Friday, April 22, 2022

War in the Ukraine: the socialist response, Part III

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Hospital in Mariupol destroyed by Russian missile

The enemy is nationalism  by Frank Brenner

Note: This is the third and concluding part of a series on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Link to Part I

Link to Part II

This war is a brutal demonstration of the reactionary essence of nationalism. Putin’s rationale for the invasion is ‘Eurasianism’, but this isn’t much more than a Slavophile variant of right-wing populism. Instead of Trump’s MAGA, Putin is pushing to Make Russia Great Again. Of course there are many differences in the details and in Trump and Putin’s back stories, but the political thrust is similar. Two critical factors are at play here: neoliberal capitalism mired in crisis since its 2008 heart attack, generating ever greater levels of social inequality, and a politically atomized working class. This has made for the political vacuum that right wing populism exploits with nationalism, which lets you rail against ‘elites’ and ‘globalism’ but never against global capitalism; and lets you appeal to a collective identity based on nationality or language, religion, race etc., but never based on class. Populist nationalism is designed to harness the widespread sense of grievance of the masses in order to direct it against scapegoats. Since it can’t end or even lessen class exploitation and social inequality, populist nationalism’s objective is constantly to restoke that sense of grievance. Conspiracy theories are tailor made for such a political agenda, and they thrive in the toxic atmosphere of social media. Ultimately the only way out of this deadlock (short of socialist revolution) is an eruption of murderous violence: populism turns into the annihilation of the populace, or at least of those ‘others’ set up as scapegoats: immigrants, minorities, Muslims, Jews, gays and lesbians, Roma people, socialists. Directed outwards, as for instance when ‘Make Russia Great Again’ collides with ‘Make American Great Again’, that violence manifests as war.

It is a defining feature of our times that humanity faces existential threats (the pandemic, climate catastrophe and now the renewed threat of nuclear war) that can only be overcome through global cooperation. And yet the establishment politics of every capitalist society resists that – and the more pressing the need for that cooperation, the more tenacious the resistance, even to the point of blowing up the world.

Unpack the Ukraine war, and on every side, you find imperialist and nationalist insanity. This is as true of NATO’s aggression against Russia as it is of Putin’s filthy war. It is also true of Ukraine’s own politics, which since the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 has offered nothing to Ukrainian workers and young people apart from broken promises, widespread corruption and the unbroken dominance of oligarchs, no matter which political clique is in power. In all these years the only substantive issue has been choosing which imperialist master Ukraine will submit to. No doubt many workers and middle class people have illusions in the European Union, as was the case in many eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, discriminatory policies by the post-Maidan regimes in Kiev have alienated Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country; indeed had the invasion not happened, there was a good chance the current president, Zelensky, would have lost the next election to a candidate whose base of support was from those regions, joined by a sizable number of disaffected Ukrainian speakers. Not that such a result would have achieved much more than tilting the political balance of Ukraine a bit towards Russia and away from the West, and in any case that possibility has now been foreclosed by the invasion. You get the impression of a country caught between two dead-ends, shuffling from one to the other with every election cycle. The invasion has generated fervent patriotic unity around Zelensky, but that probably won’t last very long after the trauma of the war is over.

In the West the mainstream political narrative is that this is a war of good versus evil, in Russia it’s the same with the sides reversed. Bob Dylan’s fine antiwar ballad, With God on Our Side, was written in reaction to the Vietnam War, but its message is still relevant. Each stanza covers a different American war, always with the bitterly ironic refrain that we had “God on Our Side”. Here’s the stanza on the Cold War, which sounds eerily prescient today:

I've learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

You could think of Dylan’s song as being a riff on a famous line coined by Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” The powers-that-be have never been comfortable with this bit of unvarnished truth, but it applies full force to all the major actors in the Ukraine war. Why did Putin invade? Certainly security concerns about NATO and the imperialist ambitions of Russian capitalism were primary reasons but it’s also clear that domestic political considerations played a significant role. Putin only won his last election through widespread voter fraud, and the measures his government has taken since, especially the wholesale downsizing of the public pensions system, were hugely unpopular. In light of that, it seems evident that Putin is a patriotic scoundrel looking to solidify his precarious hold on power by taking refuge in a war. But this is also true of Joe Biden. His domestic agenda is stalled in Congress, his poll numbers are way down because of inflation and there is every likelihood that his party will lose badly in this year’s mid-term elections, which in turn will leave him a lame-duck president. And so, while the geo-political interests of US imperialism were undoubtedly the key factor in shaping US policy, Biden is yet another patriotic scoundrel who finds it convenient at this time to take refuge in a war, at least by proxy. And finally there is the Ukrainian president Zelensky, also facing a likely electoral defeat. Before the final crisis that led to war, his government had become increasingly reckless and provocative in its relations with Russia, particularly with its sabotaging of the Minsk II agreements, which were supposed to defuse the bloody stand-off in the Donbass region. (Socialists in Ukraine who criticized Zelensky on this score eventually had their organizations banned and their publications suppressed.) Zelensky also threatened to abandon the Budapest Accord of 1994, which raised the prospect of Ukraine re-acquiring nuclear weapons. Zelensky may have been bluffing about this, but it was the rhetorical equivalent of playing with matches in a room full of open gasoline cans.

And that is the point. It’s not that the individual motives of these leaders are decisive on their own, it’s rather that the politics of nationalism and the economics of global capitalism have saturated the world with dangerously toxic fumes. Each leader pursues their own national and political self-interest, each sees their policies as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘realistic’ – and yet the end result is mass slaughter, cities turned to rubble and the nightmare prospect of nuclear war. It is the revolutionary socialists, for so long disparaged as hopeless utopians, who are the only true realists. To operate as a ‘pragmatist’ inside a lethal social system is to become an enabler of apocalypse.

A few words about the right of nations to self-determination. Socialists defend that as a democratic right, and those leftists who support Putin’s invasion are betraying socialist principles. But for socialists, democratic rights are not abstractions or absolutes. We are ‘class reductionists’, a term of abuse directed at Marxists by the identity politics crowd which we should proudly plead guilty to. Democratic rights can’t be defended outside the struggle against capitalism. Separate the two and you end up, to take a striking example, like Black Lives Matter, a mass protest movement against racism that was co-opted by political and corporate elites with breathtaking ease.

