Imperialist Powers Clash over Ukraine

2018: Members of the US military assigned to the the Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine, the “name given to the mission of training, equipping, training center development and doctrinal assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces”. (US Army) Photo by DoD

by Elisabeth Wichser

This article went to print in the March edition of our paper “Socialism Today” right as events kicked off in Ukraine. Read our statement against the war hereSubscribe to the paper to receive each issue in print and read the articles before they’re published online!

The U.S. corporate media is ringing alarm bells, predicting a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some have gone so far as to say WWIII will break out. While pointing fingers at Russia, the U.S. media fails to mention how the U.S. helped overthrow Ukraine’s former president in 2014, ushering in a new far-right government that is friendlier to U.S. and EU interests. 

The former pro-Russia Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. A coup ousted him and installed a pro-EU, pro-NATO government. This coup also triggered an ethnically motivated civil war, still being fought in Eastern Ukraine between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. In response to the new government, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea — an area of economic importance for Ukraine — as well as a number of Russian-majority enclaves. 14,000 people have died in this war since 2014. Compared to the U.S. and China, Russia is a smaller regional imperialist power. Nonetheless, Russia’s interests mirror the U.S.’s: to maintain or gain control over important regions rich in natural resources, trade routes, consumer markets, and cheap labor. 

U.S. officials talk about “protecting democracy” in Ukraine, just like their justification to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, yet they helped a right-wing, authoritarian government take power. The Azov Battalion is a worrying example of how friendly the Ukrainian government is to neo-Nazis. The Azov Battalion is a branch of the Ukrainian National Guard; it consists of about 3,000 highly-trained fascists who have been accused of committing war crimes along the Ukraine-Russia border. The Ukrainian government has also tried to rehabilitate the image of Nazi collaborators during WWII, including erecting statues and renaming streets.

Re-balancing Imperialist Powers

Though the U.S. is still an imperialist power, in recent decades U.S. imperialism has declined. This has left a power vacuum that other countries, namely China, attempt to fill. For example, the U.S.’s share of global GDP has decreased from 40% in 1960 to just 16% in 2020. China’s share of global GDP has risen from 8% in 2011 to 18% in 2020. 

China’s Belt and Road initiative, which provides predatory loans for neo-colonial countries to improve infrastructure, is one example of China filling the vacuum left by U.S. imperialism’s decline. Inter-imperialist competition creates dangerous instability in the world, resulting in regional proxy wars that receive support from international powers. Examples of this would be conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, and now Ukraine. 

The global imperialist capitalist system drives down workers’ wages and strengthens multinational corporations (some of which have profits higher than the GDP of some countries). Imperialism fueled the world wars, proxy wars, and a global race-to-the-bottom for wages and working conditions. Imperialism increases capitalist profits by enforcing control of the lowest production costs and the lowest priced materials, no matter where in the world they are. Governments use soft power (diplomacy, trade, sanctions) as well as hard power (invasions and military operations) to maintain exploitative economic relationships with other countries. 

NATO is one such hard power, a military and economic alliance of western capitalist countries that fights for control over key regions, formed after WWII to counter the Soviet Union. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO aims to prevent Russian capitalism from challenging Western capitalism. Ukraine, which has been a Russian ally since both emerged from the collapse of the USSR, is looking to join NATO, which would mean that a majority of countries on Russia’s eastern border would be in NATO. In response, Russia sent 150,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. The situation has escalated with Russia recognizing the separatist states of Donetsk and Luhansk and sending troops there to support pro-Russia forces. Biden has responded with sanctions and a promise to send more military aid. Biden has already sent 2,000 soldiers to Poland and Germany and has around 8,500 on standby in case the situation escalates further.Ukraine has geopolitical importance for NATO and for Russia, particularly because it holds a number of important natural gas pipelines that transport natural gas from Russia to Europe. Ukraine is also a source of cheap labor.

Socialist Fightback Against Imperialism

U.S. response to events in Ukraine shows that actual foreign policy has remained broadly the same since Biden took over from Trump. Biden has made small changes, like rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, but ultimately both Trump and Biden put forward an “America First” foreign policy that seeks to protect American capitalist interests in international markets and maintain the U.S.’s status as a global superpower. A recent shipment of military weapons from the U.S. reached Ukraine in January, consisting of $200 million worth of taxpayer-funded weapons, including Javelin missiles produced by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Biden’s newest military budget is $768 billion — that is over $30 billion more than Trump’s, three times bigger than China’s, and 10 times bigger than Russia’s. Military budgets continue to increase in the U.S. no matter which corporate party is in control, while funding for education, health care, and public housing are written off as “too expensive.” 

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year is a painful demonstration to the working class, inside and outside of the country, that no peace or stability can be imposed on regions by capitalist powers. The military-industrial complex (along with a desire for oil profits) fueled invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. spent $14 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and up to half of that money went to private contractors (Brown University Cost of War). The Biden administration talked of resettling Afghan refugees following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, yet simultaneously continued and even increased Trump’s deportations of immigrants within the U.S. 

There is no solution for questions of lasting peace, stability, sovereignty, or democracy from capitalist governments and militaries. As socialists and internationalists, we do not support the imperialist wars of any capitalist country. Only the struggles of working people around the world, and solidarity between them, can build an alternative to the exploitative, unstable, and violent capitalist system. 

The Independent Socialist Group demands: 

  • No to war in Ukraine. Oppose U.S., NATO and Russian military escalation in and around Ukraine. 
  • Stop U.S. military, financial, and political aid to repressive and authoritarian governments around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Myanmar.
  • Oppose the creation and support of military coups against democratically elected leaders.
  • End U.S. sanctions and embargoes against foreign countries. Such sanctions hurt working people internationally and do nothing to end oppression.
  • Cut the bloated U.S. military budget and reinvest the money in social programs. Rank-and-file military personnel guaranteed a Just Transition during job reductions with guaranteed full pay, benefits, free re-training, and new living-wage jobs.