This article is from the Anarchist Federation’s Organise! magazine issue 96, Spring/Summer 2022, written 26th April.
For a month or so on the Organise! website we have been rounding up statements and articles being produced by anarchists on the war in Ukraine. The starting point for this was to air Central and Eastern European voices, because relatively few western anarchists were seemingly in touch with their perspectives even though eastern comrades were explicitly asking to be listened to.
For the most part British anarchists have failed to keep pace with the deterioration of the political situation, with the brutal repression of dissent in Russia and Belarus, and the increasing likelihood of Putin coming through on his threat to invade more of Ukraine. But Anarchists in Ukraine saw the threat and began preparing to stay and resist or to flee. Many had no choice either way.
Usually, Anarchists are trying to bring the struggles of oppressed people to the attention of the public via our own media, struggling ourselves to make some noise above prevailing narratives. Our role is different here. Everyone knows what is happening. Our job now is to analyse war – both general and specific – in ways that will ultimately advance the Class War. As well as sifting fact from fiction in more widely available media, we do this by making sense of complex situations, drawing on our historical theory and on our insider knowledge from anarchists in the region.
The only anarchist fighter to have died in Ukraine, as far as we know, is Igor Volokhov, who died in Russian shelling near Kharkiv before 15 March. He wanted to establish a network on anarchist cooperatives in Ukraine. So what can we say about such an idealistic and tragic death? This article considers some of the issues relating to what anarchists are doing and saying in the countries most obviously involved – Ukraine, Russia and Belarus – and what anarchists in the West are saying and doing in response to the situation as it evolves. Different perspectives have emerged within groups, networks, organisations, federations and internationals, both in and outside of the region. Here we present some of these perspectives and discuss them critically, but without the intention of making definitive statements. Like everyone else, the AF is still processing what the bigger picture holds, and we are listening to everyone else too.
The position at the point of going to print
The war shows no signs of drawing to a close, through ‘victory’ to either side or diplomatic solution. Ukrainian citizens are still being bombed out of their homes and as they try to flee the most stricken areas, being kidnapped and taken into Russia as forced labour, or being tortured and executed. Over 5 million Ukrainians are already internally displaced or are sheltering in other countries. Ordinary people in Ukraine are fighting back with everything from externally supplied weapons to simply reasoning with tired and desperate young Russian conscripts. The sinking of the Moskva, marks a turning point in terms of Ukrainian resolve as well as significantly impacting Russian capability in the Black Sea, but 10,000s more people will be killed or be found to have been killed, nonetheless.
The situation between people on the front line is disintegrating as the scale and barbarity of the war crimes, including by individual Russia soldiers, becomes clear. There are emerging stories of inevitable atrocities on the Ukrainian side as well. Of course, they pale in comparison, but most Russian soldiers are victims of war too, even if that makes little immediate sense to the people they are massacring. For such reasons, Anarchists consider all wars to be crimes.
Factors fuelling refusal to fight and desertions from the Russian army range from fear, to cold and hunger, to anger, and also to solidarity with Ukrainian civilians. The death of perhaps 500 sailors in the Moskva will not have helped moral in the navy either. Refusal to join the expanding war is reported in Belarus as well. But the scale of such resistance so far does not give much cause for hopes that it will demolish Putin’s military capacity.
The popular perspective in the West is that states should be sending more arms to the Ukrainian forces and intervene decisively, short of actually provoking Putin to spark a nuclear war. People seem to want this military build-up just as much as they want to help refugees. There are many cynical things to say about why the West cares more about Ukrainians than, say, about Afghans, Kurds and Sudanese people fighting for freedom, not least about skin colour. But there is certainly an appetite to get involved on a deeper level than just condemning Putin, passing sanctions and funding relief work. Does it seem strange then, that some anarchists are taking a more cautious view of support for the military struggle within Ukraine than is the wider public? That is to say, in not wanting to send money for weapons when they are being requested by anarchists for self-defence.
First, some background.
