The Ukraine War: Dilemma for the U.S. Left
First in a series. Next, we’ll offer options on what DSA members can do to abate the war’s suffering. — Ed.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unjustified, and the U.S. Left must condemn it. At the same time, the Left should not buy into the distortions and half-truths in the portrayal of the conflict now being aggressively promoted by the U.S. government and mass media. Neither should the Left consider looking favorably on Vladimire Putin’s Russia as a purportedly anti-imperialist force in the world, despite Russia’s past opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq and intervention in Libya. Some background on the rise of Putin’s regime is helpful for working out a left-wing policy regarding the disastrous invasion of Ukraine.
Origins of the Putin Regime
To understand Putin’s Russia we must look back at the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that gave rise to a separate Russian state. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorabachev’s effort to radically reform Soviet state socialism during 1985-91 led instead to a transition to capitalism and the disintegration of the Soviet state. By 1990, under the banner of “glasnost” (openness), the reform program had introduced free elections, lifted censorship of the mass media, and allowed the formation of opposition political parties. In that year, the Communist Party renounced its constitutionally guaranteed right to rule the USSR.
The stated intention of the reforms was to give birth to democratic socialism. However, in the new politically open conditions a pro-capitalist coalition formed, based among a small and still illegal capitalist class that emerged in that period; a radicalized section of intelligentsia; and, most important, a decisive section of the party-state elite that had run the Soviet system. In the new conditions, many high-level officials saw opportunities for self-enrichment in a prospective shift to capitalism.
Boris Yeltsin, who had been a high level Communist Party official, led the pro-capitalist coalition. After resigning from the Party, Yeltsin won election as president of the Russian Republic of the USSR in 1991 on a program stressing faster democratization and opposition to corruption, defeating a Communist Party candidate. He gradually accumulated sufficient political power to dismantle the Soviet state at the end of 1991, despite a referendum in June of that year in which 76.4% voted in favor of preserving the Soviet state.
Yeltsin led the newly independent Russian state that emerged in 1992, and he and his associates immediately initiated a rapid transition to capitalism. Given the overwhelming opposition to capitalism among the Russian people, the transformation was described as the pursuit of democracy and a market economy. Central planning was immediately replaced by a market economy, and the state-owned enterprises were quickly privatized. A small group of former Soviet officials and black- market operators seized the most valuable assets of the former Soviet Union and became billionaires. Yeltsin and his entourage also gained great riches. The majority of the population was plunged into poverty, and the previously diversified industrialized economy was replaced by an economy dependent on the export of raw materials and metals and shot through with corrupt practices by state officials.
The rapid rise of a retrograde, oligarchic form of capitalism was actively encouraged by U.S. advisers, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. Although the talk was largely about democracy, the transition to capitalism soon unleashed forces that would steadily constrict the democracy that had emerged at the end of the Soviet period. On Yeltsin’s watch, democracy was undermined in three key steps. In 1993, Yeltsin sent tanks to disband the democratically elected Russian parliament, which was considering impeaching the president and removing him from office over the disastrous economic policies. Yeltsin then pushed through a new constitution establishing a presidential regime, which passed in a referendum only by means of falsification of the vote. The previous parliament was replaced by a powerless “Duma,” named after the purely advisory body in the tsarist empire. The U.S. government and media portrayed those events as a victory for democracy.
In 1996, Yeltsin had to stand for re-election. Six months before the election, polls showed him in fifth place with only 8% support, while the Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov led with 21%. Most observers expected that the reformed Communist Party would gain the all-powerful presidency. Zyuganov ran on a platform of immediate anti-crisis policies reminiscent of the New Deal and a long-run program of building a socialist economy with a democratic state on the parliamentary model. Fearing such an outcome, a group of top oligarchs took control of Yeltsin’s re-election campaign committee, running a campaign that depended on full state control of the mass media, threats of civil war if Yeltsin lost, a series of dirty tricks, and a splurge of payments of long-delayed wages and pensions indirectly financed by the U.S. controlled IMF. Even those tactics proved insufficient, and only a manipulation of the vote count gave Yeltsin another term as president. Once again, at a critical juncture democracy fell victim to the pro-capitalists’ drive for power, with the blessing of the U.S. government.
