For all the narrative — parroted by neoliberal internationalists and their neocon brothers in arms — that Ukraine is destined to fight till final victory, some basic questions have remained without compelling answers. What would winning actually look like? Which comparative advantages would enable Ukraine to triumph militarily over its larger and more powerful Russian neighbor? If the Kremlin loudly claims that Ukraine aligning with NATO is an intolerable threat to its national security, is such a proposal really an effective way of stopping Russian aggression?
Though it seems clear that Ukraine isn’t going to score an easy victory, hawks are still hoping to escalate the conflict. Bemoaning how the United States and NATO are not doing enough to help Kyiv win, they reason that if only the “allies” provide ever more sophisticated weaponry — tanks, fighter jets, long-range missiles, etc. — then Ukraine and, by implication, the West will emerge victorious.
Yet if the grinding war has brought the world closer to nuclear conflagration, calls for Washington to pressure Kyiv into making a deal with Russia (including by trading “land for peace”) have offered no realistic way of ending the deadlock. As one former US NATO ambassador has highlighted, such an outcome is simply unpalatable to the Ukrainian government:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has given no indication that he is prepared to give up his imperial dream of controlling Ukraine. And it would be just as difficult to convince the Ukrainian government to cede territories to a brutal occupying force in return for an uncertain peace. Given the strong incentives on both sides to continue fighting, a third outcome is much more likely: a prolonged, grinding war that gradually becomes frozen along a line of control that neither side accepts.
Confounding simplistic, one-dimensional interpretations, these dynamics underline the war’s irreducibility to Manichean dualisms — of good triumphing over evil, of the liberal West facing down autocratic Russia, or of the latter’s allegedly anti-imperialist struggle contra American hegemony. The many complex dimensions of this war also highlight the limitations of currently prevalent left-wing interpretations, whether framed in terms of national liberation or interimperial rivalry.
But there surely are wider stakes in play. In an era of multidimensional crisis marked by the waning of the “unipolar moment” of US hegemony, fractures in the neoliberal policy regime underpinning capitalist globalization, and heightened geopolitical tensions with second-tier powers, the US state is waging a dual offensive in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions to reconstitute the foundations of its informal empire. Washington is not advancing “decolonization,” and neither is it directly driving the Ukraine crisis. Rather, in eschewing open confrontation with the Kremlin, it is indirectly guiding Ukraine’s war of self-defense toward a long stalemate that can weaken Russia, overcome contradictions within the Western imperialist bloc, and enable greater flexibility in its efforts to “contain” China.
A vocal segment of the North American and European left foregrounds Russian imperialism as the key problem underlying the war in Ukraine. In this interpretation, Putin is waging a reactionary war of conquest against which Ukrainians are mounting a progressive war of “national liberation” and “decolonization.” These designations reflect Ukraine’s position as an “oppressed nation” looking to finally achieve self-determination vis-à-vis a historically aggressive imperialist power. In this vein, Dan La Botz writes that Russia is “seeking to eliminate Ukraine as an independent state and even to erase the Ukrainians as a people. The roots of this Russian aggression are to be found in the Tsarist and more particularly in the Soviet regime, imperial ambitions now embodied in Putin and his regime.” Since US and NATO support are a necessary evil for Ukraine to defeat Russian imperial ambitions, advancing national self-determination means supporting — or at least not opposing — Western arms shipments.
By centering the reactionary imperialist practices of the Russian state while unambiguously opposing Putin’s invasion and any reincorporation of Ukraine within the Kremlin’s “sphere of influence,” the great merit of this perspective is to clearly locate the war’s origin within specific regional dynamics, expressing an unequal confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.
These dynamics, it should be added, are not well explained by sweeping generalizations about these two countries’ history across the ages. The argument about the essential continuity of Russian imperial power implies that if Ukraine is to be free, then it will ultimately require the breakup of the Russian Federation — i.e., finishing the job begun with the collapse of imperial Russia in 1917 but left incomplete after the demise of the USSR. Such an essentialist representation elides crucial socioeconomic and geopolitical-military differences between Tsarist absolutism, Soviet “state socialism,” and the greatly truncated capitalist Russia of today.
