The first anniversary of the start of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine is now upon us. The Putin regime’s adventure, which was conceived as a quick operation that would lead to a big political prize at the end, turned into a protracted, exhausting war that could end up calling into question the continued existence of the regime.
The war has become a turning point in modern Russian history, its deeply divided society, and all contending political forces. But it is not enough to merely describe the looming catastrophe that the war has created. It is also necessary to understand the causes of the war, its roots in the world crisis, and Russia’s internal economic and political crises, as well as to analyse the direction Russia is moving in.
“Neither to cry, nor to laugh, but to understand.” This should be our approach in analysing the origins of the conflict.
Our starting point must be the position of Russia, taken in the global context of modern capitalism and the imperialist division of the world. On this point, the question of whether the Russian Federation ought to be considered an imperialist power continues to excite debate. We cannot go into this question in detail here, but we draw readers’ attention to other material published by the IMT. Here, we will limit ourselves to acquainting the reader with the main conclusion of this analysis:
“These facts can only lead one to the conclusion that Russia today is an imperialist state, although it is more similar to the old Tsarist-style imperialism than either contemporary China or the USA. Russia’s participation in the capitalist world economy is limited, mainly confined to the trade in oil and gas. But it is intervening actively outside its borders, both militarily and diplomatically, and it is constantly coming into conflict with America, which at times threatens to turn into a direct military confrontation.” (‘Imperialism Today: The Character of Russia and China. International Marxist Tendency’, London 9 June 2016)
In its economic structure, Russia is certainly unlike other ‘typical’ imperialist countries, which have much more highly developed economic means for pursuing a policy of ‘neo-colonial’ domination and for fighting for markets. It does not export capital on anything like the scale of other imperialist nations. Yet its economy is dominated by powerful, domestic monopolies.
The foundations of the Russian economy are comprised of a certain amount of heavy industry that was largely inherited from the USSR; the service sector; the export of raw materials; the chemical industry, and a large military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, the country imports its machinery, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, plastics, semi-finished metal products, meat, fruits, optical and medical instruments, iron, steel, etc.
Russia’s powerful military-industrial complex – which is an important legacy from the USSR – is one of the key factors that allows Russia to stake a claim to being a powerful imperialist force. However, the sector of industry producing industrial machinery, interchangeable parts and components is extremely weak in Russia. In the 30-year period following the collapse of the USSR, the machine-building sector in Russia (that had collapsed in the 1990s) barely rose to 50 percent of its 1991 production level. Those sectors of the economy producing means of production have undergone complete collapse, making the Russian economy extremely dependent on external suppliers. In conditions of war and sanctions, this has opened up an opportunity for China, as the largest alternative supplier, to dictate its terms in the framework of bilateral trade.
The degree of Russia’s dependence on external suppliers of industrial components and machinery was clearly demonstrated when Renault, which had produced cars at the former AZLK plant (in the 1990s it was called Moskvich), ceased production there as a result of western sanctions. Initially, in spring last year, the mayor’s office announced that the Moskvich plant would be revived on the basis of the nationalisation of those parts of the plant where Renault cars were assembled. An example of the revival of domestic industry, perhaps? No. In practice, it turned out that the means do not exist in Russia to organise and resume production, and so Moscow city hall has been desperately attempting to strike an agreement for a licence on assembling cars and supplying components… with Chinese automakers.
Factors in the war
The peculiar position of Russian imperialism is important to note when attempting to understand the motivations of the political leadership of the Russian Federation when it decided to launch the invasion. Although today the most important inter-imperialist competition is along the United States-China line, Russian imperialism also seeks to project its power on a regional level. At the moment, it does so mainly in the territory of the former USSR and, in part, the Middle East and Africa. Where it does so, it comes into conflict with the interests of other imperialist predators.
But whilst the Ukraine war is an inter-imperialist conflict, this is not at all to say that its causes are reducible to a clash of simple economic interests.
It is furthermore impossible to understand the political and military actions of the regime if they are seen purely as the result of the will or personal ambitions of an individual ‘madman’ at the head of the regime.