The Ukrainian masses will never be able to determine their own future within a capitalist Europe. Hopes for a better life through membership in the European Union are misplaced, more a matter of glitzy pop culture images and bourgeois political propaganda than hard facts. Many in eastern Europe now look back on the Soviet era with some nostalgia for a time when social necessities like health care and access to education were guaranteed, despite the heavy hand of Stalinist state repression. If Ukrainian workers want to see what their future in the EU would be like, they need only look at the economic shock therapy imposed on Greece in 2015. Here is our description at the time of what Greek workers and middle class people were facing:


The country's debt is 180 percent of its GDP. That is a staggering number, far beyond the realm of the reasonable. You could think of it this way: if everyone in Greece worked for nearly two years but CONSUMED NOTHING, that would repay the debt. Of course, they'd all be dead because they couldn't buy any food. It's almost as if we're in Alice in Wonderland territory, except the story line is much starker and far less entertaining. Of course, that isn't quite what the European elites are demanding of Greece. No, all they want the Greek government to do is generate a 2% or 3% annual surplus for the foreseeable future, with that surplus being skimmed off to repay the banks. Which sounds reasonable, except it would be the kind of reason only Alice's Queen of Hearts would appreciate. It means the government will be stripped of all its disposable income: it will have nothing to reinvest in a country that has already endured a depression for six years and where official unemployment sits at 25%. It will mean, in other words, ongoing austerity for the foreseeable future. How long is that future? Here is an answer from a recent comment by the BBC's economics editor Robert Peston: “It would take around half a century for Greek public sector debt to fall to a level regarded as sustainable.” Then Peston adds: “A half century of austerity? In what modern democracy would that be regarded as a realistic option?” [1]


Seven years later not much has changed: Greece remains in a state of perpetual debt peonage. In the event of a global recession, which is all but certain as a result of the Ukraine war and the sanctions against Russia, economies like Greece will face collapse and its government will have hardly any resources to cushion the impact. Or look at the United States, the world’s richest country, where the income of billionaires rises exponentially while 40 percent of Americans – 130 million people – don’t have $400 in the bank if needed for an emergency. This is the grim reality behind the shiny fantasies of the American Dream.

Given all that, we can draw a clear conclusion: national self-determination without socialism is nationalism. And that can only produce the grotesque social inequalities of oligarch rule and lead eventually to the horrors of fascism and war. For nations to be truly free, they must be free of capitalism. So the paradox is that self-determination can only be achieved in opposition to nationalism. Traditionally the socialist alternative to the EU has been expressed in the slogan: For a United Socialist States of Europe! It’s an ideal that needs to be revived as a rallying cry for workers throughout Europe.

 A comment by Alex Steiner


But how do we get from the embrace of nationalism to international class solidarity?  That is a question that is never asked by those who - in words only - oppose Ukrainian nationalism.  I think Trotsky had something relevant to say about this, when writing in a different context in 1939, he derided sectarians who were opposed to the right of Ukraine to self-determination.   He wrote,


The sectarian simply ignores the fact that the national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution. With their eyes turned away from the USSR, and failing to receive support and leadership from the international proletariat, the petty-bourgeois and even working-class masses of Western Ukraine are falling victim to reactionary demagogy. Similar processes are undoubtedly also taking place in the Soviet Ukraine, only it is more difficult to lay them bare. The slogan of an independent Ukraine advanced in time by the proletarian vanguard will lead to the unavoidable stratification of the petty bourgeoisie and render it easier for its lower tiers to ally themselves with the proletariat. Only thus is it possible to prepare the proletarian revolution.[2]


In the context of today's invasion of the Ukraine by an imperialist Russia, it is incumbent on the revolutionary left to be the most consistent supporters of Ukraine's right to self-determination and resist Putin's invasion. This is crucial in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian masses who are currently largely under the sway of right wing and fascist forces. At the same time the revolutionary left must warn the Ukrainian masses about the alternative trap of aligning themselves with U.S. imperialism and NATO. The slogan of the day must be ‘neither Moscow nor Washington but an independent socialist Ukraine as a step toward the United Socialist States of Europe.’ That Is the only way to concretize the struggle for internationalism and overcome the destructive force of nationalism.



Wednesday, April 20, 2022

War in the Ukraine: the socialist response, Part II

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Ukraine swallowed by Tsarist Empire, 1650-1812

by Alex Steiner

Ukraine’s right to self-determination


A cornerstone of a Marxist approach to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine is Ukraine’s right to self-determination.  This was a principle that was strongly advocated by Trotsky in an essay published in 1939 that we had previously discussed. In an introduction to Trotsky’s essay that we published shortly after the Euromaidan events of 2014 we noted that,

…the task for revolutionaries is not to fold up their arms and ignore the national aspirations of the masses, but to put forward a program that can begin to pry away the Ukrainian working class from right wing nationalists and fascists…

Moreover, it is not possible to oppose the right wing regime in Kiev and their fascist allies by conceding the Ukrainian national question to the right,  unless that is, one is convinced that the consciousness of the Ukrainian masses does not matter and that the only thing that can be done is to support Putin's Russia as if it were a bulwark against Western imperialism and fascism. [15] 

This is even more true today than it was in 2014 when the very existence of the Ukraine as a sovereign state is threatened, not to mention the lives of millions of people.  Socialists must support without reservations the right of Ukraine to defend itself against the Russian invasion. Socialists must call for an immediate cease fire, for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from the Ukraine and encourage as far as possible acts of solidarity between the Russian and Ukrainian working class as part of a struggle against their respective governments.  It is difficult to see how this can be done concretely given the lack of any major political force in either Russia or Ukraine that opposes Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine on the basis of socialist principles of international class solidarity.  We are therefore involved in what is primarily an educational endeavor. But the very significant opposition to the war in Russia, where tens of thousands have been arrested, shows the potential for building an international anti-war movement.

Ukraine Socialist Republic of USSR


Is Ukraine a fascist country?