Moreover, the depiction of a homogeneous “oppressed nation” forecloses any adequate understanding of class divisions and geopolitical dynamics within Ukrainian capitalism. On the one hand, it underplays the Ukrainian state and capital’s growing integration with and dependence on the West. The United States and NATO certainly haven’t invaded Ukraine, Russian forces pose an immediate and deadly threat, and Russia and the United States are not directly at war. Yet the post-Maidan government in Kyiv is evidently resisting Russian imperialism by joining American empire and US-led global capitalism.
On the other hand, this representation legitimizes Ukraine’s dominant nation-building projects by overlooking the class divisions central to understanding contemporary ideologies of national self-determination. As Volodymyr Ishchenko outlines, “decolonization” in contemporary Ukraine primarily refers to the creation of a “de-Russified” state cleansed of linkages to the metropole’s language, literature, and culture. Cast in these terms, “national liberation” becomes a variant of identity politics positing an essential Ukrainian identity not only against Putin’s “single people” narrative but all things Russian or Soviet. By essentializing internally diverse identities and privileging middle-class Ukrainian “voices,” this discourse tends to bypass crucial political distinctions between Russians who are pro- or anti-Putin and the war while denouncing subaltern Ukrainian perspectives as pro-Russian, irrespective of their content.
Furthermore, Olena Lyubchenko has shown how the growing equation of “Ukrainianness” with “Europeanness” is tied to racialized and gendered dynamics of capitalist state formation. She writes that “Ukraine’s sovereignty and self-determination are increasingly understood by local elites to be bound up with incorporation into ‘fortress Europe’ and the making of the ‘Ukrainian nation’ as ‘white’ and ‘European.’” This Eurocentric ideology both elevates presumed norms of European identity (while punishing deviations from those norms) and separates the concept of self-determination from its historic bases in internationalism, anti-fascism, and anti-colonialism.
This surely presents a quite different picture from the anti-colonial movements of the twentieth century. Socialist interest in advancing decolonization — whether political revolutions fostering independence from formal imperial control or more thoroughgoing transformations — has long focused precisely on the link between national and social liberation. As Richard Saull explains with respect to the Cold War, revolutions in the periphery of world capitalism
emerged from conflicts involving the mobilization of different social classes whereby subaltern social classes — the poorer peasantry, the proletariat, elements of the petit bourgeoisie and radical intelligentsia united by a communist and/or radical-nationalist ideology — confronted traditional ruling classes — landlords and the bourgeoisie (local and metropolitan), aided by the capitalist great powers.
In each case, an “uneasy relationship” between precapitalist and capitalist structures and relations within these states — entailing sometimes significant external political interference in their domestic affairs — birthed revolutionary movements committed to “a project of national independence and sovereignty based on the expulsion of the foreign and imperial political and economic presence.” Insofar as this presence was reproduced through social relations of production and exchange as well as via geopolitical-military connections between the local state and metropolitan capitalist powers, “political independence could only come through degrees of social revolution.”
Amid the crisis of postwar capitalism in the 1970s, prolonged strikes, a radicalized social democratic agenda, and anti-imperialist opposition to the Vietnam War in the core capitalist countries coalesced with national liberation movements in the Global South pursuing state-led import-substitution industrialization policies and mandatory regulation of foreign and domestic firms. By threatening to prevent a recovery of profitability and shift the balance of class forces against capital, this valorization of the centrality of state intervention in organizing social life posed a clear and direct challenge to the dominant imperialist logic of managing North-South relations.
Conversely, far from challenging the material bases of capitalism and imperialism, the dynamics of post-Soviet Ukraine’s “deficient” Maidan revolutions have remained closely tied to domestic neoliberal restructuring, Western integration, and national identity politics. As Ishchenko highlights in his “Ukrainian Voices” essay, “Today, ‘decolonization’ is proposed for Ukraine and Russia in a context in which neoliberalism has taken the place of state-developmentalist policies and post-structuralist ‘postcolonial studies’ have displaced theories of neo-imperialist dependency.”
Far from consolidating free markets and democracy, the transition from Soviet “state socialism” to “political capitalism” after 1991 brought a hegemonic crisis of political representation in the post-Soviet countries. With the USSR’s Russian plurality now transformed into large minorities within post-Soviet states, Ukraine’s politically, economically, and linguistically divided ruling class became split between its more Russian-leaning industrialized eastern regions and a more agrarian and conservative western Ukraine looking to the United States, the European Union, and NATO. Within the terms of this regionalized class division, a neoliberal nationalist bloc aligning Western states and multinational capital with the western Ukrainian middle classes (represented by an NGOized civil society backed by financial dependency on the IMF and armored by NATO) and far-right fractions struggled against Ukrainian political capitalists instrumentalizing anti-Russian nationalism but ultimately dependent on Russian support to consolidate power.