It is also clear that Putin is not interested in protecting the working people of Ukraine, regardless of whether they are Russian by origin or not. On the contrary, this is a reactionary conflict between competing capitalist factions. The working class of the world has nothing to gain by supporting either side.
Instead, this war must be understood as part of an attempt by the Russian ruling class to extricate itself from the political and economic contradictions and the difficulties that the Bonapartist regime and the country at large have become mired in. Putin’s actions have political and economic reasons that are rooted in both external factors, and the deep internal problems of the regime of Russian capitalism.
Internal economic and political problems have certainly been an important factor. Preceding the war, Putin’s popularity had been tarnished by the economic crisis; and movements of the masses, like that over pensions, had menacingly threatened the regime. The unrest in Kazakhstan and Belarus, in which the Russian Federation has acted as the chief gendarme in the region, have clearly illustrated how quickly revolutionary explosions could consume the regime. A policy of “small victorious wars” has become an important tool for the self-preservation of the Russian regime, against this backdrop of ongoing political and economic instability. We’ve seen use of this playbook going back to the early 2000s. This phenomenon was discussed in an article by comrade Ivan Lokh in April 2019:
“We saw how big business called on Putin, after having found itself in complete political isolation and surrounded by embittered masses after the crisis [of the 1990s]. By shifting the attention of the masses to Chechnya, Putin stabilised the political situation, after which the fall in real wages in the presence of old production assets led to economic growth. Rising oil prices also helped. But the ‘abundance’ of the 2000s was interrupted by the global economic crisis, which also hit the Russian economy hard. […]
“From the point of view of Russian big business, which lost its assets in Ukraine in 2004, the annexation of Crimea [in 2014] was a crazy gamble that resulted in economic sanctions and stagnation. Putin probably foresaw this, [yet] with his policy he was able to kill two birds with one stone: firstly, to regain the massive support of Russians, frightened by the Maidan movement and encouraged by the Crimean referendum; and secondly, to begin the repatriation of capital to Russia in the face of sanctions that had limited access to cheap foreign capital, while establishing control over the last large, independent corporations in retail (for example, Magnit), and communications (Tele2).”
It is also important to understand the external factors that pushed the regime to take the decision to start a war.
The tensions leading to this war have been building for decades. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, western imperialism went on the offensive, drawing much of the former ‘eastern bloc’ into its sphere of influence. Gorbachev had been assured in 1990 that, upon the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO would not be expanded. Since then, NATO and the EU have expanded ever-eastward, and NATO missiles and military bases have been pushed right up to the Russian border. However, Russia’s collapse had its limits. Eventually it stabilised and was able to push back, as we saw in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014.
This policy pursued by the West against Russia following the collapse of the USSR has left a bitter feeling of resentment towards western imperialism among the Russian masses. A resentment that Putin demagogically uses for his own benefit. A decades-long policy of menacing Russia by the West, and the fact that NATO has armed Ukraine to the teeth, preceding and during the war (not to mention the direct provocation of tensions by the West in the runup to February last year), explain the prevailing mood among the majority of the Russian working class, which is not at all the same as support for the imperialist war aims of Putin’s clique. This is the main reason for the lack of an anti-war movement in Russia, something which has been reinforced by the lack of a clear, working-class political alternative. As time passes, however, the class contradictions which have momentarily been masked by the war will eventually come to the fore again.
The irreconcilable stance of the US leading up to the Ukraine War in sabotaging the Minsk 2 agreement, and in refusing to give any guarantees that Ukraine was not going to join NATO (although the Americans openly said that this would not happen), convinced Putin that there was no other choice than to pursue the military option. For its part, the Russian government has also taken note of the world situation, and has been encouraged to invade by the political and economic crisis that has wracked the United States, and that has weakened Joe Biden’s administration.
