep It Going

With No Hope the War Can Change The Outcome

The complex nature of the war in Ukraine, and especially of the question of the relative responsibility of the different parties, has made difficult the mobilization of a powerful antiwar movement. A part of the left even opposes an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of negotiations, which were cut short abruptly at the end of March. The object of this article is to shed additional light on the war with a view to helping the opponents of imperialism to adopt an enlightened position.

In view of the divisions within the left, I feel it necessary to begin with a few words about myself. I have taught the politics of the Soviet Union and the states that issued from it for many years. As a trade-unionist and socialist, I have participated actively in labour education in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, starting from the moment such activity became politically possible. That education is socialist in inspiration, and we defined socialism as consistent humanism. I have thus actively opposed both the Russian and Ukrainian regimes, both profoundly hostile to the working class.

Condition of the Working Class

The condition of workers in independent Ukraine has not been better than that of their counterparts in Russia. On certain dimensions, it is even worse. Since independence, a succession of predatory governments has transformed Ukraine from a once relatively prosperous region of the Soviet Union into Europe’s poorest state. Ukraine’s population over the last thirty years declined from 52 to 44 million (even before the present war led to huge additional migration). And of those 44 million, a good number are working in Russia.

It is true that in Ukraine, as opposed to Russia, elections can change the government. But they cannot change the anti-worker nature of state policy. A violent coup in February 2014, executed by ultra-nationalist (neo-fascist) forces and actively supported by the US government, overthrew an elected, if corrupt, president, blocking an agreement, reached the day before with the opposition, under the auspices of France, Germany and Poland, to form a coalition government and to advance new elections.

The coup, and the first measures of the new regime, in particular a law eliminating Russian, daily language of at least half the population, as one of the two official languages, provoked resistance and eventually an armed confrontation in the eastern, predominantly Russian-speaking, parts of the country. That opposition was put down everywhere, sometimes by violent means and with loss of life, as occurred in the city of Odessa in May 2014, except for the Donbass. A civil war broke out there, with Russian intervention on the side of the insurgents and NATO intervention on Kyiv’s side.

Starting Point?

That important dimension of the war is not part of the narrative presented by NATO, the Ukrainian government or the major Western media, that preferred to speak of a ‘Russian invasion’ already in 2014. But what transformed a protest movement against the coup d’état into an armed revolt was the new regime’s refusal even to speak with the Donbass dissidents. Instead of negotiating, Kyiv immediately launched an “anti-terrorist operation” against the region, sending neo-fascist units of the newly-formed National Guard, the regular army having proved unreliable. (Had Russia wanted, in fact, to seize Ukraine, it could have easily done so at the time – Ukraine had no army to speak of.) Russia, at once declared an invader by Kyiv, intervened directly with armed forces only several months later to prevent an imminent defeat of the insurgents.

How one analyzes and evaluates this war depends on one’s starting point. The government of Ukraine, NATO spokespersons, western mainstream media – but also some people who identify themselves as socialists – typically begin with Russia’s invasion of last February. The picture that emerges is one of a big, well-armed state that invaded a smaller innocent state that is courageously defending its sovereignty.

As for the motives of the Russian invader, NATO’s public was told only that the invasion was unprovoked. In a propaganda campaign without precedent in recent memory, the qualifier ‘unprovoked’ became obligatory for reporting on the invasion. (One might note, in passing, its absence in reports on the US and NATO invasions of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia, Libya…) The word ‘unprovoked’ thus served to block any serious discussion of the motives of the invader, other than its assumed imperialist appetite.

Simply to raise the question of provocation was enough to earn one the accusation of being an apologist of the aggressor. And a part of the left also participated in that, typically limiting its explanation of the invasion to a few selected passages from Putin’s speeches, such as his famous remark that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The sentence that followed was rarely mentioned: “Whoever wants it back has no brain.”