Insofar as the former bloc’s neoliberal modernization project (of joining “proper capitalism” and the “civilized world”) presupposed political capitalists’ liquidation as a dominant class fraction, garnering competitive advantage mainly through state patronage, this intractable conflict produced a vicious cycle of authoritarian consolidation and Maidan revolutions that has only deepened the post-Soviet crisis of hegemony and laid the basis for its growing militarization.
As the last of Ukraine’s three “deficient” revolutions (fostering revolutionary legitimacy against authoritarian consolidation but hijacked “from above” by elements of the old post-Soviet ruling class), the 2014 Euromaidan uprising and its aftermath has seen the growing exploitation of national identity politics to paper over its dual failure to consolidate liberal democracy or achieve lasting social transformation.
Indeed, having drastically weakened state intervention; overseen privatization and growing inequality; privileged Western multinationals over “corrupt” domestic capitalists; and eschewed military neutrality by repositioning Ukraine as a western bulwark against Russia, the post-Euromaidan state is now using the wartime state of emergency and prospects for postwar reconstruction (e.g., the Ukraine Recovery Conference) to further advance unpopular neoliberal reforms to domestic land and labor markets.
The counterpart of these regressive socioeconomic developments has been the further radicalization of national identity politics under wartime conditions, while the civil conflict has continued under the guise of punishing Russian “collaborators” and through the neocolonial overtones of Zelensky’s aim to reconquer Donbas and achieve the full “Ukrainianization” of Crimea.
At the heart of the dominant Ukrainian nation-building projects is a logic which mobilizes national identity politics to legitimate and reproduce fundamental social inequalities within capitalism. Working-class Ukrainians today are thus confronted also with a class war instigated by their own bourgeoisie. Rather than accept that this is indeed the meaning of “decolonization,” the working-class, trade union, and socialist movement needs to challenge the deficient logic of these projects.
While acknowledging Russian aggression, another part of the Left has emphasized Western imperialism as the explanation of the war. On this reading, NATO’s eastward expansion and Western soft power in Ukraine (via support for neoliberal NGOs, Euromaidan, and the post-Maidan government) are interpreted as having encircled Russia, encroached on its “near-abroad,” and undermined its Eurasian influence. This Western offensive provoked a “defensive” response by Russia, which acted to secure its Sevastopol Naval Base, preclude Ukrainian NATO membership, and destabilize the post-Maidan government by annexing Crimea and aiding Donbas separatists.
Having foregrounded the West’s role in the Ukraine crisis, this narrative usefully highlights the offensive nature of NATO expansion and the post-Maidan government’s status as a US client state increasingly integrated with and dependent on the West at Russia’s expense. However, by representing the Western imperialist bloc as a unitary actor supporting NATO expansion and Ukrainian Euro-Atlantic integration from the outset, the Euromaidan revolution as a purposeful Western-led coup, and radical nationalists and fascists’ leading role in the uprising as evidence of a homology between NATO and Nazism, its overly top-down, outside-in, and geopoliticized conception of power relations nonetheless tends to produce a distorted picture of events.
Rather than causing the Ukraine crisis, the American state has adapted to unfolding regional dynamics by marshaling the growing chasm between Russia and Ukraine to advance its own long-term project of maintaining global hegemony. In this respect, while Euromaidan undoubtedly enabled Washington to cultivate a loyal government in Kyiv, its failure to transform the country’s political system also generated clashes between Western governments and Ukrainian oligarchs over corruption while nationalist radicalization trends threatened to derail Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
Furthermore, centering great-power rivalry between the United States and Russia in broadly realist terms glosses over contradictions within the Western imperialist bloc surrounding Ukraine (particularly between the US and Franco-German axis), the relationship of states and international organizations to the reproduction of class forces and capital accumulation, and the overtly neo-imperialist dimensions of Russia’s invasion (as opposed to its “defensive” qualities vis-à-vis NATO). The result is an alarming tendency to justify Putin’s counterrevolutionary aggression — or worse, depict the Kremlin as leading an anti-imperialist charge against American hegemony.
