The Ukrainian conflict: is this the start of World War III?

Alan Woods (editor of provides an update on the situation in Ukraine. Since Russia's invasion, a barrage of propaganda has been pumped out by the Western media, contributing to an atmosphere of utter hysteria, with the papers now screeching about the threat of a Third World War. Meanwhile, the imperialist leaders continue to display disgusting hypocrisy in their condemnation of Putin's 'violation of Ukraine's national sovereignty', having never shied from warfare in pursuit of their own interests in the past. Marxists must reject the cynical message of 'patriotism' and 'national unity', as we continue to oppose our own ruling classes in every country.

It is often said that the first victim of war is the truth. Amidst this poisonous fog of propaganda, lies and half-truths, it is extremely difficult to give an accurate assessment of the military situation on the ground.

The invasion of Ukraine has been met by a deafening chorus of condemnation from the imperialists. There is an avalanche of propaganda, designed to place all the blame on Russia, and to show that Putin’s military offensive has failed because of the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian army.

Repeated claims that the Russian offensive has ground to a halt, that the Ukrainian army has rallied and forced the enemy onto the defensive, must be treated with great caution. Whatever else they are intended to do, it is certainly not to present an accurate and truthful picture of the situation.

But the aim of a deafening chorus is not to encourage people to think rationally. Quite the contrary, it is precisely to make them deaf to all rational argument and cease thinking altogether. This unprecedented propaganda barrage is designed to create an atmosphere of hysteria, and in this, they have achieved considerable success – at least in the initial stages.

The central aim is to convince the populations of the West of the need to close ranks, to “unite against the threat of Russian aggression” in the name of national unity. But unity with whom? Why, unity with their existing leaders and governments, with the Americans and NATO – in a word with, their own ruling class and the most aggressive and reactionary imperialist forces.

Samuel Johnson once said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” That was well said in the 18th century, and it is no less true today. Scratch any one of these ‘patriotic’ ladies and gentlemen and you will always find the most cynical, lying, vicious rogues that can be imagined.

The most repulsive role in all this has been played by the right-wing reformist leaders of the social democracy and the trade unions in Europe, who have lost no time falling over themselves to join the capitalists and imperialists in their hysterical anti-Russian campaign. They have revealed themselves as the most servile lackeys of the enemies of the working class in every country.

For their part, the conduct of the left reformists has not been much better. To a greater or lesser extent, they have allowed themselves to be dragged behind the chorus of “save poor little Ukraine”, without ever bothering to analyse the class interests that lie behind the present conflict.

World War Three?

The prevailing mood among the masses in the West is a confused mixture of natural sympathy for the sufferings of the Ukrainian people and refugees, and fear of the conflicting spreading, leading to World War Three, with unspeakable consequences for the world.

These fears have been exacerbated by the latest statements of Russian President Vladimir Putin, placing Russia’s nuclear forces on an action footing. However, they are entirely groundless. Let us spell it out very clearly: there will be no war between the United States and Russia, neither now or in the foreseeable future.

map ukraine biden putin Image In Defence of Marxism The capitalists do not wage war for patriotism, democracy, or any other high-sounding principles. They wage war for profit, to capture foreign markets, sources of raw material, and to expand spheres of influence / Image: In Defence of Marxism

Let us repeat things that ought to be ABC for any Marxist. The capitalists do not wage war for patriotism, democracy, or any other high-sounding principles. They wage war for profit, to capture foreign markets, sources of raw material (such as oil), and to expand spheres of influence.

Is that elementary proposition not absolutely clear? And is it also not quite clear that a nuclear war would signify none of these things, but only the mutual destruction of both sides. They have even coined a phrase to describe this: MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

That such a war would not be in the interests of the bankers and capitalists will be evident even to a not very intelligent child of six, although apparently it is not evident to some people who, for reasons best known to themselves, call themselves Marxists.

Another decisive factor is the mass opposition to war, particularly (but not exclusively) in the United States of America. A recent poll indicates that only 25 percent of the US population would favour direct military intervention in Ukraine, which means that the overwhelming majority would be opposed.

This is hardly surprising, given the humiliating defeats suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, a fact that is burned in the consciousness of the people of the United States. That was already shown when Obama attempted – and failed – to get permission to intervene militarily in Syria.

The people of the US are heartily sick of foreign interventions and wars, and this is a powerful factor limiting the room for manoeuvre of both Biden and the Pentagon. It is this, and not any fear of the Third World War, that has prevented them from sending troops into a direct confrontation with the Russian army in Ukraine.

The fact that Putin has made demagogic statements about putting his nuclear forces on action stations is not of the slightest military significance. This is fully understood by the strategists of capital and the Pentagon, who see it for what it is – a clumsy attempt at psychological warfare.

Incidentally, the USA itself was guilty of precisely such an attempt in 1973, during the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt, when they also announced that their nuclear deterrent would be placed on level III (level I would be war).

