A strategy for the working class in Ukraine

War is a crisis that offers opportunity for working class revolutionary demands. Simon Hannah looks at what a Ukrainian working-class response to the war could look like. This also poses important ideas as to what the working class should do in any similar situation around the world


The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a scandalous war crime.

A debate rages over the causes of the war over how much to blame NATO encirclement of Russian imperial ambitions or a combination of the two. The reality for the ordinary people of Ukraine is that they are staring down the barrel of Russian tanks and heavy artillery.

Ukrainian people have a right to defend their country from invasion and they are doing so with a mass mobilisation called by their government. Volunteers are joining the defence forces and thousands of Molotov cocktails are hastily being made to fight off the Russian forces as they threaten to encircle the major cities. 

The Putin government in Moscow is a profoundly reactionary one. His particular brand of Greater Russian chauvinism based on the post-1991 gangster capitalism of the newly enriched oligarchs is a vision of a barbaric society, one in which democratic rights are trampled on, political opponents assassinated and any nation in the orbit of Russia is a potential target. From the slaughter in Chechnya to the invasion of Georgia to the suppression of the Kazakh uprising, Putin’s regime is drenched in blood. Russian imperialism even extended to Syria where it supported the murderous President Bashar al-Assad who slaughtered his own people. 

Today Ukraine is a semi-colony that exists in a parlous state, caught between Russian and Western imperialism. Faced with the threat from Russia, a wing of the Ukrainian capitalist class has orientated towards the West, primarily greater economic and political ties with the EU as well as NATO. Although not an imperialist power, the Ukrainian regime to has blood on its hands. After 2014 Russia intervened to annex Crimea and the Eastern regions of the country, leading to a violent confrontation with Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region. The Ukrainian government also cut off water to Crimea after it was annexed by Russia and so on. We are not soft in our criticisms of the separatists either, backed by Russian intelligence officers and mercenaries they have carved out states with little to no democratic rights where torture was routinely used on political and religious dissidents. President Zelensky was elected on the basis of trying to resolve the national issue in the east of the country but as a bourgeois politicians he had no independent interests separate from the Ukrainian capitalist class. He is also a man who has enriched himself considerably through his political connections. The Ukranian rich are getting richer meanwhile the Ukrainian government has imposed austerity measures at the behest of the IMF to restructure the economy and manage their ballooning debt.

The Ukrainian capitalist class fights to defend their vision of a Ukraine dominated by western capital and united without any democratic consideration for working-class people under the blows of neoliberalism and in particular for the Russian speaking minorities.  A victory for the Ukrainian ruling class in this war would free the country of Russian troops but would not necessarily bring a sense of lasting peace. Ukraine has a right to exist as a nation but it will always be tied to one imperialist bloc or another if the Ukrainian working class doesn’t have a programme for socialism.

In this situation, the working class of Ukraine need to further develop their own policies and strategy. Such a policy would look something like this;

In the defence of Ukraine, workers and civil society should continue to form and develop their own independent organisations. Take weapons and any other material from the government. Form defensive units for their communities, working-class districts, factories and so on. The workers’ movement should demand the government nationalise the key sectors of industry. Armed workers can take control of their factories and elect their own officials to manage any enterprises. The war poses the question of the social transformation of the economy which can be used to strengthen the working class and its organisations. All attempts to ban strikes or independent action by workers must be resolutely opposed in practice. 

But the political question is key – the need for an independent policy separate from the war aims of the Ukrainian ruling class. Socialists are fighting for a Ukraine that isn’t aligned to Western or Russian imperialism. This is a war to end the Russian invasion but it is not a war to defend the oligarchs who are draining the Ukrainian economy or looking to line their pockets with lucrative trade deals with the EU. This means no support for NATO or being further integrated into the strategic economic or military interests of western imperialism. That means that socialists have to be the best fighters for the independence of Ukraine and also for the widest possible democracy. There needs to be a democratic settlement in Eastern Ukraine which might involve them joining Russia, might involve them staying as part of a federation with Ukraine or even rejoining Ukraine. We do not trust the Russian government or its Ukrainian counterpart to resolve the issue properly.

As such there could be a clear political call to the people of the breakaway provinces and to Crimea – we will fight for your democratic rights to decide your future up to and including joining Russia if you wish, but no more support for the Russian imperialist war machine. Turn your guns on the Russian invaders and help defeat the imperialist invaders. Fraternisation where possible with Russian soldiers – “why have you been sent to fight? Ukraine is not fascist, don’t believe Putin’s lies”. Already scores of Russians are surrendering or deserting, confused and demoralised that the lies they have been told about the invasion are being exposed before their eyes.

Ukrainian soldiers as well should form rank and file organisations and elect representatives. If the self-organisation of the workers and soldiers is strong enough then they should demand the counter-signing of any orders by the rank and file soldiers committees. Any orders to commit war crimes should be opposed and officers giving such an order should be dealt with.

Some socialists say that the Ukrainian workers should fight their own government and the Russians. At this point of the war, this would be a recipe for complete isolation and political death. In practice, this means that workers should continue to fight in and alongside the government forces as and when necessary. There is a legitimate desire by Ukrainians to defend their nation in the face of artillery and airstrikes so to instigate a civil war now would only play into the hands of the fascist and neo-nationalist far right. They will say ‘see, the socialists are traitors who are dividing our forces in the face of the Russians, only we can defend the nation’. We need to say that the working class armed and fighting for its class interests are best placed to defend the country.

This is a strategy to transform the democratic fight for national sovereignty into a fight for working-class power.  Once the working class is armed it is capable of pursuing its own demands – for instance opposing the neoliberal agenda of the Zelensky government, seizing their workplaces and running them free from the control of their bosses.

Importantly the Ukrainian workers can unite with the anti-war movements in Russia and Belarus, with the people of Kazakhstan – forming an international fight against their own ruling classes. Understandable concerns over the actions of the Russian state are spilling over into anti-Russian chauvinism which must be challenged and resisted. The workers of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia all have the same interests, to remove the gangster capitalists who took over after the Soviet Union fell and build a society that meets the needs of everyone, not the oligarchs. A revolution across Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia would change the course of history and terrify the ruling classes of the west, inspiring workers from New York to Beijing, from Johannesburg to London to action.

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Simon Hannah is a socialist, a union activist, and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the poll tax, and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.

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