On the essence of the Ukraine war and the lessons of Russia’s SMO

What is the war in Ukraine really about, and what have we learned during the last two years of fighting?

Although western monopolies have generated huge profits in arms sales over the last two years, their weapons have not lived up to the marketing hype. It has been clear since 2022 that Nato has no realistic way to win, but despite this the imperialists continue to fuel the conflict with unlimited subsidies and continue to demand the ritual sacrifice of untold thousands more Ukrainians. All in a desperate quest to destroy a sovereign and independent Russia by any means necessary.

This paper was presented to a colloquium of the World Anti-imperialist Platform in Madrid on 8 June 2024.


The imperialist aggression that forced the people of the Donbass provinces to take up arms, and which led Russia to launch its SMO nearly a decade later, can be seen as the real starting point of the third world war. This was when the west decisively ramped up its regime-change efforts against Russia by attempting to turn the territory of what had once been the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine into a Nato base capable of launching missiles that could hit Russia’s major cities within a few minutes.

It must be repeated that the war did not begin in 2022. It began with the imperialist-directed fascist coup that ousted Ukraine’s elected government in 2014, and the antifascist resistance launched by the people of the Donbass against the coup regime. But Moscow’s launch of the special military operation in February 2022, which brought Russian military forces to the support of the Donbass resistance, made a qualitative change to a war that had by then been ongoing for eight years.

The launch of the SMO was the moment when Russia moved decisively against the imperialists’ aggressive project, having exhausted all other avenues of diplomacy and dialogue. For this reason, the SMO’s launch in February 2022 marked the opening of a new phase in the worldwide anti-imperialist struggle.

This is no accident. The entry of Russian forces into the Ukraine war, which was made unavoidable by imperialist escalations in the Donbass, took place at a moment when the already severe economic crisis of global capitalism was becoming acute. As the inflation crisis that had been exported across the globe since 2008 span out of control; as corporate, national and personal indebtedness soared to unprecedented levels; as major banks teetered on the edge of ruin, the global system of capitalist-imperialism was staring into an abyss.

That is why the leading imperialist powers, principally the USA, have been driving ever more desperately to war. They hope by this means to save the global capitalist economic system and their place within it. With so many financial problems, only a really big bonanza can now save the parasitic economies of the west. Only the destruction, dismemberment and free looting of the resources of Russia or China, and preferably both, might be sufficient to inject profitability back into the system – for a while.

Only the removal of the fraternal aid that Russia and China offer to developing countries might enable the west to keep the other nations of the world enslaved for a few decades more – perpetually underdeveloped and mired in debt, and thus forced to continue providing cheap labour-power and cheap raw materials for the benefit of the monopoly financiers in Washington, London, Berlin and Paris.

Of course, to many in the world who had not been paying attention to the signs of this gathering storm, Russia’s SMO came entirely out of the blue. Imperialist propaganda which labelled it as an ‘aggressive’ and even ‘imperialist’ move made at the behest of the ‘madman’ and ‘dictator’ Vladimir Putin seemed plausible to those who had not been presented with any of the historical facts or wider context that would allow them to make sense of the situation.

This is where the Marxists come in – or ought to. Any really Marxist, really Leninist party should have been able to explain to the workers in its home country how and why they were being lied to by the overwhelming deluge of Hollywood-style propaganda that was launched by the west alongside their military and economic aggression.

Indeed, true anti-imperialists had had eight years to prepare workers under their influence by analysing the content of the antifascist liberation war being waged by the people’s militias of Donetsk and Lugansk (the two provinces that make up the Donbass region). They had had several decades during which they could have brought attention to the way history was being rewritten and weaponised across eastern Europe under the direction of the CIA. They had ample opportunity to point out how Nato bases were spreading eastwards and russophobic proxy forces were being created by the CIA and co.

There were clear signs that the west was planning a war for well over a decade, and Marxists everywhere should have been bringing this information to their people. The fact that so few calling themselves communist actually fulfilled this duty tells us much about the decay and disintegration of the communist movement – a process that we have written about elsewhere and which has been ongoing since 1953.

Since the SMO was launched in 2022, the world at large, and the working class in particular, has been exposed to some very enlightening information. Let us examine some of the essential truths that the Ukraine war has brought to light.