Such manoeuvres may well set nerves jangling in Berlin and Brussels, but they will have no effect whatsoever on the present conflict in Ukraine, nor on the calculations of the serious strategists of capital.

Will sanctions work?

Having already discounted the possibility of sending troops to the Ukraine – the only serious step that could affect the outcome of the conflict – the imperialists must content themselves with scoring cheap propaganda points through an hysterical campaign of insults directed at Moscow, alongside new sanctions against Russian banks and businesses and the sending of a certain amount of military aid to Kiev.

None of this will have the slightest effect on the outcome of the war.

Major russian gas pipelines to europe Image Samuel Bailey Wikimedia CommonsWe can confidently predict that when the present conflict ends these sanctions will be quietly dropped, since the harmful effect on the European economy would be too painful to bear / Image: Samuel Bailey, Wikimedia Commons

The much-vaunted sanctions will fail, firstly because sanctions have never succeeded in the past and Putin has already introduced a series of measures specifically designed to reduce Russia’s dependence on trade and financial transactions with the West. In any case, the effects of economic sanctions will take time to work – months, if not years – by which time the Ukrainian conflict will have been long settled.

But there is another reason, which ought to be clear to any half-intelligent person. Right now, they are bragging and boasting about the expulsion of Russian banks from Swift, the financial institution that deals with transactions in international trade. But, in the first place, only some banks are to be excluded. It is perfectly clear that those key banks that deal with the export of Russian oil and gas to Europe will not be affected.

After dragging its feet for some time, Germany said it was halting certification of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. To be exact, not exactly halting, but only suspending, which is not at all the same thing. And we can confidently predict that the moment the present conflict ends (as, one way or another, it must), this sanction, and many others, will be quietly dropped, since the harmful effect on the European economy, in the first instance in Germany, would be too painful to bear.

Despite all the claims to the contrary, Germany cannot find suitable alternative sources for oil and gas at sustainable prices. And as we know, principles are principles, but business is business. The sudden decision to send weapons to Ukraine – something which the Germans in particular had always rejected – is a particularly cynical action. It is too little and too late to halt the Russian advance, but may conceivably help to prolong the painful and bloody conflict at the suffering of the people, which the West claims is its one and only concern.

There is no reason to doubt the sincere sense of solidarity with the suffering of the Ukrainian people felt by workers everywhere. When a Russian, German, French or American worker expresses sympathy for Ukrainians, we can believe them. But when Biden, Johnson, Macron or Scholz say the same thing, honest people can only turn away in disgust.

The vile hypocrisy of the imperialists knows no bounds.

Has the offensive failed?

The imperialist propaganda machine insists that Putin has failed in his objective, and that the Russian army’s advance has been halted by the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian army. Given the lack of any firm information, it is difficult to verify the facts. But such statements cannot be taken at face value.

The first fact to note is that only a minority of the 190,000 troops that were stationed on the borders of Ukraine have so far been deployed. The relatively slow pace can be explained by the need to bring up supplies of fuel, ammunition, food etc., and to prevent the supply lines with Russia being stretched to a dangerous level. Ukraine, after all, is a very big country.

invasion Image Viewsridge Wikimedia CommonsFar from retreating, everything points to the Russian army advancing uninterruptedly by stages, capturing one key point after another / Image: Viewsridge, Wikimedia Commons

It should also be noted that, at each stage when the army has halted, Putin has offered to negotiate. This appears to have been a deliberate strategy. He was clearly hoping that the fact of an invasion would be sufficient to force the Ukrainians to the negotiating table, where his demands could be addressed. There were certain indications that this strategy was, in fact, succeeding.

On Friday night, there were clear indications that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky was prepared to negotiate. He was clearly in a state of panic. However, the combined pressure of the extreme right-wing elements, and of NATO and the Americans, were sufficient to make him change mind. He subsequently adopted a defiant attitude. That meant that the war would continue.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the Russian army has suffered some reverses, that at least part of the Ukrainian army has recovered from the initial shock and rallied to the extent that it is putting up a more-effective resistance.

That is perfectly probable. The equation of war is extremely complicated, defeats can be swiftly followed by further advances, and vice versa. But it is not sufficient to quote individual instances as proof that the overall campaign is moving in one direction or another. Ultimately, it is the balance of forces that will determine the outcome. And that is overwhelmingly in favour of Russia.

Far from retreating, everything points to the Russian army advancing uninterruptedly by stages, capturing one key point after another. Russian forces are surrounding the capital Kiev from different sides and have also surrounded the second city, Kharkiv. They are advancing from Crimea to the North and North-west, reaching Mykolaiv, and also towards the North-east, along the coast of the Azov Sea, where they have taken over Melitopol and Berdiansk, and have nearly managed to close off the key city of Mariupol, thus linking up with the forces coming south from Donetsk.