Among the elements in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, what happened in Afghanistan in 2021 was undoubtedly a very important one. So too were Biden’s early statements that he would not send US troops to Ukraine, but only arms and ammunition. Based on this (as well as upon the expectation of rather weak resistance from the Armed Forces of Ukraine), Putin decided that he could do whatever he wanted with Ukraine, in the expectation that the consequences would be limited to economic sanctions rather than military retaliation. The regime expected a ‘small victorious war’ that could be won quickly, and instead fell into a trap.
In reality, he immediately encountered fierce resistance, which was possible thanks to US military support for Ukraine. A significant factor in the complete failure of the initial plan to seize the territories of Ukraine was the fundamental mistakes of the Kremlin planners of the war. These ‘mistakes’ were by no means accidental. They reflect the rottenness of the reactionary regime at its very foundations. Its rigid, Bonapartist character means the military hierarchy is plagued by corruption and cronyism, and where obsequious mediocrities have better chances of career advancement than skilled military men.
The morale of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the vast supply of primarily foreign equipment, and most importantly, intelligence support by the US, also played key roles. Thus, Ukraine’s NATO-trained military command, to which Putin appealed in the first months of the war to carry out a military coup against Zelensky, was also far more efficient. The Kremlin’s propaganda mouthpieces, which had been preparing to make the solemn announcement of the capture of Kyiv within a week of the outbreak of hostilities, found themselves (much like the Russian government), in a very awkward position. Some even had to retroactively clean up materials prepared for release.
By failing thus to correctly assess the real correlation of forces, the Russian regime found that what it had intended to be a short military gamble with a large political prize attached, turned into a protracted, attritional war that threatened to catalyse even further instability.
The conditions of the working class in Russia
The brunt of the cost that Russia has paid for this military adventure has fallen, overwhelmingly, upon the working class.
On 21 September, against the backdrop of a disastrous Russian military retreat on several fronts in Ukraine, the government announced the start of a ‘partial mobilisation’, which it was claimed would mean the conscription of 300,000 reservists.
In practice, it resulted in the staff of military enlistment offices and the police making continuous tours of all available homes in their jurisdictions, issuing subpoenas to those men they succeeded in laying their hands on. The author of this article was personally informed that one of the residents of his district – a disabled person with amputated legs – was among those ‘lucky ones’ who received their mobilisation papers.
The war and the subsequent mobilisation have hit the working class first. From all over the country, there are reports of large groups of workers being mobilised from among the workforces of what are deemed to be manufacturing enterprises of no strategic importance. The leadership of one of the Russian trade unions (MPRA) even had to issue an appeal to the government, to strictly limit the number of workers being conscripted. The appeal was completely ignored, and indeed, mobilisation has even been used as a punitive measure against members of militant trade unions.
The economic cost of the regime’s military adventure has also fallen hardest on the poorest sections of the population: since 1 December, utility tariffs have risen nationally by nine percent ahead of schedule. This will undoubtedly hit the already rapidly impoverished and indebted working population. In a number of regions, the increase in prices for public services has amounted to 11-12 percent. Wage increases linked to the cost of living are not keeping pace even with the inflation figures forecast by the Ministry of Finance (where cost of living pay rises have been awarded, they have not amounted to more than 10 percent, whereas the inflation forecast of the Ministry of Finance was 17 percent). But even these official figures do not reflect the full picture, as a massive spread has opened up in the price rises from region to region. Whereas in some regions, basic goods have increased in price by 5 percent, in others they have increased by 200 percent!
These are some of the horrors that this war has imposed on the Russian masses. And yet, so far there has been no mass movement on the streets of Russian cities. Since the beginning of the war, anti-war demonstrations have been limited. In fact, in February and March last year, a significant section of Russian society welcomed the outbreak of the war with an explosion of jingoistic sentiments. Just as the government expected a quick and successful end to the war, so too did millions of ordinary Russians. The announcement of the mobilisation was a sobering moment for society at large. It became clear that the situation was, in fact, very bad.
There is a sense of impasse in the air. But this does not as yet signal mass opposition to the war.
