Ukraine, a year of war



Every war or revolution begins with a superficial fact, but it contains the great contradictions of world capitalist society.

A year ago, two days before the war that Putin and the Russian oligarchs would start against independent Ukraine, Philippe Gélie, the editorialist of Le Figaro, the leading French right-wing newspaper, exclaimed in astonishment: “Europe is on the brink of a major conflict that could destabilize the entire continent”. At that moment, American satellite images showed that the Russian army was already 15 km from the Ukrainian border, with its soldiers and tanks camouflaged in the forest, and that there was no longer any diplomatic way out to avoid the imminent war.

But what signaled the imminent war was Vladimir Putin's recognition of the independence of the rebellious eastern breakaway republics in Donbass. In the two republics, Donetsk (2,3 million inhabitants) and Lugansk (1,5 million inhabitants) more than half of the population is of ethnic Russian origin. Two days before the fateful date, no one could save Ukraine from the Russian war power, that was a year ago.

Like the editorialist of the Le Figaro, other analysts warned of the danger of war in the heart of Europe and even of a third world war. None of that happened. A year later, we see a war stalled in the middle of Europe, with offensives and defensives by both the Ukrainian and Russian armies. The Ukrainian people have proved rock-hard so far, fighting the good fight against the best equipped genocidal army, and the first nuclear power on the planet.

In one year of war, the western capitalist powers have already deposited around 142 billion euros in Ukraine; The United States contributed the largest share, 6 billion euros, 73,18 billion euros from the European Union, the United Kingdom contributed 54,92 billion euros and Canada 8,31 billion.

This meant that the Ukrainian resistance obtained important victories from a strategic point of view, such as the retaking of the cities of Kharkhiv and Kherson, in September and October, respectively.

Every war or revolution begins with a superficial fact, but it contains the great contradictions of world capitalist society.

In the case of Ukraine, it is a matter of life and death for Vladimir Putin and Russian imperialism: that the country not be part of NATO, the capitalist-imperialist organization that deals with the “defense” of the North Atlantic countries, a survival of the Second World War and which during the Cold War served as a counterweight to world Stalinism and its military-economic bloc.

For us, the character of this war that broke out on February 24, 2022, is a regional war, quite different from the wars fought in the 1950s (Korea) and 1960s (Vietnam), which were wars of social and geopolitical dispute with Stalinism or even the wars against “terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had a typically regional character, without involving the entire western capitalist spectrum. It is a regional war, but with the heaviest inter-imperialist dispute in recent decades.

The origins: the fall of the “Berlin Wall” and the former USSR

It is not our objective to make a historical retrospective of the importance of Ukraine in the various wars that crossed the West, mainly in the First World War, when the Bolshevik revolution had to give up almost half of its territory, handing this country over to German imperialism in order to get out of war and continue the socialist revolution. As Marxists, we have to see what is behind the apparently superficial facts, what is decisive for a regional or world war to happen at this moment, just as it happened in the past.

But we can say that the current conflict between Russia and the West, which began in March 2014, after the overthrow of President Victor Yanukovych (pro-Russia) by the masses in Maidan Square, with the annexation of Crimea by Russia, after a referendum which was not recognized by most UN countries, has its origin in the events of 1989-1991, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the former USSR.

The fall of the “Berlin Wall” and of the former USSR, in typical anti-bureaucratic revolutions carried out by the masses – just see that the most emblematic, the Romanian revolution, shot President Ceascescu and his wife – brought, in its greatest contradiction, the restoration of capitalism, old sectors of the Stalinist bureaucracy divided up the spoils of state property among themselves and became capitalist private owners. But it also brought the end of the old world order, the post-war Yalta and Postsdam pacts that divided the world into “areas of influence” between capitalists and Kremlin bureaucrats, and, most serious fact for world imperialism: the end of the old Stalinist world apparatus, the biggest totalitarian bureaucracy in the world, which controlled all the revolutions in Europe and in the other continents.

That is why the origins of the current conflict in Ukraine or in other regions of the Middle East, such as Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, must be explained by this colossal fact. Imperialism has lost its fifth column that it had in countries and in the world labor movement. Stalinism was a factor of political stability for imperialism, because through the Kremlin and the Communist Party, it managed to control and dismantle fulminating revolutionary processes, such as the Central American revolution in the late 1970s, which was only at the beginning with the Nicaragua and has not expanded to El Salvador and Honduras. All the negotiations between imperialism, from August to December 1991, with the former USSR were aimed at guaranteeing the survival of the USSR and Stalinism and not promoting its dissolution, as the historian Serhii Plokhy has so well reported,[1] because they knew that they would have to fight alone against the struggles and insubordination of the peoples, the struggle of independent countries like Iran or Iraq and they couldn't avoid the revolutions against the crises of the capitalist system.

