The right of the Ukrainian resistance to demand armaments from all governments 

Recently, the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International” (current name of the tendency known as SU-Unified Secretariat) has published a statement on the war in Ukraine. In it they define the invasion of the Russian army ordered by the regime of Vladimir Putin as an “aggression” and support the Ukrainian resistance in its struggle for self-determination and independence of the country and that the “best possible scenario” would be “The defeat of the Russian invader at the hands of the Ukrainian people”.

By Alexander Iturbe

Furthermore, some public figures of that political space made a solidarity trip to Ukraine (among them, the former presidential candidate of the French NPA, Olivier Besancenot), as part of the European Network of Solidarity with Ukraine and against the war2, a few days after the Convoy of Support to the Ukrainian Resistance in which trade unionists and activists from several countries: Brazil, France, Italy, Poland, Lithuania and Austria (among them, militants of the IWL-FI) participated, as well as from the resistance in Ukraine. 3

We welcome the position of this international organization since it places us in the same field in the face of this war (that of the resistance of the Ukrainian people), differentiating us from those leftist organizations that support Putin’s aggression or those that “have no side” in this conflict. 4

In the framework of this central coincidence, we want to develop fraternally, on the one hand, a debate on the characterization of the international context in which this war takes place and, on the other hand, on the contradictions, ambiguities and omissions that the declaration presents when it must raise the question of armament for the resistance, a central issue in a war.

What is Putin’s Russia today?

The declaration defines that the context of the war is the dispute between two imperialist poles (NATO and Russia) which, although so far “have avoided any direct confrontation that could lead to an inter-imperialist war”, such a war “could be the result of an uncontrolled spiral”. We will return to the question of this hypothetical war later on. In this issue, we want to start from the discussion of where Russia currently stands in the “hierarchy of nations” of which Lenin spoke in his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and the role of the Putin regime in that context. 

During the Second Post-World War II, the former USSR became the world’s second largest economic power, with a large industrial base. After the restoration of capitalism and the dissolution of the USSR, much of the Russian industrial base was dismantled (only the “military-industrial complex” remained intact). Russia became a major exporter of gas and oil and, to a lesser extent, of grain and minerals. That is why the New York Times defined this country as “a great gas station”5. The core of bourgeois oligarchs expressed by Putin’s regime is the great national beneficiary of this model of capitalist accumulation. 

A model that has a complete financial dependence on European imperialism (especially Germany). Without the flow of funds from the EU, the Russian economy would grind to a halt. For example, the country’s main company, the state gas exporter Gazprom is indebted beyond its capital value (as are other major companies)6. In other words, Russia is not an imperialist state but a capitalist country highly dependent on imperialism. It is not by chance that the economic sanctions applied by the invasion, without really going to the bottom of the barrel, are hitting the Russian economy hard. 

At the same time, Putin’s dictatorial regime has relative political autonomy and, fundamentally, military autonomy. Therefore, being an agent of Russia’s financial dependence on imperialism and part of the counterrevolutionary camp along with it, the Putin regime and the bourgeois sectors it expresses aspire to maintain an “own area of influence” in the republics of the former Soviet Union and in some of the former Eastern Bloc, such as Serbia, where it wants to be the intermediary of the process of deepening imperialist domination.

However, today’s Russia does not have the economic power to do this “by hook or by crook”. Therefore, increasingly, Putin must appeal to the repression of the allied regimes and to military actions. For example, he had to intervene to save the regimes of Belarus and Kazakhstan from the revolutionary processes confronting them. 

The invasion of Ukraine (a disputed state) fits into the same need. In a sense, it continues the response it had after the Maidan democratic revolution (2013/2014) toppled the allied regime of Viktor Yanukovych and installed a bourgeois democratic regime. That is, the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the artificial “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk.

We reiterate that we consider that Russia is not an imperialist country and we do not see Putin questioning its role in the world division of labor but rather defending its own space as an intermediary of imperialist domination. But what was tolerated and accepted by the US and European imperialisms in the case of Belarus and Kazakhstan is no longer so in the case of Ukraine, and it may be suicidal for it.

And if NATO attacks Russia?

As we saw, this difference in the characterization of Russia does not prevent us from having a common position on the current war (support for the Ukrainian resistance), because both organizations have the characterization that there is an oppressor/aggressor country (Russia) and an oppressed/attacked country (Ukraine). However, it would take a central importance if the war would change its character and transform into a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia and, in this context, that military alliance would attack this country.

