Socialist Alternative

Neither Russian nor NATO imperialism: Why NATO has no solutions to the conflict in Ukraine

(Originally published in Issue 24 of Socialist Alternative’s monthly paper. To get your copy of issue 26, contact us today!)


At a summit on 24 March, the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) met to discuss the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Whilst ruling out the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine, which would put the serious threat of nuclear war on the agenda, the summit agreed to an escalation of NATO’s involvement in the conflict and to cement and extend its expansion into Eastern Europe. 

Speaking after the summit the General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, stated that “Today, NATO leaders agreed to reset our deterrence and defence for the longer term to face a new security reality” as he announced the approval of four additional battlegroups to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, in addition to the four already positioned in the Baltic countries and Poland. NATO will also bolster its eastern flank with an increased number of jets and carrier strike groups, as well as with submarines and combat ships deployed on a permanent basis. Ahead of the summit, the British government announced that it would be sending another 6,000 missiles to Ukraine along with a further £25m for the Ukrainian military.

But what is the real role of NATO, what do socialists say about it and what is the alternative to NATO intervention in Ukraine?

Violent opposition to workers’ interests

NATO was created in 1949 to help establish US global supremacy and set up an alliance of capitalist powers under US leadership. With the consolidation of Soviet control over Eastern Europe after the Second World War, NATO powers were desperate to combat the Stalinist and non-capitalist bloc, but they were also intent on trying to prevent socialist revolutions in capitalist countries. To this end, at the start of the Cold War NATO set up paramilitary ‘stay-behind’ organisations in every European member state, with the specific aim of derailing socialist revolutions and even left reformist governments or movements. 

In Italy during the 1970s, for example, there was increasing discontent with the government, alongside titanic industrial disputes and growing working-class support for the Italian Communist Party (PCI). In the 1976 elections, the PCI won a third of the popular vote and stay-behind organisations were allegedly involved in a number of terrorist bombings at that time to try to undermine that mass working-class support. Their stated aim was to prevent the PCI from coming to power, which would have been a disastrous blow to NATO and the interests of US imperialism, and to do this by any means necessary. 

To this day and despite its bloody history, NATO claims that its aims are to “promote democratic values” and that it enables its members “to build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict”. It also claims to be “committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes”. But the reality is very different as its history is one of continual aggression and terror. Indeed, so committed is it to peace that NATO has continually ruled out a ‘No first use policy’ in the event of nuclear warfare.

Seemingly without irony, after the March summit the NATO leaders declared that “Russia’s war against Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe”. Of course, it should be remembered that NATO was directly involved in the last conflict in Europe when it went to war in Kosovo in 1999. Hundreds were killed in a supposed humanitarian intervention and NATO soldiers have been based there ever since, effectively setting up a Western-controlled and policed ‘protectorate’.

Tool of US imperialism

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s economy was on its knees and in complete chaos. Despite their promises to the contrary, which were made in order to persuade Russia and the former Soviet states to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, US and European imperialism seized the opportunity caused by Russia’s weakness to expand their markets eastwards. NATO has played a key role in supporting Western imperialism’s interests in Eastern Europe and regions that were previously within the sphere of Soviet influence.

In 1999, the former Warsaw Pact countries Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO. They were followed in 2004 by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; thereby encircling Russia’s borders. Then at a conference in Bucharest in 2008, Albania and Croatia were accepted into membership whilst Ukraine’s and Georgia’s aspirations for membership were recognised, and it was agreed that those countries would eventually become members of NATO.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has suffered under the rule of both right-wing pro-Russian presidents and right-wing pro-Western presidents. However, in 2014 when protests erupted against the brutal regime of Victor Yanukovich, which was closely allied to Putin’s Russia, Western imperialism and the NATO allies sought to co-opt what became known as the ‘Euromaidan’ movement. US Senator, John McCain, spoke at rallies in Kiev, stating that “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”

Unfortunately, in the absence of a genuine working-class alternative and thanks in large part to the machinations of US imperialism, the ‘Euromaidan’ movement became dominated by reactionary forces. The government that came into power after the overthrow of Yakunovich included the far-right party Svoboda and it also extended invitations to various ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. This new government aligned itself explicitly with its NATO backers and introduced discriminatory language laws aimed at suppressing Russian-speaking Ukrainians and other minorities in the east of the country.

Whilst the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has stated recently that there are no intentions to apply to join NATO, in February 2019 the constitution was amended to commit the country to becoming a member no later than 2023. At the same time, it became a stated aim for Ukraine to join the European Union.