Behind Russia’s realist rhetoric of “national survival” lies a reactionary backlash against neoliberal globalization and NATO expansion, as part of which a rapacious sub-imperialist power is seeking to secure the long-term interests of its oligarchic capitalist class by consolidating authoritarianism at home, repressing multiple uprisings in its periphery (in Ukraine but also Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus), and asserting monopoly control over annexed territory. By settling for the ideology of the “national interest,” left-wing efforts to highlight the constraints imposed on political action by an international-states system dominated by the major capitalist powers and their spheres of influence inadvertently end up naturalizing and depoliticizing that same system.
And if the Ukraine war is not well understood in realist terms, neither does it herald the return of “interimperial rivalry” in the classical Marxist vein. In their remarkable account of the making of global capitalism, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin demonstrate that the US state used its hegemonic position after World War II to widen and deepen capitalist social relations by constructing a global capitalist order premised on informal empire rather than formal colonization and territorial expansionism. Crucially, this project of extending capitalism’s formal differentiation of economic and political spheres beyond national borders was anchored in the restructuring of the Western European and Japanese ruling classes by the US state and multinational capital (through foreign direct investment, new bilateral linkages, the Bretton Woods system, NATO, European integration, etc.) — a restructuring in fact invited by leading social forces within those states.
Instead of being derailed by the crisis of the 1970s, this US-led order was reconstructed on a new neoliberal, as opposed to Keynesian, basis. And during the “long 1990s” (1992–2007), American unipolar dominance underpinned capitalist globalization’s further deepening into Eastern Europe while the ruling classes of newly industrializing states (China, India, Brazil, etc.) integrated their economies within global capitalism instead of delinking from it, and NATO’s status as a regional alliance enshrining US commitment to European “security” was increasingly subordinated to its global role as a vector of American hegemony.
Since the 2007–8 global financial crash, what has unfolded is a multidimensional crisis of neoliberal globalization, encompassing numerous morbid symptoms that span the economy, politics, and ecology. Further aggravated by Donald Trump, Brexit, and geopolitical tensions with Russia and China, this crisis has made it increasingly difficult for the American state to sustain its unipolar dominance, the neoliberal regime of international “free trade” and capital mobility it enabled, and its associated confinement of imperialist geopolitics to advanced capitalist states policing marginalized states in the Global South (as exemplified by the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous post-9/11 “special operations” in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Yet, while the current regional conflicts in Ukraine and the South China Sea go beyond what was conceivable at the peak of the unipolar moment, they still fall well short of the Leninist thesis on the primacy of geopolitical competition between developed capitalist states vying to replace each other as the global hegemon. As Ray Kiely outlines, the pattern of rivalries rooted in uneven European industrialization and colonization — ultimately paving the way for two world wars — was above all marked by
a European imperialism based on protectionism at home and monopoly trading practices abroad, which coincided with a more established and developed capitalist imperialism, as practised by Britain from the mid-nineteenth century. The former was a reaction to the latter, an attempt — indeed, one that was successful — to resist the dominance of Britain.
Rather than signaling the return of global rivalries for hegemony, the dynamics of the Ukraine war instead spring from specific regional determinants related to Ukraine’s status as a geographically and geostrategically significant yet vulnerable and divided post-Soviet state prone to intrusion by foreign powers, often at the invitation of local forces.
After pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to sign the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement sparked the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, the new government’s revocation of linguistic protections for Russian speakers ignited an armed civil conflict with Donbas rebels that quickly internationalized into a geopolitical tug-of-war between the US and Russia. While president Petro Poroshenko’s governing “neoliberal-nationalist” bloc was united by antipathy toward Russia and the ideology of Euromaidan as a democratic revolution supposedly mobilizing all Ukrainians against authoritarianism, the eastern majority initially favored greater regional autonomy within a more federalized Ukraine that would remain open to integration with Russia through projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union.
Following Russia’s relatively bloodless annexation of majority Russian-speaking Crimea in 2014, Putin declined to annex the Donbas “people’s republics” and instead pressed their representatives to sign the Minsk accords (which, if implemented, would have seen Ukraine adopt a confederal constitution). The post-Maidan government, in turn, became more dependent on the US, which sanctioned Russia, tacitly supported Ukrainian nationalist and far-right opposition to Minsk (cast as “capitulation”), armed and trained Kyiv forces, and strengthened Ukraine’s “partnership” with the US military and NATO.
