Ukraine war: Roots of the conflict

One year on from the outbreak of the brutal war in Ukraine HANNAH SELL reviews Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War, a book that looks back at roots of the current conflict.

A year ago, on 24 February 2022, the world awoke to discover that the Russian president Vladimir Putin had launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine. Initially, the US offered to airlift the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky out of the capital Kyiv to safety, and in the early hours and days of the invasion most commentators expected a quick and relatively easy victory for Russian forces. Reality turned out very differently. Putin’s miscalculation, and the determined Ukrainian resistance, have revealed that the seemingly mighty Russian military machine is far weaker than it appeared. US imperialism, once it realised that the war offered an opportunity to undermine or even humiliate Putin’s Russia, has provided huge amounts of advanced weaponry to the Ukrainian forces, as have, to a lesser degree, other Western powers. There is, therefore, a large element of a proxy war between Western imperialism, the US in particular, and Putin’s gangster-capitalist regime.

A year on and the war shows no sign of coming to an end. Instead, a brutal, grinding slog is being fought out, often resulting in only small changes in the frontlines for weeks or months, although at the time of writing the Russian forces seem to be inching ahead, and preparing a new offensive. The numbers killed are uncertain, but are clearly high on both sides. At the end of January, General Eirik Kristoffersen, Norway’s defence chief, estimated that Russia had suffered 180,000 dead and wounded, while Ukraine had 100,000 killed or wounded in action along with 30,000 civilian deaths. 

Paul J D’Anieri is an American academic, specialising in the Ukraine. His book, Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War, was published in 2019 before the Russian invasion, and is dealing with the factors behind the war that started in 2014. He is writing from a capitalist point of view. He doesn’t appear to have any understanding of what the character of the Soviet Union was, and in general he doesn’t take the class forces involved into account. Nonetheless, his book is useful because it does draw out at least some of the important underlying local and international factors which have led to war.

Collapse of Stalinism

While he may not have understood Stalinism, he does at least put current events into the context of its collapse, and the aftermath of it. Clearly, the time he spent in the Ukraine in the early 1990s has given him some idea of the character of ‘gangster-capitalism’ in both Ukraine and Russia. He explains that: “Ukraine’s independence in 1991 was enabled by the weakening and collapse of the Soviet state in Moscow. Beginning at that time, both Ukraine and Russia struggled to build new, post-Soviet states, though Russia at least had much of the Soviet apparatus to repurpose. Throughout the 1990s, both states struggled to establish their authority and to perform basic functions such as collecting taxes and enforcing the rule of law. Both were deeply penetrated by powerful economic and political figures known as oligarchs. After 2000, however, their paths diverged. Ukraine continued to have a state that was weak, corrupt, and penetrated by oligarchs, and yet somehow remained pluralistic and, to a large extent, democratic. In Russia, Vladimir Putin built a ‘vertikal’ of power, brought the press under control, and curbed the independence of the oligarchs, all at the expense of democracy”.

D’Anieri is referring to a period when the restoration of capitalism led to a dramatic fall in living standards for the working classes across the whole of what had been the Soviet Union. In 1917, for the first time in history, the working class had taken power in Russia. However, the failure of revolutions in other countries left Russia, an extremely impoverished country, isolated. As a result the revolution degenerated and a brutal Stalinist dictatorship came to power, ruling in the name of the working class.

For decades, despite the huge distortions created by the bureaucratic caste at the top, the planned economy nonetheless enormously developed society. However, at a certain stage bureaucratic mismanagement became an absolute fetter on the economy, resulting in increasing mass discontent. As mass movements resulted, and Stalinism started to implode, capitalism in the West flooded Russia and Eastern Europe with relentless propaganda about the wonders of the ‘free market’.

The then chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, predicted “blooming landscapes” to East Germans in a post-Stalinist world, with living standards reaching those of West Germany, something that has still not happened. In Russia between 1989-1998 output fell by a gigantic 45%. Average male life expectancy fell by over six years to 58, reflecting appalling social disintegration. Even by 2015 real income was still lower for 99% of Russians than it was in 1991. Those who are now known as the oligarchs were the bands of gangsters who successfully clawed their way to the top. Rather than curbing ‘the independence of the oligarchs’ it would be more accurate to say that Putin and his gang, mostly with roots in the KGB – the Soviet security agency – were the most successful mafia bandits, able to rise to the top, dominate the state apparatus, and curb other oligarchs, many of whom decamped to London to spend their ill-gotten fortunes and cosy up to the Tory Party. As D’Anieri indicates there were just as many oligarchs in Ukraine, but none was able to establish decisive dominance over the others. This was the essence of its ‘democracy’, not that different to an uneasy truce between mafia gangs.