Anarchism in eastern Europe
Our starting point for commenting on these events is what we know through involvement in the International of Anarchist Federations (IFA-FAI). We have worked over past decades with groups in or associated with IFA in Slovenia and Croatia, Belarus, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, and been involved in solidarity with the International Workers’ Association (IWA) in Croatia, Serbia and Russia. We have worked with comrades from the ex-USSR based group Autonomous Action, distributed and reviewed its papers when they were in print, and also the English-language journal Abolishing the Borders from Below. We have practically supported exiles from countries in the ex-USSR as well as anarchist and anti-fascist prisoners kept in unimaginable conditions, without affordable legal representation, for many years at a time, not to mention tortured and even murdered. At the same time, our comrades in the ex-Soviet bloc more widely have been actively hunted by fascists with guns and knives and had their families and homes threatened for their activity against the far-right.
Since when we first joined IFA, members of its ex-USSR sphere federation were telling us, ‘You can’t understand. It’s different for us’. It was, and is, and is getting worse. We have worked to be aware and to make other British anarchists aware of this situation, and in recent years the movement in Britain has been enriched by comrades from eastern Europe who know all this anyway. Even so, there is still the danger that we are operating in parallel but unequal realities.
What we mean is that, on the one hand, there are the theoretical and historical positions honed by classical anarchists and adopted by their ideological successors like the AF-IFA and SolFed-IWA in Britain, and less explicitly by the majority of British anarchists not in organisations. This position is that there is ‘No War but the Class War’, and that the response to all wars between states is, ‘a plague on both their houses’. We then blame the militaristic ambitions of our own countries and the role of NATO. But it is far easier to fight the anti-militaristic class war in ‘democratic’ countries, with things like the right to protest, to legal representation, and to relatively transparent trials and proportionate sentencing. Yes, these things are being eroded; welcome to the least extent of what comrades in Russia and Belarus have been facing for decades.
At present there are just three significant anarchist groupings in Russia, all publishing in English as well; the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC Moscow), The Russian section of the International Workers’ Association KRAS-AIT and Autonomous Action. Autonomous Action is a network and internet platform for anarchists from a variety of perspectives and is probably the most up-to-date and relevant place for people outside of Russia to look for information, although it was finally official blocked within Russia itself on 8 April this year.
In terms of Belarus, it is no longer viable to organise openly as anarchists, if at all. Support is given to anarchist and anti-fascist prisoners via ABC Belarus, but the focus has turned to Ukraine, with the website Pramen saying (6 April 2022), ‘Our struggle is primarily aimed at the protection of the people from the atrocities of the Russian dictatorship’.
Anarchism now in Ukraine
Before addressing the positions of anarchists outside of Ukraine, it is worth pointing out where the words of Ukrainian anarchists themselves are to be found. These are easy to come by. Just in the last weeks numerous articles and interviews with anarchists in Ukraine – Ukrainians and foreign fighters – as well as commentaries about the situation are appearing on the site Enough 14. This is a site which references the uprisings in Ukraine in 2014 and links to sites and papers all over the world, bringing together anarchist perspectives not least on Ukraine itself, and dovetailing nicely with LibCom.org. There are currently war diaries by a Belarussian fighter, up-to-date interviews, and articles by groups which pre-date the war, for example the ‘food-not-bombs’ type initiative of Black Flag in western Ukraine which has been going since 2016.
Since the war began, the most obvious group is the Resistance Committee, which was formed as an anarchist ‘territorial defence’ unit. Ukrainians are not necessarily supposed to be in the army proper, but are often in these more grass-roots level groups. Their semi-autonomy is what made the Resistance Committee viable at its inception.
Operation Solidarity is s group and website which carries news of support for such units, most explicitly promoting humanitarian relief and defensive equipment to fighters. For example, on 10 April 2022 they posted: We handed over a thermal imager, power banks, gas masks and carbines to the air reconnaissance unit involved in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. A new helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and two boxes of medicines were handed over to the paramedic, who is also in the East. And the territorial defense of Kyiv received 3 bulletproof vests, thermal imagers, turnstiles, carbines and watches. Solidarity is our weapon!
On the other hand, from our contacts it seems that guns – including those of the territorial defence units and therefore anarchists within them – are now ultimately at the disposal of the Ukrainian army, because structures have been established by the military to regulate the holding and movement of arms. An Autonomous Action author predicted this as far back as 13 March 2022. So has it been proven wrong to arm Ukrainian anarchists just as the rest of the Ukrainian resistance is being armed, because of the possibility that they might lose those guns to the state?
