What is the European Left Saying About the Ukraine War?

It seems likely that the war in Ukraine will be a subject of debate in DSA before and during this year’s national convention. Democratic Left and Socialist Forum have published articles on the topic (see here, here, here, here, and here), and this article, which deals with the views and policies of left-wing parties in Europe regarding the Ukraine war, is part of that discussion.

The social democratic and labor parties gathered in the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) European Parliament political group are uniformly in favor of military and other aid to Ukraine, as well as sanctions on Russia. S&D parties are currently in government in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain. Green parties are also in government in a number of countries, and if anything they tend to be even more enthusiastic about military aid and sanctions than the S&D parties. 

Meaningful differences begin to appear when you look at parties to the left of S&D, many but not all of whom are in the GUE/NGL political group. GUE/NGL includes a wide array of radical left parties with roots in various political currents, from the reformed Maoists of the Parti du Travail Belgique (Workers’ Party of Belgium) to the Trotskyist Anticapitalistas (Anticapitalists) in Spain. Some of them have come out strongly in favor of military aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, others have been more ambivalent and internally divided, still others entirely opposed. 

Generally speaking, these parties’ views on the war are shaped by two main factors: their countries’ geographic proximity to and historical experiences with Russia and the Soviet Union and whether the party has roots in the communist movement. Germany’s Die Linke (The Left) is perhaps the most conflicted, owing to Germany’s legacy of militarism, the country’s partition during the Cold War, and the party’s roots in both social democracy and communism.

At the same time it is worth assessing the views of the small and beleaguered socialist movements in Ukraine and Russia, who are suffering severely from the impact of war.

 

Ukraine and Russia

The socialist Left was weak in both Ukraine and Russia before the war, and the situation has only become more difficult for them since February 24, 2022. Anti-war demonstrations in Russia were quickly suppressed, and hundreds of thousands of Russians, including a number of left-wing oppositionists, have fled the country. Those who stayed have often faced repression and intimidation. Mikhail Lobanov, a prominent Moscow-based democratic socialist politician and labor activist, was beaten up and thrown in jail for 15 days for “disobedience toward police.” He is far from the only Russian leftist or war opponent to receive harsh treatment. In one particularly egregious example, a 13-year-old girl was recently sent to an orphanage for drawing an anti-war picture at school, while her father was extradited from Belarus to Russia and given a two-year prison term for making social media posts critical of the war effort.

The leadership of Russia’s Communist Party supports the war, but some grassroots members of the party have bravely voiced their opposition. Last year, some of them joined with figures from other socialist movements to publish a statement of the “Anti-War Round Table of the Left Forces,” which called on the Russian government to immediately stop the war and withdraw troops, and for “a radical change of government and the entire socio-political system” if it does not do this. It was signed by members from the Communist Party, the Russian Socialist Movement, and others.

The Left was perhaps even weaker in Ukraine than in Russia. Socialist and communist parties declined in membership and electoral support during the 2000s. Their pro-Russian tendencies discredited them in the eyes of many, and as tensions with Russia increased they came under increasing repression. In 2015, the Communist Party and other smaller parties were banned. Shortly after the 2022 invasion, the Ukrainian government issued a new ban on a number of parties whose names sound socialist or progressive on the grounds that they were collaborating with Russia. These claims of collaboration have not been proven, but as Russian-American socialist writer Greg Afinogenov points out, it is “true that these parties were in fact pro-Russian and their politics were often incoherent,” including far-right and fascist politics. Unfortunately, as Afinogenov also notes, “the firm linkage between pro-Russian (or pro-peace) views and welfarist politics” in Ukraine “has meant that when the Russian invasion discredited the former, the latter lost out, too.”

One Ukrainian left-wing group that continues to exist is Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement), a small democratic socialist organization that has taken a firm position in support of Ukraine’s military resistance to the invasion– some of its members have joined military reserve units–and in favor of military aid for Ukraine. As democratic socialists, however, they are also opposed to the Ukrainian government’s neoliberal economic and labor policies, as well as the new ban on some of the parties mentioned above. In a statement, they criticized the government for abusing “the situation of war to attack the labor rights of Ukrainian workers, now its actions are aimed at limiting political and civil freedoms. We cannot support this.”