Some of the arguments put forward by left groups who support Putin’s invasion of Russia, whether they do so with reservation (what they call “critical support”) or enthusiastically, is the charge frequently raised that the Ukraine is a hotbed of fascism and therefore doesn’t deserve to be defended by leftists.  There has been much ink spilled on the subject citing the Azov Brigade (a neo-Nazi battalion embedded into the Ukrainian military), the persecution of left wing Ukrainians by fascists, the major role that fascists played in the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime in 2014 that brought the present right wing government in Kiev to power.  Many of these arguments are correct. Ukraine does have a fascist problem. While we reject the arguments of those who would write off the entire Ukrainian working class by claiming they are without exception fascists, it must also be acknowledged that Ukrainian fascists play an outsized in the political and military affairs of the country.  There is lots of documentation of the war crimes of Ukrainian fascists by Amnesty International and other international organizations.  There is also a good deal of information about ties between the Ukrainian fascists and American fascists. [16] That is one more reason why calling for military equipment to aid Ukraine when funneled through NATO must be opposed. It is clear that under those circumstances a good portion of those weapons will wind up in the hands of fascists.


But Ukraine is not a homogenous society and the great majority of the population of 45 million aren’t supporters of fascism or (for now anyway) supporters of socialism. Should we abdicate all efforts to reach the Ukrainian working class with the principles of socialist internationalism because their government and military harbor a significant assortment of fascists ?

The surest way to bolster fascism inside Ukraine is for socialists to reject the country’s right to self-determination. It is also the surest way to undermine the courageous opposition to the war inside Russia.


Is Ukraine solely a proxy of NATO imperialism?


Another argument employed to justify the position of those left groups who turn their back on Ukraine is the claim that the country does not really exist as an independent actor in these events, that it is solely a proxy of NATO imperialism.  This argument is similar to the one labelling all of Ukraine as “fascist” mass.  We will concede that in many respects Ukraine is under the thumb of the U.S. and NATO although it is nominally “independent”.  Nevertheless this position is just another excuse for looking the other way when thousands of civilians are being bombed by Putin’s vicious assault on the cities. We concede that Ukraine is not a fully independent actor in these events.  But the conclusion to draw from this fact should be not to cheer on Putin’s assault but to recognize that every country in the world is to one degree or another subject to the system of global capitalism.  The only meaningful liberation is the one where the working class begins to take matters in its own hands and oppose the policies of its own government.  Those groups on the left who claim to support “solidarity between the Ukrainian and Russian working class” but dismiss Ukraine as simply a pawn of NATO imperialism and refuse to explicitly oppose Russia’s invasion are simply indulging in empty sloganeering.


The larger context in addressing the national question – an inter-imperialist conflict


Finally what we consider the legitimacy of Ukraine’s right to self-determination must not be taken in isolation from the larger context of the inter-imperialist conflict between Russian and NATO/U.S. We cannot lose sight of the basic truth that Ukraine’s right to self-determination is intertwined with NATO’s hostile actions against Russia.  We do not take either side in this conflict and stress that those who live in countries allied with NATO have a particular responsibility to oppose NATO and specifically to oppose NATO’s intervention in the war.


Opposition to sanctions and the anti-Russian witch-hunt


Finally we must oppose all sanctions against Russia and the anti-Russian witch hunt currently being pushed by the EU and the Biden Administration.  Sanctions are a form of economic warfare and therefore just another means of carrying on and extending the war. Support for sanctions by NATO countries is in fact support for the war drive by NATO.  While we understand why many of those who wish to show their solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance support sanctions, it is the duty of international socialists to oppose them.  There are many precedents in the history of the revolutionary socialist movement for opposing sanctions.  For instance, when writing about fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, Trotsky emphasized that,


The struggle against war, properly understood and executed, presupposes the uncompromising hostility of the proletariat and its organizations, always and everywhere, toward its own and every other imperialist bourgeoisie. Yet among the announced adherents of the London Bureau congress are to be found such notorious supporters of the League of Nations (i.e., imperialist) "sanctions" as the Italian Socialist Party, which is presumably to organize a common struggle against war with opponents of these "sanctions," such as the British ILP claims to be. A prerequisite for the proletarian struggle against war is not unity between pro-"sanctionists" and anti-"sanctionists" but the ruthless separation of them. [17]

Along with economic sanctions we have witnessed a torrent of sanctions aimed at prominent Russian cultural figures. Russian cultural figures - from chess players to musician to sportsmen - are suddenly banned from international events or have their engagements cancelled.  These kind of actions, which have the unanimous support of the mainstream press, are a retrogressive step back to the days of McCarthyism and must be opposed. Russian musicians and sports figures are not responsible for the acts of the Putin regime.


Independent Ukraine following dissolution of Soviet Union

War Crimes


Now that Putin’s initial goal of a lightning victory in Kiev has morphed into the reality of an undisciplined army forced to retreat and regroup for a long term siege the inevitable byproducts of shocking war crimes have been exposed.   And here the willful blindness of much of the left to the culpability of Russia is clearly on display.  No sooner had the revelations about civilians being executed in the town of Bucha hit the news than the chorus of left wing Putin apologists chimed in with excuses, pseudo-legal arguments  defending Putin and even the concoction of an alternate reality to explain this war crime.   The crudest attempt to absolve Putin of war crimes came from those radical groups who are most attuned to conspiracy thinking.  They immediately claimed that the evidence of Russian war crimes in Bucha was a case of a “false flag” operation manufactured by NATO and Ukrainian fascists. [18]

Now we would be the last to deny that “false flag” operations have not played a role in the bloody history imperialism.  There are examples one could cite of the use of false flag operations for providing a casus belli  for initiating or escalating a war.  Hitler manufactured a false flag operation as an excuse for invading Poland in 1939 and starting World War II. [19]  But false flag operations are relatively rare.  Dressing up your own soldiers in the uniform of another country and staging a phony attack of your own territory does not happen often.  On reason for the sparse use of this method is that it is incredibly difficult to pull off without being exposed.  Much more common is the use of propaganda and disinformation to paint your opponent as committing a heinous crime. [20]  The Gulf of Tonkin incident, often cited as an example of a U.S. false flag operation is actually not so clear.  There were two separate incidents involving a North Vietnamese attack against an American warship.  The first one actually took place while the second incident never happened. It was the second incident, the one that never happened, that was used to stampede an act of Congress authorizing a serious escalation of the war. Whether the Gulf of Tonkin incident can be classified as a false flag operation or as a disinformation campaign to justify military action is a matter of debate.   A genuine false flag operation was planned by the U.S. military against Cuba in 1962 but never got beyond the planning stage because of resistance from the civilian sector of the Kennedy Administration.  [21] On the other hand, the use of disinformation, with the cooperation of the mass media, to paint your opponent as committing an atrocity has been an all too common weapon used to justify a military offensive.  The false claim that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” as an excuse by the Bush Admiration to launch the Second Gulf War is a well-known example of this mechanism. 