Our initial response to the war
Some AF-ers (London and Nomad groups) issued a response to the war very early on (5 March 2022).
‘As anarchists we are against all state wars and stand in solidarity with the victims of those wars; the people whose lives will be destroyed as “collateral damage” in their rulers’ pursuit of power. Whoever “wins” this war, it it hard to see this improving the lives of either the people of Ukraine or the people of Russia. Many will die, many more will have their lives ruined, and the consequences of this war will impoverish the people suffering under both governments.
We hope that out of this bloodshed the people of all the involved countries are not duped into an even more aggressive nationalism and support for their corrupt leaders, but see these leaders for what they really are; power mongers hiding behind nationalist lies who care nothing for their subjects and will use them as cannon fodder for their own objectives. “National glory” and “state interests” have always been bought with the blood of common people who share no interests with the rulers that demand their sacrifice.
However, while we a neither fans of the Ukrainian state, the Russian state, or the western states supporting Ukraine, the majority of the blame for this war clearly lays at the feet of Moscow. This is an imperialist war of aggression against a territory that has traditionally suffered horribly under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. But we must also be clear that while the Russian state may be the aggressor, the Ukrainian state is still a despot over its own people, and its western supporters are no less imperialist than Russia, even if they may be the lesser of two evils in this specific situation.
In the face of this disaster, our solidarity goes out to all our Ukrainian comrades. Ukrainian anarchists are now forced to choose whether to fight against Russian imperialism and risk being drawn into practical support for nationalist and militarist institutions that all anarchist oppose, or to attempt to oppose all military action and risk allowing the people of Ukraine to have a puppet state forced upon them that is likely to be even worse than the current Ukrainian state. We do not envy those having to make this choice, and we would not feel comfortable passing judgement on any of our comrades for whichever choice they make. We wish you all luck.
Our solidarity to the Russian and Belarusian anarchists who are no doubt doing what they can to oppose this war, and anyone else working against the war within those states. War very often brings an upsurge in nationalism and internal repression, and the situation is likely to become even harder for our comrades in those countries, who already have to work under a great deal of repression.
Our solidarity also goes out to The Resistance Committee and the peoples of Ukraine who have taken this stand against fascism and forces of the imperial invasion. Our solidarity also goes out to the anti-war demonstrators around the world but especially to those in Russia and Belarus who are rising up against the tyranny that silences them. And finally, Our solidarity goes out to all those who have self- organised to provided much needed support and mutual aid not only to those fighting in Ukraine but also to the refugees.’
It is an interesting statement for the AF. In accepting an armed role for anarchists already in and heading for Ukraine, those two groups were in-step with much of what was being said by anarchists in Ukraine, in Russia and by the Belarussian exiles.
Closest to it was perhaps that of our sister federation in France (FA-IFA). But their statement also alluded to a problem: ‘We stand in solidarity with our comrades in the region, who have decided to flee or fight in the Ukrainian self-defence squads, although we know that far-right forces of fascist and nazi ideology (but in large minority, despite Putin’s displeasure) have also been operating there since 2014’.
The presence of an armed and recently powerful far-right in Ukraine was going to be an issue, and remains one. Other issues – which we’ll address first – relate to things like, whether our traditional anti-militarist analysis still holds true or whether Putin’s war in Ukraine is something we have to approach differently, and the role of NATO in our analysis.
No War but the Class War?
The statements issued by most anarchist organisations, including the three internationals, rest on the analysis that all wars between states must be opposed. This is rooted in tried and tested general observations about the nature of warfare. Few anarchists would disagree with the IFA that ‘We condemn the criminal aggression to Ukraine promoted by the Russian government, alongside all militarisms, and we stand in solidarity with oppressed people from both sides of the border, promoting active support to the victims of the conflict, to refugees, deserters and prisoners from all sides of this war and of its potential expansion’. The IWA considers both sides different only superficially though: ‘Revolutionaries…must act in the interests of the working class, and not in the interest of a capitalist formation of any sort. It should be understood that regardless of certain differences between them, which paint them in this or that segment with nicer colors – the struggle against the interests of the working class is common to all capitalist forces’. Anarkismo goes even further in its equal handedness, condemning and Russian and Ukrainian ‘imperialism’: Our revolutionary and class duty dictates the organisation and strengthening of the internationalist, anti-war and anti-imperialist movement of the working class. The logic of more aggressive or more progressive imperialism is a logic that leads to the defeat of the working class’.
