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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