In some places – like Dagestan and the Chuvash Republic – the growing casualty list, together with extremely poor conditions for providing the most basic needs of mobilised soldiers, has led to some smaller protests. So far, however, we are yet to see a corresponding anti-war movement that might bring the ruling clique to its knees. The violent suppression by the regime itself may partially explain this fact, but there are deeper reasons.
Why, against the background of such sharply changing attitudes towards the war, are we still relatively far from any large-scale anti-war uprisings? Firstly, as previously explained, there is a deep-seated hatred of western imperialism, and a well-grounded fear that the latter wishes to bleed Russia dry or even reduce it entirely to the status of a semi-colony. And connected to this, there is the question of the forces that have dominated the anti-war movement thus far, and the attitude of the majority of Russians towards these forces – i.e. the liberals, who are merely stooges of western imperialism.
The initial, spontaneous anti-war protests in February 2022, which took place primarily in the large cities, were not led by any organised political force. However, in Russia, only western-oriented liberals among the opposition possessed relatively powerful media resources, on account of their history of proximity to power in the 1990s, and the support they receive from a section of big business and the West.
So when the liberals in Russia took an anti-war position, they quickly became the leaders in the anti-war mediasphere, and so the entire anti-war movement quickly became and is still perceived by the masses as ‘liberal’. The movement itself became hostage to the reputation of the liberals among the masses. It should be said that although the pro-western liberals paint themselves as ‘anti-war’, theirs is a position of full support for the militarism of NATO and western imperialism against Putin. In fact, they are in full accord with the western media version of events, and call all Russians that disagree with them latent slaves or ‘orcs’. It is not surprising that such an ‘anti-war’ position – alongside calls for the arbitrary dismemberment of Russia and collective punishment of Russians for supporting Putin – is utterly repulsive to most working-class Russians.
For a large majority, the liberal movement is directly associated with the economic catastrophe of the 1990s, and with utter venality and elitism (over the past decade, only Alexei Navalny has, to some extent, been able to escape this association).
In the 1990s, it was under the banner and leadership of these forces, walking arm-in-arm with the IMF, World Bank and US imperialism, that the colossal humiliation and plunder of the entire expanse of the former USSR took place. These forces and their representatives were ready to unconditionally justify the most criminal and disgusting imperialist crimes of the ‘democratic western world’ (read: the United States and its allies) in relation to such countries as Yugoslavia. And today, they invite the working people of Russia to believe in the sincerity of their ‘peaceful’ intentions.
The representatives of Russian liberalism have, for decades, broadcast racist rhetoric that the Russians are a “people with a slave mentality”, whilst cashing in on the plunder and sale of the country’s wealth that they have acquired gratis, and to the creation of which they have contributed nothing. And today they invite the working people of Russia to trust in the sincerity of their ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric.
These liberals offer the peoples of today’s Russia what they call ‘decolonisation’ (not to be confused with genuine, free self-determination), whereby they redraw the boundaries of future bourgeois states according to their own opinions, without showing the slightest interest in the view of the peoples and ethnic groups living within the borders of these ‘future frontiers’.
The majority of working people in Russia (regardless of ethnicity) are well aware that, behind the talk of ‘decolonisation’, stands a desire to dismember the Russian Federation for consumption by their western imperialist masters, and for plunder by ‘one’s own’ capitalists. All the ‘democratic’ rhetoric of these gentlemen only disguises a desire to ‘continue the banquet’. Why should a people taken hostage by one group of thieves and robbers suddenly entrust themselves into the hands of another group of thieves and robbers, who differ only in their more ‘democratic’ façade? It is not necessary to be a Marxist to understand the reactionary nature of these forces.
Even those who hate the current government cannot help but spit when they look at the liberal camp, whose propaganda – other than placing collective responsibility for the war on the people of Russia as a whole – is only the mirror image of the propaganda of the Kremlin. Who wants to choose between Satan and Beelzebub?
To be repelled by these liberals, who are mere puppets of western imperialism, can only be described as a healthy reaction. Revolutionaries must understand that it is from the huge reservoir of the mass of workers, who are politically undecided or else are ‘honest defencists’ who support the war despite Putin, for all the reasons previously mentioned, that the potential for revolutionary changes in the country emanates.
