by Renate Hürtgen, September 15, 2022

The war against the Ukraine, launched by Putin on 24 February 2022, has split more than just the political Left in Germany. Since that date, every conceivable viewpoint relating to this war of aggression has been widely debated in society; a debate where everybody claims to know better than any other the truth about this war. This struggle for the primacy of interpretation is often conducted with great bitterness and a refusal to compromise. One may condemn this, regret it, even pass judgement, but it makes little difference to the current situation, nor does it get to the underlying causes of the situation where the Left is so divided on the ground. Yet how can one explain the total absence of so much as a remotely common stance across the Left concerning Putin’s war of aggression? How can it be that answers to the question of the “anatomy of the war” (Krausz 2022) differ so markedly?

In this contribution I shall not be able to offer a suitable answer to this complex question. Such an answer requires a broad historical reassessment of the role of left-wing thinking and actions in our modern, globalized and capitalistic world. Instead, I would like to try to highlight connections between my own political awakening in the GDR, the process of my politicization when I first confronted this type of society, my own experiences in the struggle with the leadership of the East and West, and my current position regarding the war in the Ukraine. I am not rejecting a historical-critical analysis of these events here, but this approach does reveal my own standpoint and prevents it disappearing behind an apparently scientific objectivity. My hope is that these fiercely debated arguments can thus be acknowledged in new ways – or for the first time ever – and that my contribution will provoke greater awareness of the origins and background of each individual standpoint.

Why did Putin begin this war?

When I heard the radio announce on 24 February that the Russian army, on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, had launched simultaneous attacks on the Ukraine to the South, the East and the North of the country I’m sure I was not the only one whose breath was taken away. But in contrast to a section of the German Left – I can only talk here about them – I had never been blind to the aggressive nature of Putin’s policies. In contrast, just days before the invasion itself, authors of a left-wing newspaper had published an article beneath the title “Stop the war-mongers! Why Russia does not want war”, stating that NATO and reactionary circles in the West, with evil intent, had convicted Putin of planning a real war for reasons that they believed were all-too easy to discern. Rejecting this propaganda, as they saw it, they claimed that Putin did not have the slightest interest in an attack on the Ukraine. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they went on, Putin had only ever acted defensively, there were no indications that he would abandon this position when it came to the Ukraine (Braun and Wolf 2022).

The authors of this article are by no means political novices and yet they had been so mistaken in their prognosis. Why did I not make such an error of judgement? For many years I have been following the constantly deteriorating situation faced by opposition groups and civil society in Russia, their suppression through politically motivated laws and finally their actual banning. Immediately before the war broke out in February 2022 numerous independent media were deprived of their right to work, their premises were searched, materials were confiscated. The premises of “Memorial” were among those affected. On 6 September this year the “Novaya Gazeta”, a newspaper which has been critical of the Kremlin for many years, saw its media license revoked by the government. Didn’t those left-wingers who refused to attribute war-like actions to Putin entertain the notion that such repression might indicate the possibility of war breaking out? It is a well-known truism that for a country to make adequate preparations for war the political agenda must include measures to gag potential opponents of war.

After the attack on the Ukraine (where it soon became clear that the war could not in fact be won quickly), the Left began the search for an explanation as to what could have led Putin to trigger a war. Global constellations, developed after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet imperium, became the centre of focus: the over-hasty dissolution of the Soviet Union, the independence movements in several former Soviet republics which led to their breakaway and their entry into NATO and the European Union, the verbal assurances of the US and West German foreign ministers that they had no intentions of expanding NATO eastwards, the humiliation Putin associated with the military and ideological expansion of the West’s sphere of influence, and still does today. Authors of this type of global political analysis term this “the pre-history” and describe a dynamic which sees Putin as a victim, threatened and surrounded, compelled to resort to a kind of “liberating blow”. According to this viewpoint, Putin’s war of aggression is the inevitable and logical consequence of the behaviour of the USA and NATO towards Russia. In hindsight it then seems as if all impulses at the global level are merely steps towards Putin’s predictable counter-reaction (Konicz 2022).

