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Taras Bilous on the war in Ukraine, why the Ukrainian Left is asking for weapons, and the country’s uncertain future


A child is running in front of the residential building destroyed by Russian artillery strikes in Bakhmut, Donbas, Ukraine on 24 May 2022. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire | xAlexxChanxTszxYukx

In the last few months, Taras Bilous has arguably become the most well-known Ukrainian leftist on the planet. In the days following the Russian invasion, his “Letter to the Western Left” in New Politics went viral, not only among left-wing circles but well into the liberal media sphere. Excoriating what he calls “campists” who ignore the crimes of non-Western states in deference to a perceived “anti-imperialist” obligation, Taras called on leftists in Western Europe to acknowledge Russia’s culpability, support the shipment of weapons by their respective governments, and abandon an “anti-imperialism of idiots” that, in his view, had come to dominate how the Left thinks about geopolitics.

Taras Bilous is an editor at Commons magazine and an activist in the organization Social Movement.

The war is now grinding into its fifth month and costing hundreds of lives every day, with no immediate end in sight. To get his perspective on what has unfolded since his letter was first published, Ivo Georgiev of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Kyiv Office recently sat down with Taras to discuss the war, the debate around weapons shipments, and whether he thinks Ukraine will emerge from the war united or even more divided.

Your “Letter to the Western Left” sparked an important debate. You appealed to the Western European Left to rethink its positions and stop blaming Russia’s aggression on NATO. What have the responses been like?

Many people have written to me. They thanked me for my letter and expressed their solidarity. It has been translated into many languages, even Chinese, which came as a surprise to me. However, I still do not understand what this means for my future activities or the future of our magazine. I will reflect on it after the war, now we are facing more urgent problems. I joined the Territorial Defence Forces and I have very little time for work as a Commons editor or on my texts.

In Germany, many people have read interviews or texts by Commons editors. They argue that the Western European Left misconceived and underestimated Russia’s neo-imperialist intentions, and in some cases even repeated Russian propaganda to justify the invasion. Your criticism provoked a debate on the German Left. One of the recurrent opinions in the debate is that it is better not to discuss whether assessments of Russian aggression are right or wrong because of the bad timing — these critical remarks allegedly could weaken the international Left. What is your reaction to this?

I understand that the war is splitting the Left and can weaken it. The Ukrainian Left experienced this in 2014. However, uncritical debates weaken the Left even more, and a wrong stance on the war discredits the socialist movement. Good examples here are the statements of the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America and the British Stop the War campaign. They only discredit the Left.

Even before our publications criticizing the Western Left, the mainstream Western media harshly criticized such statements, using them to attack all anti-capitalist leftists. This was to be expected. It is naive to hope that the Left will make stupid statements, and our class enemies will not take advantage of this.

I have no time to follow the debates among the international Left and I am not familiar with the situation in different countries. Unfortunately, I know the situation in the United States better than in Western Europe. In the early days of the war, I saw that the Left mostly reacted to the war by taking a defensive stance and trying to justify the campists. An example is an article by David Broder that influenced my decision to write “A Letter to the Western Left”. Such a stance is wrong. It will only contribute to the marginalization of the radical Left. Criticism of the hypocrisy of Western elites is unconvincing if its author defends an obviously erroneous policy.

As I wrote, we must distance ourselves from the “anti-imperialism of idiots” and be honest about our mistakes. A good example of such honesty is an article by Daniel Marwecki, and I am sincerely grateful to the author for it.

At the same time, I understand that discussions on contentious issues take too much time. I am well aware of the fact that too much controversy can provoke conflicts within the Left and weaken it. Specific answers as to how to balance the need to respond to war and to contain these conflicts depend on the specific circumstances.

How did the Ukrainian Left react to the war in Donbas in 2014 and later?

In 2014 I was not a leftist yet, just a person torn by internal conflicts due to the war in Donbas. I took a great interest in the debates of the Ukrainian Left. These debates played a role in my becoming a leftist.