Right to self-determination

The author gives numerous examples of another central feature of the period: how the national question came to the fore as the Soviet Union crumbled. He does not deal with anything before the early 1990s. There is no reference to the trenchant defence of the right of nations to self-determination by Lenin and Trotsky, the key leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution. In fact, the only mention of Trotsky is in a list of Ukrainians who have played an important role in Russian history, and are therefore part of ‘Greater Russian’ mythology! Yet both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky consistently supported the rights of the oppressed nationalities to self-determination, which was vital to the success of the revolution. In 1919, for example, Lenin emphasised that the Russian workers’ state held “to the view that the independence of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic be recognised” and that “in view of the fact that Ukrainian culture (language, school, etc) has been suppressed for centuries by Russian tsarism and the exploiting classes” they had to “use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture”. In order to justify the invasion of Ukraine over a century later, Putin still felt compelled to attack Lenin on this issue.

The degeneration of the Soviet Union and consolidation of power by a brutal Stalinist dictatorship, came with a new wave of Greater Russian nationalism, and once again brutal repression against other nationalities. As Trotsky explained in 1939: “The more profound the hopes aroused, the keener was the disillusionment. The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and, in general, all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence”. Given these developments, at the end of the 1930s Trotsky began to argue for “a free, independent Soviet Ukraine”, as a call to the Ukrainian working class to break the grip of both the Moscow and Ukrainian Stalinists and to prevent capitalist restoration.

It was therefore inevitable that 50 years later the national question, in Ukraine and elsewhere, came roaring back as Stalinism imploded and mass movements swept the Soviet Union. The author explains how initially US imperialism attempted to hold back the Ukrainian moves towards independence, fearing the consequences of a chaotic implosion of the Soviet Union. He quotes, for example, George Bush senior’s ‘Chicken Kiev’ speech, when in July 1991 he spoke to the Ukrainian parliament – the Rada – saying that “freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with local despotism”. This is a demonstration of how, for the imperialist countries, the national rights of oppressed peoples are never more than small change, to be cynically and temporarily championed or discarded depending only on the interests of the ‘great powers’.

Centrifugal forces

However, regardless of the wishes of US imperialism, the centrifugal disintegration of the former USSR was inevitable on the basis of capitalism. An unstoppable momentum towards independence for Ukraine developed. As D’Anieri explains, in the Ukrainian presidential election at the end of 1991, all six presidential candidates supported independence and in the referendum taking place at the same time, “the result was overwhelming: 92.3% voted in favour of independence. In every single region of Ukraine, including Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, a majority supported independence. However, in Crimea and Sevastopol, the majorities were smaller than elsewhere: 54.2% and 57.1%, respectively. In both Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, 83.9% voted for independence”.

At that stage, full of hopes for a prosperous and democratic independent Ukraine, it is clear that many Russian-speaking Ukrainians supported independence, although the disappointments, growing restrictions on national minorities using their languages, and repression that came later will undoubtedly have changed some of their minds. Socialists stand for the right of all nationalities of the region to determine their own future, including the populations of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets, free from the threat of military aggression. Even back then, however, there were clearly a large minority in Crimea who looked towards Russia.

Nonetheless, as D’Anieri puts it, Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine who won “running against a nationalist, and who had his highest support in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, adamantly refused to compromise Ukraine’s sovereignty” and, in general, in the following decades, “even those Ukrainian leaders who pursued close economic ties with Russia staunchly defended Ukraine’s sovereignty”. In large part this was because they reflected the deep-felt national aspirations of the Ukrainian people. Of course, from the point of view of the Ukrainian oligarchs it was about fighting to maximize their share of the loot.

On the other side D’Anieri deals with the outlook of the Russian elite. Ukraine had been the third largest Soviet republic and had been heavily industrialised. The vast bulk of Russian’s gas exports to Europe went via Ukraine. In addition, it had military importance, particularly Crimea. From the start the gangster capitalists looting the Russian state saw Ukraine as their territory, as part of their turf. The result was tensions from day one. Russia agreed to Ukraine’s independence, but without resolving the questions of the Crimea, Sevastopol and the Black Sea fleet, all of which were seen as important to Russia.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed at the end of 1991, involving the states that had made up the Soviet Union. Russia sought to maintain a single military force, which it would be able to dominate, but Ukraine refused to accept that. Ukraine signed the founding documents of the CIS but never joined. The book describes how amidst “ongoing tension, the high point of Ukraine-Russia relations came with the signing of a ‘friendship treaty’ in 1997, in which Russia recognised Ukraine’s borders, Ukraine agreed to lease Russia the naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, and the Black Sea Fleet was finally divided”. A precondition for this was US imperialism negotiating with Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons. However, from that ‘high point’ tensions ratcheted up over the following years.