For us, in this situation, Russia would have to be defended, because it would mean the aggression of the imperialist NATO against a weaker and more dependent country (Russia). In other words, we would be for the defeat of NATO. On the contrary, since the characterization of the declaration of the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International” is that this would be “an inter-imperialist war”, the position should be “revolutionary defeatism” on both sides, urged by Lenin in the face of the First World War. That is to say, “the defeat of imperialism itself is the lesser evil” and oriented the Russian Bolshevik party to “transform the inter-imperialist war into a revolutionary class war”.7

The statement opposes “any escalation that could transform this war into a direct inter-imperialist confrontation”. This position is correct, in the framework of the characterization it handles and at the present moment of the war in Ukraine. However, it omits to set out a clear revolutionary position if such a hypothetical war were to take place.

A key issue: armament

In any case, this is something that would only be of importance in the future. Therefore, we believe that much more important is another absence in the declaration: the lack of an answer to how the Ukrainian resistance should obtain weapons, a key issue in a war in which we want it to succeed.

On the one hand, the statement correctly states: “We support their right to resist, including militarily, and we sympathize with their decision to do so. We defend their right to arm themselves and therefore to receive the weapons necessary to resist against a much more powerful army.”

The question that immediately arises is from whom the Ukrainian resistance has “the right to receive arms” or, in other words, to whom it has the right to demand that they be handed over. Closely linked to this issue, what should be the policy of the revolutionary organizations vis-à-vis the governments that can supply these weapons?

On this point, the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International” enters into a profound contradiction. On the one hand, it points out that the Ukrainian resistance “has received shipments of arms, humanitarian aid and intelligence from EU and NATO countries”, that this aid has contributed to “The first successes of this resistance” and has increased “Ukrainian hopes of defeating the Russian aggressor”. On the other hand, at the same time, he denounces “the obvious aim of the US and EU leaders to transform the war to suit their own interests […] They intend to use the Ukrainian battlefield for the realization of their geopolitical goals”.

This way of approaching the issue of armament ends up putting this organization in a dead end: how to support the right of the Ukrainian resistance to arm itself if at the same time, the governments of the countries that can supply it with these weapons (NATO members) intend to use this resistance for their imperialist “geopolitical objectives”?

The answer of the declaration is to remain silent. That is why, in the part in which it proposes the tasks for the workers and the masses of the other countries outside Ukraine and Russia (especially those belonging to the EU and NATO, where the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International” has its greatest forces) it does not say a word on the question of armament for the Ukrainian resistance. It expresses “support for the armed resistance” and for all “initiatives which contribute to strengthen it” but, we insist, not a word on how to obtain the necessary armament for it.    

If the statement is predominantly silent on this key issue, Gilbert Achcar (one of the referents of this organization in matters of international politics) expresses much more clearly the underlying position behind this absence. In a recently published article, he states: “The Ukrainian people are fighting a just war against an imperialist invasion and therefore deserve our support”.  However, he goes on to add that the Ukrainian people “have no right to involve other countries directly in their national defense: they have no right to demand that NATO… send them arms and equipment likely to widen the scope of the war. It deserves our support, but this is no more than a moral obligation.”8 (Emphasis added)

In this way, Achcar eliminates the contradiction we analyzed before: the Ukrainian resistance is just but it does not have the right to demand weapons from the governments of other countries to balance the great military inequality it has against the Russian army. Therefore, the support provided by Achcar is only “moral”. That is to say, only in words or limited to demonstrations in other countries or the sending of solidarity delegations. With regard to the key issue of armaments, the message is that the central issue is no longer the triumph of the Ukrainian resistance, but to prevent the “widening of the scope of the war”.  

What should be a revolutionary position on the issue of armaments?

Our political reasoning and its conclusions are very different. We start from the consideration that we are dealing with a war in which we unhesitatingly support one of the sides: the resistance of a people fighting its enemy under very unequal conditions. Then, by dint of being reiterative, the question of armament and military supplies becomes a central issue in order to concretize this support.

That is why, as expressed in various statements of the IWL-FI, we actively support the efforts of the Ukrainians to obtain arms and supplies to defend themselves. In this framework, we believe that it is absolutely correct to mobilize to demand that all governments (including those of NATO member countries) deliver to the Ukrainian resistance arms and all necessary materials (ammunition, food, medicines), directly and without any conditions.

