War in Ukraine: Why socialists don’t support sanctions

By Sonja Grusch, International Socialist Alternative

In the face of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military, many are not only shocked, but ask themselves: what can we do to stop the aggression? The brutal attack by Putin’s regime affects everyone living in Ukraine, irrespective of whether they are Ukrainian speaking, Russian speaking, or of any other language or nationality. In Russia, against Putin’s clique and their supportive oligarchs, we have seen opposition and protest expressed from the very outset of the war. Over 18,000 have already been arrested in 150 cities at the time of writing. This is not a war by Russians against Ukrainians. Putin and his regime disregard ordinary workers and youth who are sent to war against their will, not knowing what they are sent to. Putin’s regime was and is increasingly a brutal regime, militarily as well as against “its own” people back in Russia.

Especially in Europe, the feeling of solidarity with the people in Ukraine is strong, as is the feeling of helplessness of what one can actually do. The spontaneous help for refugees organized from below, for example in Poland, shows that people — contrary to all claims — are first and foremost characterized by solidarity. Many collect aid supplies, drive refugees in their cars in support. But we have to ask ourselves: how can this war be ended?

ISA does not think that “closing the sky” (with a ‘No Fly Zone’) which means an all out confrontation between Nato and Russia is a solution in the interests of working class people. We also think that the “professionalization” of the war, with mercenaries being moblised by both sides, including mercenaries from a far-right background, will lead to a further brutalisation of the war.

On the other hand we have seen the potential shown by the resistance of Ukrainian people sometimes confronting Russian troops on the streets, appealing to them as ordinary people and effectively stopping the troops from moving forward. These type of examples are what has driven Putin’s move to no longer send in conscripts but only professional soldiers. We also see the potential of the protests in Russia and the solidarity in the neighboring countries as well. We have seen many examples of working class anti-war actions, from offering refuge in their private homes, collecting aid and even dockworkers stopping Russian oligarchs’ tankers from being unloaded and some anti war strikes in Genoa, Italy. All this shows the potential of the force that really can stop the war — the international working class — as opposed to the various measures proposed and imposed by the ruling classes.

The sanctions of the ruling classes

The US, EU and many individual states have increasingly resorted to the means of “sanctions” in recent days. This is nothing new and has already achieved little in the past.

It is understandable that many working class and young people hope that sanctions could make the Putin regime give in.

The fact that sanctions are widely seen as the only way to respond reflects the weakness of the labor movement in recent decades whose leaders, instead of organizing independent anti war and solidarity instead supported the inefficient and often even racist policies of “their” respective governments. But punishing regime’s like Putin’s is not the real effect — and ultimately not the real purpose of these sanctions.

In the final analysis, sanctions are economic warfare. In this specific case, Western states are not primarily concerned with ending the war, but with harming an imperialist competitor. Even if the sanctions are presented with an emphasis on “the economy” or oligarchs: the reality is different. In the end, the sanctions do not primarily affect the oligarchs at the top of the Russian regime (who always find a way to get their money away or to leave — many will probably have their money held under other names and in various tax havens anyway) but primarily ordinary Russians — through the economic and social consequences, travel restrictions, etc.

The western media is celebrating the fact that the Russian economy is in freefall — completely ignoring that the loss of jobs and incomes as a result gives new arguments to Putin himself to win support in Russia! The closing of western media and communication channels (which of course also spout propaganda) gives Putin’s regime a monopoly on information. The closing of borders to Russians makes it impossible for those threatened by the regime to flee. In addition, sanctions can even harm the anti-war movement in Russia politically (also because contacts abroad become more difficult).

At the same time, it is significant that diamonds, for example, are not affected by the sanctions, nor are other luxury goods that sweeten the lives of the rich. All measures that affect the normal population are more likely to help the regime, which can then hope for greater “national unity”. And this is exactly why sanctions are not a contribution to peace, but in fact have the opposite effect.

Numerous international examples (Iran, North Korea, etc) show that sanctions even tend to help authoritarian regimes to shift the blame to foreign countries and thus prop up the very regimes they are supposedly trying to weaken. Also in those countries that impose sanctions, they are used as an argument that “we all” (meaning the working class and the poor) have to tighten our belts.

If Germany wants to spend an additional 100 billion euros on rearmament, this will be “counter-financed” by social cuts. The Austrian Minister of Defense, Tanner, has already made it clear that in the past too much was invested in “social security,” and now more must be put into the military. Apart from the unbelievable arrogance towards those who live in poverty or are underpaid and overworked in hospitals, this shows once again that even “little Austria” has imperialist interests — it is not really about “defense”, but about protecting economic interests, for e.g. in the Balkans.