But the point being made by Ukrainian and many Russian and Belarussian anarchists is, who will be around to fight the Class War in the immediate term if we treat all sides with equal hostility? Not them, if things carry on as they are. The internationals’ analysis is, from that perspective, full of abstractions and unreal at ground level, from where Ukrainian anarchists are asking for our practical help including military equipment to defend themselves.
But for a society at war against a neighbour to progress to being a society at war with its rulers, requires an embedded revolutionary ideological and organisational base within the working class, one that can resist whatever the state throws at it. This is far from being the case in eastern Europe. Even the most positive and detailed anarchist evaluation of the anti-war movement in Russia (KRAS 1 April 2022), scrapes around for significant examples even of cross-class defiance of state militarism. There have been demonstrations in hundreds of Russian towns, but this just seems to increase the total number of arrests (over 15,000 as of March 13), imprisonment and even sentencing to forced labour (123 people from St. Petersburg alone). It is simply impossible to mount a serious threat to state oppression there and it is no wonder that anarchists are amongst those who have had to flee the country. This is no judgement on the anti-militarists, let alone the anarchists, and it isn’t unique to this war of course.
Isn’t Putin just another Capitalist thug?
Which is to say, all politicians and all states are as bad as each other, right? So why would anarchists get involved in defending Ukraine, especially if anarchists have made little headway there in its recent history?
As an author in Autonomous Action wrote in February, just before the war: ‘The results of the first 30 years of “democracy” in Ukraine are, to put it mildly, unconvincing. The economy and the media are in the hands of rival oligarchs, corruption is at staggering levels, economic development lags behind many African countries, and in addition, the country has become the center of the neo-Nazi movement around the world. And these problems are basically home-grown, not the result of the Kremlin’s intrigues.
But they go on: ‘Yet, the alternative is even worse. Putin is not just the gendarme of Europe, but the gendarme of the whole world —from Syria to Myanmar, whenever a dictator tortures and kills thousands of his own people, Putin is there to support him. There are no elections in Russia anymore. Even the most moderate attempts to change something results in criminal cases and persecutions’.
The author also draws on our anarchist heritage, pointing out that both Bakunin and Malatesta agreed that flawed democracy was a better environment for anarchists than imperialism or dictatorship. Ukrainian anarchists also take this view. They consider that there is much to fight for in Ukraine in terms of political and personal freedoms which are threatened infinitely more by Putin than by Ukraine’s capitalist class.
As a Ukrainian Anarchist remarks, “Some foreign comrades were surprised and even got angry with the fact that in Ukraine we have built resistance, taken up arms and fought back. We are not charmed by the Ukrainian State (it’s neo-liberal rather than nazi or strongly authoritarian) — it has a lot of troubles like an oligarchic system, corruption, destruction of social safety nets, cop and nazi violence etc. At the same time Ukraine is a space of relatively low State control that is growing, from one side, but from other it’s also a space of uprising progressive social powers.”
So for many Anarchists in ex-USSR, it makes most sense to help anarchists in relatively democratic Ukraine to defend themselves. While they can defend themselves, that is. Zelensky has shut down at least 11 Ukrainian political parties/organisations, all be they mostly quasi-genuine and pro-Russian, kleptocratic and authoritarian. He had already shut down pro-Russian media at the start of February. States will always censor dissident voices in wartime. Hardly anyone in the West has even commented on it, though, probably because he can seemingly do no wrong. But any state censorship is a red flag for anarchists. Further to it, police recently visited the Operation Solidarity office too. Luckily things went OK, this time, but for how long? And if there is one sure way to leave anarchists at the mercy of their own state, it is to neglect to offer active and public solidarity, if only so that their oppressors know we are watching.
Is our historical anti-militarism wrong?