Economic weakness exposed

First, the war has exposed the economic weakness of the imperialist camp. In February and March 2022, the west launched what can only be described as a sanctions blitzkrieg against Russia. It waged a no-holds-barred economic war that the imperialists expected would cause so much pain to the Russian people that they would be out on the streets demanding the removal of Vladimir Putin’s government, thus allowing the USA to install a puppet president and pursue its agenda without the need for further armed combat.

This economic war didn’t just fail to succeed in its aims; it backfired spectacularly. What had been anticipated as a bit of very short-term pain (a few months’ difficulty while the west temporarily lost its access to Russian oil and other raw materials) that would lead to longer-term results (in the form of a carnival of looting of the Russian people’s resources for western monopoly corporations and banks, much like the bonanza they enjoyed in the period following the fall of the USSR) turned into long-term pain for the west, and for Europe in particular. Meanwhile, Russia’s economy has not only withstood but was eventually strengthened by being cut off from western ‘investment’ (bloodsucking).

In the process, the economic crisis that the imperialist countries were trying to escape has been exacerbated, with energy prices and inflation rocketing, European industry becoming unviable, and the cost of living for ordinary workers climbing ever more steeply.

Another economic reality that has been highlighted by the war in Ukraine is the absolute superiority of planning over market mechanisms. For decades, the world was awed by the staggering dimensions of the USA’s military budget, assuming that US armed forces must be overwhelmingly bigger, better equipped, better trained and more technically advanced than those of any other country.

But what the battlefield realities in Ukraine have laid bare is that a huge proportion of the US military budget is spent on generating profits for the arms manufacturers and bribes for their various acolytes, facilitators and hangers-on. In just the same way that the USA’s enormous health spending doesn’t deliver basic care to millions of US citizens and entails huge waste driven by corporate greed and corruption, US military spending turns out to be just as wasteful and just as unable to produce the basic items needed (cheap and steady supplies of ammunition and small drones) for effective action in a peer-to-peer war.

We can see clearly now that in the post-cold war situation, the USA very quickly came to consider itself as being dominant and unassailable. Its military chiefs and arms companies therefore stopped planning for war against a really peer competitor, focusing instead on ‘wars’ in which maintenance stations and air bases were safe from attack and aerial power was entirely unchallenged. Wars in which only they had access to satellite communications and GPS systems and where this access could never be threatened.

These assumptions, when combined with the desire of the arms companies to maximise their profits, have led to a situation in which the USA has ended up with a lot of very overpriced, very complex machines that are simply not up to the realities of a battle in which the other side has access to technology that is just as good and often better, and a vastly superior ability to replace what is lost and damaged. In a recent hearing in Washington, one embittered congressman described the USA’s F-35 fighter planes as “hundred million dollar paper-weights” after being informed just how little time each aircraft is able to spend in the air vs in the repair hangar, all while the cost of maintaining them continues to increase.

Russia, on the other hand, has continued the Soviet tradition of planning its military development by preparing to fight a defensive war against Nato weapons (since it has no other enemies and no interest in launching aggressive wars). It has studied the strengths and weaknesses of Nato armaments for decades and tasked its arms technicians with working out the simplest means to defeat them. Hence its focus on effective air defences and its development of hypersonic missiles – a technology that Russia, China and the DPRK all now have but the imperialists have still not mastered, since the lack of complexity meant it was never a big focus for western arms companies (more complex + more time to produce = more astronomical price-tags).

Russian shells are cheap and quick to produce; US shells are expensive and slow. Russian tank production is ramping up fast and its tanks are tough, manoeuvrable and relatively simple to repair. Western tanks (and artillery, and planes) are extremely expensive, and are often too heavy and difficult to manoeuvre easily on a complex modern battlefield. They break down easily and often, and are extremely complicated to repair.

That all worked very well for a military-industrial complex that was producing for armies that were not at war, when technological wizardry could wow the buyers and persuade them that American products would make them invincible. It was also advantageous in setting up a ‘subscription model’ that has tied every buyer of western arms into a permanent relationship with the seller, compelled to keep paying Lockheed, Raytheon et al for annual software updates and regular servicing. This is the model all the world’s biggest corporations are turning to, whether they are producing cars, phones, tractors or planes, as their markets become saturated and demand for their products dries up.

While the junior imperialist powers had assumed they were safely sheltered under the USA’s vast military umbrella, they now find that, even when taken all together, the military industries of the whole of the collective west are not able to match what Russia is producing, whether measured by battlefield resilience or by volume.