To be avoided above all was a serious examination of the relations between Russia and Ukraine in the three decades preceding the invasion, an examination that could verify the existence of the imperialist interests attributed to Putin. But why waste the energy, when everything is already clear: a big country with nuclear weapons invaded a small(er) one without nukes. Surely that is enough to merit unconditional support for the Ukrainian regime? Why bother to analyze the class nature of that regime or the motives of its NATO patron in egging-on a confrontation and supplying it with weapons and training?

Another argument sometimes heard was that autocratic Russia fears the attraction of Ukraine’s democracy for the people of Russia, with whom Ukraine shares a long border. In reality, the sad experience of Ukraine’s working people with its ‘democracy’ is one of Putin’s stronger arguments against his liberal and socialist opponents.

Putin, in fact, presented his goals when he launched the invasion: the ‘geopolitical neutrality’ of Ukraine, its ‘demilitarization’, and its ‘de-nazification’. If the first is clear, the other two require some explanation. Demilitarization expressed Putin’s opposition to NATO’s arming and training of the Ukrainian army, which was, in effect, being integrated into the alliance’s armed force, a process that began soon after the 2014 coup.

As for de-nazification it meant the elimination of the political influence of the ultra-nationalists (neo-fascists) in the government and especially in its apparatuses of violence (the army, political and regular police), as well as on linguistic and cultural policy. The very essence of the ultras’ ideology is hatred for Russia and everything Russian. Their influence within the state apparatus has not stopped growing, especially since the 2014 coup.

European Security?

The qualifier ‘unprovoked’ attached to the word ‘invasion’ especially serves to conceal the fact that a clear declaration from the US president that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO would in all probability have avoided this war. NATO’s expansion into Ukraine was the main issue raised by Moscow in the months preceding the invasions. During that time, Putin regularly proposed to negotiate an accord on NATO’s non-expansion into Ukraine.

In December 2021, only a few weeks before the invasion, Moscow once again formally proposed to the US and NATO to begin negotiations immediately with a view to concluding a European security treaty. The proposal was ignored, as were those that had preceded it.

It is possible, of course, that Putin was lying about his desire for an agreement and that he was only seeking an excuse for swallowing up Ukraine. But why, then, not test that hypothesis, if there was even the slightest chance to avoid a war that the US administration had been predicting for months?

And note that the CIA, for its part, has established that the decision to invade was taken by Moscow only a few days before the order was issued. That indicated that the war could have been avoided, if only NATO had accepted Russia’s proposal to begin negotiations.

American Refusals

The US refusal to react to Moscow’s security concerns in the months and years before the invasion, despite a series of clear warnings from highly-placed US officials – including Willian Burns, former ambassador to Moscow and currently head of the CIA – suggests that the US government in fact wanted this war. In any case, the US, with the enthusiastic support of the UK and the agreement of the other members of NATO, has done absolutely nothing since the war began to promote a negotiated settlement that would end the horrifying destruction of lives and socio-economic infrastructure.

The opposite is the case: Washington has blocked any negotiated end to the war. Take, for example, the “sanctions from hell” imposed on Russia. Why were they not accompanied by conditions for their lifting, if the goal was to stop the invasion?

Another goal, never admitted, is to consolidate US domination of Europe’s foreign policy. Since the end of the USSR in 1991, the US has acted systematically to exclude Russia from any European security structure to replace NATO, an alliance born of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. As one could predict, that policy provoked Russia’s hostility, even before Putin came to power and at a time when US advisers held key positions in the Russian administration. Russia’s hostility, in its turn, served as a convenient justification for NATO’s continued expansion. And so, it did not take long for NATO to declare Russia an existential threat to the security of its members. The circle was closed.

Before continuing, I should make one thing clear: to recognize Russia’s security concerns and Washington’s role in provoking and prolonging the present war does not mean the exoneration of Moscow from its responsibility for the loss of life and the material destruction caused by the present war. The UN Charter recognizes only two exceptions to the prohibition on the recourse to military force by one state against another: when the use of force is authorized by the Security Council or when a state can legitimately claim self-defence.