So, instead of putting our hopes in the sanctions of bourgeois politicians and capitalist regimes, the war can only be ended by completely different measures. It is necessary to break the power of both the Russian and but also the Ukrainian oligarchies and the Western super-rich to end the current war and the system behind it. War exposes the real nature of social relations, and the naked interests of capitalists at the expense of ordinary working class people in all affected countries. What we see behind all this is that the system based on competition for profits ultimately leads to war. We therefore raise here some demands that protests against the war can concretely develop in consequence.

Use war for energy transition?

The sector that most concerns the Russian economy is the oil and gas sector. Despite the qualitative shift towards economic “decoupling” which the war has propelled, given the deep economic ties between most European countries and Russia regarding oil and gas supplies, but also wheat, a full decoupling is not possible in the short term.

Some propose to use the “opportunity” of the war to finally tackle the phase-out of fossil fuels, which is urgently needed in view of the recent warnings of the IPCC. This is a proposal which will not prosper for several reasons. First, such a transition cannot happen overnight — and on the contrary, it is currently assumed that the war will postpone the plans for moving towards more climate friendly energy production even further, through greater use of coal, liquefied gas and nuclear power to compensate for cutting supply from Russia.

Secondly, an oil and gas ban from Russia is a measure that would affect not so much the regime in Russia as the population: the lack of income for the state will lead to a further shift of resources to the military. Already companies are closing, people losing their jobs — this will further increase as a result of further sanctions. Third, a phase-out of fossil fuels is not in the interest of the energy companies, which make their profits largely from fossil fuels.

Here again we see an example of the disgusting policy of the ruling class that puts the burden of inflation and price hikes on the shoulders of ordinary people including telling them they should not complain as “people in the Ukraine are worse off”. Here the solidarity of working class people is cynically abused to push through the interests of the ruling class!

What therefore to do? Due to the neoliberal privatization processes of the last decades, most energy companies today are private or partly private and all of them are profit-oriented. For this reason alone, they have no interest in switching to sustainable energy production or even saving energy.

For public ownership of energy industry

The solution is actually quite simple: the takeover of the entire energy sector by the public sector. The planning of energy production, energy supply, energy saving, and the transition to sustainability can then be done in a way that pute societal needs first (which include the fight against climate change as well as that of energy poverty) rather than according to profit interests. In such planning, it is not “experts” paid by the fossil industry who have the say, but the employees of the industry, representatives of consumers and workers’ organizations. And these workers have connections to workers in oil and gas production and distribution in Russia and Ukraine.

When some western politicians pull back as CEOs from Russian companies this has little impact — but when workers turn off the energy where the supply goes to the oligarchs, when Russian and Ukrainian workers know they can rely on the solidarity of their European colleagues when they strike and take action against their own ruling class: this would eat into their profits and pose the question sharply of who owns and controls the means of production, the companies, the machinery, the ships, pipelines and so on. At the moment such a solution might seem very far away, but we must look at the striking oil workers in Iraq and more recently in Kazakhstan, think of the huge climate movement that is rightly demanding an end to fossil fuels — there is a potential for a mass movement here.

End secrecy in banking and corporations

Putin and the Russian Oligarchs have amassed enormous assets, profiting from the increasing repressive system in Russia for a long time. But let’s not forget about the close western links to those oligarchs who were (and may again be) welcomed by the rich and mighty in Europe. Let’s not forget about the war industry that makes huge profits from this war. And also let’s not forget that the Ukrainian oligarchs do not only exist but are guilty of exploiting “their” people who starve and freeze at this moment while they and their wealth are safe.

“Banking secrecy” serves mainly to conceal the obscene assets of the super rich — and indeed of all of them. While some assets or yachts have been confiscated these measures have primarily a symbolic role. Musk, Bezos & Co. have no interest in measures that attack the super-rich as such, since they all stand for a system that creates not only their wealth, but also poverty and wars. Banking secrecy is reflected, among other things, in the fact that there are no reliable figures but only estimates of the wealth of the super-rich.

The super-rich were not affected by the various Covid-19 travel restrictions, for example, and simply continued to travel around the world in their private jets, continued to hold their parties and above all: became even richer. In order to be able to determine where the Russian elite has its wealth and how much, it is necessary to open the company spreadsheets to public scrutiny, especially all their financial information. Representatives of the workforce and the workers’ movement must gain access to these informations.

