News | War / Peace - Eastern Europe - Ukraine Crisis The Hour of the Warmongers

Will Ukraine solidarity lead to identification with NATO policy or a new peace movement?



Thomas Klein,

A protest opposing the war in Ukraine and calling for NATO military intervention in Washington, DC on 27 February 2022. CC BY 2.0, Photo: Amaury Laporte/Flickr

The criminal invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia seems to have deactivated any historical memory and common sensibility around the politics of peace. Critical reflection on Russia’s aims and NATO’s interests in the war has been suspended. What remains is a global condemnation of Russia’s war of aggression.

Russia’s war of aggression did not “only” break international law. It also violated the security guarantees that Moscow granted Ukraine in 1994 in the Budapest Memorandum in exchange for handing over the nuclear weapons previously housed on Ukrainian territory. So what has Putin’s Russia achieved so far? The “brain-dead” NATO (Emmanuel Macron) seems to have come back to life, and the divided EU, supposedly reunited with the US, stands “as one man” behind the increasingly bombed-out Ukraine.

Thomas Klein was formerly a left oppositionist in East Germany and remains one in the Federal Republic. He is also a member of the Historical Commissions of Die Linke and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Translated by Hanna Grzeszkiewicz and Hunter Bolin for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The vast majority of states condemned the Russian war of aggression in the UN General Assembly. Yet the fact that four countries with despotic leadership structures — North Korea, Eritrea (often referred to as the “North Korea of Africa”), Syria, and Belarus — openly endorsed Russia’s invasion points to the nature of this unspeakable alliance. Even China and Serbia abstained from explicitly endorsing Russia’s actions.

Meanwhile, Sweden and Finland, two of Russia’s neighbours, are openly considering joining NATO, and should it succeed in installing a Russia-friendly regime in Ukraine, the Russian Federation would of its own accord move westwards towards NATO. It is unclear how the increase in Western sanctions will impact Russia’s weak economy — what is certain, however, is that the Russian population will bear the brunt of the consequences.

It is likely that Russia may not find these changers favourable. For its part, the West fears a possible alliance between Russia and China — the mighty nuclear power and the economic giant. That said, it is worth mentioning that the annual military budgets of the US and its partners in NATO are almost twentyfold that of Russia.

The Russian president’s monstrous historical lies can be rebuked without much effort. Their role in legitimizing Russia’s military intervention is obvious. Putin’s statements, however bizarrely they distort history, reveal his perspective on Russia’s role outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Particularly revealing is his claim that Lenin’s “Policy on Nationalities” (the right to national self-determination, the right to secession for Russia’s peoples) caused the fall of the Soviet Union 70 years later — an event Putin sees as disastrous — as well as his criticism of Stalin, whose revision of Lenin’s policy he criticizes as politically inconsistent.

In characterizing Stalin's treaties with Nazi Germany in 1939 as praiseworthy, Putin reveals himself to be a Great Russian chauvinist who dreams of the Russian Empire within its 1914 borders. Putin sees himself as the guarantor of the rights of all Russians, even those living outside the Russian Federation, a fact which is likely to stoke fear in the Baltic States, Georgia, the Moldovan Republic, and others. He is proving himself to be a Russian imperial nationalist, inspired by figures like the anti-Bolshevik civil war commander Anton Ivanovich Denikin, who Putin reveres and had reburied with full military honours in Moscow.

Moreover, Putin supplements his propaganda with elements of Stalinist Soviet patriotism. He is also adept in using Stalinism to justify the 1939 German–Soviet treaty and contemporary Russian politics, all the while referring to the West’s disastrous role in the run-up to World War II (the Munich Agreement, failed negotiations between the Soviet Union and the West for an alliance against Nazi Germany). Putin’s speech on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War on 19 June 2020 is particularly incisive.

In addition to Russia’s now officially declared war objectives (demilitarization and “denazification” of Ukraine), Putin also reacted to the demolition of Lenin monuments in Ukraine with a cavalier remark: “Do you want decommunization?”, Putin asked. “Well, it suits us very well. But we must not, as they say, stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”

Mario Kessler assesses this as follows: “Lenin’s internationalism and Putin’s Great Russian chauvinism are, indeed, incompatible. All this should show socialists in particular that the man ruling the Kremlin is their bitter enemy.” Jutta Ditfurth says that “the senseless talk of the ‘crazy’ Putin” must “come to an end. He is pursuing a plan for a new Great Russian Empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the North Sea; this is his geopolitical strategy for Eurasia ... Putin is not an individual, but the protagonist of a reactionary, nationalist, and authoritarian Russian faction. That is also why he is a hero for German Nazis.”