Do these people see their true representatives in the Putin regime? No. But under the pressure of propaganda, feeling a clear and unambiguous rejection of western imperialism, and with no clear alternative to these two evils before them, they stand in silence. This is not cowardice, nor a ‘slave mentality’, but a reproach to all those old leftists who have demonstrated their inability to provide a proper political alternative to both Putin and the threat of enslavement by foreign imperialism.
War and the Russian left
“Since 24 February…” – This phrase has become the signpost of the deep divisions that have opened up in all the political forces in Russia over their attitude towards the war and the prospects that arise from it. The left is no exception. It has become internally divided into three main currents: the pro-liberal, the social-chauvinist, and the revolutionary.
The core of the social-chauvinist flank of the left today is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and, more precisely, its leadership. This leadership, from the very first days of the war, has manipulatively used rhetoric about the “fight against fascism”. It has taken an ultra-patriotic position – directly denying the imperialist nature of the war on the part of the Putin clique, referring to it as a “national liberation” struggle. The leadership of the same party is preparing the large-scale purge of all those members who have openly expressed an anti-war position. Party members thus have a choice before them: be expelled, or remain silent.
Walking in the footsteps of their ‘elder brother’ are a number of old Stalinist parties, as well as satellites of the KPRF – the Russian Communist Workers’ Party (RCWP), the Workers’ Party of Russia, the United Communist Party, the Left Front and others. Their position differs from the KPRF only in detail and degree of insanity and degradation. As an illustration of the latter: from the beginning of the war, the RCWP headed for a political alliance with representatives of the openly fascist National Bolshevik Party (‘Other Russia’).
The pro-liberal trend is represented by a number of political groups (mainly sects and opportunists), which, while formally opposing the war and even claiming to recognise the need for the socialist transformation of society, have actually become one with the rump of Russian liberalism. The positions they espouse in their publications differ only in detail from the propaganda of the Zelensky government and the governments of a number of NATO member states. But this trend is weakest of all and, indeed virtually invisible, as it for the most part shows little sign of activity in real struggles, prefering to write high-profile declarations from abroad, where a significant part of the already extremely small number of these groups’ activists have fled.
The deep crisis of the Russian communist movement has, as its background, the relatively calm development of the political system in previous years, and the numerous temptations this has created to “negotiate with the authorities”. Russia – which a little more than a hundred years ago was the birthplace of Bolshevism, and gave humanity the indisputable and invaluable experience of the USSR – today does not contain a single mass, left-wing organisation that would dare to directly and openly condemn Putin’s bloody adventure in Ukraine. This lack of an alternative point of attraction and an anti-war class perspective from the left, distinct from that of the rotten, pro-western liberals, is a supplementary cause of the weakness of the anti-war movement.
But in the ranks of the small, active communist and left-wing organisations, there exist quite a few people who proved ready to raise and defend the banner of proletarian internationalism. The more military orders and censorship are intensified, the starker must become the demarcation between the communist internationalists and all progressive forces, and rampant nationalism, against which we must defend our democratic, socialist and class convictions.
Finally, the revolutionary flank of the movement – built around the principle that can be described as “against the regime and the liberals; for independent class politics and for revolution” – remains small, as yet. But it is in the process of building and consolidating its forces. Important steps have been taken. Amidst this reactionary war, the genuinely revolutionary communist elements in Russian society are beginning to draw together, and are carrying out practical work in the conditions of an extremely brutal regime, bordering on general martial law. But if it can overcome these objective difficulties, then standing before it the prospect of becoming a pole of attraction, the only one with a really clean banner, once the masses overcome the paralysis and confusion caused by this conflict and enter into struggle.
Many are horrified and panicked by the coming future, but as revolutionary communists we look to the future with optimism, for in this old world, we and our class have nothing to lose but our chains. Yes, we are still a relatively small factor, but this only makes it more urgent for us to build the basis for a revolutionary party that will be able to lead the Russian proletariat, together with its class brothers and sisters all over the world, to victory!