Credit...Fadel Senna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As to the execution of civilians in Bucha, there is no evidence that this was a false flag operation carried out by Ukrainian fascists.  Rather, although not all the facts have been established, the overwhelming body of evidence clearly indicates that Russian soldiers were the perpetrators of these war crimes in Bucha. [22] It should also be remembered that war crimes against civilians has lots of precedent in wars led by Putin.  The Second Chechnya War provides a stark example of Putin’s willingness to use extreme methods against civilians to achieve a strategic goal. [23] At the same time the actual scope of these crimes has yet to be determined. While it is clear that some civilians were summarily executed, we do not know how many of the total number of civilian casualties in Bucha were due to deliberate executions and how many perished as incidental targets during street to street fighting. An official from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking anonymously, recently provided some context on the massacres at Bucha,

It is ugly, but we forget that two peer competitors fought over Bucha for 36 days, and that the town was occupied, that Russian convoys and positions inside the town were attacked by the Ukrainians and vice versa, that ground combat was intense, that the town itself was literally fought over. [24]

But for Putin apologists on the left, “bringing context” to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine means nothing else but finding excuses for Russia’s culpability in the war.  When it comes to a discussion of the war crimes in Bucha,  our Putin apologists are quick to point out that the U.S. has been guilty of much worse war crimes.  That is of course true, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot compare to the toll enacted on civilians by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and its current sponsorship of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.  But the obvious thing to remember is something that most people should have learned as six year-olds, that two wrongs do not make a right.  The crimes of U.S. imperialism, even though they outweigh the crimes of Russian imperialism by several orders of magnitude, do not excuse the crimes of Russian imperialism in the Ukraine.  Nor does citing the crimes of the Ukrainian fascists against the Russian speaking minority in the Ukraine excuse Russia’s war crimes. Yet some on the left act is they do just that since their only response to the news of the massacre of civilians by Russia is to cite other war crimes of the U.S.

Another variety of Putin apologists on the left are those who, while stopping short or explicitly claiming that the Bucha massacre was a false flag operation,  seek to provide pseudo-legal arguments that cast doubt on Russia’s culpability and invite the jury to conclude that perhaps there was indeed a false flag operation.  A good example of this mode of operation can be found on the World Socialist Web Site. Arguing like a good Mafia lawyer, the WSWS writer Andre Damon claims that because he has not been convinced of the evidence of Russian war crimes, then the only possible explanation is that those war crimes either never happened or someone else must have carried them out.  He writes,

Given the systematic use by the United States of false allegations of atrocities to justify wars all over the world, and absent clear and convincing evidence, there is no reason to view the claims of a massacre in Bucha as anything other than war propaganda, aimed at enraging the population to justify military escalation. [25]

It doesn’t seem to occur to Mr. Damon that it is very possible that the allegations of atrocities at Bucha are true and that at the same time they are being used as a pretext “to justify military escalation.” One also wonders what kind of high bar Mr. Damon requires for finding “convincing evidence” of a Russian massacre in Bucha.  As if that were not enough, Damon goes on to argue a hypothetical situation that even in the worst case scenario, his client, Putin, could not be accused of any crime.

         Even if it were established that Russian troops fired on civilians—and that has not been established—that would not mean that they were acting under the instruction of the Russian government. [26]

In other words, “even if you proved that soldiers ultimately reporting to Putin committed this crime, and you have not yet proven that, Putin would still be legally protected because you cannot prove that those soldiers were acting under the direct order of my client Putin.”    Mr. Damon does not seem to be aware that it is a well-established principle of international law,  going back to the Nuremburg Trials against Nazi war criminals, that the political and military leadership of a country whose military has committed war crimes or crimes against humanity is ultimately responsible for those crimes.[27] If Russian soldiers committed war crimes in the Ukraine, then it is Putin and his leading generals who bear ultimate responsibility and in theory could be put on trial. Of course, we know that in the real world this will never happen just as Bush will never be tried for the war crimes of American soldiers in Iraq.   But it is important not to dismiss the principle that the political and military leadership of a country bears the ultimate responsibility for the war crimes of its armies.

On the other side of the apologists for Putin are those who would demonize Russia. This includes the entire liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party and their admirers on the left, including the mainstream press. They paint Russia and Putin in particular as singularly evil, as a genocidal maniac on the order of Hitler.  They have used the evidence of Russian war crimes as a pretext for further escalating the war in the Ukraine.  Thus we have Biden making the claim that Putin is guilty of the crime of genocide. The Ukrainian President, Zelensky, has used the Bucha massacre as a bargaining chip to pressure NATO to provide more direct military aid.  And the U.S. and NATO has complied.  The Biden Administration just authorized another $800 million in military aid to the Ukraine, including for the first time sophisticated offensive weapons.  This is a dangerous escalation of the conflict that poses a real threat of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO.  The possibility of the use of nuclear weapons has even been hinted at by both sides. 