The final step in the burial of democracy in post-Soviet Russia came in 1999-2000. Yeltsin was exhausted and ready to step down, focused on avoiding prosecution after leaving office. In August 1999, he named the little-known Vladimir Putin as prime minister and designated him as his successor as president. Putin’s career began in the Soviet secret police, the KGB, followed by a position in the Leningrad city administration where he was accused of corruption, then a stint as deputy chief of the notoriously corrupt Kremlin Property Department. In 1999, Putin was head of the FSB, the successor to the Soviet KGB. In that position he had closed several criminal investigations of persons close to the presidential administration. It is likely that Putin’s record of corruption, and of blocking investigations into corruption, recommended him to Yeltsin. Yeltsin resigned in December 1999, six months before the end of his term, which made Putin the acting president. Putin’s first act as president was to grant lifetime immunity to Yeltsin from prosecution, interrogation, or search.
The dour Putin lacked Yeltsin’s political skills and charisma, and the requirement that he win election as president posed a challenge. The leading candidates were anti-corruption centrist Yevgeny Primakov and the Communist Party leader Zyuganov. The prospect of either candidate winning posed a serious threat to the new oligarchic system. That threat was resolved when Putin launched a new war against Chechnya, which had become a de-facto semi-autonomous region of Russia in the mid-1990s.
A series of mysterious bombings of working-class apartments three Russian cities was attributed to Chechen rebels, despite strong evidence that the bombs had been planted by a state entity. Putin raged against the Chechens, promising to pursue and kill the rebels “even in the outhouse” [Moscow Times, Sept. 25, 1999]. A wave of angry patriotism helped Putin launch a deadly assault that leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny. Putin jumped to first place in the polls, and he was able to coast to victory in the March 2000 presidential election. To win an absolute majority in the first round and avoid a runoff, the vote count was more-or-less openly fixed. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN that “it is historic that the Russians are having such an election, a transfer of power in a constitutional and democratic way” [CNN website March 26, 2000].
Upon taking office as president, Putin first established a clear relationship to the oligarchs. He promised that there would be “no redistribution of property” and that the oligarchs would be free to continue grabbing huge revenues from their financial maneuvers, as long as they avoided any opposition to Putin’s policies. Any oligarch who challenged Putin would face repression. Corruption continued unabated. Putin’s circle participated in the seizure of great wealth, becoming a kind of top oligarchic group.
Putin moved quickly to snuff out the remaining elements of democracy in Russia. He took control of all of the major mass media, some which had previously opposed certain government policies. He concentrated power in the Kremlin, replacing popular election of regional governors with presidential appointment. He increased the size of the federal bureaucracy. The next presidential election four years later saw no serious candidates besides Putin. Putin won 71.3% of the vote in 2004 and faced no serious challenge thereafter. Over time the Putin regime grew harsher, as protest demonstrations were effectively outlawed and several critics were assassinated by hi tech methods.
Putin’s consolidation of power in the Kremlin served to safeguard the interests of the new Russian oligarchic capitalist class. Economic policy continued to be neoliberal, which protected the ability of the oligarchs to derive huge revenues from the export of raw materials and metals, often stealing from their own enterprises. There has been frequent talk about rebuilding Russia’s formerly diversified industrial economy, but such a change of direction would be contrary to the short-term profit interests of the oligarchs. Although a small middle class has prospered through connections to the energy or financial sector or to the bloated state bureaucracy, the majority of Russia’s working people have suffered.
We cannot explain the constriction and then elimination of democracy in Russia by a previous long history of autocracy. Most of today’s parliamentary democracies in Europe had a previous long history of monarchy. Nor is it explained by Putin’s background in the KGB and its successor the FSB. The oligarchic form of capitalism that arose in post-Soviet Russia, a development that was guaranteed by the neoliberal policies of immediate marketization and privatization urged by the United States, is incompatible with democracy. The new property-owning class did not yet have any legitimacy, and a continuation of democracy, which would have empowered the newly impoverished majority in Russia, would have been a deadly threat to the new regime. An autocratic centralized state was the unsurprising outcome of that process.
Why the Conflict with the United States?
Post-Soviet Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, had a drive for power, and a talent for gaining it, but he had no clear ideas about economic policy. He realized that the developing pro- capitalist coalition was the base that could propel his ascent to state power. Once he gained state power, he deferred to his U.S.-approved neoliberal top officials and administrators to make economic policies. But a clear theme was Yeltsin’s desire for Russia to serve as chief assistant to U.S. imperialism, a policy direction that found approval among many of Yeltsin’s top cabinet officials. U.S. advisers had assisted Yeltsin in his rise, and he admired the United States. One of his first acts as president of an independent Russia was to cut off ties with Cuba, aiming to please the United States. However, the United States was not interested in a strong Russia and instead launched a NATO expansion policy to hem Russia in. Perhaps U.S. strategists were worried about the future direction of Russia, where public support for socialism and nostalgia for the USSR remained strong.