‘Brightest of all red lines’ for Russian capitalism

While Western imperialism has been greedily securing its own interests in central and Eastern Europe, so has the Russian elite, with much the same methods.  The people of the Ukraine and the surrounding region are caught in the crossfire between the power plays of the big powers. As socialists, we strongly condemn the invasion that has already displaced millions and killed or wounded thousands of innocent people. The NATO allies were fully aware that their interventions in Ukraine would eventually provoke a response from Russia. As the current director of the CIA, William Burns, wrote in a letter to Condoleeza Rice in 2008, when Burns was the US ambassador to Moscow:

“Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

As Socialist Alternative has explained elsewhere, Putin’s war in Ukraine is part of a wider inter-imperialist conflict, which has ushered in a New Cold War between US imperialism and Chinese imperialism. In contrast to Donald Trump, there has been a clear change in approach to Putin since Joe Biden’s administration took office in January 2021. Tellingly, just before leaving Washington to attend the recent NATO summit, Biden met with a group of businessmen at the White House and, whilst stating that “we are all capitalists in this room”, he talked of the US needing to step-up and lead a “new world order”, reasserting the dominance of US imperialism against Russia and also China.

Socialist opposition to NATO

There has been a long and legitimate tradition of opposition to NATO on the left in this country. For example, the former socialist Labour MP, Tony Benn wrote in his diary entry for 7 June 1982: “Labour NEC considered a letter drafted by Denis Healey to Reagan from the Party… I moved that we should make clear that our ultimate aim was the dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact & that was carried by 10 votes to 9”. Jeremy Corbyn and much of the Labour left argued for NATO to be disbanded, along with the Warsaw Pact, throughout the 1980s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Corbyn argued that NATO should go too in order to create a non-aligned future in Europe. Of course, as discussed in this article, the opposite has happened.

On the right-wing of the Labour Party, there have always been those strongly wedded to NATO militarism. The socialist historian, EP Thompson, decried those Labour right wingers who had a “fetishistic reverence attached to NATO and the American alliance”. Thompson also wrote that: 

“The NATO power complex, so far from being a friend to any working-class movement, stretches from Algeria to Guatemala, from Portugal to Saudi Arabia; its pervasive, retrogressive influence, as the holy alliance of the status quo, can be seen in the fact that during its period of dominance no Western labour movement has made any significant forward advance whatsoever.”

That war-mongering fetishism for NATO lives on in the likes of Starmer and Labour First, who declared in a recent Guardian article that Labour is “the party of NATO” and that “to condemn NATO is to condemn the guarantee of democracy and security it brings”.

Starmer and the right wing of the Labour Party have embarked on an aggressive attempt to erase anti-NATO sentiments  from the history of the labour movement and attacked any peace activists who hold those views. At the start of the war, Starmer and his fellow-travellers threatened to withdraw the whip from 11 MPs, including leading members of the Socialist Campaign Group such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, who had signed an open letter written by the Stop the War Coalition. The letter rightly refuted the idea that NATO is a “defensive alliance”, calling for a “negotiated settlement” recognising “the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination” while addressing “Russia’s security concerns.”

Starmer’s threats and intimidation had the desired effect, as all 11 MPs capitulated and removed their signatures from the letter in less than an hour! Sadly, this is typical of the Labour left’s countless retreats before the right-wing, pro-war majority in parliament.

Independent workers’ action the only solution

As socialists, we condemn Starmer’s sabre rattling and his support for NATO. We also stand with neither side in the current conflict. As far as Russian and Western imperialism is concerned, their only interests are profit, power and prestige in their respective imperialist blocs. In this current power struggle, it will be working class people in the USA, Russia, here and in Eastern Europe that will suffer.

Whilst NATO leaders prepare for an escalation of the conflict, the majority of people in this country are opposed to military intervention in Ukraine. In a recent Ipsos poll in early March, two thirds of people instead supported humanitarian and diplomatic interventions, including proper support for refugees. It’s on that basis that we must build the anti-war movement in this country and fight to end the war in Ukraine. We must also demand for the withdrawal of Russian troops, but also for an end to NATO expansionism.

Socialists, trade unionists and activists in Britain should work to build real solidarity with their counterparts in Ukraine and Russia. This must include mass protests and demonstrations as part of building an international working-class movement against war and imperialism. We can also take inspiration from the many examples of international working class solidarity over recent years, such as last May when Italian dockers in Livorno refused to load an arms shipment destined for Israel.

Working class people can rely only on our own strength to end this war, and indeed to offer a future free from all wars. At the heart of the capitalist system is nationalism, violence, oppression and exploitation. Only an international working-class struggle for a socialist society – where the wealth and resources of the world are collectively owned and democratically planned to meet the needs of all people and of the planet – can offer a decent, peaceful future for all.