Where is the left in this situation of unprecedented danger for the entire planet?  Basically it is everywhere and nowhere. The left is all over the map in providing opinions about what is happening – opinions devoid of any serious analysis.   At the same time the left is nowhere when it comes to providing guidance to end the war. What is called on is a massive anti-war movement, a campaign to de-escalate the conflict, calling for an immediate cease fire and the withdrawal of Russia forces from the Ukraine. But instead what we are seeing is an anemic and divided left where some groups are lining up behind Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine and others are lining up behind NATO escalation of the military confrontation.  Support for either side in this conflict, encouraging more military action, is a betrayal of the most elementary principles of international socialism.  It is also suicidal in the current situation where the danger of escalation into nuclear war is closer than at any time in history.  



[15] Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads,


[16] Amnesty International Briefing, Ukraine: Abuses and war crimes by the Aidar Volunteer Battalion in the north Luhansk region,

"Defend the White Race": American Extremists Being Co-Opted by Ukraine's Far-Right,


[17] Leon Trotsky: Resolution on the Antiwar Congress of the London Bureau (1936), in: Documents of the Fourth International, New York 1973, p. 99


[18]  One example of this rush to judgment is the following article from Philip Agee’s magazine, Covert Action,

While many of the articles in Covert Action Magazine provide valuable insights into the machinations of U.S. imperialism, they also suffer from an all too eager acceptance of unverifiable conspiracy theories.  The article here cited provides lots of information about a particularly vile Ukrainian fascist but implies that the massacre in Bucha was a “false flag” operation solely on the basis that the subject of the article, Sergey “Botsun” Korotkikh, entered Bucha shortly after the Russians left!


[20] False flags are real, but far less widespread than social media suggest,



[21] U.S. Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba,


[22] Among sources that investigated the war crimes in Bucha were Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the New York Times.  One can argue that the New York Times has a built in bias against Russia and that is certainly true, but is it credible to then claim that this bias extends to the facts reporters on the ground are revealing or that not a single survivor of the massacre at Bucha has come forward to expose the alleged “false flag” operation conducted by Ukrainian fascists? Some sources:


Ukraine: Russian forces extrajudicially executing civilians in apparent war crimes – new testimony,

Ukraine: Apparent War Crimes in Russia-Controlled Areas,

Bucha’s Month of Terror,

Satellite images show bodies lay in Bucha for weeks, despite Russian claims,


[23] War Crimes In Chechnya and the Response of the West,


[24] How U.S. Intelligence Sees Russia's Behavior After Bucha,


[25] The Bucha atrocity allegations: A pretext for escalating NATO’s war against Russia,


[26] Ibid.


[27] The leadership clause in the crime of aggression and its customary international law status,


Sunday, April 17, 2022

War in the Ukraine: the socialist response Part I

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Russian convoy in first weeks of the invasion of Ukraine

by Alex Steiner

Note: This is part one of a three part series.

A new era


When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, 2022, a new historical epoch came into being.  It was the end of the post-Cold War period that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in August of 1991. Only time will tell what name will be associated with this new epoch but one thing is clear, it is not simply a return to the period of the Cold War that began shortly after World War II.  On the contrary the era we have entered is far more dangerous than the period of the Cold War. At least during the Cold War period there were certain rules of engagement that both sides respected with a few notable and frightening exceptions such as the confrontation that occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But there are no such rules that guide conduct among global nuclear powers in this new period.  As one Cold War historian recently lamented,

I sense a period ending. I am now deeply afraid that Mr. Putin’s recklessness may cause the years between the Cold War and the Covid-19 pandemic to seem a halcyon period to future historians, compared with what came after. I fear we may find ourselves missing the Cold War. [1] 

If Putin’s recklessness is one marker of the present danger, so are Biden’s recent rhetorical outbursts. Twice he has denounced Putin as a war criminal, and in a speech in Warsaw, he declared that Putin “cannot remain in power” – an open call for regime change, something that no previous US administration allowed itself to do even in the worst moments of the Cold War. That Biden is a doddering old man who went off script for a moment (only to have his officials and European allies walk back the comment) changes nothing about the fact that the fate of the world is in the hands of reckless imperialists on both sides. This is how world wars begin – and how, via nuclear annihilation, the world could come to an end.

Europe is seeing the largest military conflict since World War II. This coincides with an unprecedented pandemic, a global economic crisis further aggravated by the war, the rise of neo-fascist movements challenging the legitimacy of liberal bourgeois democratic regimes in the West. At the same time the past decade has seen a re-emergence of the class struggle with strikes and massive protest movements throughout the globe. All remaining illusions that we have entered a post-historical period dominated by the Western model of bourgeois democracy no longer burdened by war and class conflict have been shattered.  That is not to say that this happened overnight.  The disintegration of the post-Cold War myth of an “end of history” has been evident for some time , but one can say that the Russian invasion of the Ukraine was the final nail in its coffin.

As with all endings there are also new beginnings.  The end of the post-Cold War equilibrium, the increasing danger of nuclear war, is accompanied by new possibilities of social revolution.  Which road will be taken depends to a great extent on the consciousness of the working class.   This is where the need for a revolutionary leadership arises. While the working class spontaneously moves to socialist consciousness, bourgeois consciousness is also spontaneously reinforced. As old illusions fall away, new forms of bourgeois consciousness emerge.  The role of Marxists is to participate in the struggles of the working class with the goal of raising the level of class consciousness.  In the context of the Ukraine-Russian War that goal becomes concretized to raising the level of international class solidarity between the Ukrainian and Russian working class.

We do not pretend that any groups claiming to be Marxist will have a significant impact on the course of events in the Ukraine. It’s been at least three generations since mass socialist parties were in a position to challenge the bourgeois order. The long period of isolation of Marxists from the working class amidst the general level of the atomization of working class consciousness preclude any immediate impact.  But there is a critical educational program with which Marxists are tasked.  The question needs to be raised, “What should be the proper response to the Ukraine-Russian War ?”

This task takes on added significance because the outbreak of wars typically splits the political left, and this war is no exception. Given that the radical left was already badly fragmented, it would be more accurate to speak of splintering instead of splits.  


The principle of opposition to war


We must start by elucidating some basic principles. A fundamental principle is that we are anti-war.  If we are not anti-war, we are part of the problem.  We recognize as Marxists that capitalism is the ultimate cause of war and that a consistent strategy for opposing war is to fight for the socialist alternative to capitalism. But that principle by itself does not tell us what it means to be anti-war in any specific situation. Unlike pacifists we do not think it is possible to orient oneself with abstract slogans.   Rather it is necessary to locate the path of opposition to war concretely based on one’s assessment of the immediate situation within the context of global capitalism. 