One such view of historical processes is well known to me from the days of the autumn revolution in the GDR. For the liberal mainstream back then there was no doubt (indeed this is still the case today) that a popular uprising took place in 1989, with the goal of establishing German unity under the umbrella of the Federal Republic. History “had realized itself” (Hegel), the whole of pre-history had worked towards this historical moment. It goes without saying that the victors of such history are happy to be celebrated as such. But even those on the Left who were disappointed by this outcome were able to “see it coming” in retrospect; the very first slogans on the banners of the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig had already laid bare the reactionary character of this mass movement, further developments were utterly logical, so they claimed. In numerous research papers and seminars, I tried to oppose such a notion of inevitability with a counterview of history as an open process, and to describe the dynamic nature of the events which developed over the course of 1989 and 1990. I always sought to stress how the shifting moods and power relationships in the GDR formed a fluid process, where new actors would spontaneously emerge to shape developments, while others stepped away from the stage. Fundamentally, history is an open process and not a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Situation in Russia

Back to the causes of Putin’s attack on the Ukraine. Whilst most left-wing observers attempted to explain, both to themselves and us, the logical congruity of this war by means of a description of global processes, others continued their study of internal relationships within Russia and began to scrutinize more closely the political, social and economic development of Russia since Putin took office in 2000 (Sapper 2022). For these authors it was a matter of focusing on the inner contradictions apparent in Russian society, namely the status of the ruling class, to find an answer to the question of what could have incited Putin to permit such a war to break out. It is neither a new, nor a particularly original notion to establish a direct connection between domestic and foreign policy, and to grant particular significance to domestic political conditions; yet most in the German Left ignored this connection and preferred to occupy themselves with the stance of Russia towards the West.

What influence did Russia’s domestic political situation have on Putin’s decision to attack the Ukraine? In the first weeks after the war broke out I tried to read everything I could lay my hands on. The whole history of Putin’s rule in double-quick time. How he tried to marshal the power of the oligarchs in his favour, individuals who had arisen during the criminal, mafiaesque process of privatization, how he had attempted to secure control over this new capitalist class, together with the most important industries, by means of state policy and his own power. A fundamental part of the history of Putin’s rule was the genesis of his ideas regarding the resurrection of a greater Russian empire, including various statements which unambiguously pointed to his intention to create such a vast empire. It is these ideas of a greater Russia which lead us to the conclusion that Putin had never intended to reanimate the Soviet Union, neither in its borders nor in its social construction. But what had in fact motivated Putin to realize his vision of a great power, the plans of which had been drawn up over the course of years?

“The internal constitutionality of Russia should make it impossible to mistake the true nature of Russian foreign policy” (Gehrke 2022). Thus Bernd Gherke, in his piece about Russian neo-imperialism, introduces the section where he discusses the character of Russian Wild East capitalism; a form of capitalism which was so brutal as to be virtually indistinguishable from the Wild West capitalism seen in the emerging nations of the South. Here he discusses the widespread mechanisms of exploitation, the situation of cheap migrant workers, the neoliberal practices of employment legislation and the eradication of union rights, of the great gap between rich and poor, of the criminal origins of a capitalism which serves the elite and which could ruthlessly enrich itself by means of these methods.

Yet the anticipated modernization and diversification of the economy failed due to the conflation of politics, as authoritarian as it was corrupt, with the monopolistically organized oil and gas industries (which dominate the entire economic development of the country) as well as an exorbitant “military-industrial complex”. “Russia, the greatest land mass on earth, currently stands in just 12th place in league tables of the world’s largest domestic economies – jointly with Brazil. And this military power, with the greatest arsenal of nuclear warheads and roughly 145 million inhabitants, is unlikely to improve its standing soon” (Centre for Economics and Business Research 2021). Even before the attack on the Ukraine many respected economists had come to the same conclusion as the British Centre for Economics and Business research (CEBR), namely that Russia was languishing in a phase of long-term stagnation and that the gap to the top five industrial lands, USA, China, Japan Germany and Great Britain would continue to grow (Emmendörfer 2022).

It can be assumed from this that Putin also shared such prognoses and unambiguous conclusions, recognizing that efforts to catch up in economic terms could not succeed in the foreseeable future. Given this assessment, then, how else could Russia’s claim to its former greatness and its status as a world power be established other than by the size of the nation, and the expansion of its sovereign territories through conquest of new lands or the reconquering of old lands?

The particular nature of this war

Ultimately a whole range of causes will have formed the motivation and catalyst for Putin to begin this war. Yet the fact that an autocrat, so weakened economically, would aggressively defend his power in this manner, and resort to non-economic means if economic measures could not achieve his goal, is now apparent to all. That does nothing to alter the fact that the USA remains the strongest imperial power in the world, in military and economic terms, and that its own sovereign claims pose a threat to the whole world. Yet anyone who chooses to look at the facts will acknowledge that a threat of previously unknown dimensions currently emanates from the political leadership of Russia, as it seeks to realize its claims to power in a particularly aggressive, unpredictable, and at times irrational, manner.

The aggressive nature of Russian foreign policy should not conceal the fact that the governments of Europe and the USA share responsibility for the heightened geopolitical tensions at present, as authors from the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Switzerland, Austria and Germany emphasized in a joint paper. They describe a web of political influence, financial as well as military support, and vested economic interests extended towards the former Soviet republics. “Market forces and capitalist structures in the imperialistic countries of Europe and North America not only sought new NATO members, but above all wanted to gain new markets and to acquire cheap raw materials. To achieve this aim they required governments who could implement societal transformation in an orderly fashion, and in extremis through the use of violence” (Budraitskis et al. 2022). Drawing from these principles, the bolstering of Ukrainian resistance on the one hand offered the West the opportunity to weaken the geopolitical position of Russia, but on the other hand it is apparent that economic relations and opportunities (the real concern of western capitalist structures) will suffer significantly due to this war. It can be seen that the USA, but also Germany and other EU states, have no preferential interest in the continuation of this war; numerous corporations are already calling for an end to the war, not least when they do not stand to benefit from sanctions. The war also shows that the concept of a “collective West” is a fiction, since it is divided and motivated by the widest interests.

What, then, is the particular nature of this war? My political thinking and actions are coloured quite significantly by the fact that I lived in a land which was occupied by the “Big Brother” of the Soviet Union. It always resorted to the use of military violence to prevent any “cutting of the cord”, when faced with rebellion against their imposed political and economic model. The situation for the socialist Left in opposition in the East, including that of the GDR, was always a double one to an extent: their struggle was always aimed against the politics of the rulers in their own land, against their vassalage and against the Soviet occupiers. The quashing of the reform movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968 stands as an example of this quasi-doubled suppression in the so-called satellite states of the Soviet empire. Only after this collapsed was the path clear for an independence movement. The population of the GDR gained various civil rights during the course of the revolutionary events in Autumn 1989, occupying public spaces for democratic civil movements. And after years of suppression of autonomous workers movements, the labour force of the GDR’s major industries went on strike and demonstrated once again; the waves of strikes and protests against the policies of the “Treuhandanstalt” (German Trust Agency) in the early 1990s is legendary. Only since the tumultuous events of 1989 in the GDR have I grasped the significance of citizens’ rights as a critical precondition for gaining awareness of emancipatory processes.

This experience seems to me to be a key reason why I wasted no time at all upholding the Ukrainians’ right to defend their land, where occupation by the Russian army would make any independent developments impossible. It seems to me not inappropriate to compare the resistance of the Ukrainians against the old and new occupier with those anti-colonial wars of independence waged in Algeria or Vietnam (Balibar 2022). This historical comparison does have its limitations, but there is no doubt that the Ukrainians are waging a defensive war against a Russian assault on their territory which transgresses international law, defending themselves against the quasi-colonial annexation of their land into a greater Russian empire. Such an attitude does not ignore the contradictions which we have experienced in past anti-colonial struggles, yet alongside this statement it is equally clear that this is not a war between two hostile and equally corrupt capitalist states, rather it is the attack of an imperial state on the sovereignty of a far weaker neighbouring state.

The View to the East

As logical and self-evident as these assessments already were to me immediately after the start of the war, so the counter argument from the German Left was swift and brutal. Proponents of this opposing position argue that military resistance against the Russian aggressors has been unsuccessful and will only lengthen the war; that in the interests of preventing a third World War the Ukrainians should not respond with violence, but rather with civil disobedience; that this war is a proxy war, a war between West and East, since the Ukraine long ago allowed itself to become a puppet of the USA; that the Ukraine is a capitalist state, where the extreme Right set the political agenda, and was therefore not worth defending as far as the Left was concerned.

I took issue with each of these suggestions and soon noticed that the representatives of these widely differing arguments had one thing in common: they all regard the Ukraine as an object of desire, as an entity influenced from the outside, a plaything of the great powers. Consequently they do not concern themselves with questions of the legitimate needs and interests of Ukrainians in this situation, instead they offer advice about how Ukrainians should humble themselves in this war; they demand that they abandon their quest for independence in order to avoid any further bloodshed; they speak about them, but do not speak with them. Equally, they do not ask what people of left-wing and democratic tendencies in the Ukraine are saying and doing, usually they do not even acknowledge them and disavow their emancipatory potential.

Such attitudes instantly took me back to the momentous events of 1989 in the GDR. Deja vu! Back then too, the majority of the anti-capitalistic Left in the West had not shown any real interest in the situation of the GDR, they were not concerned about the conditions of the average worker, or of the understandably tiny opposition. Their scant knowledge did not, however, prevent them from quickly pronouncing judgement about the reactionary conservative nature of the movement, and to offer advice to the GDR opposition about their political work, above all to urge them to consider carefully the possible consequences of their actions. So when I founded an independent union movement out of the state union FDGB, in the course of my political activities back then, I was criticized by one left-winger in the West who declared that I was not interested in founding a Workers Party, while others claimed that I was provoking a splintering of the unions. And nearly all were united in saying that this working-class, grassroots movement did not display any left-wing anti-capitalist character and was therefore largely unworthy of their support. The majority was quite certainly unaware of the arrogance of such behaviour, passing judgement on a social movement whose historical significance was quite clearly lost on them.

As not only an observer of the transformation which took place within the GDR, but also as an active participant, I was outraged from the very outset by the widely-held opinion of many left-wingers in the West (claiming back then and still today), that the population in the East was a victim of the interests of western capitalist forces, seduced and dazzled by the promises of the golden West, thus becoming easy prey for “western hubris and western business sentiment” (Flassbeck 2022). What an oversimplification of the inner contradictions of Eastern European developments, what ignorance about the motivations – as witnessed within the GDR and other countries in the eastern bloc – which underpinned the widespread desire to live in a western-oriented society!

My opinion, which differs markedly from that of many left-wingers regarding the character of the war in the Ukraine, is not the result of superior political knowledge of global networks or deeper insights into the history of the Ukraine and Russia. It is based first and foremost on the experience of having been part of a societal movement which did not conform to the notions of vaguely clever left-wing strategists, but rather unfolded in line with its own contradictory dynamics -critical if we wish to comprehend the events that occurred. My opinion is also based on encounters with western “advisors”, for whom these experiences were of little interest, because their own opinion and judgement about the nature of these movements had already been formulated.

Of Ukraine’s right to resist

It was quite apparent to me that I could not be satisfied “with dogmatic commentaries about the war from afar” (Arps 2022) and that I would not be able to evaluate the character of this war without knowing the circumstances of those who have been active for many years in the Ukraine, operating in a wide range of left-wing groups, media outlets and social initiatives. What are the thought processes of the feminist, anarchist, Trotskyite, libertarian and democratic actors of this emancipatory civil society, the critical historians and sociologists, the independent trade unionists and socially engaged workers, in the face of the war? How have they reacted to this terrible situation, which debates are they engaging in, how do the differences amongst the Ukrainian Left become manifest? Naturally, such questions are not posed by those whose analysis views the war as a global struggle for spheres of influence and who regard the Ukraine as a victim in this power struggle. But anyone who steps back from this global level and views Ukrainians as independent-minded citizens will be better placed to grasp the character of this war. At the end of my contribution, I would like to briefly describe the insight which is gained if we look closely at precisely these attitudes of the Ukrainian left wing.

The Ukrainian Left is marginalized, the various groups and initiatives (which have for quite some time benefited from the arrival of exiles from Russia and Belarus), consist of a maximum of 200 members, some involving barely a handful of people. They regard themselves as Trotskyite, radical-feminist, anarchistic, libertarian or democratic, some work in social movements and trade unions. In their self-conception they reject the post-communist parties and trade unions. My experience of life in the GDR helps me to recognize their significance despite the small numbers of activists. The opposition in the GDR numbered probably no more members than the Ukrainian opposition does today, and it largely conducted its business isolated from the rest of GDR society. Nevertheless, it shaped the developments of the country and became a decisive actor in the Autumn revolution, giving the mass movements their direction.

What attitudes does this Ukrainian Left have to the war and how do the lines of debate and disagreement appear there? It seems as if there are few controversies amongst them, unlike in the Russian Left which is set up more broadly and where viewpoints are to a certain extent far more widely separated (Kasakow 2022). One is compelled to imagine that the war of aggression has not only welded the Ukrainian population together, beyond existing differences, but has had a similar effect upon the various Left-wing movements and parties which have hitherto acted largely independently of each other. It is particularly telling that this unity is revealed in the question of the Ukraine’s right to defend itself, including the right to launch military counterstrikes. While the German Left is currently tearing itself apart over this question, where anyone supporting the concept of military resistance is quickly condemned for belonging to the militaristic camp, the debate there is developing quite differently.

Eight days before the Russians crossed the border on 24 February 2022 a group of Ukrainian anti-authoritarian activists published a lengthy text about their function and their political self-conception since the Maidan. In this article they also describe what should be done if and when the anticipated attack by Russia were to occur: “Does it make sense to fight against the Russian troops if we were to be invaded? We believe that the answer to this question is yes. Options being considered by Ukrainian anarchists at this moment in time include joining the Ukrainian armed forces, participation in territorial defence, setting up guerrilla units and the training of civilian volunteers” (Anonymous 2022). In near-prophetic terms they anticipated similar discussions which followed a short time later involving not only the anarchists: how do we play our part, who is going to volunteer in a territorial unit, who should organise aid efforts for the fighters, who will support the civil defence? Who should go abroad and support the resistance effort from there? Networks such as “Resistance Committee” were established by libertarians and independents, forming armed territorial units, while groups such as “Operation Solidarity” are offering practical support to these units. Faced with the necessity to take up arms and fight, all other considerations have been pushed into the background (Denis 2022). Issues which lead to bitter rivalry in the German Left, are subordinated in the Ukrainian Left to the single-minded resolve to push Putin’s army back out of the country by all means.

What lies behind the population’s resolute will to resist the Russian occupiers? The answer to these questions is an object lesson in the historical analysis of societies. While those in the German Left are irritated by the fact that the Ukrainian Left has been gripped by nationalistic patriotism (although it is well known that this always rises in times of war and tends to suppress positions of class warfare), our comrades and friends from Ukraine explain to us that they are fighting for their very survival, for their physical wellbeing and their existence as left-wing activists. They are united in one thing: for every one of them Russian occupation would mean the end of their existence – for the anarchists and feminist groups, for the social initiatives and for the independent trade unions. This was noted by the chairman of the independent trade union of miners from Kryvyi Rih (Bagel 2022). Patriotism as survival strategy.

In my research I learned that the Ukrainian Left was threatened by radical nationalists and fascists before the war, and that they constantly had to assert themselves in their struggle with a neoliberal political structure as well as a conservative population. But I also accept that the situation in Russia is far more dangerous, which is why so many left-wingers fled Russia and Belarus into the Ukraine in recent years. The German Left needs to assimilate such experiences, which since the events of the Maidan has broadly tended towards emphasising the fascistic character of the Ukraine and has downplayed the fact that for many years the Putin regime has been the tip of the spear of a reactionary and fascistic movement, together with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Marine Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany. To date no effort has been made to produce a nuanced left-wing analysis of societal developments in the Ukraine, particularly with regard to the significance of nationalism and fascism in their society.

The political reaction of the Ukrainian Left to this war is illuminating in several respects. The way that, for instance, the left-wing democratic social movements and independent trade unions in the Ukraine have successfully continued their long-standing criticism of the neoliberal politics of the government, irrespective of the fact that they currently find themselves in a united defence against the Russian aggressor. Vitaliy Dudin, a lawyer in employment legislation and chair of the left-wing organisation “Sozialny Rukh” describes how under martial law the weaknesses of the working classes can be exploited, employment rights dismantled, and laws favouring employers introduced (Dudin 2022). As independent trade unionists and members of left-wing social movements, and despite the current state of martial law, they take up the fight against these drastic degradations in the conditions of Ukrainian workers. And yet, as shown by the first modest successes in opposing such laws, this will only succeed with the help of international support.

On the one hand, the Ukrainian Left stands alongside other Ukrainians in the struggle against an aggressor who wishes to occupy their land and destroy all emancipatory measures, on the other hand they continue to fight against the state and employers in their own land who wish drastically to undermine the situation of the working population. They demand international solidarity and practical help in both of their struggles because without such things – whether that be weapons supplies or support through the international trade unions – these struggles will be lost (Bilous 2022). This is the reality for the Ukrainian Left, a reality which does not follow a “red primer” and which cannot be dealt with by means of typical class war slogans such as “the enemy lies within your own land”. The left-wing dogma which states that every positive reference to the nation, and consequently any kind of defence of the nation, should be rejected as the work of the devil, shows itself to be unsuitable when faced with the challenge of grasping the situation of the Ukrainian people, and also the character of this war. I am reminded once again of my experiences from the momentous times in 1989/90 in the GDR, when I stood, stunned, in the face of growing “anti-German” hatred, mainly towards the East Germans. These predominantly left-wing critics from the West had quite clearly never been concerned with how we who had lived in isolation in the GDR had experienced the post-war division of Germany, but in 1989 broadly viewed the desire for national unity as nationalistic and railed against such attitudes.

This is the broad distrust shown by the Left towards movements about whom they readily say in retrospect that these groups did not understand the consequences of their actions, that they would have given in to false hopes, that they chased false goals. Once again I find that my own experience helps to avoid such assumptions. The Ukrainian Left knows what they need to do, even without advice from outside. As a weaker party they agitate pragmatically, faced with a reality where their land simply must be defended, where they call for NATO weapons, and where they are confronted with possible membership of the EU in the future. But they must not be lectured about the insecurity of such “alliances” with the West or warned about the consequences of joining the EU. They will continue their struggle against neoliberal threats, against oligarchs and corruption, and they will continue to be involved in the worldwide fight against climate change by demanding the immediate cessation of fossil fuel imports (Graack 2022). The Left, with all its questions and problems, is part of a global left-wing movement where all can learn from each other and no one has the right to impart pompous advice to their fellows.

What is the nature of this war? My summary: since 24 February 2022 the Ukraine is fighting a war of defence with all available resources against an imperialistic aggressor. The outcome is uncertain given Ukraine’s weakness. What also remains unresolved is whether the right-wing nationalists will ultimately emerge from this war strengthened or whether the democratic and left-wing movements might receive a boost. That matter will not, however, be decided solely in the Ukraine, but depends on how the world looks once the war is over, and whether a possible progressive movement in the Ukraine finds enough supporters. History is and remains an open process.

Quelle: What is the nature of the war we see in Ukraine?, published in Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, Volume 30 Issue 3, is now available for you to access via

Picture: Kyiv in Defense, Pexels