At the same time, the experience of the Ukrainian Left shows that it is important to try to stay within certain limits when engaging with the controversy. When the war is raging in your country, it complicates things. Thus, the heated controversy, unfortunately, also played a role in the decline of the Ukrainian Left. Today it is clear that some of the ruptures that happened then were detrimental, that it would have been better continue a dialogue with some of the opponents, and that it was necessary to break with the others. Especially with those who now openly support Putin or deny the Bucha massacre or actively circulate Russian propaganda.

After the mistakes and splits of 2014–2015, a significant part of the Ukrainian Left (especially those whose position was significantly different from the mainstream one) avoided talking about the war. If they continued those discussions, they tried to do so in private and looked for a format that would facilitate a dialogue rather than intensify a conflict.

This applied, in particular, to the organization I belong to, the Social Movement. Even one of our activists, who fought for a short time in 2014 in a Ukrainian volunteer battalion, often repeated “do not rush to quarrel over the issues that are outside our influence”. Those for whom Donbas was a personally important issue, including me, dealt with this issue outside the organization’s activities. When it became clear that there was a great risk of a new war, we had to change our policy dramatically. When I initiated the anti-war appeal, I had to overcome the opposition of some of our activists, who believed that avoiding this topic was for the best.

In the editorial office of Commons magazine, we approached this topic with much caution as well. We paid attention to every word and polished our materials to avoid any misinterpretations. We could afford to lower our requirements for texts on other topics, but when we published about the war, those were only really good texts. If they were not good enough, we did not publish them.

Such caution helped us to recover from the difficult period of 2014–2015, but it did not protect us from all the mistakes. In particular, it is now clear that we underestimated the threat posed by Russia and paid insufficient attention to Russian imperialism. I was in the wrong too. We used to look at all post-Soviet politicians as cynics interested only in power and their enrichment. Now it is obvious that this perception is wrong.

Things I said about the Social Movement and the Commons were true about the times of a “semi-frozen” conflict. Now the conditions are completely different, and the international Left cannot remain silent. Discussing past mistakes is less important than reconsidering policies and supporting the struggle of the Ukrainian people for freedom. We are not only victims, but we also have our perspective on the future of our country and we are ready to fight for it.

The National Security and Defence Council and President Zelensky recently banned 11 political parties accused of having links with Russia. This ban is possible under martial law, but will this step help in the current situation? For example, we see that a part of the Opposition Platform for Life (OPL), which is represented in the Parliament, is actively involved in the country’s defence and is fighting side by side with “pro-Ukrainian” forces.

Among the banned parties, only the OPL had a faction in the Parliament. The party unites two oligarchic clans: a group around Boyko and Lyovochkin often called a “ gas clan” by Ukrainian journalists because of the importance of gas production and trade in their business, and a group around Medvedchuk, who is a close friend of Putin. One of the members of the second group, Ilya Kyva, who was expelled from the Parliament shortly after the war escalated, recently called on the Kremlin to launch a nuclear strike against Ukraine.

After the Russian invasion, the union with Medvedchuk became toxic to the Boyko-Lyovochkin group. According to Ukrayinska Pravda, the group’s leaders were looking for ways to solve this problem, so they were even happy with the party’s ban. It opened up the possibility of launching a new party, as it happened in 2014 after the Party of Regions disbanded.

Other banned parties did not have any significant influence in Ukraine — some had only a few dozen members. Six out of the banned parties positioned themselves as leftists, but in reality this meant that they used nostalgia for the Soviet Union for their own ends. Some of them were quite conservative or even openly racist. For example, Natalia Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine cooperated closely with the Eurasian Youth Union connected to a neo-fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin in the 2000s.

Nevertheless, the ban is a pointless and counterproductive step that poses additional threats in the future. It jeopardizes the unity among people that emerged in the early days of the war — fortunately, as far as I can tell, its effect was not too significant. More importantly, it provides additional arguments for Russian propaganda and undermines international solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

The distinction between “pro-Ukrainian” and “pro-Russian” political forces has played a major role in Ukrainian politics over the past eight years. Today, this distinction seems to have lost its relevance due to the war and the incredible hardship the country is facing. How is Ukrainian society changing? Has there been more solidarity, a will to unite in the face of the threat of occupation, and more cooperation between different parties and movements? Is anti-Russian sentiment growing?