We want to avoid false polemics; we are totally against the entry of NATO in the conflict, we demand its dissolution and we denounce the “arms race” being developed by several of its member states, such as Germany. What we say is that it is necessary to demand from these governments that, instead of increasingly strengthening this imperialist military tool, they should hand over their weapons to the Ukrainian resistance directly and unconditionally.

In the present conditions, we are of the opinion that this is a key task to raise in the rest of the world and, especially, in the imperialist countries members of the EU and NATO. It is the concrete way not only to support the Ukrainian resistance in its struggle against the Russian invasion, but also to fight NATO in depth. On the contrary, the position of the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International” and of Gilbert Achcar, on the one hand, ends up favoring Russian military superiority and, on the other hand, places the fight against NATO on a totally abstract (“moral”, Achcar would say) plane. 

The tradition of Trotskyism

In adopting this position of the right of the Ukrainian resistance to demand arms from the governments of other countries, on the one hand, and the obligation of the revolutionaries of those countries to support this demand, on the other, we are merely following a tradition of Trotskyism, once we have defined that a “just war” is being waged.

During the Spanish Civil War, it is well known that Trotsky praised the decision of the Mexican government of Lazaro Cardenas to send arms to the Republican government fighting against the forces of Francisco Franco (it was the only country in the world, outside the USSR, to do so)9. In those same years, in a debate against a current of the U.S. Socialist Party, which refused to support the struggle of the Republican movement against Franco, Trotsky used the example of two hypothetical ships leaving, from the U.S. or from France, with arms for Spain: one of them destined for the Republican government and the other for Franco’s forces. “What should be the attitude of the workers [of those imperialist countries]?” he asked. His answer is very clear: boycott the one destined for Franco and let through the one destined for the Republican government. 10  

Continuing with the Spanish Civil War, Trotsky praises “an excellent article” by one of his secretaries, Rudolf Klement, “Principles and Tactics in the War” (which he helped edit in its final version) This article expresses: “In the imperialist countries, which are allied with the countries that are waging progressive and revolutionary wars, everything boils down to this: that the proletariat fights with revolutionary means for a direct, effective, military support, controlled by it, towards the progressive cause (‘Planes for Spain!’ cried the French workers). In any case, it must promote and control a really guaranteed direct military support (the sending of arms, ammunition, food, specialists, etc.), even at the cost of an “exception” to the direct class struggle”.11

The question is very clear: in “progressive wars” it is valid for the workers of the imperialist countries to demand “direct and effective military support… towards the progressive cause…”. In this framework, it is a question of fighting “with revolutionary means” so that the proletariat can control the process. The policy proposed by the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International” and Gilbert Achcar has nothing to do with that formulated by Klement-Trotsky.  

On the “widening of the scope of the war”.

In fact, they have shifted the focus of their policy from genuine support for the Ukrainian resistance to preventing the “widening of the scope of the war”. What does this concept mean? We imagine that it does not mean that they are against the Ukrainian resistance carrying out attacks outside their territory on supply and support bases of the invading army, located on Russian territory, or attacking the missile system targeting Ukraine that Putin installed in Belarus.12

We interpret it as referring to a change of the character of the war on Ukrainian territory itself. That is to say, that it should cease to be a just war of liberation and be transformed into an episode of an inter-imperialist war between NATO and Russia. The underlying idea in Achcar’s text is that, with the sending of arms to the Ukrainian resistance by the governments of the NATO member countries, this change would already be taking place and, therefore, it must be opposed (or, at least, not supported).

We have already seen what Klement-Trotsky’s criterion was on this issue of armament. But there is a debate very similar to this one in which the Fourth International (Trotsky was already dead) fixed a position: the Sino-Japanese war. This war conflict began before World War II, in 1937, when the Japanese army had invaded and occupied several Chinese territories. The invasion began to confront the Chinese national resistance expressed in two different sides: that of the army of the bourgeois republican government led by General Chiang Kai-shek and that of the communist peasant army, led by Mao Zedong.  The superiority of the Japanese armament was very great. At that time, Trotsky wrote: “If there is a just war in the world, it is the war of the Chinese people against their oppressors”.13 

In 1939, World War II began. After the attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (December 7, 1941), the United States and Great Britain declared war on the Japanese Empire and the Chinese government joined the Allies. The reality combined the war of liberation of Chinese territories with the inter-imperialist war in the eastern Pacific.14 The United States began to send armaments and supplies, and to train officers of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, which improved his military capacity and allowed him to begin to launch some offensives. In addition, Chinese troops participated in the recovery of Burma together with British and American forces.