Social Movement has relations with the Russian Socialist Movement, and last year the two organizations issued a joint statement calling for military support for Ukraine, the full withdrawal of Russian troops, sanctions on Putin and other Russian elites, and a Russian military defeat in Ukraine. It must be stressed that these organizations are quite small and have very limited bases. Nonetheless, these organizations are probably the most analogous to DSA in Ukraine and Russia today.

 

Eastern and Central Europe

The experience of Stalinism and Soviet domination discredited even democratic socialist politics in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe. Nonetheless, radical left parties do exist in this region, and they continue to organize despite the challenges they face. The most prominent is probably Poland’s Lewica Razem (Left Together), which currently has six members of Parliament. Razem is strongly in favor of military aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia on the grounds that Ukraine is, according to Razem’s Zofia Malisz, waging “a righteous fight for self-determination against an imperialist aggressor.” Razem is critical of the NATO military alliance and calls for a new European security architecture to eventually replace it under the auspices of the European Union. At the same time, however, it argues that “given the lack of a proper European security architecture, NATO currently represents the only guarantee of protection for Polish citizens” vis-à-vis Russia, according to Malisz.

Razem was a member of the Progressive International and the Yanis Varoufakis-backed DiEM25 before the war. Four days after the Russian invasion, however, Razem’s National Council voted unanimously to leave both organizations. In a statement explaining the decision, they wrote “In the absence of an unequivocal declaration recognising Ukraine’s sovereignty and an absolute condemnation of Russian imperialism by the Progressive International and the Democracy in Europe 2025 Movement, Lewica Razem ends its cooperation with these organizations.”

Since then, Razem has worked with other left-wing movements in Eastern and Central Europe to build support for their positions. In March 2022, they issued a joint statement with a number of parties in the region calling for military aid to Ukraine, debt relief and support for refugees, and sanctions on Russia. In addition to Razem, it was signed by Ukraine’s Social Movement, Vasemmistoliitto (Left Alliance, Finland), Kairiųjų aljansas (Alliance of the Left, Lithuania), Budoucnost (Future, Czechia), Jsme Levice (We are the Left, Czechia), Demos (Democracy and Solidarity Party, Romania), and Enhedslisten (Unity List/Red-Green Alliance, Denmark).

 

Nordics

Two Nordic left parties signed Razem’s statement – the Left Alliance in Finland, and the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark. The Left Alliance has roots in Finland’s Communist movement, but the country has a long border with Russia and a fraught historical relationship with its neighbor. It was historically very strongly against NATO membership for Finland, but this changed after the Russian invasion. It was part of the outgoing Social Democrat-led coalition government, and in that capacity it dropped its historic opposition to participation in governments that support NATO membership. This decision was not without controversy, but a majority of Left Alliance members and MPs ultimately supported on pragmatic grounds the government’s decision to join NATO. The party continues, however, to be critical of NATO and call for its eventual replacement with a new European security architecture. 

Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance has followed a trajectory similar to its Finnish counterpart. It supports military aid to Ukraine, and signed a joint letter with the Left Alliance and Sweden’s Vänsterpartiet (Left Party) calling for strong sanctions on Russian elites. Denmark was already a NATO member before 2022, but like its Finnish counterpart Red-Green Alliance modified its historic position on NATO under the impact of the war. The party continues to call for NATO’s replacement, but now maintains that it will no longer push to withdraw the country from the alliance until a viable alternative to it is developed. Denmark’s other left party, Socialistisk Folkeparti (Green Left), supports the government’s Ukraine Fund, which includes funding for both military and economic aid to Ukraine.

Left parties in Norway and Sweden have diverged somewhat from their Danish and Finnish counterparts. Norway’s post-Maoist Rødt (Red Party), for example, is in favor of sanctions on Russia but opposes military aid for Ukraine, and continues to call for the country to withdraw from NATO and build a Nordic defensive alliance. In the view of a Rødt MP, however, “we have not properly discussed or worked towards developing such alternatives…the Nordic left needs to work harder to develop policies and gain credibility in regards to both our defense politics and our alternatives to NATO.” Norway’s other radical left party, the Sosialistisk Venstreparti (Socialist Left Party), also supports leaving NATO and building a Nordic defensive alliance, but signed on to a multi-billion dollar aid package to Ukraine to be used for both military and civilian purposes. Sweden’s Left Party, formerly the country’s Communist Party, was initially against sending military aid to Ukraine, but the party executed a swift U-turn on the question. This was not uncontroversial, and the party remains internally divided on the question of military aid. It maintains its strong opposition to Sweden’s NATO membership, out of historic support for Swedish neutrality as well as its commitment to Kurdish solidarity, which is threatened by Turkey’s demand that Sweden crack down on Kurdish refugees and activists as a condition of approval for its NATO application.