The German Left and the War

This brings us to the Left, the “left-wing”, and the party Die Linke, some of whom are still said to be people who see Putin as a custodian of anti-fascist Soviet patriotism (regardless of Stalin) or consider him to be a “leftist”. This, however, requires putting on some blinders.

To give just a few examples: it is almost unbearable when “leftists” remain silent about the discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people in Russia, “overlook” the tactical alliance of Putin’s Russia with right-wing nationalist parties and neo-fascist networks, downplay the extent of censorship and repression against opposition members critical of Putin (as questionable as some of these currents may be), and downplay the monopolization of the media, which has meanwhile reached levels reminiscent of Brezhnev’s rule.

The majority of communist and left-wing parties in Europe reacted with sometimes harsh condemnations of the Russian invasion — including Die Linke. Gregor Gysi even said that what he had previously articulated in terms of (possibly accurate) assessments concerning NATO’s shared responsibility should be disregarded since the war started. He is, however, wrong here. There is a big difference between using the crimes of NATO members to justify or downplay the Russian invasion[1] and acting according to the belief that leftists have nothing to gain by taking sides in a power struggle between capitalist antagonists. This was the case in 1914 and is still the case 100 years later.

Some leftists justify their reticence to take a stance towards the Russian war with the maxim “the main enemy is in our own country”. Yet conflicts are increasingly becoming entangled in global political interdependencies, proving this maxim to be short-sighted. Russia is waging a criminal war of aggression, but that does not retroactively delegitimize Western interventions (most recently in Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1992, Sudan in 1998, Serbia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011) with hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees. Turkey, a NATO member, is waging war against the Kurdish population in its own country, as well as in Syria and in Iraq.

All of this is now conveniently ignored, as are the numerous “counterinsurgency” programmes of the secret services, regime change attempts, and supported coups or economic destabilizations (for example in countries of South and Central America before and after 1990).

NATO’s Eastward Expansion

From a Russian perspective, NATO’s gradual expansion into Eastern Europe — i.e. the accession of East Germany followed by Poland, Czechia, and Hungary in 1999, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020 — is seen as breaking a promise, as this process has clearly affected Russian security interests. If Ukraine’s — now unlikely — accession were to be added to the list, the Western view is that Crimea, after its illegal annexation by Russia in violation of international law, would be just as much a NATO-protected area as the secessionist zones in eastern Ukraine— a powder keg.

This has taken place not only in the West but also in Ukraine. The window of opportunity for an alternative, non-provocative, joint solution for security and cooperation through the creation of a European security architecture that includes Russia was haughtily shut by the West, “the victor of history”.

The fact remains that all this in no way justifies the Russian invasion. It is not a “legitimate response” to Western power politics, but a co-optation thereof. In all conflict zones, opposition to a policy of violence is eliminated without compromise.

Truth Dies First

In war, as is well-known, truth is the first thing to die. People everywhere rely on forgetting. It is the hour of the warmonger and the patriot. Leftists have to fight against this without sparing, excusing, or legitimizing either of the clashing antagonists.

It remains true that there are far-right militiasin Ukraine operating in the tradition of the anti-Soviet fighting units that once fought alongside Nazi Germany, including the Azov Regiment, the Right Sector militia, and the Aidar Brigade, which have been particularly brutal towards the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. There, they fought against equally brutal pro-Russian militias, now supported by regular Russian troops.

The Minsk Agreement was violated by both sides — together, so to speak. The Russian invasion fatally reinforced the already-rampant cult around Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, while promoting the rehabilitation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). However, (Russian) talk of “genocide” against the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine is absurd, since Russia’s military and logistical support for the secessionist People’s Republics is undeniable. It is also undeniable that Russians are discriminated against in the Ukrainian government’s western provinces. The legend of genocide was therefore quite useful for Putin as legitimization for the war, and the Odessa pogrom against pro-Russian activists on 2 May 2014 is repeatedly cited.