It could be argued that the essentialist anti-war position – which Malatesta developed and adhered to, and from which Kropotkin famously departed in 1914 – was drawn up in the days before fascism and before the over-riding global capitalist incentive for war. Anarchists have fought fascists in various settings and are now at the forefront of exposing the benefits of war to global capital. But in terms of who the enemy is, the World has not simply moved from old-fashioned imperialism through fascism to capitalism. Putin embodies all three. The ideology that led Turkey to the Armenian genocide in 1915 is alive and well again in his approach to Ukraine. It fact never went away, for all the supposed ‘peace’ brought to the world by the mutual militarisation of the great nations and their proxy wars since WW1. Like Franco, Mosley, Hitler and Mussolini, not to mention Stalin, Putin is a genocidal maniac. Anarchists have fought all of them, and never without making compromises and decisions along the way that turned out to be wrong. Even so, we were never welcomed with open arms in anti-fascist circles, be they ‘democracies’ or the authoritarian Left.
How does this relate to the present situation? Because anarchists – including foreign fighters – have fought in recent wars too, most obviously Syria, and had support from much of the movement. How is this different to Ukraine today? Perhaps because there were anarchist movements significant enough that, if successful militarily, they could go on to see the social revolution succeed. Just as there were, for example, in Makhnovist Ukraine, 1930s Spain, and modern Chiapas. In other words, the risks seemed worth taking? Does the fact that this is not the case in Ukraine, lie unspoken (at least publicly) behind the reluctance of some of the biggest anarchist structures to support Ukrainian anarchists with forms of military defence?
Surely, we don’t only support anarchists who we expect to win their struggles; we support our comrades with whatever they say they need. If this is not so, what are the implications? Do anarchists in the larger, ‘freer’, liberal democracies get to decide the fate of anarchism in countries with weaker movements? In other words, we get to decide what ‘solidarity’ they actually need?
As the representative of Operation Solidarity makes clear in a YouTube roundtable, external support and political attention could make a huge difference to the credibility of Ukrainian anarchism, and thereby to its future viability after the war, won or lost. He is clearly arguing for our help on the basis of the potential future relevance of the movement there. But if external credibility is what is being sought, it does seem as though this would come at the price of stifling an important anti-war critique in the west.
‘Neither NATO nor Moscow!’
Such is the cry of the authoritarian Left, and also from some anarchists without a local knowledge of eastern European. But NATO means different things to comrades in East and West when it comes to our specific, material reality. Even from the same ideological background, we experience the world order subjectively differently. In Ukraine and Russia, NATO feels like a very distant sort of enemy, given that it is reigning Putin in to some extent. More immediately, to oppose NATO as a propaganda priority makes no sense in a Russian or Ukrainian context. It could appear to be pro-Putin, missing the point about who the aggressor is to the extent of pitting anarchists against the majority of the population, and at a very bad point strategically for Anarchists.
But the situation concerning NATO feels very different in the West. The grip of NATO insulates our own states from the anti-militarist critique at all social levels, rolling back decades of struggle against nuclear weapons and the deployment of NATO forces as part of the US’s own proxy wars. Anarchists in the West have paid our own price for this activity. We cannot forget either that Anarchists in the Balkans were themselves bombed by NATO. Anarchists in countries where we can organise in relative freedom, cannot oppose Russian militarism without seeking to undermine our home states and its military master too. However it might look to comrades in eastern Europe, not only is NATO not the great saviour, it is an oppressor of working class self-activity.
But a distinction has to be made between an anarchist analysis of NATO and that of the Leninist Left, most recently critiqued in an article on a demonstration on 9 April 2022 in Berlin. The expansionist aims of the growing NATO family undoubtedly pressed Putin’s panic button, but to blame NATO primarily for the conflict is implicitly also blames countries such as Poland, Balkan and the Baltic states which liberated themselves from the ex-USSR. Recent articles by eastern European anarchists in Freedom call this way of thinking out. Most recently, an author actually in Ukraine has responded to British Left assertions in relation to the banning of the Ukrainian parties noted above, that they were Left wing groups. We are not opposed to outing authoritarianism on Zelensky’s part, but these parties are clearly not Socialist!
The point is, if the Left deliberately parrots Putin’s own ‘de-nazification’ justification for the war, it shows at best an aloof disregard for people in Ukraine, who will pay the price. But western Anarchists also have to think really carefully about how to position ourselves in terms of NATO. Or rather, how and where it is politically useful and sensitive to express our position.
What is the role of the Right?
The Class War is not being fought in Ukraine. No one is turning on the state or even seriously criticising it. Even anarchists admit that cross-class alliances are the norm. How could it be any different, given the starting point for Ukrainian anarchists as things stood in February.