 

Germany

Germany is perhaps the most interesting case because of the country’s importance to the pro-Ukraine coalition and the intense cross-pressures Die Linke is grappling with. Die Linke is in dire straits; it barely scraped into parliament in the last election and is constantly racked by internal political controversies. Die Linke was founded in 2007 as a merger of breakaway elements of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) based mostly in western Germany, and the successor to the former East Germany’s ruling party. As such, it has roots in both social democracy and Communism, which are linked to the country’s larger east-west political cleavage. It receives most of its electoral support from the country’s eastern regions, particularly among elderly pensioners, and relatively little from the former West Germany.

At last year’s party congress, Die Linke condemned the Russian invasion and expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and called for sanctions against Russian elites. At the same time, it opposed military aid to Ukraine, a position that is linked to broader opposition to German rearmament and increased military spending. This does not mean, however, that the party is speaking with one voice. Like many other things in Die Linke, there is a lot of strife between supporters of controversial MP Sahra Wagenknecht, who has called for ending sanctions and military aid and for resuming Russian gas imports, and her internal critics. The infighting has debilitated the party by demoralizing supporters and alienating others who might otherwise be attracted to it.

Public opinion surveys suggest that Die Linke supporters’ views on the war tend to be mixed. Some 57% are against the delivery of battle tanks to Ukraine, and an even higher proportion are against the delivery of fighter jets. Regarding negotiations, 55% disagree that Ukraine must cede certain territories to Russia to end the war, while 61% agree that it’s up to Ukraine to decide when to engage Russia in peace talks. There is broad concern across parties about the German government’s handling of the war. In a recent poll, 59% of all respondents said they were either «not very satisfied» or «not at all satisfied” about the government’s course regarding the Ukraine war. Despite the reservoir of apprehension over the war and a broadly unpopular SPD-Greens-Free Democrats coalition in power, Die Linke has not been able to capitalize on this. If a national election were held right now, it might not win enough votes to re-enter Parliament.

 

France and Italy

France and Italy were unique among western European countries because their Communist parties were so strong. In France, the Communists regularly won roughly 20-25% of the vote until the 1980s and had a strong base among industrial workers in particular. The Italian Communists, the largest CP in Western Europe with over two million members at its peak, reached a high point of 34% of the vote in 1976–a higher share than the Socialists ever received in their history. The Italian Communists dissolved their party in 1991, while the French CP soldiered on into the new century. In France, both the Communists and Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party, PS) have been eclipsed by La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, FI), the left-populist movement led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. FI  is the leading component of NUPES, the left-wing coalition that also includes the PS, Greens, the Communists, and others. In Italy, the bulk of the old Communist Party went into what eventually became the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), today Italy’s main center-left party in the S&D group, while the radical left has receded to the margins of Italian political life. 

The largest radical left party in Italy today is Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left), which has a small handful of members in Parliament. It has condemned Russia’s invasion but is against military aid to Ukraine, and is critical of NATO. The smaller Unione Populare (People’s Union), which includes very small parties like Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) and Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation) and has no parliamentary representation, is also opposed to military aid for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, and is very critical of NATO.

In France, the NUPES parties are largely on the same page. The PS and the Greens strongly support military aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. FI also supports sanctions and military aid; Mélenchon’s senior adviser for international issues recently argued, for example, that “Ukraine must be supported, including militarily.» But its leaders put more stress on pushing for negotiations than the PS and Greens, and its parliamentary group has demanded regular consultation with President Emmanuel Macron on Ukraine policy. Finally, the Communists have been strongly critical of Russia’s invasion, and support sanctions as well as defensive weapons shipments to Ukraine. But its leader, Fabien Roussel, recently issued a statement calling for an end to shipments of what he considers to be offensive military equipment, as well as a stronger emphasis on negotiations and more parliamentary debate on Ukraine policy (under the French Constitution, the president has nearly total control over foreign affairs).