When it comes to the complex situation that we face today in the Russian-Ukraine war, there has been an almost unanimous collective failure to assess the dynamics of this conflict and find the proper orientation. Much of the left have indeed abandoned an anti-war stand in relation to the Russian-Ukraine conflict, while still claiming to be anti-war. It is simply impossible to be anti-war if you are cheering for the victory of one side or the other in the current conflict.   What is happening in the U.S. and other countries, is that given the vacuum on the left of a clear anti-war stand, the right has stepped in to fill that gap.   This is clear enough in the U.S. where the liberal media has fallen into lockstep behind the militarism and the anti-Russian witch-hunt of the Biden Administration. It is not surprising that right wing enemies of the Biden Administration such as Tucker Carlson from Fox News, has taken advantage of the subservience of the liberal media to the war plans of the Biden Administration by appealing to anti-war sentiments. But it is also true that those groups on the left that claim that Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is some kind of progressive measure that Russia was “forced” to undertake due to the threats of NATO expansion have equally abandoned an anti-war position.


Who are the principals in the conflict?


To start with it is crucial to determine the nature of the states involved in the conflict. The question of who attacked who first, while not irrelevant,  is not decisive. More fundamental is one’s assessment of the nature of the warring parties involved in the conflict. But before we can even ask that question, we should first be able to identify the warring parties. Strangely, there is not even a consensus on that simple matter. Some groups on the left think the conflict is between NATO and US imperialism on one side and Russia on the other.  The Ukraine, a nation of 45 million people, barely enters into their consideration, being dismissed as little more than a proxy of NATO.   Analysis of the war among much of the left consists in deciding which side, either NATO or Russia deserves to be supported.

To take one example from the American left, Jeff Mackler of Socialist Action writes the following about the divisions in the U.S.:


‘The Ukraine crisis has taken its toll, at least for the moment, on the still modest forces of the U.S. and international antiwar movements, with two poles emerging with counterposed strategic conceptions. In the U.S. a growing minority, perhaps a majority, feels compelled to denounce with equal fervor both sides, Russia on the one, and US/NATO on the other.

In sharp contrast, organizations representing the major antiwar coalitions demand: “No to US/NATO War in Ukraine! No wars with Russia! No sanctions!  No to NATO and NATO expansion” – a central cause of the present crisis – and, “Fund human needs, education, housing, the environment & healthcare not war!”’ [2]


From Mackler’s description of the conflict, one would never know that Russia invaded the Ukraine.  Mackler also reduces the available options for the anti-war movement to denounce “with equal fervor” Russia and NATO or to only denounce NATO and remain silent about Russia. It never seems to occur to him that it is possible to concentrate our fire on NATO, which is certainly a responsibility of those of us living in NATO aligned countries, and at the same time denounce the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.  In contrast to Mackler, who represents a typical position of what can be called the radical left, the narrative unanimously pushed by the mainstream media, in line with the Biden Administration, as well as some groups on the left, completely leaves out any discussion of NATO and decontextualizes Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, portraying it as a simple morality tale of good Ukraine vs. evil Russia.  We will get back to this shortly.

Russian as an imperialist power


In our estimation Russia is clearly an imperialist power, although a second class one in comparison to the U.S. We discussed this previously in a piece written shortly after the initial outbreak of hostilities between Russian and the Ukraine in 2014.


Recently the question of one’s assessment of the Russian state has become a key issue among left wing groups, particularly those claiming to be Marxist.  The reason for this is all too obvious when we consider the events of the past few years in Syria and the Ukraine. In both situations Russia is directly involved in a political and military conflict that places it squarely at odds against forces supported by U.S. and European imperialism.  In the case of Syria tensions have escalated to the point where there is a real danger of a direct confrontation between the Russian and American military. The possibility of the world’s two largest nuclear powers engaging each other militarily brings back memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War.


In such a situation the task of revolutionary socialists is to formulate and fight for a strategy and a program that is opposed to imperialist war and defends the interests of the international working class.  Historically, the response of revolutionary socialists to imperialist war has been the slogan “The main enemy is at home”.  This means that in a conflict between two imperialist powers, it is impermissible to support either one or the other as a “lesser evil”.  The historic responsibility of the working class in the imperialist countries is to work for the defeat of their “own” Imperialist power.  On the other hand, when a conflict emerges between an imperialist power and a colonial or semi-colonial country, it is necessary to defend the struggles of the colonial people against imperialism.   Given this historical background it becomes clear why one’s assessment of the nature of Russia becomes a key theoretical question.  Were we to consider Russia an imperialist power then we are duty bound to oppose Russian imperialism just as strongly as U.S. imperialism.   On the other hand were we to consider Russia a colonial or semi-colonial country oppressed by the great imperialist powers, then we are duty bound to support Russia in its conflict with imperialism.


Given the centrality of the question of the nature of Russia one would think that groups claiming adherence to Marxism and to the traditions of Bolshevism would have done a good deal of theoretical work based on solid evidence before coming to any conclusions about the nature of Russia.  One would think that but one would be wrong.  On the contrary, with few exceptions, most of those groups derive their assessment of the nature of Russia not from any original research or theoretical work but strictly from their political prejudices.  And those political prejudices are roughly divided into two camps.  On the one side there are the traditional social chauvinists who tend to adapt to their own ruling class.  Besides moribund Social Democratic parties these groups include outfits like the ISO who have ties to the trade union bureaucracy.  In the other camp are what some have called “inverted social chauvinists”.  These are groups who oppose their own bourgeoisie but do so by supporting whoever is in conflict with them.  The policy followed by the inverted social chauvinists is sometimes mislabeled as “anti-imperialism”.  In the U.S. the paradigm of inverted social chauvinism is the neo-Stalinist Workers World Party which lets no opportunity pass by for supporting whatever imperialist power or dictatorship is in conflict with U.S. imperialism.  They are guided by the rule, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” [3]