Yet at the same time, the Russians are still pressing for negotiations. That was clearly part of a plan. It was no accident that the Ukrainians rejected the offer of a meeting in Minsk, protesting that Belarus is an ally of Russia and is assisting in the invasion. Subsequently, both Israel and Azerbaijan have offered their services, which Putin was quick to accept. Sooner or later, the negotiations must start. The question is, can they succeed?

The real reason for Zelensky’s reluctance to go to the negotiating table is obvious. Given the situation on the ground, any negotiations would place the Ukrainian government at an extreme disadvantage. The first question which must be asked is: what has Zelensky got to negotiate with? He will be like a gambler who sits down at the table with no cards to play. From that point of view, negotiations will very much resemble a prelude to capitulation. However, egged on by Washington and Berlin, Zelensky seems in no mood to capitulate.

The result of the negotiations will therefore be complete failure. The issue will be decided – as was clear from the outset – not by negotiations, but on the field of battle. And there, Ukrainians will find themselves hopelessly outgunned. A few shipments of arms from Berlin will make very little difference.

How the imperialists betrayed Ukraine

The imperialists, as well as the Kiev government, seem to be relying on change inside Russia to upset Putin’s calculations. In a completely cynical manoeuvre, they are making demagogic appeals to the Russian people to turn against their masters in the Kremlin.

It goes without saying that Putin and the oligarchy that he serves are the enemies of the Russian workers. And his support base has been steadily declining, which was obviously one of the reasons why he decided to play the card of invading Ukraine. It is also true that this move may well backfire on him at a certain stage.

Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Jens Stoltenberg Image Wikimedia CommonsThe Ukrainian people found out just how much the promised help of NATO was worth when the decisive moment arrived - they see the Ukrainian people as mere pawns in their cynical game / Image:

However, any suggestion that the reactionary imperialists can, in any way, shape or form, defend the interests of the people of Russia, Ukraine or any other country is a despicable lie.

The Ukrainian people found out just how much the promised help and solidarity of NATO and the West was worth when the decisive moment arrived. They see the Ukrainian people as mere pawns in a cynical game, cannon fodder that can be usefully sacrificed in order to bring discredit upon Russia, without costing them the life of a single soldier.

No trust whatsoever should be placed in these gangsters. And that is particularly true for workers and socialists in the West. The task of fighting against the reactionary gang in the Kremlin is the task of the Russian workers alone. Our task is to fight against our bourgeoisie, against NATO, and against American imperialism – the most counterrevolutionary force on the planet.

It is difficult to assess the psychology of the Russian masses at this moment. But the overwhelming majority of Russian people must detest the idea of fighting against their brothers and sisters in Ukraine, which has always occupied a special place in their hearts. They understand that NATO and US imperialism are their enemies and would be prepared to fight them. But they do not see the people of the Ukraine in the same way, and that is a correct and healthy instinct.

If they accept Putin’s war (and many do not) it is reluctantly, because of the despicable conduct of the Kiev government, its collaboration with reactionary fascists and followers of wartime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, their oppression of the Russian speaking people in Donbas, and other corrupt and oppressive acts. And behind the Kiev government, they see the bloody hand of imperialism.

The Russian comrades of the IMT are doing their duty in this respect. It is up to us to follow their example and to come out boldly and clearly against the ruling class and imperialists in our own country. No other policy is permissible for genuine revolutionaries and proletarian internationalists.

We cannot support either side in this war, because it is a reactionary war on both sides. In the final analysis, this is a conflict between two groups of imperialists. We do not support either of them. The people of poor, bleeding Ukraine are the victims in this conflict, which they did not create and do not desire.

No one can exactly predict the outcome of this war, but it will not be positive for the working class in Ukraine, Russia or internationally. The immediate effect will be falling living standards and rising prices everywhere. The masses will be told that this was a necessary price to pay for the defence of “peace and democracy.” That will be cold comfort for millions of people facing poverty, unemployment and suffering.

The dislocation caused by the war and aggravated by sanctions that will disrupt world trade still further will prepare the way for an economic collapse in the not-too-distant future. The result will be a worldwide slump. That would be the basis for enormous social and political instability, and an unprecedented intensification of the class struggle.

At the beginning of every war, the consciousness of the masses is confused and blunted by the fog of propaganda, which creates a sensational hysteria, resembling a drunken stupor. Under such conditions, the most reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie can succeed in establishing an illusion of ‘national unity.’

‘We must all stand together against the external enemy! We must all make sacrifices to pay for improved national defence!’ And so on and so forth. But, as in all cases of drunken orgies, the fumes eventually wear off. The propaganda loses its value through endless repetition. The message of patriotism and national unity will sound empty, as men and women lose their jobs, their homes and their hopes.

History shows that war, that terrible bloody affair, can often lead directly to revolutionary consequences. And history has not yet delivered its final bill.

Down with capitalism and imperialism!

Long live the world socialist revolution!

Long live the International Marxist tendency! Workers of the world, unite!

London, 28 February 2022.

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