In these 30 years since the dissolution of the former USSR and the old Stalinist apparatus, Russia formed its own ruling class, a bourgeoisie centered on the mafias and the old agreements of the former bureaucrats. Vladimir Putin is the symbol of the unity of this corrupt and mafia ruling class. By privatizing all the large state-owned enterprises, they carried out a new “primitive accumulation”, the greatest privatization in the history of public goods – the same one that Marx had analyzed in The capital – and set out to compete in the world market, with a nuclear heritage brought from the former USSR. As they set out to fight for world capitalism, they used all the methods of the old KGB (of which Vladimir Putin was the last representative) to repress any and all independent organizations of workers and masses within Russia, punishing with repression and imprisonment all opponents of the mafia regime of the old CP bureaucracy, the new ruling class.

Aggravating factor: the “vacuum” of economic, political and military domination by US imperialism

Here we get to the heart of a Marxist explanation of Russia's conflict with the great capitalist powers of NATO and the West. Since 2008, capitalist imperialism has been going through an unprecedented crisis in its economy, which originated in the main capitalist economy in the world, the United States; This crisis was aggravated to the extreme with the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.[2] Unlike previous crises that came from the periphery and did not reach the imperialist center, this one came from the center reaching the entire inhabited capitalist world, including the peripheries of capitalism. This is what explains the Chinese offensive in the world market, competing head-to-head with the largest economy in the world, the US, and being a source of constant friction between the two countries in the Trump era.

It must be added that this is also a crisis of imperialist domination in the military and political field. The defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, symbolized by the image of the masses fleeing to catch the last plane to the West, is clear proof that in the military and political field, US imperialism did not achieve any crushing victory; not to mention the conflict in Syria, where Russia also used its strategic role to support the dictator Assad against Syrian insurgent rebels. Russia's support was decisive in defeating the Syrian revolution.

When this “vacuum” of traditional imperialist domination opened, the new imperialisms that emerged from the restoration of capitalism in both China and Russia, tried to occupy this space, with the difference that Russia brings in its core a nuclear arsenal of the same size than the United States. There is a division of tasks between the two blocs of new imperialists: China tries to destroy the US imperialist economy and Russia, with Putin at the head, tries to destroy the political geography led by Yankee imperialism, as is the case of Ukraine in this exact moment. Vladimir Putin had the merit of resurrecting the old NATO apparatus, which had been useless for a long time.

Western imperialism's economic sanctions have not broken the Russian economy: why?

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Western imperialist countries have used economic sanctions as their main weapon to break the Russian war machine. All sorts of sanctions have been tried, from freezing the assets of oligarchs outside Russia to embargoing the purchase of Russian oil and gas by all these powers. But that was almost nothing, as the NGO Transparency International denounced, given the money laundering carried out by Russian oligarchs in Great Britain.

The organization identified more than 2.100 companies registered in the UK and other British Overseas Territories involved in 48 Russian-led money laundering and corruption cases. These cases allegedly represent funds worth more than £82 billion, misappropriated, including through “rigged” supplies and the illegal acquisition of state assets. In 2018, the British government itself estimated that £100 billion of corruption money entered the country. This is the Russian mafia, the oligarchs that were created by the destruction of state property gained with the October 1917 revolution, with capitalist restoration.

Not being able to make a direct war against the nuclear power that is Russia, these countries tried to suffocate the country by strangling the economy of its two main export products. The European Union ended the purchase of oil by sea; since March last year, the United States has stopped importing Russian oil; On February 5 of this year, a ban on the sale of products derived from Russian oil came into effect. Also since December Westerners have approved a cap on the price of crude oil at $60 a barrel to prevent Russia from gaining above that.

Russia's gas was also subject to sanctions; the European Union has set a goal of reducing gas imports by two thirds throughout the year; The UK has completely stopped imports of Russian gas. Another focus of the Western attack was directly on finance, with the freezing of US$ 324 billion in foreign exchange reserves by the Central Bank of Russia. Finally, Russia was deprived of Western knowledge and products, with almost all technology transfer and sale of high-quality goods and services blocked.