Growing conflict

The ‘gas wars’ over Ukraine’s reliance on Russia providing gas at below-market prices, were a source of constant conflict. D’Anieri points out that for the Ukrainian ruling class there were enormous difficulties in moving to market prices, not only because “it would impoverish many individuals and firms” but also because it would not be a huge exaggeration to say that, “Ukrainian politics since independence has largely been about who would control the gas trade and the (corrupt) benefits that came with it. Market prices would have ended that gravy train” for the Ukrainian oligarchs.

The author deals with the ‘Orange revolution’ of 2004. Regarding the ‘prelude’ to the events he points to the different oligarchs, some looking to the EU and others to Russia, who “were in a constant struggle for power, in which each tried to gain at the others’ expense and all feared that one of the others might become dominant”. He denies any “international plot to instigate a revolution” but describes how both Russia and the EU attempted to influence the 2004 election. While the Orange revolution was undoubtedly a genuine mobilisation from below in the West of Ukraine, D’Anieri also points to the role of “oligarchic cooperation with the protests”, because they were “intent on preserving their autonomy, and hence would oppose anyone becoming so powerful he could control them as Putin had done in Russia”. For the Russian elite, the conclusion of the Orange revolution, with their preferred candidate defeated, meant that whereas “they had assumed that sooner or later Ukraine would return to the fold” they now saw “the prospect it might be lost permanently, and Western interference was seen as to blame”.

On the later 2013-2014 movement, which began over the government’s stepping back from signing an association agreement with the EU, the author makes the important point that “the protests were initially very small”, and that it was not support for the EU but the brutal police repression of the protest early in the morning of 30 November that led to ten thousand people being on the streets that evening, with more joining later. It was then the vicious anti-protest laws, known as ‘the dictatorship laws’ which further fuelled the movement, forcing president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. The Russian seizing of Crimea took place simultaneously.

The author says that Putin “would not have ordered the annexation of Crimea if it hadn’t been massively popular” in Russia. And while much bigger sections of the Russian capitalists undoubtedly opposed the brutal and foolhardy invasion of Ukraine, which will ultimately massively undermine the Putin regime, D’Anieri makes a very important point that seeing Ukraine as part of Russia is a commonplace across all layers of the Russian elite. He quotes, for example, how “in the 1990s, even one of the leading liberals in Russia, Boris Nemstov, advocated regaining Sevastopol by having Russian firms buy assets there: ‘Historical justice should be restored through capitalist methods’.” Nemstov was assassinated, seemingly on Putin’s orders, in 2015. He also quotes Alexei Navalny, imprisoned by Putin, saying in 2014: “I don’t see any difference at all between Russians and Ukrainians”.

No Marshall Aid

Today, US imperialism is cynically using Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a means to bolster its authority and to attempt to bring other powers behind it under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). However, D’Anieri shows that it was a failure of US imperialism that, neither in the direct aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism nor since, has it been capable of significant intervention to develop the economies of Russia or Eastern Europe.

As D’Anieri explains: “The investment bank Morgan Stanley estimated in January 1992 that reforming the post-Soviet economies collectively would require at least $76 billion per year for at least three years to transform sectors such as energy, infrastructure, agriculture and food”. In reality more would have been required. Instead, they got peanuts. D’Anieri points to several reasons for why the US did not implement “a new version of the Marshall Plan”. It was, he argues, “in large part because it was unsustainable politically in the United States. The United States was in recession in 1991-1992 and US leaders hoped to divert a ‘peace dividend’ from foreign policy to domestic spending”. He also adds that there was “uncertainty over Boris Yeltsin’s staying power in Russia. While he had defeated the coup, many in Russia strongly opposed the ‘shock therapy’ being advocated”. In other words US imperialism was uncertain if its interests, which have always governed its actions including the Marshall Plan, would be successfully furthered by Yeltsin.