Some groups on the left not only disagree that Russia is an imperialist power, but condemn anyone who takes that position as a stooge of NATO and the CIA.  A typical example is the following diatribe from the World Socialist Web Site aimed at a group who dared to call Russia an imperialist nation,

The IMT’s role amid the current war drive is to repackage with “Marxist” phraseology the propaganda of the US State Department and other NATO countries that they have no intention of militarily intervening against Russia. They seek to lull leftward-moving workers and young people to sleep by promoting illusions in the continued viability of the capitalist system. [4]

The particular target of this statement, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT),  is of no importance.  You can fill in whatever “pseudo-left” organization is the WSWS target of the day. Any group that does not agree 100% with the analysis of the WSWS is by definition guilty of “lulling” unnamed “leftward moving forces to sleep”. As we have previously noted in our essay from 2014, while the WSWS/SEP vigorously denies that Russia is an imperialist power it has no real analysis of what Russia is though it acts as if it is some kind of semi-colonial country.

There are exceptions among Marxists to this cavalier attitude to this important question, namely those who take seriously the theoretical issues involved in assessing the nature of Russia and look to the Marxist theory of imperialism to get a handle on it. A seminal text in this area is Lenin’s work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. [5] While Lenin’s work is certainly not the last word on the subject and imperialism has continued to evolve and take on new forms in the 100 years since Lenin was writing, any serious discussion on imperialism must confront this classic work. We have pointed to what we consider the excellent analysis of Michael Pröbsting on the nature of Russia whose point of departure is a discussion of Lenin’s work when confronted with the economic and political tendencies of the 21st century.  [6]  The upshot of Pröbsting’s investigation is that Russia is indeed an imperialist power, though one significantly weaker than the U.S.

Pröbsting writes,

The characteristic of an imperialist power has to be seen in the totality of its economic, political, and military position in the global hierarchy of states. Thus, a given state must – following Lenin’s dialectical advice about examining 'the entire totality of the manifold relations of this thing to others’  – be viewed not only as a separate unit but first and foremost in its relation to other states and nations. An imperialist state usually enters a relationship with other states and nations whom it oppresses in one way or another and super-exploits – i.e., appropriates a share of its produced capitalist value. Again this has to be viewed in its totality, i.e., if a state gains certain profits from foreign investment but has to pay much more (debt service, profit repatriation, etc.) to other countries’ foreign investment, this state can usually not be considered as imperialist. Finally we want to stress the necessity of considering the totality of a state’s economic, political, and military position in the global hierarchy of states. Thus we can consider a given state as imperialist even it is economically weaker but possesses a relatively strong political and military position (like Russia before 1917 and, again, in the early 2000s). Such a strong political and military position can be used to oppress other countries and nations and to appropriate capitalist value from them.  

There have been a number of challenges to Pröbsting’s analysis but none of them are convincing.  There are those who challenge Pröbsting’s statistical analysis. [7]   Others claim that Russia does not provide an exact fit into the criteria Lenin discussed for classifying a nation as imperialist. [8]  Still another argument departs from Lenin’s analysis and attempts to define imperialism exclusively in economic terms without any attention to the political and military conditions of a nation. [9] Lenin clearly never intended his analysis of imperialism to be strictly an economic one.  He wrote in the preface to his pamphlet,

This pamphlet was written with an eye to the tsarist censorship. Hence, I was not only forced to confine myself strictly to an exclusively theoretical, specifically economic analysis of facts, but to formulate the few necessary observations on politics with extreme caution, by hints, in an allegorical language—in that accursed Aesopian language—to which tsarism compelled all revolutionaries to have recourse whenever they took up the pen to write a “legal” work. [10]


A common approach of those who deny that Russia is an imperialist power is to compare the economy of Russia to that of the United States – the United States being the example par excellence of an imperialist power.  This approach, which claims to be Marxist and claims to be faithful to Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, is actually a sad caricature of a Marxist analysis of imperialism.  When Lenin characterized imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism”, he had in mind the general features that were then emerging of a global economic system.  How each country fits into that system is a question of its relations with other countries, not whether it meets or does not meet one or more of the criterion for being classified as an imperialist power.  These relationships can be very complex and cannot simply be reduced to the binary opposition between an imperialist aggressor and a colonial subject.  While a relationship of domination of one nation over another is a feature of imperialism, the forms in which that domination is realized can vary tremendously.  Furthermore a nation can be dominated by a more powerful neighbor and at the same time can in turn dominate other less powerful neighbors.  There are different forms of imperialism today. Indeed, even in Lenin’s time imperialism took on different forms and imperialism has evolved in an exponential fashion since that time. One hundred years ago the imperialist “norm” consisted in direct colonial rule.  If you look at a map of Africa from the late 19th or early 20th century you will see that it has been divided up into a patchwork of colonies between the great powers of Europe (and even some not so “great” powers such as Belgium.)  Today, while direct colonial rule still exists, it is a curious exception to the norm. The norm today is the indirect domination of a country that is formally independent but is forced to enter into an unequal economic relationship with one or more predator countries. A good example of this contemporary form of imperialism is the subjugation of Greece by the European Union. Whereas Greece does not fit the stereotypical image of a semi-colonial country, it has in fact been forced to cede its sovereignty in all but name in order to insure the payments of its debts to the European bankers.

Now to return to a consideration of Russia,  those who raise the question, “Has Russia reached the highest stage of capitalism? “,[11]  are asking the wrong question.   They fail to recognize that when Lenin discussed “the highest stage of capitalism”, he was not thinking of it as a measure against which individual countries had to be judged but as a network of evolving relationships into which each country participates in different ways.

If you try to fit Russia into the template of the U.S. economy, then it clearly does not fit.  It is certainly true for instance that Russia does not have a large and highly evolved financial sector.  To many this becomes a kind of acid test as to whether Russia is an imperialist power.  But that is because they are cherry picking certain features of the Russian economy and isolating them.  They are not looking at Russia’s relationship to the world economy and its neighbors as a whole and they dismiss the political and military dimension as well.  If the size of the financial sector were really the decisive acid test, then we would have to conclude that Germany, which has a rather weak financial sector compared to its industrial sector, is also not an imperialist power.  Is that really true?   