As the new capitalist class emerged and was consolidated in the 1990s, the most profitable sectors of the economy fell into the hands of Russian capitalists, in energy, metals, and chemicals. U.S. capitalists mainly got fast food and soft drinks. Even a foray into co-ownership of a major Moscow hotel by a U.S. capitalist ended abruptly when he was assassinated by one of his Russian business partners in 1996. Over the course of the 1990s, Russia emerged as a newly capitalist state, with a wealthy domestic capitalist class close to the state and a large military and nuclear weapons. We know that such a system will have a strong imperialist drive, yet any effort to extend domination even in its neighborhood would run into the United States and NATO.
U.S. imperialism can tolerate other large, wealthy, and strong capitalist states only if they acknowledge U.S. “leadership.” Thus, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are “allies” as long as they acknowledge U.S. leadership. When French president Charles DeGaulle briefly challenged the United States and NATO in the 1950s, France became an adversary, although that challenge ended in 1968, when the French ruling class was threatened by a student-worker uprising and sought NATO protection. Japan, which never allowed foreign capital to penetrate its domestic economy, faced a strong U.S. reaction in the 1980s, when Japanese products began to threaten the profits of core U.S. companies in U.S. markets. However, Japan never challenged the United States politically and depended on the U.S. military for its security, and that conflict was in the end settled peacefully.
Russia had become a powerful capitalist state that was on a trajectory of independence from U.S. “leadership.” In his first year as president, Putin reportedly floated Russian membership in NATO to President Bill Clinton, but there was no response. Thereafter, Putin adopted a posture of an independent foreign policy aiming to protect the interests of his base in the oligarchic capitalist class of Russia.
A Left Position on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
The U.S. Left should condemn the unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is wreaking death and destruction on the population. However, at the same time the Left should not align itself with the distorted portrayal of the conflict that fills the mass media. .
First, this war is not between democracy and autocracy. Right-wing nationalist authoritarianism is indeed challenging the state form of liberal democracy today, but that battle is taking place within countries, not between countries. Fundamentally, the conflict underlying this war is an inter-imperial rivalry between two large capitalist states, the global U.S. hegemon and the weaker Russian capitalist state.
Second, Russia is not a uniquely evil state. It is autocratic, but so are a number of U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia. Although Russia indeed suffers under a dictatorship, U.S. power and policy played a significant role in pushing the initially democratic post-Soviet Russia in that direction by its influential support for policies that fostered the development of an oligarchic form of capitalism with extreme inequality and mass impoverishment. The First World War pitted an autocratic Germany against a somewhat democratic Britain, but Eugene Debs and the American Socialist Party rightly condemned that war as one of inter-imperialist rivalry. In that war, the autocratic pre-revolutionary Russian regime had been allied with Britain and the United States.
Third, Russia’s military tactics are indeed deadly but not uniquely so. The U.S. invasion of Iraq killed more civilians than Russia’s intervention in Syria. Newsweek reported that Pentagon experts, speaking off the record, claim that Russia is targeting military sites, not civilians. The truth about Russian military tactics is difficult to determine, but the limited accuracy of most bombs and artillery shells means that some of them will inevitably hit civilian infrastructure. Modern war tactics since the Second World War have always caused large numbers of civilian casualties. Russia’s leaders may be guilty of war crimes, but no more so than U.S. leaders in past invasions of other countries. The Left has condemned the indiscriminate killing of civilians in U.S. interventions and should have no hesitation in condemning similar Russian atrocities.
The U.S. media coverage tends to promote war fever. The war hype, including pressure for a “no fly zone,” is increasing the risk of a military confrontation between the US/NATO and Russia that could turn into a nuclear war.
While avoiding any alignment with the war propaganda coming from U.S. sources, the Left must also clearly and loudly condemn Russia’s invasion. We should support an immediate cease fire, large-scale humanitarian aid, global support for rebuilding Ukraine, and negotiations to achieve a compromise settlement of what is an underlying conflict between the United States and Russian imperialist interests.
In a future socialist world there should be no role for spheres of interest for large countries. However, in the capitalist world we live in, a viable settlement of this conflict would have to accept Russia’s right to have security guarantees in its neighborhood. A Ukraine settlement that includes neutrality for Ukraine along with U.S. and Russian guarantees of Ukraine’s independence and security could avert further bloodshed and bring some stability to the region.
The Left should continue to point out the role of U.S. imperialism in pushing a NATO expansion policy that was bound to lead to a costly and dangerous conflict, while also noting the responsibility of U.S. imperialism for its role in creating the retrograde oligarchic Putin regime that severely oppresses its own working class while also imposing a deadly war on working people in neighboring Ukraine.
Note: Signed articles express the opinions of the authors and not necessarily of DSA as an organization.(Ed.)