This armed stalemate between local forces inviting Russian and US interventions ultimately paved the way for what Susan Watkins describes as an ambiguously oscillating double war waged by Putin against Ukraine and NATO. One part “defensive gamble against the advance of US military power,” another part “neo-imperialist war of conquest or partition,” this “decisive escalation” reflected both NATO’s status as a US-led offensive military alliance targeting Russia and the political restoration of Greater Russia nationalism that its post–Cold War expansion helped to enable. Facing no direct military threat from Moscow, Washington’s refusal to negotiate “helped to tip Russia’s defensive posture against NATO into an aggressive neo-imperialist one towards Ukraine.”
Despite comparisons between Putin and Adolf Hitler having become de rigueur in Western propaganda, Sam Gindin further underscores Moscow’s weakness relative to the US and NATO. Seeking recognition as a regional great power competing with the United States and EU in a “multipolar” world order, yet unable to challenge the overall structure of US-led global capitalism, Putin’s invasion ultimately signals Russia’s capacity to act independently of Washington, not its goal to replace the United States as the dominant imperial power.
Even in the case of China, Xi Jinping’s tepid support for Putin’s war shows the implications of Beijing’s continuing unprecedented integration within global capitalism. Indeed, despite signs of enhanced cooperation at the recent Xi-Putin summit, the stark contrast of China’s rapid industrialization and dependence on the US market with post-Soviet Russia’s partial deindustrialization and dependence on energy exports signals structural limits to their alignment beyond both being postcommunist states with a fractious relationship to the West. Lacking either the interest or capacity to fundamentally challenge the centrality of the US dollar in international finance, the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in global economic management, or the US military and NATO in world geopolitics, the Chinese state’s demands will likely remain limited to calling for the United States to behave as a more responsible hegemon and recognize what Gindin describes as Beijing’s claim to “raising its status within the hierarchy of capitalist states.”
Whereas Russian intervention in Donbas prior to 2022 outstripped the contemporary Western aid to Kyiv, Putin’s subsequent invasion triggered a US-led mobilization of such remarkable scale and scope as to have been virtually inconceivable to those predicting the end of American hegemony. Despite its waning unipolar dominance, the American state has seized the opportunity afforded by the war to reassert its global preeminence and preclude the emergence of a future imperialist rival via a two-pronged strategy in Europe and Asia.
On the one hand, this process of imperial reconstitution has capitalized on the Russo-Ukrainian hot war to reassert US hegemony in Europe. By eschewing direct confrontation with Moscow in favor of indirectly calibrating the supply of weapons and resources to steer Kyiv’s war of self-defense toward a long stalemate, Washington firstly aims to “weaken Russia” through a strategy of active balancing. A classically Anglo-liberal foreign policy mobilizing the West’s superior economic, financial, and technical capabilities and control to chip away at Russia’s political economy over the long term, this strategy aims to prop up Kyiv enough to avoid a Minsk-style “capitulationist” settlement (as represented by the Xi-Putin summit) but not so much as to drag NATO into a direct war with Moscow. Insofar as this steering mechanism requires war rather than peace in the region, the US has acted to exacerbate escalatory regional dynamics by trumpeting the unlikely possibility of a Ukrainian victory at every turn while reinforcing existing incentive structures favoring continued fighting over negotiations (notably at the Istanbul peace talks).
Whatever the conjunctural reasons behind the timing of Putin’s invasion and its inadequate force of 190,000 troops (too small to conquer a country of forty million inhabitants with Europe’s second-biggest landmass), Kyiv’s initial success in repelling the Russian assault on central Ukraine has not cohered into a long-term battlefield advantage. The Russian army has laid waste to critical infrastructure and productive resources undergirding Ukraine’s military capability, while Russia’s strong troop numbers, booming trade surplus (resulting from commodity price inflation), and continued capacity to resupply its military (partially stemming from the limitations of Western sanctions in curtailing the country’s arms industry and efforts at import substitution since 2014) all point to what Watkins calls “deep resources for a war of attrition.”
While the conflict may eventually take a high toll in Russia (with potentially destabilizing consequences for Putin’s government), its more immediate consequence has been to advance Ukraine’s integration within US-led global capitalism. On the one hand, Kyiv’s reliance on US military aid, resources, and command structures for conducting complex battlefield operations has subordinated its war effort to the Pentagon’s bearish assessments about the possibilities for successful counteroffensives.