Of course, anti-Russian sentiment is growing and it will remain strong long after the war is over. This is understandable under the current circumstances. Certainly, solidarity is stronger — many old conflicts have become irrelevant.

Yet future changes in a society strongly depend on the way war activities will unfold. If over the course of negotiations Ukraine is forced to accept painful compromises, the search for scapegoats will begin, and revanchist sentiments will be on the rise. However, if Ukraine wins, a joint victory will be able to overcome old divisions in society and make political debates within the country more open.

What can the citizens of Germany and Western Europe do to help Ukraine and, in particular, the Ukrainian Left?

The Western Left can financially support the Ukrainian Left, collect humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and support Ukrainian refugees. This is what many European leftists are already doing. Yet this is not enough. The international Left must support the struggle of the Ukrainian people at least by their texts, and better yet support the supply of weapons to Ukraine.

Many leftists continue to repeat a dogma that weapons supply will protract the war and lead to an increase in casualties, yet we see clearly that this is not the case. The international Left must realize what stands behind the Russian occupation. The more territories the Russian army occupies, the more civilians will be persecuted and murdered. The more missiles our air defences take down, the fewer of them will reach their targets and kill people.

If anyone believes that stopping the weapons supply will cause Ukraine to surrender, they are wrong. A major part of Ukrainian society will not accept surrender. If the Ukrainian authorities do so, they will be toppled, plunging Ukraine into even greater chaos. We should not forget the experience of Ireland, where more people died in the civil war after the peace treaty with Britain was signed than in the war for independence. I do not want this to happen in Ukraine.

It is appalling that some Western leftists are urging Ukrainians to surrender and stop resisting imperialist aggression. It is not for the West to decide when to stop the resistance and what compromises to make, but for the Ukrainians. This should be our decision.

I understand the fear that the weapons may fall into the wrong hands, but from my experience here, the Ukrainian state now controls the situation much better than in 2014. In the first days of the war, when the future was completely uncertain, in some cities rifles were given to almost everyone volunteering to join the defence. However, the state recovered control rather swiftly. In addition, air defence systems that we desperately need nowadays are less likely to hit the black market compared to guns.

I would like to say to the Western Left, if our words do not convince you, then listen to the Russian anti-war left, who support the provision of weapons to Ukraine. Moreover, take a note of what Russian left-wing intellectuals Greg Yudin and Ilya Budraitskis have to say about the fascism of the Putin regime.

The Western Left in part argues that the war in Ukraine is in NATO’s interests: it weakens Russia, so we should oppose supplying weapons. In your opinion, what position should the Left take in this inter-imperialist conflict?

I think that there is a fallacy to the logic that if we are against NATO, we cannot support weapons shipments. It is more important to assess the potential consequences of the various scenarios for ending this war.

If Russia wins, it will reinforce the inter-imperialist rivalry and, consequently, intensify the arms race. It is difficult to resist militarization in the face of a real threat from Russia, we know this from our experience of the last eight years in Ukraine. Instead, if Ukraine wins, it will be easier to resist militarization and there will be better conditions for a policy aimed at global nuclear disarmament. After all, Ukraine’s victory, even with the help of Western weapons, will show that the Russian army is not so omnipotent and that we urgently need general and complete disarmament.

As far as I can tell, many Western leftists still see their role as critics of the confrontation between the West and Russia, they think in terms of “de-escalation”. Yet after the invasion, it is no longer relevant.

In the current situation, the interests of the international socialist movement and Western governments partly overlap, as was the case during World War II. Of course, every situation is unique, and Putin’s Russia is not the Third Reich. At the same time, it is obvious that this overlap of interests is only partial. For instance, the international Left is not interested in strengthening the United States. We should also not forget that Putin’s regime is now China’s junior partner. While we unequivocally condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine and demand the supply of weapons, in the conflict between the United States and China, we must act following the logic of de-escalation.