Britain is not alone in fretting that footage of destroyed Challenger tanks in Ukraine will have a bad impact on the British arms industry. Nor is its ruling class alone in fretting that its professional armed forces today are simply not up to the task of maintaining Britain’s status as a world-dominating power. As the USA seeks to exit the Ukrainian quagmire and hand over responsibility for trying to keep the conflict against Russia going to its European ‘partners’, the demand for more military spending and for the creation of conscription armies will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, Russia has been able to utilise the legacy of its Soviet past to the full. By renationalising all aspects of arms production and military activity, the country has been able to focus its resources in an efficient and targeted way, looking at the needs of the battlefield without having to worry about what will create profits for shareholders. Ramping up production in Russian arms factories has not been a problem because they were designed with just such ebbs and flows of demand in mind by the socialist planners of the USSR.

Something that the economic gurus of the west have been steadily wiping out has revealed once again its vital importance if supplies of necessary goods are to be guaranteed: contingency planning. Soviet factories of all kinds were designed to be able to ramp production up or down, with necessary space kept empty and workers kept trained during times of low production, to be brought online during times of high demand.

While the west has talked about the need to expand production, nothing meaningful has been done in that direction for the last two years simply because to do so without nationalisation simply presents too many obstacles. How to acquire enough space? How to make a profit while setting up costly new facilities? How to train enough new skilled labour? How to pay for the necessary warehousing? And so on and on and on. Just as we saw during the Covid-19 epidemic, the ‘efficiency measures’ of the last four decades might have boosted profits, but they have been revealed to be extremely short-sighted and very difficult to reverse.

Military weakness exposed

Second, the war in Ukraine has exposed the military weakness of the imperialist camp. For decades, the people of the world have been intimidated by the threat of military action by the all-powerful USA; cowed by the fate of resistant countries like Iraq and Libya, where all infrastructure was destroyed by the overwhelming firepower of western hi-tech bombers and where local militaries had little or no ability to inflict meaningful damage on the airborne terrorists. ‘War’ in these post-Soviet decades had become an extremely one-sided affair, more closely resembling the days of the colonial conquest of Africa and the Americas than a modern battlefield.

But the simple fact is that the west has lost its technological dominance, and with it the ability to enforce its will over the people of the planet. This process began with the building of the USSR and the growth of the socialist camp, and it is coming to clear fruition now, when advanced technology has been spread by the socialist pioneers to every corner of the oppressed world.

As a result, in Ukraine today, despite the fact that Nato had spent a decade creating huge and multiple lines of fortification in preparation for a confrontation with Russia, and despite having built up the Ukrainian army into what was essentially Nato’s largest fighting force, the western alliance is being decisively beaten. And this is in spite of having thrown a huge proportion of its combined arsenal into the maelstrom; in spite of the active assistance of western specialists, western intelligence and Nato advisors; and in spite of having recreated the defeated and decimated Ukrainian army not once but twice since 2022.

And as the Ukrainians have served as cannon fodder in this imperialist attempt to weaken, destroy and dismember Russia, the true nature of the vanguard of the west’s proxy force has been horrifyingly revealed. No one who is paying any attention can now fail to see that Nato’s most dependable, most dedicated shock troops in Ukraine are Nazis. Not ‘neo-nazi’ wannabes, but actual Nazis, claiming direct ideological and familial descendance from the Banderite savages who rampaged across Ukraine killing jews, Russians and communists during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

It is now clear that the same fascists whom the west claimed to have been fighting during WW2 were rescued by MI6 and the CIA at the end of the war and transported to safe havens in the west, there to be nurtured and protected until the opportunity arose to bring them back to the territory of what had once been the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

It is now clear that the west’s plan to try to use Ukraine as a battering ram against the Soviet Union and then against Russia actually goes back more than a century. The only difference has been in which imperialist power has taken the lead in directing these efforts: Britain, Germany or the USA.

What is also clear is that the west’s concerted campaign to destroy the antifascist traditions of the industrial workers of the Donbass region have totally failed. The Donbass was one of the centres of socialist revolutionary activity in the lead-up to 1917. It bore the brunt of the war against fascism and made tremendous sacrifices during the struggle to expel and defeat the Nazi occupation. Despite decades of lies and intimidation, this history and culture remains in the hearts and minds of local workers, who for generations have been thoroughly imbued with a deep revolutionary patriotism not just for ‘Russia’ but for the socialist Soviet Union.

