Where Things Stand
It’s been a full trip around the sun since Russia invaded Ukraine with the aims of regime change and/or mass territorial conquest. Yet, a year into the conflict, the largest war in Europe since the defeat of Nazi Germany appears further than ever from a conclusion. Since the Russian blitz collapsed in the war’s opening months, the fight has shifted into a slugfest over territories seized by Russia since 2014.
Waged through a mix of artillery bombardments, economic blockades, mass punishment of civilians, and diplomatic maneuvering, the conflict has been grueling. Villages and cities have been won and lost. The death toll has likely exceeded 300,000. Global markets for fuel, staple grains, and fertilizer have been upended, driving punishing inflation for much of the international working class. Additionally, atomic disasters–from civilian reactors and nuclear brinkmanship alike–have raised the stakes to potentially apocalyptic levels.
The anniversary was marked by speeches from the US, Ukrainian, and Russian presidents, accompanied by furious fighting along the eastern front in grim anticipation of a major Russian offensive, its largest since last March. Predictions about the locus of fighting have varied. Regardless of the points of contact, it’s quite likely that the late winter will bring even more bloodshed.
Furthermore, it’s unlikely that either this offensive or an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive using advanced NATO weaponry can end the conflict. Even a major Russian victory probably would not bring Ukraine to its knees. However, Ukraine’s odds of reclaiming its stolen territory by force aren’t any better, according to both off-the-record comments by US officials and a report from the notorious peaceniks over at the Rand Corporation. Simply put, neither side is likely to force a resolution through battlefield dominance.
However, this hasn’t stopped the defense industry from presenting its products as the key to victory. A banner 2022 for arms manufacturers has been buoyed in 2023 by the erosion of US restrictions on weapons transfers. While the Biden administration initially blocked the provision of ‘offensive’ weapons systems to the Ukrainians, those limits have evaporated in the last few weeks. This has paved the way for the first deliveries of armored vehicles, main battle tanks, long-range missiles, and, on the horizon, longer-range missiles and jet fighters.
All of this has led to speculation that the US has no real strategy for this war. Instead, the delivery of ever-escalating armaments has gone from being a ‘means’ of national security to an ‘end’ in itself.
The Dangers Ahead
With little vision or will by any major party for a resolution, the dangers and long-term challenges of a protracted conflict have multiplied.
Most directly, there remains a serious risk of escalation between NATO and Russia. So far, Russia has not backed up its multiple warnings about the provision of “offensive weapons.” However, that pattern offers cold comfort when numerous retaliatory options remain available below the nuclear threshold (shooting down intelligence satellites or assassinating European officials being just two of the more headline-grabbing possibilities). Russia gains little by bringing NATO fully into the war. However, protracted conflicts are fertile ground for miscalculations, mistakes, and overreactions, especially as desperation and fatigue mount. With diplomatic communication between the US and Russia at historic lows (even compared to the Cold War), small events can spiral into dangerous crises.
However, even if the war doesn’t spill over into a direct great power war, a years-long “static” (but still highly destructive) conflict would be a horrible outcome. The consequences for the working classes of Ukraine, Russia, and many other countries that rely on their exports are hard to overstate. These would be amplified by “wartime” US sanctions that, as with Venezuela and Cuba, have a curious habit of becoming permanent. Furthermore, Ukraine’s descent into the world’s premier locus for disaster capitalists will only grow, with arms manufacturers prospering from the extended destruction and private finance firms poised to turn massive profits off of reconstruction efforts.
More broadly, this war has cut the legs out of recent efforts to rein in US militarism, defense spending, and global security provision. Campaigns to reduce US involvement in European security, close far-flung bases, and divert astronomical military spending to other areas are effectively dead in the water. Furthermore, rather than chastening US leaders against diving into a “New Cold War,” the Ukraine war has seemingly emboldened US ‘containment’ efforts against China (as evidenced by the recent ‘spy balloon’ drama). Ironically, US fears that Russia and China will unite into a grand alliance of (anti-US) autocracies have only grown as the US leaps from crisis to crisis with both powers. If China decides to retaliate against the US by supplying arms to Russia–effectively making Ukraine a front in the ‘New Cold War’–the situation will only get more dangerous.
A Socialist Response
What can US leftists do in the face of these challenges?
Almost a year ago, I reflected in this same newsletter on how the war in Ukraine would necessitate a shake-up in our practices of anti-imperialism and international solidarity. The waning of US hegemony, I argued, will increasingly lead to contests between (still unequal) imperial-capitalist powers.
Since WWII, opposing the foreign policy of the US–or, at least, its most aggressive and destructive tendencies–has provided a useful ‘north star’ for US leftists. As the core and face of global capitalism, American imperialism enabled international solidarity to coalesce around opposition to US violence and meddling abroad. While the US remains the world’s foremost capitalist power–and thus the primary threat to the international working class–it should now be seen as first on a growing list of rival capitalist states that are likely to wage catastrophic imperial wars. As socialists, our efforts must evolve to oppose multiple, simultaneous imperial ambitions and challenge the broader system that makes apocalyptic inter-capitalist warfare the norm of our age. No small task, but one that feels increasingly urgent.
Unfortunately, there is little that we can do to bring the current war in Ukraine to an end. Not only do leftists not have the power to enact dramatic shifts to US foreign policy, there is extensive debate among the left about whether the US should be providing Ukraine with any defense assistance. I am skeptical of these weapons shipments and concerned about their longer-term consequences; however, I recognize that this is an issue that demands broader deliberation.
However, US socialists can unite to challenge the reinvigoration of US hegemonic power that this conflict has triggered. For example, DSA electeds should start demanding that the Biden administration clearly link any weapons shipments to a strategy for ending the violence. If, as many now suspect, NATO is transferring billions of dollars of weaponry without a realistic endgame or pathway to negotiated peace, leftists can raise the alarm over the risk of sleepwalking into greater catastrophe.
More broadly, socialists everywhere can push back on the growing narrative that US power is particularly good or necessary for preventing aggression around the world. Working to shrink the defense budget, scale back US security commitments abroad, and reduce warmongering against China will help prevent similar wars from erupting. Additionally, we can demand that reconstruction efforts for Ukraine entail, first and foremost, broad debt forgiveness. The suffering of the Ukrainian working class must not be turned into a feast for Western vulture capitalists.
Furthermore, we can undertake these efforts without entertaining misguided ideas that a victory for Russia would be a victory for the working class. While US belligerence and hegemony helped create the conditions for war in Ukraine, they were not the sole cause. It is concerning to see libertarian, far-right, and revanchist forces around the world co-opting the language of anti-war activism–even as their signature actions feature pro-war (Russian invasion) advocates. This is terrain that the left should neither cede to the right through inaction nor spoil through misguided views of Russia as an “anti-imperialist” actor.
Neither renewed US hegemony nor Russian revisionist domination offer a way forward. The broader challenge for leftists, at this juncture, is to seek third paths of international solidarity by directly collaborating with comrade organizations around the world.
Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine is most likely a warm-up for a new normal of inter-capitalist crises and conflicts in the coming years. Building our capacity for true international solidarity–not just at the national DSA’s International Committee but also through TCDSA and other local chapters–has perhaps never been so urgent.
By Tracey B