NATO’s expansion right up to the borders of Russia, the arming and training of the Ukrainian army, beginning from the coup of 2014, the abrogation by Washington of a series of nuclear arms limitation treaties, and its stationing of missiles in Poland and Romania, only 5-7 minutes flight time from Moscow – all these Moscow can, in my view, legitimately consider as serious threats to Russia’s security.

But the threat was not immediate, and so it did not justify the invasion. Moscow had not exhausted all the alternatives. Even from its own viewpoint, the invasion worsened its security situation by solidifying NATO under US leadership, and especially by allowing Washington to consolidate the support of France and Germany for NATO’s aggressive policy toward Russia. Those two NATO members were the most opposed to its expansion before the invasion. And now Sweden and Finland, previously ‘neutral’ (though, in fact, well on their way to de facto integration of their armies into NATO’s forces) have decided to join the alliance.

In the days leading up to the invasion, Russia claimed that Ukraine was planning to invade the dissident regions. On the eve of the invasion, after refraining from doing so during the eight years of civil war, Moscow finally recognized the independence of the two Donbass regions and signed a treaty of mutual defence with them. That was to allow Moscow to claim that it was invading legitimately in response to the request of allies as victims of aggression.

The validity of the claim that Kyiv was preparing to attack is not clear, although in the months preceding Russia’s invasion Kyiv had openly declared its intention of retaking all its territory, including Crimea, by armed force. And it had concentrated 120,000 troops, half of its army, on the border of the dissident Donbass region. In the four days before the invasion, the 700 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers documented an enormous intensification of bombardments, the majority from Kyiv’s side of the demarcation line, that is, from Ukraine’s forces. In the eight years before the invasion, 18,000 lives, of which 1304 civilians, were lost, a large majority on the insurgent side.

As noted, the CIA confirms that the decision to invade was taken by Moscow in February, only a few days before it occurred. That contradicts the repeated assertions of the US administration in the months before that an invasion was imminent.

From my point of view, whatever Kyiv’s intentions might have been before the invasion, Moscow should have waited before unleashing its army. Until Kyiv moved, it could have continued to seek France and Germany’s support for a security treaty, as these two states were the most opposed to NATO expansion. As such, the invasion apparently pushed even at least a part of Ukraine’s population that had hitherto been sympathetic to Russia into the arms of the ultra-nationalists.

Political Stalemate, Brutal Fighting

Once the war began, the humanist position is to demand a rapid, negotiated end to it in order to minimize the loss of life and socio-economic infrastructure. For after starting a war, the most reprehensible act is to keep it going when there is no hope that continued fighting can change the outcome.

Yet that is exactly the policy of Kyiv and NATO, whose goal, in the words of Biden, is to “weaken Russia” Incredibly, this refusal of diplomacy is supported even by certain circles that identify themselves with the socialist left.

One should understand that, despite the falsely rosy picture of the course of the war for Ukraine that has been presented by NATO spokespersons and the servile media, the reality is that continued fighting can only add to the suffering of Ukraine’s working people, with no hope that it will improve the outcome of the war for them. The opposite is true.

Restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Kyiv’s declared goal which is supported by NATO, is certainly legitimate (to the degree it does not negate the right to cultural or territorial self-determination of non-Ukrainian ethnic and linguistic groups). But that goal, declared now by Kyiv, is illusory. A compromise is therefore inevitable. To insist on pursuing the war until all the lost territory is recovered is, in fact, just as criminal, if not more criminal, than the invasion itself. Moreover, the stubborn pursuit of that chimerical goal risks direct confrontation with NATO and nuclear war.

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine – that were largely ignored by the servile media – in fact, took place in the first weeks of the war and seemed to be progressing well. According to reports, Ukraine accepted a neutral, non-aligned, non-nuclear status, with its security guaranteed, in case of an attack, by the permanent members of the UN’s Security Council. Russia, for its part, abandoned its demand for denazificiation, and Ukraine promised to restore the official status of the Russian language, which it had banned from public life.

There was also some movement toward a compromise on the thorny questions of the status of Donbass. As for Crimea, which Russia will clearly never return, it was agreed to put off a final resolution for fifteen years.