The flipside of this growing penetration by NATO (irrespective of Ukraine’s formal military alignment) has been heightened financial dependence on US-led structures of global economic management. Notably, Ukraine’s debts to Western creditors have constrained its ability to orchestrate a state-led, centrally planned war economy — potentially paving the way for a postwar profits bonanza as the IMF, World Bank, and European Investment Bank use paying down the debt as a lever to privatize whatever remains of its economy in the interests of US- and EU-based multinationals.
Beyond weakening Russia and strengthening Kyiv’s Western realignment, the American state has moved to transcend structured divisions within the Western camp that threatened to disrupt its grand strategy. Crucially, the imperative to subsidize Ukraine has afforded Washington what Wolfgang Streeck describes as “a convenient way to shore up the unconditional allegiance of European countries to NATO, an alliance that had become shaky in recent years.”
With France and Germany more dependent on Russian energy, more exposed to the consequences of a European land war, and at least nominally attempting to assert some limited independence from the United States by avoiding escalation with Russia, reasons for this “shakiness” have included
- the four successive Angela Merkel governments’ unwillingness or inability to comply, despite American pressure, with NATO’s 2 percent military spending goal (adopted at the 2006 Riga summit);
- the failed Merkel–Nicolas Sarkozy effort to block the US from formally inviting Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO after the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit (following the “rose” and “orange” revolutions of 2003 and 2004 in those countries);
- the bypassing of Ukraine (and Poland) by the planned Nord Stream pipelines transporting Russian gas to Germany and Western Europe (which Washington interpreted as a barrier to increasing its liquid natural gas exports and as providing Moscow with a strategic weapon to divide NATO); and
- the bypassing of the United States by the Minsk accords between Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine (negotiated by, among others, Germany’s then foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier).
Reassertion of US imperial leadership in these areas has been as rapid as it has been dramatic. After February 24, 2022, German chancellor Olaf Scholz quickly proclaimed Russia’s invasion a Zeitenwende — changing of the times — that would require Germany to shelve Nord Stream, fulfill its NATO target while leaving open the possibility of Ukrainian membership, and bypass negotiations in favor of arming Kyiv against Moscow. This renewed subservience is underlined by the meetings of defense ministers from forty countries in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which tellingly take place at the American airbase in Ramstein — formally under US sovereignty — rather than NATO’s nominally multinational headquarters in Brussels.
American hegemony has been further facilitated by Central and Eastern European states’ growing geopolitical significance in pressuring France and Germany on behalf of what Streeck terms “the anti-Russian-cum-pro-American wing inside the EU, today led by Poland” (leading him to conclude that “the war in Ukraine has shifted Europe’s center of gravity both to the East and, with it, to the West, toward the United States”). Furthermore, two Nordic countries where there was previously no majority in favor of NATO membership — Finland and Sweden — have moved to join, thus strengthening the alliance’s position along the Russian border and in the Baltic Sea.
By reducing the EU to “a geo-economic utility for NATO, aka the United States” — and smuggling its post-Brexit UK henchman back into Europe — this resurgent Atlanticist unity has led European governments to downplay the bloody mayhem unleashed by recent US-led “special operations” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, the unprecedented arms buildup occasioned by the “war on terror,” and Washington’s unilateral termination of remaining arms control agreements with the USSR and Russia. Europe’s political mainstream has likewise converged around Washington’s view that European leaders enabled the invasion by trading with Russia and appeasing Putin — the only cure for which is apparently to both reject Russia and provide arms to Ukraine tout court. As Ishchenko highlights in his “Ukrainian Voices” essay, representations of Ukrainians as “fighting and dying for what too many Westerners do not believe anymore” are routinely exploited to shore up fraying internal legitimacy in the face of multiple crises.
Having ruled out any possible synergy with Russia’s “defensive” strategy vis-à-vis NATO expansion, this Atlanticist revival has also dashed any lingering hopes about the vision of strategic autonomy articulated most clearly by French governments but favored more broadly by sections of the European ruling classes in the wake of the 2008 crash, Trump, Brexit, etc. Indeed, with no meaningful prospect of decoupling from American structural power, Europe’s unenviable tasks now include devising sanctions against Russia regardless of the threat of blowback and fashioning a common energy policy despite uneven levels of dependence on Russian energy among EU member states.
Despite their endless rhetoric about transitioning to “sustainable capitalism,” European states have mainly substituted dependence on US natural gas for their prior dependence on Russian fossil fuels. On the other hand, weapons sales under the guise of “aid for Ukraine” have proved a big business for Lockheed Martin and other American arms manufacturers (with their European counterparts also queuing up for a share of rising military expenditure — especially in Germany).