The main thing is that although the defeat of Russia is currently in the interests of both Western governments and the socialist movement, we have different perspectives on who should pay for the war. Western governments are still trying to fight while minimizing losses for Western capitalists. The Left must demand that the capitalists, not the working class, pay for economic losses in the first place.

The international Left must try to take advantage of the current situation to promote the right policies. A good example of this is Thomas Piketty’s team’s proposal to sanction wealthy Russian nationals and establish a European Asset Registry.

However, I am not an economist, so I cannot give much advice on economic policy. I am a historian, while my life circumstances forced me to take an interest in war and global security. I have repeatedly written about the need to reform the UN and increase its role in resolving armed conflicts. I have little hope that the UN will have a significant impact on the situation in Ukraine, but I think that the war in Ukraine can be used to democratize the UN and strengthen its future role in the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The first step in this direction could be the introduction of UN peacekeepers to protect nuclear power plants and humanitarian corridors, even though they go against Russia’s position. International leftists could also support the idea of ​​establishing an international tribunal to investigate Russian war crimes. It is uncertain whether the US and UK will approve such a project, as it could become a model for, say, an Iraq War tribunal.

In addition, leftists around the world must support the Syrian opposition, which demands that the Syrian issue be considered not by the UN Security Council but by the UN General Assembly, as per the “Unity for Peace” resolution. With the beginning of the Russian invasion, this resolution was invoked for the first time in 40 years to consider the situation in Ukraine at the eleventh Emergency Special Session. This practice undermines the privileged position of all permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the US, the UK, and France, so they oppose it. However, reducing the role of the Security Council and increasing the role of the General Assembly is exactly what the Left must strive for.

This would be the answer to the problem of inter-imperial rivalry. The Left must not support the strengthening of any imperialism, such as China or the West. We must fight to strengthen the influence of small and poor states. The UN could become an appropriate tool to reach this goal, and African countries have demanded it for a long time.

What will happen in Ukraine after the war? Can you imagine that, after the war, issues of social justice and the welfare state will have a bigger role than before?

Unfortunately, social justice has receded into the background during the war. In addition, as the limitations on labour and employment rights introduced on 15 March 2022 proved, the Ukrainian government continues to follow neoliberal dogma, even though they do not help in wartime. Still, after the war, there is a chance to improve the situation. It will depend on many factors, and first of all on the outcome of the war.

After 2014, the defeat in the war in Donbas provoked bitter and revanchist sentiments in the politically active part of Ukrainian society. At the same time, the protracted semi-frozen conflict caused war fatigue among the politically passive part of society and increased its atomization and alienation from politics. This was one of the preconditions for Zelensky’s phenomenal rise in 2019.

If this war ends with a painful compromise, most likely its consequences will be similar. If it ends with a victory for Ukraine, there will be a chance for some improvement. History knows examples of wars causing a turn to more socially responsible policies. This was true, especially in the cases of “people’s war”, and the current war in Ukraine is of this kind. Mobilized masses learn how to fight, and when they return home, they will expect and demand better lives.

Moreover, the last year in Ukraine was marked by a “de-oligarchization” campaign. Last autumn a conflict between Zelensky and the richest Ukrainian oligarch, Akhmetov, escalated and led to a tax hike for Akhmetov’s companies. On the brink of war, the Ukrainian media actively discussed the flight of oligarchs from Ukraine. This increased class hatred towards them.

We do not know what comes next — it will depend on many factors. The politics of the European Left is one of them. In 2014, the inadequate response of a large part of the Western Left to the war in Donbas discredited the Left in Ukraine. If the international Left contributes to Ukraine’s victory, it will change the situation.

As we stated in the anti-war proclamation of the Social Movement in January this year, “the future of the socialist movement in Ukraine depends on international solidarity”. Ultimately, the future of the global socialist movement may also depend on how much of the international Left will take the right position and support Ukrainian resistance.