The ‘shock therapy’ was the brutal restoration overseen by Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1999. As the author points out: “The Bush and Clinton administrations sought to support Boris Yeltsin” at every stage: “The United States provided rhetorical support and campaign advisors (and supported a new IMF loan) to help Boris Yeltsin win re-election in 1996”. For all D’Anieri’s tendency to talk about ‘democracy’ and ‘Western capitalism’ as if they are interchangeable, this was after 1993 when Yeltsin – faced with growing popular unrest at the abject misery capitalist restoration had bought and the Russian parliament threatening to impeach him – called on tanks to shell the Russian parliament and then introduced a new constitution with far greater powers for himself as president. It was that constitution which Putin inherited. For the capitalists, ‘democracy’ is not a principle but an expedient.

And the US’s support for Yeltsin did not provide even the faintest echo of the Marshall Aid plan, when the US transferred over $13 billion (equivalent to $173 billion in 2023) to Western European countries after the end of the second world war. Nor was significant aid forthcoming for Ukraine or other ex-Soviet states. To give one of countless examples, D’Anieri gives a summary of the 2013-14 crisis in Ukraine. At one point, with foreign reserves having dropped to the point where they would cover less than three months of imports, the then Ukrainian president Yanukovych “was trying to negotiate a new loan agreement with the IMF, but its conditionality required reforms that he did not want to entertain”. The ‘reforms’ were vicious counter-reforms, meaning a further “cut in social spending”. As is the case with the neo-colonial world, only loans tied to demands to privatise and cut public services were on offer.

Absence of a counterweight

There were multiple reasons for this stance, and D’Anieri only scratches the surface. It is true that at the time of the collapse of Stalinism the US was in recession and, more generally, already in decline from its position of complete dominance of the capitalist world. Its share of world GDP was 28% in 1989, compared with 50% at the end of the second world war. Nonetheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed it a brief period as a global hyperpower, dominating the planet. Hubristically, large sections of the US capitalist class really did believe that the result would be, as American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously put it in 1989, “not just the end of the Cold War but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of man’s ideological evolution and the universalism of Western liberal democracy”.

However, it was actually the absence of any counterweight to capitalism which meant that there was no appetite in the West for aid on the scale of the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was implemented after the second world war against the background of US imperialism asserting its dominance in shaping the framework of international capitalism. However, the most important driving force for the scale of Marshall Aid, and the aid given to Japan, was fear of revolution. Stalinism emerged from the war strengthened through the extension in eastern Europe of the planned economy, and the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949.

A revolutionary wave swept Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. It was the fear of their rotten system being swept aside that forced the US capitalist class to spend as they did. This created the political preconditions for the world boom that followed between 1950 and 1975. For example, even the US official state history of the occupation in Japan summarises their motivations by saying that: “By late 1947 and early 1948, the emergence of an economic crisis in Japan alongside concerns about the spread of communism sparked a reconsideration of occupation policies”. This period is sometimes called the “reverse course”. And further, that the Allies “became concerned that a weak Japanese economy would increase the influence of the domestic communist movement, and with a communist victory in China’s civil war increasingly likely, the future of East Asia appeared to be at stake”.

Without the hot breath of revolution breathing down their necks, US imperialism and the other Western powers mainly left the gangster capitalists to fight it out among themselves, content for Russia to remain a primitive economy – now around the size of the Belgian and Dutch economies combined – providing raw materials, particularly oil and gas, to the world. Meanwhile, the era of ‘globalisation’ resulted in the Western capitalists, above all in the US, restoring their profits while driving down the global share taken by the working class.

Putin as friend of the West

The West had no objection to Putin becoming president in 2000, and relations continued on a friendly footing when he first came to power. When the US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, in late 2001, Putin provided intelligence to them, and Russia provided logistical assistance to US troops. At the same time, the West, particularly Britain under New Labour prime minister Tony Blair, was equally supportive of Putin’s brutal invasion and occupation of Chechnya, in ‘the second Chechen war’ of 1999-2000. The Blair government increased export licences for controlled military equipment to Russia by 550% as Putin attacked Chechnya. In 2000, Blair summed up his approach declaring: “Vladimir Putin is a leader who is ready to embrace a new relationship with the European Union and United States. He wants a strong and modern Russia and a strong relationship with the West… I want Russia and the West to work together to promote stability and peace”. 

However, over the following years Putin, at the head of a still major military power, if not an economic one, began increasingly to reflect the Russian capitalist classes view that Russia remained ‘a great power’, with the right to imperialist domination of its near abroad. In 2007, at the Munich Global Security Conference, Putin openly criticised the US for an “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations”. In the years since Putin’s regime has come into increasing conflict with the Western imperialist powers. None have had a clear idea how to respond, and – beneath the current veneer of NATO unity – divisions remain over the best way forward, with the EU countries which are both physically closer to Russia and have been more reliant on it for energy, more inclined to try and negotiate with Putin’s regime.