Alongside using Putin’s invasion to resubordinate European regional security to American global hegemony, the US has also exploited the military stalemate occasioned by its shoring up of Kyiv to enable greater flexibility in its efforts to contain China. Notably, as regional geopolitical tensions breathe new life into the “pivot to Asia” begun under Barck Obama’s administration, Washington is seeking to align its Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific strategies by rallying “like-minded partners,” including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, to a new cold war against Beijing (as reflected in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept).
While Japan has followed Germany’s example by nearly doubling its military budget over five years (to become the world’s third-largest) and purchasing four hundred US-made Tomahawk cruise missiles (able to reach mainland China), Australia is looking to purchase and develop nuclear-powered submarines through its AUKUS trilateral security partnership with the United States and Britain (which includes rotational deployment of US nuclear submarines to train naval crews and is unsurprisingly interpreted as a provocation by China).
Furthermore, the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command — which currently has 375,000 troops and civilians at its disposal — has moved to repossess the Philippines by expanding its access to military bases alongside diversifying its air force away from large, centralized bases and carrying out joint military exercises in the Philippine Sea. These exercises are justified in terms of making Beijing think twice about attacking Taiwan, which US officials in turn seek to refashion as an armored bulwark against Chinese “expansionism.”
Ukraine and the Left
Rather than a national liberation war between oppressed and oppressor nations or an interimperial rivalry among advanced capitalist states, the origins of the war in Ukraine lie with specific regional and class dynamics stemming from the disintegration of the USSR and the birth of a series of nonhomogeneous capitalist states with large Russian-speaking minorities. As the multidimensional crisis facing US-led global capitalism after 2008 assumed sharper and more tragic forms in the post-Soviet region, the growing militarization and internationalization of social conflict in Ukraine ultimately paved the way for a Russian invasion. Its attack prompted a Ukrainian self-defense that is now being channeled away from a negotiated settlement as part of the American state’s wider strategy to reconstitute global hegemony in the face of real if limited challenges to its unipolar dominance.
Yet a grinding war of attrition led by oligarchic-dominated capitalist fractions linked to far-right forces and outside imperial powers is the worst imaginable way of addressing this crisis rooted in unstable post-Soviet dynamics. If the socialist left is to advance its political project in the current conjuncture, then its starting point must be building a strong, independent, and nonaligned antiwar movement capable of cohering mass support for democracy, diplomacy, and disarmament against further escalations by either camp.
While supporting Ukrainian self-defense as a condition for meaningful negotiations to end the war, this movement must critically oppose the ideology of a “national liberation war” touted by anti-Russian strains of Ukrainian and Western identity politics. Instead, it should champion an alternative vision of decolonization rooted in independent working-class and socialist politics — one that centers inclusive socioeconomic and political demands (rather than exclusionary cultural grievances), values Ukrainians for more than fighting a war against Russia, and reckons with the country’s state socialist past as something more than an external colonial imposition.
On the other hand, it needs to grapple with the continued dominance and integrative capacity of the American state and capital. Alongside contesting the negative effects of sanctions and military spending on living standards and the climate emergency, this means opposing the immense destructive primacy of the United States and NATO in stoking imperialist violence around the world through weapons sales, nuclear proliferation, and both direct and indirect armed interventions. Whereas Washington’s strategy to reconstitute its informal empire hinges on war rather than peace, the antiwar movement must show that the interests of Ukrainian (and Russian) workers are best served by de-escalating hostilities and negotiations to address crises rooted in the USSR’s disintegration.
If the Left fails to reconstitute this fighting antiwar movement in opposition to the ultramilitarized reconstitution of the US empire, then it risks being reduced to an appendage of NATO while Ukraine is destroyed. By running with the ideological grain of US-led imperial power, such reductionist positions exalting Kyiv’s “liberation war” at the expense of other crucial axes of the conflict reinforce, rather than challenge, its overall escalatory dynamic while aping warmongering neoliberal and neoconservative positions within their own ruling classes, disguising Kyiv’s growing dependence on American power, and mystifying the role of Western foreign policy in buttressing far-right, authoritarian, and dictatorial regimes (including in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel).
Although the future is not yet entirely lost, the damage done at this point is severe. And with it, the door has again been left open for the far right to emerge as the dominant political force challenging the death and destruction rained down by the main institutions of global capitalism.