In that framework, in the US, a debate developed between the SWP (Socialist Workers Party, section of the IV International) and some leaders who had broken with the party some years before. These argued that, since Chiang’s bourgeois government had joined the Allies and the latter supported it militarily, it was no longer a question of a just war of liberation but of one more front in the inter-imperialist war and, therefore, in China, it was necessary to propose “revolutionary defeatism”.

A long article by John G. Wright (member of the SWP National Committee), published in the Fourth International magazine (April 1942) responds to this position. After analyzing why, on the basis of Lenin’s positions, Trotsky and the Trotskyists had supported China, Wright addresses the criteria for considering whether the war had changed its character with U.S. support for China:

“Anyone opposing support for China’s war against Japan must first demonstrate that the nationalist element in China’s war against Japan has no serious significance in comparison with the direct intervention of China’s imperialist ‘Allies.’ […] However, to raise the question of a change in the character of China’s war, it is first necessary to show that the balance of forces has unquestionably tilted in favor of the imperialists. This is the crux of the whole matter.”15

Faced with these criteria, the position of Wright, the SWP and the Fourth International is very clear: the fact that an imperialist government sent arms and supplies (even instructors and logistical support) to the Chinese forces did not change the character of a just war of national resistance. Nor did it change the fact that this war was being waged in combination with the inter-imperialist war in the Eastern Pacific. The “Political Bureau” can use the name of the Fourth International and claim to be its continuity, but the truth is that, for many years now, it has abandoned its theoretical, political and programmatic bases.

The real policy of the NATO countries and its contradictions

In reality, the “Political Bureau” and Achcar do not even correctly characterize the policy of the U.S. and the imperialist countries of Europe in this war and, in that framework, their contradictions (between the U.S.-Britain, on the one hand, and Germany-France, on the other). 

After the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe, U.S. imperialism accepted that the European powers (led by Germany and France) were the main beneficiaries of their semi-colonization and that they had a “peaceful coexistence” with Putin, who supplied them with an important part of the gas and oil they needed.

Joe Biden profoundly changed this policy: in his inauguration speech, he placed the confrontation with Putin’s regime as his second international objective, after China. After the invasion of Ukraine, he declared that the Russian president “could not remain in power”16. This is a response to the fact that Putin kicked the board of peaceful coexistence. But we believe that it also expresses a much deeper question: a section of the US imperialist bourgeoisie wants to enter directly into the semi-colonization of Ukraine and also of Russia, without the mediation of Germany and the EU and, even less, of Putin.

This generated important contradictions with the European imperialisms, which the war in Ukraine showed most clearly. While there was full agreement on direct non-intervention by NATO, differences arose both on the issue of economic sanctions and on the supply of arms to the resistance, especially with Germany17. They reflected both displeasure with Biden’s policy of direct entry into the semi-colonization of Eastern Europe and the EU’s dependence on Russian gas supplies.

In that framework, Putin’s action forced Germany ever closer to the Biden-Boris Johnson position. But the policy of the most hard-line sector of the imperialist powers is not to “widen the scope of the war”, but, on the one hand, to supply arms to the Ukrainian resistance, in a limited way, to extend the duration of the war and, on the other hand, to apply harsher economic sanctions, which will wear Putin down.

They do not want a categorical triumph of the Ukrainian resistance, which would provoke a very acute crisis in Putin’s regime and its possible fall. It would open the risk of revolutionary processes not only in Ukraine but also in Russia without imperialism having time for a controlled replacement. These processes would have an impact on the whole of Eastern Europe and also on the West of the continent. 

That is the perspective for which we fight from the IWL-FI and in which we frame our policy. That is why, following Klement-Trotsky’s criteria, in the US and in the imperialist countries of Europe, we say “more and better weapons for the Ukrainian resistance”. On the contrary, the “Political Bureau of the Fourth International”, while affirming that the “best possible scenario” would be “the defeat of the Russian invader at the hands of the Ukrainian people”, proposes to us a policy which conspires against this possibility.

The Ukrainian people are fighting heroically against the invasion ordered by the Putin regime and the atrocities it is carrying out. It has already inflicted significant defeats on it. It has shown that the Russian war machine can be defeated and, with it, defeat a major collaborator of the counterrevolution in the world. That is why the struggle of the Ukrainian people is not only for their country: a defeat of the Putin regime in this invasion would give a great impulse to the struggle of the workers and the masses in the region and in the whole world. This is today the struggle of all the workers of the world.