Propaganda strategy exposed

Third, the war in Ukraine has exposed the propaganda focus of the imperialist camp. Unable to win outright military victories, the CIA et al try to compensate by directing their proxies to create PR opportunities. Using their global dominance of corporate media and social media platforms, Ukraine’s Nato advisors have time and again insisted on the war being fought in such a way as to generate headlines and spin with which they can craft a narrative about the war that is pure Hollywood.

The substantive details of each episode in this gripping drama vary, but the overarching theme is that the heroic and democratic Ukrainian David is standing valiantly against the evil and dictatorial Russian Goliath, inflicting blow after blow against overwhelming odds and acting as a bulwark for all of enlightened liberal Europe against the Asiatic despots who want (for some inscrutable reason best known to themselves) to destroy ‘our’ ‘civilisation’ and our ‘way of life’.

By fighting the war as a PR exercise, spun so as to fool the gullible and the uninformed, Ukraine’s Nato handlers have been extremely reckless with the lives of the Ukrainian soldiery. In their thousands, their tens of thousands and their hundreds of thousands, Ukraine’s menfolk have been sacrificed on the altar of such narratives, thrown into the firing line to be immolated in ways that serve no military purpose whatsoever. Time and again, the west has insisted on prolonging the war for propaganda purposes, despite the obvious reality that it will never be able to win.

During this process, the absolute inhumanity of imperialism has been clearly highlighted. Nato’s approach to waging war in Ukraine puts one forcibly in mind of the aristocratic European generals of WW1, who openly described the working-class soldiers under their command as “cannon fodder”. These unrepentant butchers routinely threw wave after wave of working-class men into the line of automatic gunfire, only to watch them being mown down as the two sides fought – ostensibly over the gain of this or that patch of Flanders soil, but in reality over which group of imperialists would be free to take the lion’s share of colonial loot when the fighting was over.

Diplomatic weakness exposed

Fourth, the war in Ukraine has exposed the diplomatic weakness of the imperialist camp. The hypocrisy and double-dealing of the imperialist powers has never been more evident than in the revelations about the Minsk process, which was supposed to be a path towards a just and peaceful settlement of the Donbass people’s struggle, but which was instead used by all the western powers as a cover for continuing to build up Ukraine’s military in preparation not for ending the war but for expanding it.

It has become crystal clear to independent-minded states the world over that the USA cannot be negotiated with. It lies as easily as breathing. Its word cannot be trusted. Its treaties are not worth the paper they are written on. US imperialism continues to be guided by the mindset of monopoly capitalism (and of all forms of empire from humanity’s past) that ‘might is right’. As VI Lenin said: The imperialists understand no other language than the language of force. In which case, the only way to answer them is by organising an oppositional force and using it with a determination they cannot ignore.

As Russian foreign secretary Sergey Lavrov said in a recent interview: “From our experience with the Americans, it is perfectly clear that US statements are not to be trusted … The Americans continue to make declarations about their commitment to a just solution to the Palestine problem, while at the same time generously adding fuel to the armed confrontation.” This is exactly what the Americans, French and Germans did during the Minsk process of 2015-21.

As a result of this recognition, and the accompanying realisation that there is simply no way to remain safe from imperialist hostility while also remaining sovereign, the anti-imperialist countries have been strengthening their bilateral and multilateral relationships at an ever-accelerating rate. Despite all their differences in ideology and outlook, the anti-imperialist camp today is stronger than it has been since the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. In economic and technological terms, it is stronger than it has ever been, while imperialism is weaker than it has ever been.

Truly the balance of forces are reaching a decisive tipping point in history.

Hypocrisy and double-dealing exposed

Fifth, the war in Ukraine has exposed the ideological weakness of the imperialist camp. As their lies, their double-dealing and their hypocrisy are exposed, the rulers of the west and the system they preside over are faced with a deep and deepening crisis of legitimacy, both at home and abroad.

With so many lies about their aggressive wars exposed before their own populations, the imperialist countries are unable to recruit enough professional soldiers to keep their armed forces going at the levels they would like, and unable to withstand the political fallout of dead soldiers coming home from wars that the wider population simply does not support. This is what lies behind the current strategy of using proxy forces in every theatre of war, whether in the middle east, east Asia, Africa, Latin America or eastern Europe.

Decades of work went into nurturing Ukraine’s Banderite Nazi collaborators, rewriting Ukrainian history and brainwashing a new generation of Ukrainian people to transform them into willing cannon fodder for imperialism against Russia. At the same time, fascist street thugs were armed and empowered to forcibly suppress Russians, communists, trade unionists and anyone upholding the rights of workers or the simple truth in politics, the media and social life.