After five weeks of war, Kyiv and Moscow were both expressing optimism about a negotiated cease-fire. But at that precise moment, the US president wound up his European visit with a remarkable speech. After claiming that Putin wanted to recreate an empire, he declared: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” A few days later, the then Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, suddenly appeared in Kyiv. An aide to Zelenskyy told the media that he had brought a simple message: “Don’t sign an agreement with Putin, who is a war criminal.”

As if by coincidence, that took place just after the Russian troops retreated from around Kyiv, which was presented by Western media – erroneously, to my view – as a sign that Ukraine could indeed win the war. And at the same time, also as if by coincidence, Kyiv announced the discovery of war crimes attributed to Russian forces in the village of Bucha. That put an end to negotiations, until this day.

Status of Diplomacy

While Moscow regularly repeats its desire for a resumption of diplomacy, Kyiv insists on its conditions for ending the war: the return of all its territory, including Crimea. It even added Henry Kissinger to its blacklist of enemies of Ukraine for having called for a negotiated settlement that would mean, at least temporarily, a return to the territorial status quo from before the invasion and Ukraine’s neutrality. An advisor to Zelenskyy described that declaration as a “stab in the back of Ukraine.” Someone remarked that when Henry Kissinger becomes a voice of reason, the situation is indeed serious.

We should recall that Zelenskyy was elected president in 2019 on a peace platform, winning 73.2% of the vote. He at once declared his intention of restarting the Minsk Accord and declared that he was prepared to pay the price with a loss of popularity. Dmitrii Yarosh, the neo-fascist leader who had been appointed advisor to the army’s chief of staff, responded in a televised interview that it was not Zelenskyy’s popularity that would suffer. “He will lose his life. He will hang on some tree on Khreshchatyk [a central street in Kyiv], if he betrays Ukraine and those people who died in the revolution and the war.”

But in October 2019, Zelenskyy nevertheless signed a new accord with Russia and the Donbass dissidents for the removal of heavy arms from the line of contact, a prisoner exchange, and the granting of a measure of autonomy to the region – all things in the Minsk II Accord. And when the soldiers of the neo-fascist Azov regiment refused to move away, Zelenskyy travelled to the Donbass to call them to order. But extreme-right groups blocked the retreat, and on October 14, 2019, 10,000 masked demonstrators, dressed in black and carrying torches, marched through the streets of Kyiv, shouting “Glory to Ukraine! No capitulation!”

Zelenskyy finally got the message. From the coup of 2014, the neo-fascists had increasingly penetrated the various armed and other structures of the state (especially the army, the civil and political police). Their ideology, at whose core is a deep hatred for Russia and for everything Russian, has penetrated political circles beyond the openly neo-fascist, including those considering themselves liberal.

There is thus an alliance between the US ‘deep state’, that does not hide its goal of weakening Russia, of dealing it a “strategic defeat,” and the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist neo-nazis, who exercise a significant, perhaps decisive, influence on the government: Last October, Zelenskyy went so far as to sign a decree on the “impossibility” of negotiating with Putin – a disastrous formula for the working people of Ukraine and of the entire word.

An Immediate Ceasefire

The Canadian left should demand that the Canadian government push for an immediate cease-fire and the return to the negotiating table, something Moscow has continuously requested. The profoundly biased reporting of the major media about “great victories” of the Ukrainian army – when, in fact, it is a question of strategic Russian retreats, carried out in good order and with a minimum of losses, in preparation of a major offensive with consolidated and increased forces. Nothing has changed a basic fact: Kyiv cannot win the war, or even improve its position, by military means, without direct intervention by NATO, and the threat of a nuclear confrontation that would entail.

In the longer term, the left must build a broad movement – like the one that helped block Canadian participation in the Iraq war or the stationing of US intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the 1980s – to demand that Canada leave NATO, which is a dangerous, imperialist organization that threatens all of humanity. •

David Mandel teaches political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal and has been involved in labour education in the Ukraine and Russia for many years. He is the author of The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution.