Farewell to Life, Farewell to Love…
Ukraine, War and Self-Organisation
“The question confronting us today is whether Liebknecht’s slogan: « The enemy is at home! » is as valid for the class struggle now as it was in 1914.”
So Otto Rühle asked in 1940.
Clausewitz’s “fog of war” phrase aptly describes the media deluge – or barrage – that the Ukrainian war has subjected us to since February 24, 2022. Both camps are fighting a propaganda war aggravated by social media. The Ukrainians have the upper hand: a wealth of pictures (taken by civilians and reporters) are available on their side, far less on the Russian side (no smartphones for the soldiers, no civilians, few reporters). Among other effects, this results in an overabundance of visible destroyed Russian vehicles. What Western people (we included) are shown, however, is only part of the real picture. Besides, the use of algorithms means that greater weight is given to information that bolsters pre-existing points of view. Like the Ancient Greek Diagoras, we all like to pinpoint the explanation that fits in with our beliefs, but in war times the overload of data stifles reasoning. It is hard to keep a critical distance and remain cold-headed enough to understand what is going on… and what we can do about it. Even more so if we happen to live in a belligerent or cobelligerent country.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Russia has invaded Ukraine, not the other way round. However, the difference between the “aggressor” and the “aggressed” (the democrat vs. the dictator, the nice guy vs. the villain…) is not enough of a criterion to understand the full picture. On July 28, 1914, after the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand, the mighty Austrian-Hungarian empire (over 50 million people) declared war on little Serbia (5 millions). In the following days, nearly all European powers went to war, and one of the arguments of France and Britain was to defend the weak against the strong. “No-one can honestly believe we are the aggressors,” said René Viviani, French prime minister of an eminently democratic Republic upon which militarist despotic Germany had just declared war.
Nonetheless, unlike the vast majority of social-democrats of most countries (plus a few anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin) who sided with the “Sacred Union” or “Burgfrieden” (party truce) policy of their respective countries, the Serbian socialist party rejected national defence and voted against war credits. That year, only a handful of revolutionaries resisted war propaganda and political pressure: in Russia, the Bolsheviks and part of the Mensheviks; in Germany, Karl Liebknecht and later Otto Rühle. In Scotland, John McLean wrote on September 1914: “So far as I can see, it will be impossible to tell whether Russia or Germany is immediately responsible for the war”. Internationalists, however, were exceptions to the rule.
Over a century later, no serious historians and few politicians would argue that World War I was caused by a single perpetrator, and they would explain it by the workings of a whole system of opposed and allied countries. Who initiates a war or what triggers its outbreak is only part of a complex situation. For example, in September 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany which had just invaded Poland. Hitler was clearly the culprit… his ally Stalin being an accessory to the crime thanks to the German-Soviet pact a couple of weeks before. A few months later, France and Britain planned a military attack on the USSR, which for its part had just attacked Finland: the Pike operation meant to be a large bombing of Baku’s oil fields, till the May 1940 German offensive forced France and Britain to drop the plan.
Whoever shoots first is beside the point. Every warring country can rightly claim it is defending itself, the invaded against the invader of course, but also the invader merely acting to prevent a third party from occupying or dominating the invaded in its own interest. This is what the USSR did in Hungary in 1956, France and Britain in Egypt the same year, the US in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan, etc. The weak exist only because the strong protect them against some other strong power, and everyone defends themselves in order to avoid being attacked by a neighbour, or being used as a basis for attack.
As many other conflicts before, the war now being played out on Ukrainian territory, at the expense of its population, is part of a confrontation between big blocs, and the particular nature of the political players (democratic or not) is no more a key determinant than in many conflicts before.
In the West, some well-wishers today regret the fact that instead of disbanding NATO when the Warsaw Pact broke up after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the US and its allies have been gradually expanding NATO, which now includes most ex-USSR satellites along Russia’s Western borders. How would the United States feel if Mexico and Canada were part of a military alliance explicitly directed against the US ? (Actually, the US is most displeased with the Solomon Islands recently signing a security pact with China.) In 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has the advantage of retrospectively justifying NATO’s enlargement, and soon its extension to Sweden and Finland.
We are not looking for culprits. It was natural for the US (and its Western NATO allies) to seize the opportunity of the demise of the USSR to promote their interests and to put limits on Russian power. Just as the USSR did in the past. Ukraine has too much strategic value, especially in its East and South, for one side or the other to give it up so easily, because of its large population and labour resources, industries, agriculture, proven or potential oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea, access to and control over that sea, etc.).
« Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here« : it took courage for Marina Ovsyannikova on March 14, 2022 to publicly denounce the war being waged by her own country. It is unlikely that the live evening news on a major French or British TV channel will be interrupted by a protest against Western war propaganda. Are there more pacifists in Moscow than Paris or London ?
Kipling maybe never wrote that “truth is the first casualty of war”, still…
It was to be expected, and for over a century, we have known that “the daily press fabricates more myths in one day than could have formerly been done in a century”, but it is always striking to see how fast every country’s media reflect a consensus corresponding to governmental policy. The overall acceptation of the State’s management of the Covid-19 crisis did not prevent acts of resistance, on a minority scale yet repeated with some public resonance. The current war, on the other hand, does not only breed submission, but also consent – at least as long as the conflict does not drag on to the point that its objectives could lose credibility. In 2022 dozens of millions of men are no longer called up to arms: hundreds of millions of viewers rally in front of their screens.
In Paris as in Marseille, everyone is against the war… yet wishes for Ukrainian victory and asks for more weapons to be supplied, or even for French military to be sent to support the Ukrainian army (which would tantamount to declaring war on Russia). Present “pacifist” yellow and blue gatherings are quite modest and tame compared to the anti-war demos in 2003, when it is worth remembering that nobody wished for Iraq to win, and nobody called for missiles to be sent to Bagdad in order to shoot down American planes… True, the alleged purpose was to defeat terrorism, do away with the Baath regime and turn Iraq into a democracy. Like a plot with a twist too many.
Then why ?
“– This is an anti-fascist war.
– This is war. With its deep origins, its historical motives and its causes. Nationalism, the Versailles Treaty, the competition between expansionist powers.”
Why did Russia embark on a military venture with possible catastrophic consequences, for itself as well ? Where does its interest stand ?
Let’s do away with psychological or even pathological explanations commonly used against an opponent. However senile or mentally confused a political leader might be, he never rules on his own.
History reminds us that launching a war may look like an act of folly, but in fact, at a particular time, it appears to be the most “reasonable” option for a State. The logic and the interests of the ruling classes differ a lot from those of the common people and the proletarians.
It is unlikely that we will ever know the exact initial Russian war aims.
First, the nature and scope of the operation took nearly all observers and experts by surprise. If there was an imminent risk of an invasion, if it was being prepared (all general staffs have contingency plans with multiple alternatives), and preceded by huge manoeuvers in Belarus, it is not certain that the operation was truly chosen, and even less the trigger date: it could well have been imposed on the Russian rulers by the complex and eventually fatal dynamics of the confrontation between NATO and Russia, especially since 2014, notably :
– the rivalry between the US and Russia with regard to European energy supply;
– the increase in the deployment of NATO troops in the region (the Baltic countries, Poland and Rumania);
– in 2021, the increase in arms supply to Ukraine, whose rising military capacity could enable it in some unforeseeable near future to reconquer the secessionist Donbas, or at least to successfully prevent further Russian intervention;
– the evolution and failure of the negotiations over the status of Ukraine (neutralisation ? demilitarisation ? NATO membership ?) and of the Donbas (autonomy ? independence ?), up to the weeks before the offensive;
– just as the US was denouncing the impending threat of a Russian invasion, Joe Biden declared on January 25: “We have no intention of putting American forces or NATO forces in Ukraine”, which in diplomatic speech could be seen as non-committal.
– the apparent weakness and division between European countries which seem too dependent upon Russia to impose further penalties on its economy;
– elements which up to now evade our grasp – experts mention a possible Russian policy shift between February 21 and 23;
– a sense of urgency: “It’s now or never !”.
The invasion was first thought about as a hypothesis, brandished as a threat in a diplomatic poker game, and most likely decided upon, then delayed, perhaps more than once : the final decision was probably taken at the last minute, after losing several weeks, which accounts for dreadful weather conditions due to muddy Rasputitsa.
Unfolding of military operations
“No plan can stand its first encounter with the enemy.”
(Moltke, Prussian marshall, 1800-1880)
“Well-informed” pundits were first bewildered by the fact that the ground offensive was not preceded by several hours of air bombings and ballistic and cruise missile strikes against Ukrainian barracks, airfields, anti-aircraft systems and radars. On the contrary, the US army and its European auxiliaries rarely venture on the field before bombing enemy positions and towns for weeks, months sometimes (Iraq, 1991; Serbia, 1999; Iraq, 2003; Mosul, 2017, etc.) What truly differentiates those armies is their respective relations to death, i.e. their soldiers’ lives.
Experts were also surprised by how daring the initial plan was – not unlike a risky roll of the dice in a wargame. Probably the aim was to force Ukraine to capitulate in a few days after a large scale heliborne operation against an airport in the Kiev suburbs, leading to tank intervention, the capture of the capital and the fall of the government. Actually, paratroopers managed to take over the airport, but they were repulsed by a counter-offensive and the operation failed. Meanwhile, in several places, columns of armoured vehicles crossed the border and penetrated the country, though with little precaution or protection, with no tactical air support and, more importantly, with no previous artillery support, which was a surprise: the Russian army usually follows the Soviet tradition of “extensive artillery use” and “free-fall bomb airstrike”, explains military analyst Michel Goya. There was also no destruction of strategic sites, no disruption of communication networks or of the electricity grid (in Serbia, 1999, NATO targeted bridges and power stations). Whatever Western media are saying, in the first two weeks Russia showed a modicum of “restraint”. Part of the reason was a will to prevent world media from giving not too negative a view of the operation, and to preserve the country’s infrastructures and heavy goods industries in the areas that Russia wished to incorporate. The main cause, however, was the desire not to alienate Russian-speaking people who the invaders hoped would welcome them hospitably, all the more so as the alleged purpose of the operation was to liberate Ukraine from a Nazi yoke.
This strategy failed. Russian intelligence had completely misunderstood the situation. The population was hostile and even improvised armed resistance, sometimes throwing makeshift petrol bombs. Besides, the invaders were met with a much more determined Ukrainian army than expected. They could not benefit from any surprise effect : weeks of manoeuvres in Belarus had of course put the Ukrainians on alert, and they were given detailed information of the forthcoming operation by US intelligence, so they could get ready for the fight by spreading soldiers and materials to limit the impact of the first Russian bombings.
Instead of moving forward on open land, Russian columns of tanks and supply lorries were faced with fierce guerrilla : they were prime targets, not so much for armed civilians as for small units of soldiers using fearsome anti-tank missiles (the American Javelin or the Swedish NLAW), or combat drones (Turkish Bayraktar). The army’s advance seems to have also been slowed by lack of fuel, food, maybe munitions, i.e. inadequate logistics or possibly poor preparation. This resulted in relatively low fighting spirit, especially after weeks of exhausting manoeuvres.
When a fortnight had passed with the thaw setting in and the roads becoming slushy, frontlines tended to freeze and the attackers started showing much less moderation in shelling the suburbs of besieged cities where the Ukrainian infantry army was positioning itself. The Russian air force remained rather inactive: apparently, it had few precision munitions, so it had to operate in clear sight, but the weather was bad and the sky ceiling was overcast, which forced planes to fly within range of the Ukrainian Manpads (portable ground-air missiles) and quite a few planes went down. (Until February 23, 2022, US, British and Canadian special forces had been in the country, training local soldiers in the use of those weapons: they left a few hours before the Russian offensive, but they are known to go off the books and acquire a new nationality for a while, Ukrainian in this case.) The Ukrainian military effort was soon strongly supported by NATO, which helped with equipment (supplying more and more arms and materials), training (in the country and abroad), management (Americans have been seen supervising and checking the enrolment of foreign volunteers in the Ukrainian army.) NATO assistance also includes intelligence: Western spy satellites of course, but also electronic planes or drones flying across the Ukrainian borders and the Russian coastlines, providing Kiev with real-time information that is vital in combat.
When Western media emphasised the fact that the Russians made a point of bombing schools, hospitals, maternities, kindergarten… the truth was that the invaders had trouble defeating the Ukrainian forces. It is in the nature of modern warfare to take place in urban areas, where civilians live and work. When the Ukrainian army takes an inhabited area back from the Russians, it uses the same methods as them, with nearly the same equipment (minus an air force), and roughly the same doctrine.
It soon became widespread belief that the Russians were failing or being stalemated, but this begs the question : what was the Kremlin initially aiming at ? There is a difference between political and military objectives : the latter must be broader than the former, in order to get control over territories which will serve as bargaining chips when the time comes for negotiations. Taking over the whole of Ukraine is probably not the Russian objective: occupying all the country would be too costly and too complex, whereas it would make more sense to keep Ukraine limited to its Western parts (if only to receive millions of refugees and displaced populations hostile to Russia). Annexing new provinces (the Western Dnieper border, plus part or whole of the Black Sea coast) is more likely – and this is what the Kremlin more or less openly wants. In any case, unless it risks humiliation in the eyes of the world and its own population, Russia cannot stop before it conquers a minimum of strategic positions. As French general Vincent Desportes said on March 3, 2022 :
“Putin is in the exact posture of the gambler. He made a bet, he lost it at the start. How far will he continue to bet so as not to leave with empty pockets? That’s what it all boils down to. And the West must understand that Putin can’t walk away with empty pockets, because if he has the feeling that he risks walking away with empty pockets, he will go on betting. This is the mirage of victory that seizes all leaders who engage in a military operation.”
At the end of March, as it was clear that the Russian troops were being bogged down, to avoid dramatic failure, they drew away from the areas they had seized around Kiev and in the North of the country, and redeployed in the East. Now the official Kremlin war aim has changed to completing the conquest of the Donbas and securing a territorial continuity between that region and the Crimea, and possibly Transnistria much further west. So the Russians have revived their classical doctrine and made ample use of artillery preparation and air bombing. At the end of April, they moved on slowly and methodically. Both human and material confrontation has become merciless, the balance of forces being more or less equal on each side. Moscow has mobilised rather small numbers, about 200.000 compared to between 150.000 and 200.000 Ukrainians, but it benefits from a certain air supremacy (limited by Ukrainian ground-air missiles), and more artillery (despite strong Ukrainian fortifications). If it cannot break resistance in the Donbas, Russia will have to look for another option to avoid losing face… and a turnaround situation could happen with possible Ukrainian offensives against Transnistria or Crimea. As very few countries seem to be committed to de-escalation, the risk of a rise to extremes has now become quite real. Either in the current war, or in a later one in the same region.
The people self-organise
As we have seen, Russia expected a warm welcome in the Russian-speaking areas in the East and North, but hardly received it. In the early days, the mobilisation of the Ukrainian population has been much commented upon, by bourgeois as well as by radical media. However, it appears we are witnessing two different things.
First, there has been basic material solidarity in order to react to the disaster: helping and assisting refugees that fled from combat zones (they’ve just arrived from the nearest town and are now sitting on our doorstep, so let’s do something), giving first-aid to injured people, rescuing others buried under the rubble, etc. People organise as they can, in coordination with public safety services, local authorities, an NGO, or simply between neighbours. This has been interpreted as the emergence of proletarian self-organisation which could lead to emancipation if it developed and spread. Such a view seems to us an exaggeration : these actions express minimal mutual help gestures that are rather common among human beings.
Secondly, there is a mobilisation which we can call martial, war-related, because its objective is to fight back against the Russian offensive. There again self-organisation takes place, particularly wherever public services are deficient or overwhelmed. Artists create a workshop that manufactures petrol bombs. Restaurant personnel organise a canteen to supply soldiers with ration packs. A factory converts to making anti-tank obstacles. Women gather to weave camouflage nets. Retirees fill in sandbags. Locals erect a barricade. Etc.
What strikes people unfamiliar with war (i.e. people like us) is to see civilians queuing to don a uniform and join the territorial defence (TD), the part of the Ukrainian army made of reservists and volunteers. Dozens of thousands of assault rifles have been handed over to the population, and prison inmates have been set free in exchange for their taking part in the fighting. Very soon, however, it’s the arms and the equipment that are lacking, not the volunteers. In the beginning, those who enlisted had to provide for most of their personal equipment, and pay for it, in military stores (fatigues, strappings, helmet, bullet-proof vest, etc.). As for the others, mainly those put on a waiting list, unless they have military experience, the government first and foremost asks them to get back to work – another and in fact essential form of resistance.
It is easy to realise that the tactical value of such units is indeed very limited. The TD’s real role is to relieve properly trained soldiers of the most thankless and time-consuming tasks: keeping watch over bridges and depots behind the lines, patrolling the towns, imposing a curfew and fighting looters. This opens the way to abuses and excesses. Checkpoints and identity controls multiply under the authority of your neighbour, your shop-keeper or your work-mate. Citizens keep a watchful eye, denounce suspicious characters and hunt down suspects (spies, saboteurs, pro-Russians ?), who are arrested and transferred nobody really knows where to be interrogated. As the law courts no longer function, TD usually resorts to summary justice, particularly regarding thieves and looters (those who are not shot on the spot are tied to a post in the street, their trousers pulled down to the ankles in the icy cold).
More significant to us are civilian initiatives to block roadways and traffic routes, to stop columns of tanks by non-violent action, as happened before in Iran (1979), Peking (1989) and Slovenia (1990). Still, once again, this does not express an outright rejection of war, a somewhat naïve pacifism, but rather a deep-seated nationalism: people are not seen waving peace flags, just the Ukrainian banner. The present crisis probably enables us to witness the completion of a Ukrainian nation, the end of a long process that began with the independence in 1991: whatever languages they speak, a population suddenly becomes conscious of its past and present specificity, cultural and maybe religious as well (the Orthodox church that depended on Moscow is now asserting its independence). Beyond class differences, a national reality is dawning… although in historical terms these specific features can be described as superficial, and created out of nothingness for the occasion, as happened when Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s. Some people find this quite moving, and it does not appear to bother a certain number of Western humanists and social-democrats usually intensely sensitive to anything that smacks of national feelings. An excellent illustration was to be found in the French film-maker Mathieu Kassovitz telling a reporter that the Ukrainians, whom he says he knows quite well, are “ultra-nationalist in the good sense : they’re proud of their country and want to protect it absolutely”. The same goes for some French far-left activists who generally regard the mere presence of the three-colour flag in a demo as a sign of proto-fascism. Indeed some Ukrainian anarcho-syndicalists are already promoting a “creative and liberating nationalism”.
That feeling is logically in tune with the support given by the population to their army, an ardent and longstanding support, combined with virile attitudes that seem slightly out of place in Western Europe, but which “naturally” explain the will to take up arms to defend one’s country. At the same time, “training, maintaining and arming Ukraine, plus the IMF’s requirements regarding its loans to the [Ukrainian] State, also structurally cause the dismantling of hospitals, under-investment in schools, lower old age pensions and no wage rise in the public sector” (Letter from Ukraine). It bears repeating that defending one’s country is defending the interests of one’s “own” bourgeoisie against a rival one.
There’s a limit to what the extolment of soil, blood and democracy can achieve, though. From the early days of the invasion, compulsory military service was introduced, which made it possible to conscript all males from 18 to 60, plus the ban on leaving the country: not every Ukrainian seems to be keen to be in the army or the TD. There are draft-evaders and deserters, which explains why there are border controls in the spots where refugees are leaving the country. Others prudently become part of their local TD, far from the front, to avoid being forcibly incorporated into a combat unit. Sadly for them, thanks to NATO, the army is now supplied with dozens of thousands of helmets and bullet-proof vests, so it can equip more recruits (and TD members) and send them to the much-feared Eastern front… which mechanically results in a growing number of war resisters, and even probably the first protests against compulsory military service, in Khust, in the west of the country.
Nevertheless, after a few rather hesitant weeks, the government has quickly regained control, mainly, let’s face it, thanks to support from its citizens: they did not self-organise against the State or because it had gone absent, but to avoid its crumbling under the battering of the Russians. This was a fairly “normal” reaction in a country with a strong national unity feeling, reinforced by ad hoc propaganda. Which once more confirms that self-organisation is not revolutionary in itself.
What is to be done… under the bombing ?
We experience neither the life of the Ukrainians, nor the situation of anarchists or communists living in Ukraine. We do not know what must be done there, we cannot pass judgement on their activity, because, whatever we think, we do not know how we would react in their place. With historical hindsight, it may seem easy to assess a situation because we know how it unfolded and ended. But it is truly impossible to know what “internationalist” stand we would have taken in August 1914 or June 1940. That said, should our Ukrainian comrades be immune from criticism just because they are the ones involved ? What they do is of course their own concern; but the way they understand and justify their activity, their discourse which is echoed abroad by other groups, that at the very least warrants discussion.
The reactions of Ukrainian radical activists appear quite diverse, even sometimes contradictory. A few antimilitarist and pacifist comrades maintain “revolutionary defeatism” positions, but asserting them in their country looks as risky as in Russia, while others commit themselves to helping refugees and the wounded.
Outside Ukraine, it certainly came as a surprise to hear that Ukrainian anarchists had enrolled in the army or the TD. It appears that a few groups took the opportunity of arms distributions to organise combat units. A pamphlet mentions the creation of “two squads”, and about twenty activists are pictured wearing army gear and holding Kalashnikovs between a black flag with an A surrounded by a circle: the caption cautiously says that these units “probably have a certain degree of autonomy” within the TD, which is to be read as a sure degree of subordination. In fact, after a short chaotic period, the army obviously tried to control groups of armed civilians, particularly if they openly expressed a political ideology clearly incompatible with State rule. Anarchist or antifa military units probably comprise no more than a few dozen local fighters (plus perhaps a similar number of people from the West) in war zones where two giant armies meet, made of hundreds of thousands of men. (“Men” sounds an old-fashioned synonym for “soldiers”, but both armies show little concern for recent Western evolutions regarding gender. With possible rare exceptions in the TD, fighters are male, whereas those that flee the combat zones are women, children and elderly people.) Let’s bear in mind that the (in)famous Azov battalion – only one military branch of the Ukrainian far-right among many – is a permanent TD unit, made of several thousand fighters, with its own armoured vehicles and tanks (most of them destroyed during the siege of Mariupol).
The first videos of locals ambushing and defeating Russian convoys created the illusion that if the Ukrainian State was collapsing, the Russian army was going to be challenged by a vast popular guerrilla made of autonomous groups each acting in its own area: groups certainly mostly patriotic, but in the middle of which anarchists might finally manage to play an influential role…
This is forgetting that an armed resistance can only be successful if it is structured, disciplined, as well as financed and supported by other States (unless the invader or occupier is beset from within by desertions and mutinies – which is not the Russian army’s case).
What happened was that, after a few days of fighting with spectacular acts of techno-guerrilla by small units of professional soldiers (specifically trained by Americans), encounters very quickly took on a more classic form : a confrontation between large heavily armed units, in which coordination, movement, artillery duels and ammunition and fuel supplies play a vital role. What became of the anarchist “squads” in such a maelstrom ? It is unlikely that it helped them obtain more autonomy.
So why choose to enrol ? In several texts, Ukrainian anarchists and radicals explain their wish to “weigh in on” the course of the events, to be ready “just in case…”, to avoid being cut off from the rest of society :
“If we stay away from conflicts between States, we stay away from real politics. This is one of the most important social conflicts taking place in our region today. If we isolate ourselves from this conflict, we isolate ourselves from the current social process. So we have to be part of it one way or another.” (Entretien…)
This text and similar ones wish to explain the necessity of defending “society”, of course not defending the State, and when some anarchists admit they have suspended the anti-State fight, they say it is only for a while, until the time comes to resume fighting after the war. First let’s win the war, then we’ll go back to revolutionary action… We’ve heard that before. It seems no lessons have been drawn from the Russian or Spanish civil wars. Some people justify joining the anti-Russian effort by referring to the wars that preceded the Paris Commune or the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, or even the alleged role of the Afghan conflict in the demise of the USSR. Whatever, for the unfolding of a war, and above all its after-effects, to cause a revolution, it is necessary for a revolutionary situation to be maturing. There’s no determinism here. Moreover, nothing proves that actively participating in the conflict, let alone joining one army against another, can contribute to this maturation.
“Historically, the overwhelming majority of proletarians, on the occasion of each warlike conflict, aligned themselves with their national capital and the imperialist front which they were a part of (in the era of imperialism, all national capital is potentially imperialist, just as any war is by definition imperialist). It is only when the conflict has dragged on – beyond the expectations of the very governments that promoted it – to the point of having a heavy impact on living and working conditions, that they opposed it more or less vigorously [..]” (Lato Cattivo)
We hardly need point out that the history of humankind abounds in wars which in nearly all cases have had catastrophic consequences for the proletarians.
Could widespread discontent or proletarian rebellion cause the Russian army and then the regime to crumble ? At the beginning of the invasion, the troops’ low morale led some observers to believe that the winds of mutiny were blowing over the campaigning Russian army, which was not the case. The retreat from Kiev proceeded in orderly fashion, and the Donbas offensive in April proves that the wavering and mistakes of the early weeks have been remedied.
Pacifist protests have certainly been taking place in several Russian cities, but a large part of public opinion (even in some opposition parties) supports the invasion. As we know, foreign war is generally a good way of rallying the citizens around the government and distracting them from social evils under a propaganda shower (as did the Libya war in 2011). In that situation, economic sanctions impoverish the population, but also often shore up national feelings and thus the regime (e.g. in Cuba, Iraq, etc.). All the same, if the war dragged on to the point of weakening the government and a people’s revolt was brewing, and if repression proved ineffective, the ruling class would try and divert discontent towards a political alternative: either a more extreme policy (Kremlin hawks bemoan the lack of assertiveness in the running of the war), or a more democratic regime (though without going as far as replacing Putin by the West’s favourite Alexei Navalny).
A popular revolt in Ukraine seems even more unlikely. As explained before, citizens are self-organising on the basis of a national feeling. This is consolidating the State, just as the government is more legitimate thanks to its management of the crisis. A large popular momentum that strengthens a sense of national belonging is by nature inter-classist and counter-revolutionary.
It is difficult to foresee how much the war will promote a more democratic Ukraine (that is, more scope for parliament and local institutions). Until now, we have seen a real militarisation of society, media censorship, a ban on left-wing opposition, and a hunt after draft-dodgers. Nationalist and reactionary forces have the wind in their sails – not a novelty in Ukraine. If Anatole France was still here, he might sum up the situation as he did exactly a century ago:
“You think you are dying for your country; you’re dying for the industrialists.” (He also wrote: “A people living under the perpetual menace of war and invasion is very easy to govern.”)
Knowing that the part played by anarchists and radicals in the conflict is not a large one, the reader might ask why we devote so many lines to this question.
First, the importance of a subject does not lie in the number of people involved.
Second, many media, including mainstream bourgeois ones, and of course social media, mention these commitments. Those radical activists that act in support of the Ukrainian army are very vocal about their involvement, and their message apparently strikes a responsive chord in France and other countries. In a near future, it is not impossible that the figure of the anarchist fighter in Ukraine becomes a reference for political radicalism, on par with the Kurdish soldier in Rojava. Needless to say, another deplorable source of confusion.
What is to be done… outside Ukraine ?
“Above all, do not let yourself be carried away by the immediate aspect of events, by propaganda, by the ease of simplification. There are times when we have no control over the course of things. Better to know it and not hide our helplessness with gesticulation or, worse, embark on a boat that is not ours.” (Louis Mercier-Vega)
At the risk of appearing negative, let’s admit there is little that can be done concretely. The most classic stand, the most in tune with the seasoned principles of revolutionary defeatism, at least for those who think the proletarians have no country, would be to fight here against our own bourgeoisie. This would make sense in cobelligerent countries like France, Germany, Britain or the US. Such a revolutionary internationalist position is now being held by a variety of anarchists, ultra-leftists, libertarian communists or even some Trotskyites, but it is by no means certain that it is shared by a majority of activists or people involved in “social struggles”. We are well aware of the present state of class struggle in France (and elsewhere), and how it breeds a feeling of powerlessness, despair and disorientation. Actually, it seems the bleaker the situation is, the more pressing the need to act becomes: people want to be effective, to “impact” the real world… whereas in fact perhaps the revolutionary movement has never had so little impact upon events. This explains the appeal of faraway struggles and the pressure to take sides, which implies compromises and brings about either a bad conscience, or the moral obligation to help “those who do something”, whatever it is.
(In the last French presidential elections, when some radicals called for a vote for a left-wing candidate, somebody reacted with a biting Twitter comment which could be applied to quite a few political realignments on the Ukraine issue: “Those guys think their calling for such a vote is a break with their usual activism, whereas it’s a mere culmination of it.” Biting indeed.)
So what to do ? Asking for NATO to supply arms, as some libertarians did in the case of Rojava, does not make much sense: arms are being delivered in abundance, and billions of dollars are being credited. Likewise, asking for French soldiers to be sent to the battlefield, as some humanists would have it, as well as enforcing a no-fly zone, would be tantamount to declaring war on Russia.
A belief in Good battling with Evil (in an even cruder way than in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels) logically results in the necessity of having strong good armies capable of defending democracy and “our values”, which in the real world means NATO. This goes with asking for significant defence budgets and a powerful innovative military-industrial complex that can outperform its Russian and Chinese rivals. Whoever wills the end must also will the means.
(Talking of values, compared to sexist racist homophobic Russia, NATO can easily pass off as LGBT-friendly. Let the allies speak for themselves: “NATO is committed to diversity. Organisation policy strictly forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation, as well as sex, race or ethnic origin, religion, nationality, disability, or age. NATO was also a world leader in recognising same-sex marriage. The organisation extended equal spousal benefits to same-sex couples in July 2002, at a time when only one country in the world – the Netherlands – recognised same-sex marriage.” Regarding women’s rights, though, Ukrainian woman refugees in Poland realise that this country has recently tightened what was already a near total ban on abortion.)
The 1914 “Sacred Union” (rich with religious undertones) was centred on fatherland (or motherland) and national pride: the 2022 consensus emphasises democracy and the common good. Rather than nationalists (nationalism has a bad name these days), it is best to present Ukrainians patriots as freedom fighters. As happened in the 1999 Kosovo war, this rationale has even permeated the most radical activist milieus (though a tiny minority sides with Moscow on the basis of a simplistic anti-Americanism).
Some have chosen to financially support the anarchists and antifas fighting in the ranks of the Ukrainian army : when they organise concerts and solidarity events, they usually tone down the military aspect of the question and, probably slightly embarrassed, they bend the words to make them fit their present policy. The same activist mag which in 2016 denounced the creation in France of a National Reservists’ Guard, now approves of the one that exists in Ukraine. Rather than “army” and “soldiers”, we are told about “resistance” and “armed volunteers”, or “militias”, which is evocative of 1936 Spain (though in 2022 Ukraine, the war opposes two nationalist contestants). Despite its heavy presence in the Kiev army, the importance of the far-right is played down. When in France for instance far-right Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour are commonly accused of being fascists, the Azov battalion benefits from more leniency, despite a much more extremist ideology… which its leaders say only belongs to the past. Actually, there are very few countries in the world where a far-right organisation has its own legitimate military units within the national army.
In the West, Ukrainian texts are being translated and circulated, often with a degree of uneasiness or tolerance, even with the same condescending manner used for the Syrian Kurds – except this time there is no illusion whatsoever about social change now happening in Ukraine.
Here again, our point of view can be distorted by the obvious fact that people choose to take up arms and risk their lives, while “armchair theorists” analyse what these people are doing. Besides, those who stand for social emancipation are not immune from the seductiveness of weapons and uniforms, or from the prestige of the guy who’s handled an assault rifle. Though this is of course criticised when it comes from the far-right, it can also be found among radicals, from the Spanish civil war to Nicaragua to Rojava…
Supporting army deserters is a classic revolutionary activity in war times: organising networks to cross borders, obtaining false IDs, sheltering fugitives… which is more possible in bordering countries. In France nowadays, people march with banners or initiate events to support “Russian resisters, draft-dodgers and deserters”, yet nothing seems to be done regarding their Ukrainian equivalents though there are more and more of them. The situation might change but for the time being, it reminds us that during the war in Syria, Kurds that evaded compulsory military service in the YPG were conveniently ignored by far-left public opinion when many of them were seeking refuge in European cities. (France no longer has military conscription, only a professional army, but there are about 2.000 deserters every year who put an end to their enlistment by fleeing or living outside the law. Some end up in court. Nobody cares. That could change in future.)
Once again, we do not wish to criticise the way some people react to the bombing of their town or country: only, if need be, the way they interpret what they are trying to do in Ukraine and the way their discourse is interpreted outside Ukraine.
It is a well-known strong tendency in activist circles to perceive “potentials” everywhere, especially in faraway exotic places, often to the point of distorting reality. But beyond that reflex, the spectres haunting the Ukrainian question, more bewitchingly and perhaps more openly than in other “theatres of operation”, are nothing but militarism, nationalism and Sacred Union – all morbid variations on inter-classism. As history sadly proves, if circumstances allow, even the most accomplished activists with a deeply-acquired radical doctrine can let themselves be carried away by these ideologies.
As for us, we are not being bombed, no fighting is taking place down the street and we do not risk being killed every minute. Therefore we have no excuse for woolly thinking. We can benefit from a relatively comfortable position to think back and assess the current events. Indeed it would be a mistake not to, because this situation may not last as long as people believe.
So war is back ?
“War’s back”: the implicit is that this is only happening in Europe.
But did war ever leave ? The difference is that in 2022 it strikes at the centre of Europe instead of its periphery, as happened in the 1990s in the ex-Yugoslavia, until NATO’s offensive against Serbia in 1999. It is certain today that these wars benefited the European Union (EU) and NATO, which both integrated new members. Sarajevo may be closer to Paris than Kiev, but Serbia never challenged the domination of the US and of the EU over Europe, which is exactly what Russia is doing today. Unlike the fate of Bosnia three decades ago, what is at stake in Ukraine is crucial because that country lies at the heart of a Europe that is one of the world’s leading industrial, commercial and financial powerhouses. It is crucial as a place of conflict between some of the hegemons of the planet, including major nuclear powers, and it mobilises vast mechanical and human resources, with already huge economic consequences. If anything is back, it is high intensity war.
At the time of writing, the most likely and most “reasonable” outcome is that Russia completes its conquest of the Donbas oblasts, with an end to the hostilities, the opening of negotiations and a peace agreement that might legitimise one way or another the linkage of those areas with the Russian Federation. If such a border adjustment could have been negotiated in 2021 without going to war, it would have been beneficial both to Russia and Ukraine. A conflict that drags on would be harmful to everyone, most of all to Russia which has no interest in being bogged down in Ukraine as it was in Afghanistan. Everyone… except the country which will decide how the situation evolves : the US. Will it grant Russia a meagre victory by letting the war continue for a few more months, or decide to fight till the last Ukrainian ?
Meanwhile, arms supplies to Kiev, which were sizable before the invasion, have now developed into millions of tons of steel and billions of dollars. And there’s more to come. A trend that had already been strong for several years is now amplifying. Military budgets are growing in EU and NATO countries which are competing to place orders for tanks, war planes, etc., from the American military industry. In the current war, up to now, the US is the real victor. While the arms sector of the Old Continent is outperformed by US competitors, the plans for European Defence are being finally shelved in favour of a revived NATO. Many countries are now openly choosing to bow to Washington. This deliberate (and very costly) submission could only be interrupted by the emergence of a new military power in Europe – which is highly unlikely as one of the roles of NATO is precisely to prevent it. As its first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, once explained, NATO was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” One of the unforeseen effects of the Ukrainian war, however, is the remilitarisation of Germany, which has just announced a supplementary military budget of 100 billion euros for 2022 (added to defence expenditures of about 50 billion, compared to 40 billion in France). For the moment, this will be spent on “made in the US” arms. Still, we may be in for some surprises.
Western governments may be tempted to help Russia wear itself out in Ukraine, but this could lead marginally involved countries into an uncontrollable escalation, with the risk of the conflict spreading to the point of forcing NATO – therefore the US – into direct intervention. This could happen in the case of a Russian blockade of the Suwalki gap (the corridor that separates Kaliningrad from Belarus), or if a hard-pressed Russia invaded the Baltic States. This would not necessarily lead to nuclear war, but the US could be the one bogged down, in Europe, an unadvisable situation in case a Third World War was to take place in the Pacific: huge weapon shipments to Ukraine are detrimental to those reserved for Taiwan, and the 7.000 anti-tank Javelin missiles sent to Ukraine represent one third of all American stock. The question is how far – and possibly too far – a State can go.
Apart from the casualties in the field (which never bother the capitalist class too much), the main collateral damage of the affair is the fact that Russia is breaking with Europe and moving towards Asia, notably China. Is this an issue ? The illusion of an understanding and possibly an alliance between the European Union and the Russian Federation has come to an end, and with it the dream of a more democratic Russia. Blocs are appearing and crystallising. Despite its trail of horrors, the Ukrainian war might be no more than a skirmish heralding much larger conflicts in the short or medium term.
In the meantime, those who take the rap, as usual, are the proletarians: worsening of the crisis, fierce world competition, increased exploitation, inflation, rising military budgets therefore more taxes and less social services (health, education), etc. Local rebellions there will be, in France particularly, but nothing that now appears able to shatter capitalist order or put an end to inter-State tensions. In the event of France or its army being more directly involved in high intensity warfare (similar to what Ukraine is going through), we can assume that government and media will tell us that it’s all for the purpose of defending justice, Law and democracy, just as in 1914 ! Then, if we wish to remain consistent with ourselves, what shall we do ?
In 1940, when what is now called the Second World War was unfolding, Otto Rühle answered: “No matter to which side the proletariat offers itself, it will be among the defeated. Therefore it must not side with the democracies, nor with the totalitarians.”
Tristan Leoni, May 8, 2022.
Note: This is a slightly modified translation of Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour… Ukraine, guerre et auto-organisation.
Also by Tristan Leoni: Manu militari ? Radiographie critique de l’armée, Le Monde à l’envers, 2020 (in French).
The title is borrowed from a line (“Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour”) of the Chanson de Craonne, a famous anti-militarist song written in the French trenches during WW I.
Otto Rühle, Which Side To Take ?, Living Marxism, Autumn 1940.
“The daily press fabricates more myths…”: Marx to Kugelmann, July 27, 1871.
Louis Mercier-Vega (1914-1977), Belgian syndicalist and anarchist, fought with the Durruti Column. Quote from La Chevauchée anonyme, Éditions Noir, 1978 (Fr.).
“Creative and liberating nationalism”: quote from Perrine Poupin, « L’irruption de la Russie en Ukraine Entretien avec un volontaire de la défense territoriale de Kiev », Mouvements, March 29, 2022 (Fr.).
Letter from Ukraine (Fr.) : tousdehors.net.
On anarchist autonomy (Fr.) : Entre deux feux. Recueil provisoire de textes d’anarchistes d’Ukraine, de la Russie et de la Biélorussie à propos de la guerre en cours, March 13, 2022.
Il Lato Cattivo, Ukraine ‘Du moins, si l’on veut être matérialiste’ (Fr.) :
On « third camp internationalists » (« those who refuse to support any imperialist side”) in France 1940-1952: