Volodymyr Ishchenko – The Russian Invasion and the Left in Ukraine

The Left and its future in Ukraine

Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist and research associate at the Institute for East European Studies at the Free University Berlin

Cross-posted from the website of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation


The sharp divisions to the Russian invasion within the left in Ukraine and beyond cannot be understood without delving into the profound class conflict that underlies this war. This conflict cuts across the entire post-Soviet landscape, pitting political capitalists — commonly but imprecisely referred to as “oligarchs” — against professional middle classes aligned with transnational capital organized under US hegemony. In Ukraine, this conflict manifested itself as the infamous “regional” cleavage, which divided Ukrainian politics into “Eastern” and “Western” camps. Although the cleavage was typically but superficially reduced to ethno-linguistic or cultural differences between Ukraine’s south-eastern and western-central regions, or was dismissed altogether as merely being a manipulation by rival elites to enhance their legitimacy, the camps on opposite sides of the divide were profoundly asymmetrical in terms of the class coalitions behind them and in their political capacity.

The “Western” camp advocated a comprador integration as Western periphery that primarily benefited the professional middle classes within Ukraine, but which threatened most of the political capitalist ruling class and marginalized large segments of Ukraine’s workers. At the same time, the “Eastern” camp, misleadingly labelled “pro-Russian”, had little to offer beyond the “stability” of the post-Soviet stagnation. Moreover, the “Western” camp was supported by a narrow but influential civil society of (neo)liberal NGOs as well as radical nationalist parties and paramilitaries, which was particularly strengthened by the Euromaidan revolution. The “Eastern” camp’s civil society was profoundly weaker. The Russian invasion itself can be seen as a result of the escalation of the deep post-Soviet crisis of hegemony, reflecting the inability of the political capitalist class to lead a comprehensive development project. It can also be understood as a deficiency of the maidan revolutions, which amplified the middle-class and nationalist civil societies with their unpopular agendas, thus reproducing and intensifying the crisis. Putin decided to compensate for the deficit of soft power that the Russian ruling class has been able to enjoy in Ukraine with military force, betting on a quick and limited operation to decapitate the Ukrainian state. The Kremlin also overestimated the destabilizing impact of actual crisis trends in Ukrainian politics and society and underestimated the Russian military’s degradation to prepare and conduct a complex high-risk operation.

Workers’ interests had no independent ideological articulation and political representation in the post-Soviet class conflict. The “Eastern” camp relied on large sections of the working class employed in the heavy industry and the public sector, as well as those dependent on state welfare, such as pensioners, who valued at least some stability in traditional trade relations with Russia and small but stable state support, but only as politically passive and atomized voters. On the other hand, other sections of the working class supported the “Western” camp if they were already oriented toward Western markets, including those who are migrant workers or who outsourced labour (e.g., in IT). The Ukrainian left, then and now, has not been able to represent the interests of the working class.


For much of Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, the politically relevant left was practically synonymous with the successors of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, they were the most popular political parties, able to block some of the neoliberal reforms and authoritarian encroachments. But by 2014, only the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) remained the sole left-wing force represented in the Ukrainian parliament. A year before  Euromaidan, it won 13 percent of the vote and had over 100,000 members. Then it was effectively banned in 2015. In essence, the Communist-successor left acted more as a radical — i.e., a more ideological and militant — wing of the “Eastern” camp than as a political representative of the working class’s interests. Moreover, while the far-right nationalists were rising as a radical wing of the “Western” camp, the influence of the left was waning for reasons both general to the camp as a whole and specific to the party. Petro Symonenko — the KPU’s irremovable leader since its re-establishment in 1993 — had a firm grip on the party. He systematically got rid of internal opposition and hindered the party’s modernization and radicalization (which were especially necessary in the hostile environment after Euromaidan).

The younger “new left”, who typically tried to distance themselves from the Communist-successor parties, has been a much smaller, fragmented, and loosely organized milieu of constantly splintering and reconfiguring micro-organizations and informal networks. These have never numbered more than 1,000 active participants nationwide even at the height of its development in the early 2010s. The new left established some sustained cooperation with a few individual labour leaders and local trade union organizations, but the labour movement itself has been weak after decades of post-Soviet economic degradation, the continued dominance of patronage relations in the industrial workplace, and low strike activity. The new left was simply too small to represent anything in the public sphere and politics, and too amorphous to pursue a coherent strategy. In effect, the new left functioned as part of the small left-liberal wing of “Western” middle-class civil society, which tried to amplify the culturally progressive and mildly redistributive aspects of European integration, but did not share much interest in the revolutionary or anticapitalistic aspects of the radical left’s agenda.

Finally, a distinctive element within the Ukrainian and broader post-Soviet left milieu were the Marxist-Leninist “circles” (kruzhki) that interacted with both the “old” and “new” left. These reading groups-cum-proto-parties exhibited a range of tendencies. Some maintained continuity with the traditions of renowned Soviet critical Marxist thinkers such as Evald Ilyenkov, while others embarked on a fresh exploration of classical Marxist texts. Like the new left, the circles were small activist groups, but they were ideologically coherent and had a greater capacity for systematic work. What set them apart was their symbiosis with a political and cultural phenomenon that could be called the neo-Soviet revival. This revival became increasingly manifest in the art, leisure activities, identity, language, and political attitudes of many post-Soviet youth during the 2010s, which was a marked departure from the Soviet nostalgia of an aging population that characterized the 1990s. The advent of social media, which Marxist circles used effectively, facilitated their outreach to substantial online audiences, and the most successful cases were been estimated at hundreds of thousands or even millions on the Russian-language segment of the Internet. Notably, Ukraine was not immune to this cultural-political current, despite the post-Euromaidan decommunization policies and the nationalist and repressive tendencies. As a result, the Marxist circles that wisely moved their activities underground in time were able to take advantage of the developing dynamics in the collective consciousness of sections of the underprivileged urban youth to whom Euromaidan offered no attractive prospects.


The Ukrainian left’s positioning with regards to the post-Soviet class conflict, its inability to effectively represent the independent interests of the working class or engage in relevant political action, largely shaped its reactions to the Russia-Ukraine war. Notably, KPU, whose leader Petro Symonenko sought refuge in Belarus in early March 2022, threw its full support behind the invasion, denouncing the Kyiv government as a “fascist regime”. The number of party members remaining in Ukraine is uncertain. Following the crackdown on the party that began after Euromaidan, many younger members demonstrated waning commitment and left the KPU. The party also lost its strongest and most militant organizations in annexed Crimea and secessionist Donbass. The older core members, however, exhibited unwavering loyalty to the party to which they had effectively belonged for most of their lives. Unreliable estimates in 2016 suggested a nationwide membership of around 50,000. Remarkably, no alternative figure to Symonenko has emerged to speak on behalf of the KPU or one of its factions after the invasion began. But, this should not be surprising after three decades of purging any real opposition within the party.

Significantly, the KPU position stood in stark contrast to the dominant reactions within the “Eastern” camp. As the initial plan for the Russian invasion began to unravel within the first few days, the overwhelming majority of the “Eastern” elites — including politicians, local officials, political capitalists, and the portions of the media long stigmatized as “pro-Russian” — decided against supporting the invasion and usually came out in support of Ukraine. So did their voters — that is, given that we can rely on wartime opinion polls. At least initially, this was not an ideological shift toward a “pro-Western” identity. Instead, it was a merely opportunistic response by a primarily non-ideological elite coupled with a predominantly depoliticized and confused citizenry reacting to the immediate threat to their lives, families, homes, property, and assets in the West.

The KPU reacted differently precisely because it was a radical faction within the camp. It was characterized by a more consistent pro-Russian ideological position stemming from the intense repression it had faced since 2014. The party faced a series of hostile actions, including the burning of offices, the humiliation and arrest of prominent figures, violent attacks on peaceful rallies, a legislative ban on the core of the party’s identity and ideology under the “decommunization” policy, a formal suspension of activities, and exclusion from participation in elections. In 2022, the repression only intensified. After the invasion, the KPU was permanently banned along with other parties that were bundled under the “pro-Russian” label. Searches of offices and arrests of activists became routine. Prison sentences for “liking” some Soviet symbols on marginal social networks were real cases.

The KPU was an excellent scapegoat. Repression of the KPU could easily score points with nationalist civil society without any serious backlash at home or abroad. Although most Ukrainians did not support decommunization, they did not protest it. Notably, even former KPU voters did not actively protest the repression of their party, reflecting the depoliticization and disarray within the camp. The KPU leadership accepted the role of being a sitting duck, lest its fortunes be endangered. In any case, the party — which has been integrated into political capitalism, which regularly got rid of the radicals who challenged the leadership, and which had many older members, some still unaccustomed to digital technologies — lacked the capacity to orchestrate clandestine activities. For the KPU leadership, the only way to regain a semblance of political relevance was to wait for the “fascist regime” to be transformed from within — for example, as a result of the implementation of the Minsk agreements or of it being overthrown from the outside. After Russia occupied Ukraine’s southern regions, many local communists celebrated signs indicating the change of power, such as the resurrection of Lenin’s monuments and the restoration of pre-Euromaidan/Soviet place names. Later, they started merging with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and some participated in local elections organized by Russian authorities in September 2023.

At the same time, many on the new left supported Ukraine’s defence effort, framing it as a “national self-determination” cause while also invoking the “anti-fascist” and “anti-authoritarian” arguments against Putin’s Russia. A significant portion went a step further and enthusiastically endorsed the ethno-nationalist “decolonization” agenda promoted by nationalist intellectuals and supported by influential sections of the Ukrainian elite. Seizing the opportunity presented by the invasion, they sought to advance the “Western” nation-building project, with ambitions to remake Ukraine’s diverse society in their own likeness. Some on the new left even ventured to endorse actions that would objectively lead to ethnic cleansing in the event of a military reconquest of Crimea and Donbass. Many also chose to tone down their earlier criticism of the far right, such as of the Azov, who became heroes of middle-class civil society.

Others within the new left remained more critical of the nationalist cause but often hesitated to express their views publicly for fear of repression and ostracism. The voices that prioritized saving the lives of Ukrainians, Ukrainian cities, and the Ukrainian economy over the fate of a very particular class “self-determination” project were muted. Under the constraints of martial law, the usual street activism of the new left became difficult to pursue, too.

Instead, the new left launched small-scale humanitarian initiatives. Some, mostly anarchist-leaning activists, joined the Ukrainian military and formed a few groups, typically smaller than a platoon. Where the new left had a more significant impact was on international discussions about the Russia-Ukraine war among sections of the Western left. This is because of their education, English language skills, and ties to left-leaning Western academia and media. Some groups chose to focus on international advocacy for Ukraine’s military efforts.

In contrast to the pro-Russian KPU and pro-Ukrainian new left, Marxist-Leninist circles typically took a revolutionary defeatist stance against the ruling classes and imperialists on both sides of the war. Many also critically distanced themselves from the “bourgeois pacifism” of the immediate peace advocates on the Russian and international left. In practice, their strategy is to survive and strengthen the underground organizations during the hard times of war and the accompanying rise of nationalism and anti-communism. Remarkably for these circumstances, they have managed to intensify their media work and increase their online audience in Ukraine.

Meaningful dialogue among these segments of the Ukrainian left remains virtually non-existent, with sporadic low-level attacks being the exception. To begin with, there is no communication space encompassing all these factions — many communists are likely unaware of the existence of the new left. The pervasive wartime polarization and the looming threat of repercussions for dissenting views — whether they deviate from the nationalist consensus in Ukraine or challenge the pro-invasion stance in the annexed territories — further hinder the emergence of moderate voices capable of mediating dialogue. Mutual perceptions of other factions siding with existential threats have only exacerbated the climate of discord. Communication with the Donbass left, if it existed at all, has deteriorated to the point of mutual accusations, making constructive dialogue a remote possibility. Moreover, the practical need for such a dialogue remains unclear, especially when the impact on domestic politics is negligible. The primary counterpart to the polemics over the war is the international public. But attempts to squeeze it into the debate of the supposedly unified “Ukrainian left”, allegedly ethically and epistemologically superior to the no less mythical notion of the privileged and ignorant “Western left”, necessarily require discrediting divergent views from Ukraine as either insufficiently “Ukrainian” or insufficiently “left”, without engaging in serious discussion, perpetuating the cycle of polarization and obstructing substantive exchange.


The weakness of the left in Ukraine presents the international left with the problem of building a politically relevant strategy in relation to the war. In the spirit of solidarity, it may seem most “natural” to develop one’s political stance through dialogue and cooperation with sympathetic local counterparts. But while the international left may be able to offer support to persecuted comrades or contribute to vital, even if small-scale, humanitarian causes, it faces a disheartening reality: its support for the Ukrainian left lacks political relevance within Ukraine itself. This predicament leaves the “support for Ukraine” vulnerable to becoming a mere virtue-signalling tool in domestic political debates abroad.

The ongoing discourse within the international left on the most pressing issue of supplying arms to Ukraine is marked by deep polarization. Advocates for unrestricted deliveries of arms in the name of “self-determination” are pitted against those who vehemently oppose any delivery of arms, even when specific weapons are essential for the protection of civilians and critical urban infrastructure, such as air defence. Unlike the more pragmatic discussions among decision-making elites, where considerations include the conditions of use, potential risks of escalation, and the impact on the military balance of specific weapons, the debate within the left is primarily characterized by normative positions.

These are easy to adopt for the sake of virtue signalling. However, any realistic resolution of the conflict is bound to be inherently normatively unjust, leaving a significant number of people in Ukraine and beyond in an unenviable position. Rather than selectively citing “Ukrainian voices” to bolster the opposing normative positions whenever it is convenient, the debate should be enriched by incorporating the insights of independent professionals with specialized military and economic expertise. Any serious and responsible discussion of the prospects for peace will boil down to questions such as whether the delivery of F16 jets or some other new type of weapon can break the existing military stalemate or whether it will lead to a new dangerous escalation. Or, whether sanctions against Russia will cripple its military efforts in the long run and whether the limits of Western support for Ukraine will be reached sooner rather than later. It is imperative to remember that the consequences of decisions based on different answers to these questions go far beyond political posturing and affect the lives of millions of people in Ukraine and Russia, or potentially of all of humanity in the event of nuclear war.

Beyond the urgent debates over military developments, strategic left politics should revolve around questions regarding the future of Ukraine, Russia, and the post-war international order. In the context of the former, discussion has centred on the possibility of “progressive reconstruction” as an alternative to the reconstruction plans that primarily favour foreign private investors. It should be said that these plans are already taking shape in conjunction with influential entities such as Blackrock and JPMorgan, and they would likely lead to the large-scale appropriation of Ukraine’s land and natural resources. The feasibility of any approach to reconstruction depends largely on the ultimate outcome of the war and the chances for a long-term ceasefire. Moving from the realm of speculative fantasy to practical reality, the viability of a more progressive path now requires the construction of an adequate war economy in place of the prevailing neoliberal improvisation emblematic of Zelenskyi’s government. Such a policy, which made Ukraine’s fate entirely dependent on Western military and financial support, cannot be reduced to incompetence or “false consciousness” on the part of the Ukrainian elite. It is a direct reflection of the interests and dominant ideologies of the class coalition behind Ukraine.

In contrast, the great challenge for a more self-reliant, mobilizationist, and state-interventionist economic model is that it hardly has the domestic political conditions, especially an organized base of support among the working class. Ironically, the most realistic path to any progressive change at the moment would be to mimic the “sandwich model” of “anti-corruption” civil society, which relies on harnessing the pressure of international institutions and Western governments on the Ukrainian government. Such a policy, of course, only reproduces Ukraine’s foreign dependence. Paradoxically, the most plausible scenario for securing the political conditions for state-led developmentalism and laying the groundwork for the emergence of a robust workers’ movement that can underpin progressive transformation mirrors a Cold War redux. In this scenario, Russia remains a major threat to the West — which justifies massive and politically motivated investments in Ukraine rather than in more profitable and secure locations — but refrains from launching full-scale attacks or systematic bombing campaigns on Ukrainian territory.