What is unifying Ukrainians, then, is ‘patriotism’. Of course, we resist any level of patriotic sentiment, but it is hard to go as far as the opening statement of the Autonomous Action article ‘War and Social Struggle’ (8 April 2022), that ‘The worst thing Putin has done in Ukraine is to reconcile the authorities with the people’. This seems a little detached on the scale of ‘worst things’. But to put it differently, it seems to the author that the war, even if won by Ukraine, will make social change less achievable, because people will forgive the government for future hardship in the name of national unity. Quite probably. The KRAS are even more extreme (1 April 2022) ‘… many “leftists” and “anarchists” eagerly rush to support the bloodshed, intoxicated with patriotic rubbish’. In the rush to be anti-militarist though, because of the link between war and xenophobia, it is condescending to equate taking up arms on the part of Ukrainian comrades with rightism, however rife ‘patriotism’ is in the wider population.
Should we bother worrying about ‘patriotism’ in Ukraine, on the grand scale of things? There is no trace of patriotism in this statement by the Rev Dia unit in Ukraine, ‘Why do Anarchists go to War?‘. They say, ‘The point is that this is not a war between Ukraine and Russia, but a war for the future of all the countries of the former Soviet Union (USSR). The Russian government has long been the guardian of the dictatorial regimes in the entire former USSR. It has supported them in difficult times, as it did in Belarus and Kazakhstan….The war in Ukraine might be the last chance to overthrow and abolish the dictatorship’. This is anarchists taking up arms for Internationalism.
The more important question emerging for anarchists is that of the far-right with which anarchists have to contend. It seems certain that aside from in the East of the country, where there Azov regiment is an embarrassment to Ukrainian ‘liberalism’, the far-right has lost the base of support it previously had. The fascist threat can never be underrated or ignored, but Ukraine does not seem to be become increasingly nazified through the process of war.
Nonetheless there is a far-right in Ukraine which is against Putin,and is part of the territorial units and the official army. It is far from clear that all anarchists there are negotiating this issue in the way that anarchists should. We do have the right to comment on this, whilst at the same time being aware of misinformation or unrepresentative reports which might serve the Ukrainian army, Putin or the western left. Toleration of fascism, however pragmatic, by any element of the anarchist movement world-wide, would discredit us all. At very least, it makes it unclear within the working class what anarchists actually stand for, because we are opponents of ‘liberal democracy’ ourselves. A confusion between fascists and ourselves must not be allowed to emerge in countries where fascism has had to be fought militarily before, as in Ukraine itself.
In his 1912 article ‘The War and the Anarchists’, Malatesta said of the Italian war in Libya, ‘We abhor war, which is always fratricidal and damaging, and we want a liberating social revolution; we deplore strife between peoples and champion the fight against the ruling classes. But if, by some misfortune, a clash were to erupt between one people and another, we stand with the people that are defending their independence’.
Two years later, the European anarchist movement was split over the issue of whether to take sides an even more devastating imperialist war. Anarchists now agree that Malatesta was correct to oppose Kropotkin’s support of the Entente against the Central Powers. Why was he right? In part, because the two sides were, that time, on a more equal footing and there was a far better prospect of a resultant class war. As the KRAS put it recently, ‘…recall the mass hysterical processions that swept through the countries on the eve and in the first weeks of the First World War. Then several years passed – and the masses, enraged by hardships, deceit and suffering, almost did away with the world of states and capitals, which gave rise to wars … Now, alas, it is infinitely far from that’.
It is not as though these sorts of issues are new to British anarchists either. We developed nuanced approaches to Syria and were supportive of Kurdish Anarchism whilst maintaining an anti-militarist position. But these approaches were developed out of mistakes made by some in the 20th Century, notably some British anarchist approaches to the break-up of Yugoslavia and to the very immediate struggle against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. People were arguing all sorts of conflicting ‘anarchist’ positions, from supporting NATO bombings as the ‘lesser of two evils’ concerning Serbia and Bosnia, to championing the Irish Republican Army (IRA) even though its brutal approach to anarchism was well-established. Western anarchists have had to develop pragmatic as well as ideologically coherent approaches to wars of all types. But these are surely most valid when developed in conjunction with anarchists most directly affected by them.