These sanctions would also not have an immediate impact on Russian finances, since, due to the old sanctions, Russian external debt has been falling, from around US$ 668,5 billion in 2013 to US$ 478 billion in 2021 (data from the World Bank and the Central Bank of Russia). Of this total, around US$ 80 billion is public debt (5% of GDP) – the rest is private companies, which are still financed and refinanced in the foreign market, but with increasing difficulty (UOL, 22/02/22). Only in the long term could the lack of credit harm the Russian economy, as the country has a reserve of more than US$600 billion, not to mention that its external accounts are in surplus, managing to bring in more money than it sends abroad. Russian government debt is a small 20% of GDP compared to France (over 100%) and Brazil (80% of GDP).

Faced with the magnitude of the sanctions against Russia, the English BBC stated: “Never before had such complex sanctions been applied against a country as important as Russia, a nuclear power, member of the UN Security Council” (BBC News Brazil, 22/02/23). But, one wonders, why, despite such drastic sanctions, did the Russian war machine and its economy not break down?

Just to remind you: Russia is one of the three largest gas and oil producers in the world, alongside the United States and Saudi Arabia; in 2020 Russia supplied 25% of the oil and 40% of the gas consumed by the European Union. Russian gas to Europe was like a snail to its shell, inseparable. With the invasion of Ukraine, it was impossible for the European Union to break economically with Russia immediately, to the point that Russia received US$ 146 billion from Europe for its gas and oil.

Not to mention that Vladimir Putin had been preparing for these sanctions since 2014, when he invaded the Crimea and was also subject to Western sanctions more smoothly. However, even the $60 oil price embargo enacted on December 5 was not used, as the price of a barrel in the Russian Urals is now at $50. According to the Center for Research in Energy and Clean Air ( Crea), Moscow is reportedly losing about $175 million a day in fossil fuel exports due to sanctions.

The new buyers of Russian oil: China, India and Türkiye

European and US imperialism may have used the law of the “mad firefighter” who tries to put out the fire with gasoline, by sanctioning Russia so drastically from an economic point of view. If the European Union and the United States embargoed and stopped buying Russian oil, new buyers entered the scene. And all coming from the Asian continent. China, India and Turkey have been buying oil at a much lower price than the Brent table, which is the world's price reference. According to the team of BBC Reality Check, these three countries now account for 70% of all Russian oil transported by sea. Since the war started they have greatly increased the purchase of Russian oil. In early 2022, Russia supplied just 2% of its oil to India, but it is now poised to become India's biggest single supplier.

In January of this year alone, “according to the financial analysis platform Refinitiv Eikon, at least 5,1 million tons of Ural oil were transported from the ports of Primorsk, Ust-Luga and Novorossiysk to Asia” (BBC News Brazil, 22/03/23). Also, according to data from the Russian government and the International Energy Agency (IEA), the country managed to increase its oil production by 2% during 2022 – and its earnings from exports by 20%, reaching US$ 218 millions. “In October, total oil exports were 7,7 mbd (million barrels per day), just 400 kbd (thousand barrels per day) below pre-war levels.” (BBC News Brazil).

Even at the level of economic forecasts by international organizations such as the IMF, the prospects for the Russian economy were surprising. The latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) world economic outlook report, released at the end of January, shows that the Russian economy appears to be stronger than previously thought. Russia is forecast to grow by 0,3% this year, which represents an improvement over the -2,2% contraction in 2022. The percentage is well above the -2,3% contraction for 2023 that the IMF had predicted for Russia last October (BBC News Brasil, 22/02/23).

Even if Russia survived economically and continues its offensive against Ukrainian positions, we must not forget that, from a Marxist point of view, the country attacked since February 24, 2022 is Ukraine, and the aggressor is Putin and Russian imperialism. Therefore, our solidarity is with the Ukrainian people, who did not choose this war, and are now forced to fight to the last man and woman to defend their freedom as an independent nation. The fact that Ukraine is in the middle of the crossfire between Russian imperialism and the Western imperialist powers does not change the character of the war as a regional war of prey and annexation promoted by Russia. How long this war will last we do not know, but it promises to be long, due to the Russian apparatus and its ideology of becoming a great power again, as the former USSR was in past decades.

*João Santiago Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).


[1] Serhii Plokhy. The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, 2014, Turner Publications, 2015 – Madrid.

[2] The Invasion of Ukraine sharpened the crisis of capitalism. International Correspondence, nº 50, August to October 2022, ITU-FI, p. 2-6.

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