A number of left groups internationally have taken the line that the sole villain in the Ukraine conflict is Western imperialism (the U.S. and the EU) along with the allied government in Kiev. While opposition to these forces is certainly justified, this one-sided position amounts to whitewashing the reactionaries on the other side, including Putin’s regime in Russia. A wing of the left defines the entire anti-Kiev struggle as “anti-fascist” – apparently because the USSR was decisive in the imperialist war against fascism seventy years ago, so that Russia and its admirers get to keep the title in perpetuity. Similar stances have been taken, for example, regarding the Syrian civil war, where the neo-liberal butcher dictator Assad is painted in glowing anti-imperialist colors just because he is currently on the enemies list of U.S. imperialism.
One surprising endorser of the anti-U.S.-only view, given that it has been on the right side over Syria, is the League for the Fifth International (L5I), led by the Workers Power group in Britain. Workers Power classifies the Kiev government as fascistic and the Maidan movement as totally reactionary, denying any supportable motivation to the mass mobilization; it too falsely characterizes the anti-Kiev resistance as “anti-fascist.” Of course, some in the resistance are anti-fascist, but others, above all the leadership of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republics, as we have seen, are reactionary and fascistic themselves.
The L5I’s grotesquely one-sided analysis leads straight to tacit support for Russian imperialism, even though it does recognize that Russia is an imperialist country. The L5I nominally opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea but refused to stand for the defeat of Russian imperialism. So in effect it accepted this seizure of territory by an imperialist power, from a country it has long oppressed – arguing that the Russian-speaking majority in the region has the right to self-determination. Workers Power tried to bolster its position by observing that Russia “is a much weaker imperialist power” and “in the context of Ukraine, it is ... on the defensive against an attempt by the principal NATO powers to extend ‘their’ territory.”
Russia, however, is not weaker militarily “in the context of Ukraine,” and it was Russia that was in fact extending its territory by conquering Crimea. Putin at one point threatened to annex as well all of “Novorossiya” – New Russia, the territory conquered by Tsarist rulers in the 18th century that stretches from Eastern Ukraine across the entire Black Sea coast to the border with Moldavia in the West. Western imperialism is certainly a major economic threat to the well-being of the Ukrainian people, but Russia too aims economic as well as military threats against Ukraine.
The L5I’s attitude towards Ukraine is a retreat from the position it held a few years ago.
In 2008 it wrote an article on the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 that presciently observed that Russia “has indicated that it will not tolerate any more NATO expansion. Should the US push the inclusion of Ukraine we can expect a major crisis that could lead to the dismemberment of that country.” The L5I then went on correctly to say: “It is wrong for anti-US imperialist socialists to see the Russian military involvement as a sort of philanthropic act of a ‘concerned neighbour’ or to side with Russia because it is the weaker imperialism and to a large extent the victim of US expansion.” And it concluded correctly: “As socialists we must oppose the imperialism of the US and Russia equally, whilst being clear that the main protagonist on a global scale is still the USA.”
The L5I, however, also has a history of not firmly opposing imperialism when it appears to be fighting some despicable regime. During the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1995, Workers’ Power initially adopted the anti-imperialist slogan ʻʻUN/NATO out of Former Yugoslavia.ʼʼ But when Milosevic’s Serbian regime militarily opposed the independence of Bosnia, and NATO mounted a bombing campaign against Serbia to teach a lesson to its former ally, Workers Power changed its line. They wrote: “Thus in the war between NATO and the Republika Srpska, revolutionaries continue to take a revolutionary defeatist position on both sides. Each side’s strategic goals are reactionary.” That is, they did not stand for the defeat of the imperialists.
Likewise when Western powers bombed Libya in 2011, aiming to control the rebellion against Qaddafi, the L5I declined to stand for their defeat but rather called on them to “get out of the way.” This year it is Russia which is intervening on the supposedly progressive side, and the L5I not only failed to call for the defeat of Russian imperialism but in effect acceded to its territorial conquest. The L5I’s claim to be anti-imperialist cannot be trusted.
1. For example, the May 3 statement Condemn the fascist pogrom in Ukraine!
2. Workers Power’s blindness to the fascistic “anti-fascists” is illustrated by a Facebook post from one of the group's leaders, Richard Brenner, of a statement from Borotba which favorably cites a statement by Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed “People’s Governor” of Donetsk – a right-wing Slavic nationalist and adherent of a fascistic organization. The Borotba statement itself can be found on the website of the U.S. Workers World Party. (See the discussion of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in our article Upheaval in Ukraine and the Left.)
3. Workers Power, Dollar bills and F15’s: how the West plans to win Ukraine, undated
4. “After Georgia: inter-imperialist tensions growing,” August 22, 2008; recently reposted by the RCIT.
5. See our analysis “Bosnia: U.N. War Imposes Imperialist ‘Peace’,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 50, Fall 1995.
6. Should socialists support the Libyan revolution?, November 22, 2011