Global factors today

On a certain level D’Anieri’s book gives a useful narrative of the national – both Ukrainian and Russian – factors that led to the start of the 2014 war, and now to the current bloody conflict. He also addresses the failures of US imperialism at the time of the collapse of Stalinism. He does not refer, however, to the global factors that made Putin’s regime feel confident to invade Ukraine. He is writing about the role of the US in a period when it was, briefly, a hyperpower, but that is no longer the case. Today the US remains the strongest nation on the planet, economically and militarily, but it is in decline and is no longer able to ‘call the shots’ in the way it once did.

This, in combination with the rise of China, the development of the EU as ‘regulatory superpower’ (and the continued economic weight of Japan) has created a multipolar world which has given Putin, as the leader of a second-tier power, more room to manoeuvre. The effects of Western sanctions have been limited by a 49% increase of Russian exports to China in the first eight months of 2022. That included a more than doubling of petroleum gas imports, but also increased oil, food and agricultural imports.

The strength of China stands in stark contrast to Russia’s weakness. The Chinese regime watched the catastrophic and chaotic restoration of capitalism unfold in the Soviet Union and concluded that it would not make the same mistakes as the Soviet bureaucracy, which resulted in them being swept away and the once all-powerful Communist Party being banned. The Chinese regime also went down the road of introducing capitalist relations – on an enormous scale – but attempted to do so in a controlled way, with the Stalinist Chinese ‘Communist’ Party state keeping its hands on the reins. Today, it still has a large degree of autonomy in steering the development of capitalism in a way that best preserves its own power.

It is the unique characteristics of China, with the state continuing to play a large role, which has enabled it to develop economically as it has done. Nonetheless, it is riven with contradictions. Up until now, Chinese capitalists have accepted – albeit reluctantly – being curbed by the CCP-led state, but will not do so indefinitely, particularly as the Chinese economy enters crisis. Conflict at the top, however, can also bring the Chinese working class, potentially the most powerful in the world, onto the scene of history.

US imperialism is compelled to try and block China completing the transition from assembly plant for Western multinationals to an advanced manufacturing economy; hence the CHIPS and Science Act, limiting the export of high-tech microchips to China and increasing subsidies to US industry. Such measures are ratcheting up tensions, not only with China, but also the other major capitalist powers, as each moves to defend its own industry. Since the 2008 Great Recession, governments globally have taken five times as many protectionist measures as those in the opposite direction.

War and conflict

This was the background to the invasion of Ukraine, which in turn has accelerated all of those tendencies globally. Back in 2008, the US acted as the world banker of last resort, enabling China to continue growing and, to some extent, ameliorate the effects of the crisis globally. As the US shoots down alleged Chinese spy balloons, it is clear that the global elites are no longer capable of that kind of cooperation. Action on climate change, which obviously has to be international to be effective, is instead part of an increasingly dog-eat-dog protectionist scrap between the major powers. None of this means that global trade has ended, including between the US and China – on the contrary last year the US’s trade deficit with China reached a record $309 billion – but increased protectionism, turbulence and conflict is the order of the day.

This will also pose the danger of more wars. World war is not on the agenda, given the world relationship of forces. In the era of nuclear weapons, a new global war would mean the very extinction of civilisation through the destruction of the productive forces, particularly the most important productive force, the working class. Therefore, the capitalists would not engage in a war which would ensure not only the destruction of their system but of them, their families and all human life and society as we know it. The broad class balance of forces and the strength of the working class is the most powerful factor in staying their hand.

This does not mean, however, that it can be totally excluded that Putin could resort to trying to using one or more of the weapons of mass destruction his regime possesses on the battlefields of Ukraine. If he were to do so it would be met with a massive reaction worldwide. Millions would be mobilised into action for peace, and against retaliation. The Western capitalists would try to direct such a movement, but Putin’s dictatorial regime is in reality a consequence of the failure of the capitalist system to develop the productive forces after the collapse of Stalinism.

As the conflict grinds on, with no certainty of how the stalemate can be broken, the struggle against war, and for the right of nations to self-determination, cannot be separated from the struggle for a democratic socialist world. Alongside increasing war and conflict around the world, we are also seeing increasing movements of the working class and poor against oppression. Winning those movements to a socialist programme is the first priority for all who want to see an end to the horror of war.