Furthermore Lenin recognized that an imperialist power can exist that has almost no financial sector, seemingly challenging his emphasis on the importance of the financial sector for his analysis of imperialism.  But Lenin was not a formalist, recognizing that definitions can be tentative and relative and should not be considered an albatross around ones neck. For example,  Lenin considered Tsarist Russia to be an imperialist nation.[12]  Yet there is no doubt that Tsarist Russia did not fit into the criteria that would have defined it as being at “the highest stage of capitalism.” 

It is clear that these are complicated questions and require serious historical and theoretical work. In addition to a consideration of the economic, political and military dimensions we may also take a look at the ideological dimension  that informs the ruling elite in Russia for it too plays a role in formulating a picture of Russia as an imperialist nation. It should be clear to all but the willfully blind apologists for Putin, that Russia, in invading the Ukraine,  is pursuing its own geo-political interests as much as it is reacting to legitimate fears of being encircled by a hostile NATO.  If anyone doubts that all they have to do is read the speech Putin gave on the eve of the invasion where he expressed unambiguously the war aims of the Russian oligarchs he represents.  It was one of the most reactionary speeches any world leader has given in decades. 

Putin provided a historical explanation of the war he was about to launch in which it was the destiny of the Russian nation to absorb the Ukraine, whose sovereign existence he considered to be an illegitimate product of Bolshevism, specifically of Lenin.  He blamed Lenin for the “crime” of separating Ukraine – and other countries as well - from what had been the Tsarist empire.  He said,

I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.

He went on to blame the problem of the Ukraine, i.e. its independence, on the terrible policies of the October Revolution which replaced that “prison of nations”, the Tsarist Empire, with a voluntary union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

And yet, it is a great pity that the fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed of the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.

Putin’s speech was an articulation of a reactionary imperialist ideology known as Eurasianism.  It was born 100 years ago, shortly after the October Revolution, giving voice to a sentiment shared  by those who wished to replace the October revolution with a revived Tsarist Empire. Its current variant was developed by the extreme right wing Russian,  Aleksandr Dugin.  Jane Burbank, a Russian historian, recently summarized Dugin’s philosophy as follows,

In Mr. Dugin’s adjustment of Eurasianism to present conditions, Russia had a new opponent — no longer just Europe, but the whole of the “Atlantic” world led by the United States. And his Eurasianism was not anti-imperial but the opposite: Russia had always been an empire, Russian people were “imperial people,” and after the crippling 1990s sellout to the “eternal enemy,” Russia could revive in the next phase of global combat and become a “world empire.” On the civilizational front, Mr. Dugin highlighted the long-term connection between Eastern Orthodoxy and Russian empire. Orthodoxy’s combat against Western Christianity and Western decadence could be harnessed to the geopolitical war to come. [13]

There is a common thread of fascist ideology that ties together Putin’s espousal of Eurasianism with those white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the U.S. who believe that there is a conspiracy by liberals and socialists and Jews to “replace” white Americans with people of color and immigrants. And it is this ideology that expresses the class interests of the oligarchs around Putin. Moreover,  Putin has expressed this ideology for many years. In a discussion held in 2013, he declared that Eurasia was a major geopolitical zone where Russia’s “genetic code” and its many peoples would be defended against “extreme Western-style liberalism.” [14]

Putin’s speech should have been an eye opener for those on the left who dismissed the possibility that Putin was acting on behalf of the geo-political ambitions of a great power, and not merely reacting to provocations from NATO.  Unfortunately the great majority of those on the left who were not cheerleaders for NATO and the Biden Administration paid short shrift to Putin’s speech.  They claimed that Putin was only reacting like a dog who feels threatened and is incapable of taking positive actions in his own right.  And as we have previously noted, so invested were some left groups with the notion that Russia was the sole victim in this scenario that they framed the conflict as NATO attacking Russia[ .  It is true that NATO provoked Russia,  but that does not make the disturbing fact that Russia has invaded the Ukraine go away.   

[1] I’m a Cold War Historian. We’re in a Frightening New Era, by Mary Elise Sarotte, New York Times, March 1, 2022,


[6] We discussed Pröbsting’s work in the previously cited essay, Russia as an imperialist power, You can download Pröbsting complete analysis here: 

[7] Jan Norden has challenged Pröbsting ’s statistical analysis in, The Bugbear of Russian Imperialism, .   We questioned Norden’s analysis in the essay we wrote in 2015, Russia as an Imperialist Power,

[8] This methodology of challenging the classification of Russia as an imperialist power was most recently formulated by the website Setting the Record straight: Ukraine, Russia and imperialism, Pröbsting  has penned a detailed response, Once Again on Russian Imperialism (Reply to Critics),  We will further examine these arguments shortly.

[9] Michael Roberts, a British Marxist economist has developed a formula for determining whether a particular country is a net exporter of surplus value – and therefore an oppressed country, or a net importer of surplus value – and therefore an oppressor country and thus an imperialist power. See for instance his blog, The economics of modern imperialism, .  Roberts further claims that the political and military dimension of a nation play no role in determining whether it is an imperialist power or not. Rather, adopting a vulgarized approach to historical materialism, he insists that the economy is the “cause” and the political and military dimension are the “effects” solely determined by the economic status of a nation. 


[10] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.


[11] Setting the Record straight: Ukraine, Russia and imperialism,


[12] Pröbsting  has already covered this topic exhaustively.  One example of Lenin’s attitude toward Tsarist Russia appears in the Preface to his study, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.  He explains that when writing his pamphlet in 1916 he had to adopt a bit of subterfuge in order to get past the Tsarist censorship. He substituted a refence to Russia, which would have raised some alarm bells, with a relatively harmless reference to Japan. He writes,


I was forced to quote as an example [of an imperialist nation] —Japan! The careful reader will easily substitute Russia for Japan, and Finland, Poland, Courland, the Ukraine, Khiva, Bokhara, Estonia or other regions peopled by non-Great Russians, for Korea.


[13] The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War, by Jane Burbank, New York Times, March 22, 2022,