The discussion of Russia’s future is even less developed on the international left. If it begins with the assumption of regime collapse — which crucially does not mean only the demise of Vladimir Putin or his removal from power — and goes beyond mere speculation, it will inevitably be confined to emigre circles or clandestine groups. As with other issues, a realistic assessment of military and economic developments in Ukraine and Russia in the short and medium term should guide the strategy of the left. For example, if Russia manages to endure in the war, even if it does not necessarily emerge victorious, the communists and similar Russian “left-patriotic” parties and organizations may remain the only politically relevant left forces that are allowed to operate in the legal space, including the annexed Ukrainian territories. Although the KPRF has largely morphed into a docile “systemic opposition”, its heritage that is articulated by ideology and its established party structures have protected it from complete subjugation by the Kremlin. So far, this residual autonomy has left some room for occasional opposition figures within the party and sometimes this autonomy made it the centre of the protest vote. It is not yet clear how it will be affected by the post-invasion transformation of the Russian political regime. However, its already apparent ideologization and the addition of some mobilizationist features could facilitate not only the consolidation of Putinism but also the potential for social radicalization, particularly in the neo-Soviet current.

Conversely, the pro-Western new left could potentially gain more political relevance if Ukraine makes significant progress toward meaningful EU membership. In such a scenario, the new left could carve out a domestic niche as a local emulation of the EU’s reformist-populist left-wing parties, while also benefiting from its international umbrella as a protective force against local right-wing attacks. Under certain scenarios of post-war reconstruction, it could also do so with a revived labour movement. Imagining a similar scenario for Russia is even more difficult at the moment.

In a scenario in which a significant portion of Ukraine remains in a vast grey zone, entangled in a web of unfulfilled development promises, threatened by Russian “lawnmowing ” attacks without solid security guarantees from the West, and relegated to a subpar tier of EU membership — designed primarily to alleviate the loss of territory and mitigate the extensive human and economic toll of the war, but without the expected political influence within the EU and economic aid — the entrenched personalist, ethno-nationalist, and repressive facets of the Ukrainian political regime are likely to persist and intensify. Moreover, revanchism will loom large, exacerbating the fervent pursuit of “enemies from within” and “traitors” who “stabbed the country in the back”. In this complex context, and even more so in the case of faltering state institutions, either within Ukraine or Russia, clandestine groups, including armed factions, emerge as the most pragmatic avenue for survival and the continuation of meaningful political activity.

Not all of the above scenarios are mutually exclusive, suggesting that the choices should not be seen as entirely binary. Other scenarios might also be possible, as military developments on the Ukrainian front have proven difficult to predict. In any case, a realistic assessment of the course of the war and its consequences should become the basic premise of the left’s debate on Ukraine.

Finally, the left faces an even more difficult question in determining its stance amidst the tectonic shifts within the international order. In general, the left’s international politics, which should be based on a vision of global socialism and the strategies to make it a reality, is significantly less developed and typically more fraught with internal disputes than the left’s domestic policy platforms. At present, a gulf separates those who advocate a “multipolar world” from those who are cautious about the rise of an alternative to the U.S. imperialist powers and who inadvertently align themselves with the crumbling U.S. hegemony in the absence of an autonomous pole of international working class politics.

In this context, the question arises as of the feasibility of an overarching security structure — a common refrain of many left proposals for sustainable peace after the Russian invasion, that would include Russia and perhaps major nations of the Global South — if the continuing escalation of international conflicts is a direct manifestation of clashes between the interests of the ruling classes. Such a security framework could either function as the institutionalization of a new capitalist hegemony, possibly that of China, or require truly revolutionary transformations within the existing great powers.

Faced with these challenges, the prospect of social revolution is rekindled, evoking memories of earlier eras characterized by global revolutionary waves after World War I, World War II, and during the height of the Cold War. In a context characterized by the erosion of democratic capitalist institutions, the increasing tribalization of Western elites devoid of any universalist vision, and the ruling classes’ growing reliance on coercion and ethnic cleansing, a revolutionary solution may seem less utopian in our contemporary context than efforts to salvage the fading “rule-based order” or to give a pink “democratic socialist” touch to new or reformed old institutions that would serve a new hegemonic power.

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