Two years into its failed war, a huge number of those forces have been expended and exposed. Ukrainian men no longer believe that America is their friend and are no longer willing to be sent to the front lines. This is what lies behind the widespread talk about the need for conscription armies in the imperialist nations.

Two years ago, the governments and many of the people in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were all lining up to join Ukraine in the fight against Russia, their heads full of russophobic propaganda, and their media and politicians united in assuring them of Nato’s eternal backing and of a speedy victory. Today this jingoistic fervour has subsided, and there is a marked lack of enthusiasm now that so many have seen just what Nato ‘backing’ ultimately amounts to: lots of words in support, an insufficient supply of weapons, and an exhortation to carry on “to the last Ukrainian” since we’re right behind you “for as long as it takes” (oh, sorry, make that “for as long as we can”).

The growing debate around conscription in the west is a sign of desperation. If the imperialists cannot find willing fodder for their professional forces at a time of deep economic crisis and growing poverty, what chance is there that conscripted men will fight willingly and well? Nevertheless, the moves towards conscription show us that the imperialists are not going to give up on their dreams of destroying Russia and China, and thus saving their global hegemonic position, without trying absolutely everything.

‘Official’ communist movement’s rotten essence exposed

Sixth, the war in Ukraine has exposed the bankrupt and rotten state of much of what calls itself the ‘communist’ movement. The war has provided us with a perfect litmus with which to find out who is a genuine revolutionary and who has become merely a tame ‘oppositionist’; who retains fidelity to Marxist science in practice, as opposed to using Marxist terminology in a deceitful, sophistic manner aimed at providing a credible outer shell for a rotten, opportunist body.

Genuine anti-imperialists have a duty to do everything possible to bring home to workers all the lessons outlined above, and to use this understanding to mobilise them to take an active part in this, the most decisive struggle of our era – the struggle to destroy once and for all the imperialist global system.

Today, the urgent task that faces us it to make sure that Russia’s victory is completed in Ukraine and that the west is unable to marshal further proxy armies to throw into the battlefield that could allow it to extend the war at the cost of more hundreds of thousands and even millions more lives.

We must oppose the conscription drive in the west, which is aimed at providing further cannon fodder to hurl into the battlefield.

We must work to bring an understanding to the peace movement that concerted action by the working masses is needed to stop this war drive. That peace activists should be demanding the disbanding of the fascistic warmongering Nato alliance and doing everything in their power to disrupt every aspect of the war machine in all countries.

We must work to build a campaign of mass non-cooperation in every country, demanding that our trade unions and antiwar organisations take up this programme so that workers collectively refuse to make or move weapons and supplies, collectively refuse to fight in Nato armies and proxy forces, collectively refuse to assist in any way with the war machine’s activities, and collectively refuse to write, broadcast or sell any of the media that contain Nato’s propaganda lies.

We must help the masses understand that every working person on the planet, no matter where they live, should be actively working for a Russian victory and a Nato defeat, for through the defeat and disintegration of Nato lies the quickest path to the defeat and destruction of the entire imperialist edifice.

Many of us are familiar with Chairman Mao’s description of imperialism as a paper tiger, and the war in Ukraine has certainly revealed that the imperialists are not nearly as strong as they seem. But a wounded beast is a dangerous beast, and in its death throes it can lash out to devastating effect. We must neither overestimate nor underestimate our enemy, but simply understand that a historic opportunity has arisen for humanity finally to remove the imperialist heel from its neck.

In the same speech, Mao reminded us that the imperialists have very weak connections with the masses. What was true in the 1950s is even more true today. If communists and anti-imperialists conduct themselves sincerely and with principle; if we wage the struggle with determination and promote the true interests of the masses at all times, unbowed either by propaganda lies or repressive measures, the mass of humanity will be increasingly attracted towards us.

When the people begin to identify themselves with our organisations and to throw their weight behind our shared cause, we will see again the truth of Mao’s observation that “small forces linked with the people become strong, while big forces opposed to the people become weak”.

Let the heroic example of the resistant workers of the Donbass remind us that the struggle that faces us today must be carried out neither recklessly nor timidly, but in the most tenacious, concerted way, with the maximum unity of all anti-imperialist forces, until total and final victory. This is the task of our times, and we must rise to the challenge, undaunted by considerations of size and unbowed by the threats of our enemies.

No cooperation with the imperialist war machine!
Death to the warmongering Nato alliance!
Victory to the resistance!