 

Greece, Portugal, Spain

The radical left in these three countries tends to be strongly critical of NATO and against military aid to Ukraine; there are, however, some notable exceptions. In Greece, Syriza has opposed the conservative government’s military aid to Ukraine, which party leader and former prime minister Alexis Tsipras argues has made Greece a party to the war. The Greek Communist Party, which retains a base of electoral support of around 5%, has described the Russian invasion as “despicable” but holds the United States, NATO, and the Ukrainian government equally responsible for the war. Its MPs boycotted a speech by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky last year. Some Communist-affiliated trade unionists have also taken industrial action to impede arms shipments from Greece to Ukraine.

MPs from the Portuguese Communist Party, which is less reconstructed than most of the remaining European Communist parties, also boycotted a Zelensky speech last year. The leader of the party’s parliamentary group denounced him as personifying “a xenophobic and warmongering power, surrounded and supported by forces of a fascist and neo-Nazi character.” Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc), a party with roots in various Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist currents, is far more sympathetic toward Ukraine than the Communists, but it too does not support military aid. 

These views are largely similar to those on the Spanish radical left. Podemos has not opposed sanctions on Russian elites, but it has opposed military aid to Ukraine and is highly critical of NATO. The Communist Party is also critical of NATO and has publicly argued that “Spain should not be part of this conflict.” However, Yolanda Diaz, the Communist labor minister in the Socialist-led coalition government, the most popular politician in the country, and the leader of the new left-wing electoral platform Sumar (Unite), has supported sending military aid to Ukraine,as has Barcelona mayor Ada Colau of Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), which is aligned with Sumar through the Catalan electoral coalition En Comú Podem (In Common We Can). Colau visited Kyiv last winter, and Barcelona has sent civilian aid directly to the Ukrainian capital. In Kyiv, Colau said «I wouldn’t speak of a ‘conflict’ but rather an occupation that is unfair, cruel, contrary to international law, and that there are war crimes.”

 

UK Labour Left

The mainstream of the UK Labour Party is strongly in favor of military aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. This is to be expected. What is more interesting is the split that seems to have emerged on the Labour left over Ukraine policy. Former party leader Jeremy Corbyn is vocally opposed to military aid for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, in keeping with his near-pacifist views on international affairs. His shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, himself a decades-long stalwart of the Labour left, supports military aid to Ukraine on the grounds that “a refusal to provide weapons the Ukrainians need means the chances of Russia’s invasion succeeding are significantly increased. A peace would be secured, but an unstable peace imposed by the Russian occupying force.” It should be noted, however, that party leader Keir Starmer threatened McDonnell and others who signed a Stop the War Coalition statement before the invasion with having the Labour whip withdrawn if they didn’t remove their names. They did, while Corbyn has outrageously been banned from standing as a Labour candidate at the next election.

 

Conclusion

This survey does not cover every single left-wing party in Europe. And of course, the views and policies of European leftists are not the only considerations in any discussion of the war in Ukraine. Democratic socialists in the United States need to consider the views and policies of people around the world who have been affected by the war, particularly in the Global South, where U.S. government claims to defend national sovereignty and self-determination are justifiably viewed with  skepticism. 

Even so, the war is taking place in Europe, and the positions of our comrades there – particularly, in my view, those in Ukraine, Russia, Eastern and Central Europe, and the Nordic countries – must be taken into account. 

Addendum: After this article was drafted, Norway’s radical left Rødt (Red Party) issued a statement on military aid for Ukraine adopted at its recent national meeting. The Red Party opposed military aid before this meeting, and this statement represents a change in position in favor of military aid. According to the statement, «Without arms support, Ukraine would have been overrun and subjected to a chauvinistic, right-wing nationalist Russian regime with avowed imperialist ambitions. That is why it is right to provide arms support to Ukraine in the fight for independence and peace, when the Ukrainians have asked for it.» Red Party continues to support sanctions targeting Russian elites, protection for Ukrainian refugees, cancellation of Ukraine’s national debt, and support for Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction. The full statement can be read here: https://roedt.no/rodt-stotter-ukrainas-kamp-for-frihet-landsmote23