Some Considerations on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

We are in the middle of the war (which began on 24 February) and the scenario is not yet well defined, both in terms of a negotiated solution and further Russian penetration of Ukraine with all the risks of a widening of the war to a European, if not an international, level. Currently it would seem that Russia does not intend to “conquer” Ukraine, but to achieve certain aims. These include recognition of the Crimean peninsula as a full-fledged Russian territory, security for the distribution of its gas and oil through Ukraine, autonomy for the Donbas republics and demilitarisation (“denazification”) of the Ukrainian government. If accepted, these claims would form the basis for a negotiation with any interlocutor.

Putin has played a lot on the concept of “denazification” of the Ukrainian government in justifying his aggression against the Zelensky government, denouncing the role of the Azov Battalion which played a decisive role in the Maidan events (2014) which led to the civil war, and the resignation of the pro-Russian President Yanukovych, tarnished with committing crimes against humanity.

The Azov Battalion

This military formation is made up of openly Ukrainian Nazi elements, plus the extreme right from many Eastern European countries and Chechens. A sort of Nazi international in the pay of the Ukrainian government and, on more than one occasion, of NATO itself.

The organization emerged in May 2014 on the occasion of the revolts against Yanukovych, mixing all the Ukrainian Nazi elements under the command of Andriy Biletsky, a well-known Nazi fighter who led the conquest of Mariupol (in 2014) and the collapse of the pro-Russian regime there. At the time, the Azov Battalion had no more than 2,000 members; today there are more than 10,000, including the "National Corps" party and the whole galaxy of ultra-right paramilitary structures that have always supported the regular army since the Maidan. At that time, this military force, being driven by neo-Nazi ideals with the aim of creating a state in its image and likeness, “practised” with attacks on migrants, gays, anti-fascists and supporters of Yanukovych's government.

According to some OSCE reports, the Azov Battalion was also guilty of crimes against the Russian-speaking population of Donbas. For the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the same Battalion was the perpetrator of rapes and murders in the Donbas region, both before and after 2014 – enjoying, after this date, an absolute immunity granted to them by the Poroshenko's new Ukrainian government and the upper echelons of the Armed Forces, with plenty of applause from the then Minister of the Interior.

According to Open Democracy, the money to start the Azov Battalion in 2014 came from many quarters. From within Ukraine they received generous contributions of a couple of billionaire oligarchs who go by the names of Igor Kolomoisky and Serhiy Taruta, both from the Donetsk region and intransigent enemies of the Yanukovych government. From abroad, they got financial aid from European and American sister organisations, as well as from the Pentagon itself.

Obviously, the organisation has always denied the label of "Nazism", but at the same time it adopted the Wolfsangel as its symbol which, before the swastika, was the symbol used by the SS. Today, under the Zelensky government, the Battalion is officially included in the ranks of the National Guard, while enjoying organisational autonomy to do "dirty work", such as assassinations and ethnic cleansing.

Relations with the United States

As usual, American governments have a twin track policy towards Ukrainian neo-Nazi forces. In this case, after the tragic events of Maidan, the then Obama government had solemnly declared that the US would never, ever wink at Nazi-inspired forces and that, therefore, no support would be given to the new Ukrainian regime with the decisive help of similar militias (2015). But only a year later Obama himself, in tune with the strategic "needs" expressed by the Pentagon, took it all back, militarily supporting the Ukrainian right-wing fringes and giving them political cover. The new Obama administration policy lasted until 2018, when it seemed that the situation had stabilised in favour of a pro-Western government. The announcement of no longer collaborating with the Azov Battalion and with the other military formations of the Ukrainian far right was reported by TIME magazine, which concluded that this showed the “responsibility” of the United States, under which the Pentagon and NATO forces would never again train, finance and arm the Azov Battalion. But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, training resumed and everything went back to normal.

Putin built the justification for the invasion of Ukraine on this, claiming to defend the Russian-speaking populations of the Donbas and to fight Nazi revanchism under the cover of the Kyiv government.

The Real Reasons for the Invasion

As far as the Nazi presence in Ukraine is concerned this is all true. The intrusions of Nazis within the official military structures of the Ukrainian army have always been welcomed. The crimes committed by the Azov Battalion with NATO aid until 2018, and then resumed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are there to prove it.

True maybe, but Putin forgets to say two things. The first is that even Russia, once the war broke out, was full of nationalist forces that to describe as only conservative is an understatement. And, as president for life, Putin is more like a Tsar than a "democratically" elected president. If in Russia there were – and there are – military or paramilitary forces (like the Wagner Group contractors), he would not hesitate, as in fact happens in Russia and abroad, to make use of them in abundance in a defensive or aggressive way towards other countries. It should not be forgotten that Putin used fascist nationalist forces in the Donbas to control and “defend” the Russian-speaking populations from attacks by the Ukrainian Nazis.