This applies to the documents of the arms companies that profit from the war, to those of the banks where the assets of the oligarchs and the Russian (but also Austrian, US, British, German and Ukrainian) elite are located, to those of the energy companies with their connections to the ruling class in Russia, to the international food companies that profit from the rising prices while people starve to death, and so on. If the wealth of this network of the rich and super-rich is made public, that in itself would be a blow to the ruling class in Russia (and elsewhere).

It will quickly become clear that those politicians who not only fuel the war but also “unfortunately” have no money for the completely overburdened health sector, who are responsible for the decreasing pensions and increasing poverty in Russia, among other places, are the same ones who themselves live in luxury. But it would also show that even in Ukraine, where there are extreme differences between rich and poor, a small elite benefits from the work of the majority.

Currently, donations are collected everywhere for the people in Ukraine, and there is too little of everything. Here the question must be asked, why are the fortunes of the Ukrainian super-rich not used to finance food, water and clothing for the people in Ukraine? If the workers have access to this information, then they can not only freeze these assets but expropriate them and use them for reconstruction in Russia and Ukraine.

Solidarity with working people in Ukraine and Russian anti-war movement

There is no military solution and no diplomatic one — solidarity with the anti-war movement in Russia is the key task of the day! The background of the war is the conflicts between different imperialist powers that are being carried out on the backs of the Ukrainian population and the Russian soldiers. A bigger NATO, EU membership for Ukraine, more weapons and armament: all this will not end this war and especially its causes but will lead to more war.

In Ukraine, the sharpest weapon is a democratically organized self-defense from below, by the workers, e.g. organized in factories or neighborhoods. This would be a defense that also appeals to the ordinary Russian soldiers to stand together against the ruling oligarchs and Putin’s regime. Especially in the western media, Zelensky is portrayed as a hero, many pointing to his Jewish family background. It is true that, contrary to many other politicians, he did not use the first chance to flee and protect himself. But we also must not forget that prior to the war he was deeply unpopular because of his anti-worker policies in favour of the rich.

His policy was responsible for the massive and growing social inequality in Ukraine through brutal neoliberalism and he launched a frontal attack on the Ukrainian trade unions a few months ago. There are no indications that this would be any different after the war. His strategy for defense from the invasion hints at this: instead of democratically organized defense from below he relies on professionals including the fascist ‘Azov Battalion’ and foreign fighters. Instead of democratic workers’ control over defense but also the economy that could appeal to Russian soldiers to put their weapons down he is asking for support from the NATO warmongers, guilty of crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq but also Chile and other countries who will not act in the interest of Ukrainian people but only in the interests of the big imperialist powers.

The real ally of Ukrainian workers is the international workers’ and anti-war movement, especially in Russia, not the Ukrainian oligarchy or far-right mercenary gangs. The defense of Ukrainian workers and a lasting peaceful future are only possible through struggle which is also against the Ukrainian elite. A peaceful and safe future requires the overthrow of capitalism in the Ukraine and the building of a new society based on the working class running the economy as well as the society. Russian workers and youth will also have to settle accounts with Putin and his regime which doubles down authoritarianism with war and bloodshed.

Putin is ultimately in a weak position. Support for the war is low among many sectors already, especially among the young and urban population, and especially among the working class. As the war drags on, this could become the beginning of the end of Putin’s regime, his political and economic system and thus also for an end of the war.

This is not our war but the war of the ruling classes in Russia, the USA and China and also in Ukraine and Europe. In the face of war, one is tempted to lose sight of the bigger picture — that of brutal imperialism, which has to assert its power by all means at the price of destroying the environment and people.

Every war is part of this conflict, this one will be followed by others and more and more dangerous ones: the rearmament already indicates this. That is, if the system of the warmongers is not ended.

The other side of this situation is the increase in resistance against the roots of war, against dictatorships, and the exploitative capitalist system, by people all over the world. This and other wars can be stopped. War is not only the continuation of politics by other means, it is also the midwife of revolution as it exposes the brutality of capitalism in its full scale. The mightiest anti war movement was the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary events which followed in other countries (for eg, Germany and Austria in 1917/18) led by workers and socialists, which brought an end to WW1.

A peaceful world is only possible through an end to the capitalist system. This seems like a difficult struggle — and yet it is more realistic than the idea of peaceful capitalism. Let us not forget that the whole system is in deep crisis. Capitalism and its governments have made it abundantly clear that they cannot solve the climate crisis, that they cannot deal with the pandemic, that they cannot deal with social problems. And we see that there is resistance and protests everywhere. That is the starting point for the change that is so urgently needed. We are socialists and we are organized internationally to eliminate this brutal and cruel system once and for all and to lay the foundation for a safe and peaceful, socialist future.

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