Nevertheless, the majority of the Ukrainian population no longer expects anything from aligning with Russia. Although the first election after the pro-Western “Orange Revolution” was won by the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych, the Maidan uprising was anything but (according to a Russian reading) a “fascist coup”, even if the aforementioned right-wing extremists were heavily involved. It resulted in the swapping out of a corrupt pro-Russian elite for an equally corrupt pro-Western elite. The partly agrarian Ukrainian western oligarchs, unlike the Russia-aligned industrial eastern oligarchs, favour EU and Western integration out of financial self-interest.

Pro-Western administrations’ discriminatory treatment of the Russian minority contributed to the fact that this minority in Crimea and eastern Ukraine no longer saw any alternative other than to align with Russia. Both the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian recognition of the eastern Ukrainian secession in 2022 constituted a breach of international law. Nevertheless, the majority of the Ukrainian-Russian minority welcomed these developments.

A “Turning Point” in Germany

The German reaction to the monopolization of the media and the ban on independent broadcasters in Russia ended up being the hardly sovereign decision to block the broadcast of Russian state media. Russian citizens in Germany who do not clearly position themselves against Putin are sometimes losing their jobs as a result. The journalistic and political minority of German actors outside the lobby who have been trying (in vain) for 30 years to reach an understanding with Russia are now not only criticized for their illusions, but also stigmatized as “useful idiots of Moscow” or even “Putin’s accomplices”, sometimes leading to professional discrimination. They are equated with the unsavoury “Gas-Putin” lobbyist Gerhard Schröder.

In addition, 100 billion euro are now being made available for the expansion and upgrading of the Germany Army, so that the international intervention forces can once again become a “powerful national defence army” (“one of the most powerful in Europe”, according to Finance Minister Lindner). The Greens and the left-leaning Social Democrats are also swallowing this pill. The war industry, which has long done good business thanks to German arms exports, now expects record profits. A modified reinstatement of compulsory military service is also being considered.

The use of internationally operating special legions is increasing on both sides and on all fronts. Pacifism and anti-militarism are becoming more and more marginalized. The solidarity and overwhelming impulse to support Ukrainian war victims and refugees are being overshadowed by the sound of war hysteria and frontline reporting. The external enemy is once again in the East, the internal enemy is increasingly suspected on the left. The “deterrent culture” of the Cold War is reawakening, a new “Iron Curtain” is being drawn, and two-thirds of the German population welcomes rearmament — it’s like going back to the future of the 1950s. The search for solutions to global human crises — hunger, climate change, social inequality — once again falls behind. A brave new world.

A New Peace Movement?

The societal Left must resist this reactionary pull towards warmongering. It can only survive politically by refusing to join calls for war. We know what happens when transnational coalitions of emancipatory and socialist forces abandon their internationalism in favour of aggressive patriotism. This was already made clear 100 years ago by the outbreak, progression, and devastating consequences of World War I.

The modern Europe-wide upsurge of neo-fascist currents and parties threatens to devalue the lessons of World War II. Contrary to the deceptive hope that the end of the confrontation between the blocs after 1990 would also banish the danger of war, a new wave of such wars has begun again. The wars that followed Yugoslavia show the horrific consequences of the triumph of chauvinist nationalism, religious fanaticism, and military interventionism. It was the bloodiest European war since 1990, internationally surpassed only by the terror of Islamist-fascist regimes.

Two questions need to be asked: does solidarity with war victims in Ukraine, support for persecuted war opponents in Russia, and the struggle against Russian imperial-military expansionism lead to an unconditional identification with the policies of NATO and Zelensky’s Ukraine? Does the resistance against capitalist geopolitics and Western double standards possibly also mean the trivialization or even justification of Russian power politics, both internally and externally?

An internationalist Left worthy of the name must answer both questions with a decisive “no”. What is at stake is nothing less than the revitalization of a worldwide alliance of multi-layered social movements, which can finally re-establish overarching connections: against militarism, militaristic interventionism, and rearmament, against the deadly borders of Fortress Europe, and for the implementation of social and human rights on a global scale. A first step would be the rebirth of a new international peace movement. The question is: will such a movement be born?

[1] With regard to Russia recognizing the secessionist Ukrainian People’s Republics “threatened by genocide”, reference is often made to the “blueprint” for this manoeuvre, the “threatened by genocide” Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in the NATO war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The German invasion of Poland in 1939 was also justified by the argument that the “foreign Germans”, i.e. the German minority in Poland, had to be protected from anti-German pogroms. Putin could always rely on the support of the Russian Communist Party, which stands arm-in-arm with the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church.