But that's not the point. Russian imperialism moves where it can and where it is needed, without hesitation, and not excluding acts of violence, right up to staging a war in Europe with the extremely serious risks which we have denounced, not least that of a generalised war, if a negotiated solution is not found soon. Moscow's propensity is clearly to create a space in the world imperialist arena characterised by multiple imperialist poles competing with each other on the oil, gas and strategic raw materials markets. In terms of industrial competition, it aims to control the extraction of rare earths and coal, but also to gain strategic space that allows it to face opponents in an advantageous position, even if only from a defensive point of view.

In fact, the real clash is between Russia and the US, a rivalry fought out on Ukrainian territory. The Moscow offensive against the Zelensky government has nothing to do with the Azov Battalion, though it is given as a cause. The real reasons lie in the goal of continuing to be Europe's sole supplier of gas and oil, as long as it is allowed to do so. It wants to impose acceptance by the international community of Crimea as, in all respects, de facto and de jure, Russian territory. It wants to support the autonomy of the two independent republics of the Donbas as Russophone and their wish to reconnect with the “motherland” (nota bene – in the Donbas there are iron and coal mines). And above all, neither now nor ever to allow Ukraine to become a member of NATO. For Putin, such a prospect would mean complete encirclement by NATO, that is, by the US. The idea of finding a series of missile batteries aimed at its sensitive targets is unthinkable to Moscow. Gas and oil are important, but if imperialist events turn off the taps, the road to the East is open to Moscow. China above all, but Bangladesh and India could also replace the missing European demand. But American missiles arriving in the hands of Kyiv would be a risk Moscow would not want to run.

The Russian strategy is certainly not that of "conquering" Ukraine. Either it aims to get to the negotiating table starting from a position of strength that would only come from an encirclement of the major Ukrainian cities, and the possession of ports in the Black Sea, with the threat to go further if its demands are not accepted (which are always the same: confirmed annexation of Crimea, autonomy of the republics of Donbas, no to Ukraine in NATO). Or, it could make a deeper foray into Ukrainian territory that would provoke a NATO reaction, with the risk of the war spreading to Europe, backed by the US. In this regard Biden, promoter of the financial and oil sanctions against Moscow, in order not to scare the Europeans – Germany first of all – asked Qatar and the US’ enemy, Maduro’s Venezuela, to supply thirsty Europe with gas and oil, since the US cannot replace Russian energy resources with American ones despite its repeated boasts. Even today, the US imports 20% of its energy needs from Russia. “Last but not least”, there remains the danger of a world war that destroys everything to rebuild everything, always in the name of profit under the banners of the most reactionary nationalism, the defence of democracy, or against dictatorships, but only those that thrive in rival countries.

Moscow is playing its imperialist cards round the world. Apart from the Ukrainian war fought on the backs of the Ukrainian people and proletariat, as well the Russian workers who are being sent to fight against their own class comrades, proletarians against proletarians, in the name of two nationalisms and the economic interests behind them, there is its presence in Libya and its Syrian ally in competition with its enemy, Turkey. There is also the Russian presence in central Africa and in the sub-Saharan Sahel, with the military presence of the contractors of the Wagner Group competing with "our Chinese ally", with France, and as ever the United States.

In the phase of decadence of world capitalism, burdened by heavy problems of capital enhancement due to ever lower rates of profit, wars, whether fought by proxy, in the first person (Russia-Ukraine), or in a direct and generalised conflict between major imperialist centres of the world, can have only one outcome. If the real tragedy is imperialism, the legitimate child of capitalist contradictions with their tragic burden of wars, death, social and environmental devastation, migration and all the "collateral" factors of the case, there is no pacifism that can stop the barbarism of war, however right it might be.

Nor should we take sides in any war front in the name of either defending the weakest or choosing the strongest, the aggressor, on the basis of a falsely “left” ideological approach, which never, and especially not in this case, can be justified.

Either the exploited masses, who today are under the heavy yoke of bourgeois, national and imperialist interests, rise up – organised in their class party, in order to bring about the destruction of this now outmoded society based on exploitation and the pursuit of maximum profit – or capitalist barbarism will continue. Today, as always, our agenda is not about whether to take sides with one of the imperialist camps or the other, or their respective bourgeois factions, but to organise against the imperialist war.

War on war. Class war against the war of exploitation and death, for a society that does not have as its pivot the unequal relationship between capital and labour but a productive organisation based on the satisfaction of social needs and not mere profit, which is the basis of all the contradictions of capitalism, including wars. This latest Russian-Ukrainian episode is just one more tragic example of this.

Battaglia Comunista
11 March 2022


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Monday, March 21, 2022