By ERNIE GOTTA

The siege of major Ukrainian cities by Russian forces has intensified each day since the start of the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. On March 3, it was reported that the Russians shelled the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, igniting a fire. Video at the scene showed Russian tanks firing at buildings—sparking fears of a major nuclear disaster. “Firefighters can’t start extinguishing the fire at the Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant—they are being fired on at point-blank range. There is already a hit on the first power unit,” the AP quoted officials as saying. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, said: “If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chernobyl! Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!”

The BBC reported early on March 4 that the fire had been extinguished. The reactor in the building that was burning had been shut down for renovations; moreover, it appeared that the main area that was hit by shelling contained administrative offices—the reactor itself escaped the flames. Nevertheless, highly radioactive fuel was stored on site, and possibilities of radioactive contamination of the area, including water systems, still remained. 

A day earlier, unarmed civilian workers had blocked Russian soldiers from taking over the nuclear plant. Sarah Cahlan of the Washington Post reported, “A large crowd gathered Wednesday [March 2] on the road to Enerhodar, home to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, blocking Russian troops from entering the city. Drone footage posted Wednesday shows people assembled in front of and around barricades of cars, trucks, tires and sandbags. Ukrainian flags fly next to the blockage. Dmitry Orlov, the city’s mayor, wrote in a Telegram post Wednesday that Russian soldiers and plant employees had met for negotiations.” Nevertheless, the Russians soon opened fire on the barricade. By the evening of March 2, videos showed that the city was being shelled, and the civilian barricade was on fire. A day later, the plant itself was on fire.

Over one million refugees, or 2% of the Ukrainian population, have poured into surrounding countries. Russian troops have seized government buildings in Kherson, a port on the Black Sea, and the shelling of Kharkiv has forced a mass evacuation. The Russians appear to have seized virtually the entire coastline along the Sea of Azov, where the city of Mariupol has been surrounded.

The Guardian’s live updates reported: “Kherson’s mayor, Ihor Kolykhaiev, said in a Facebook post early on Thursday, March 3, that Russian troops were in control of the city hall and that residents should obey a curfew imposed by what he called the “armed visitors.”

Large sections of Kherson have reportedly been left without electricity and water. The secretary of the city council was quoted in the Washington Post (March 3) as saying, “In Kherson, we are running out of food—literally, we can still last for maybe three, four days … “We’re running out of medicines, we’re out of baby food, we are running out of diapers, and we are running out of first aid in hospitals.”

In other areas Ukrainian armed forces, militia, and working people have put up a stiff resistance. Exact casualty figures have not been independently confirmed, but Russia for the first time has reported 500 dead soldiers and 1600 wounded.

While being pushed deeper into the orbit of U.S. and European imperialism following the Maidan uprising of 2014, which overthrew the Russian-backed president, Ukraine has remained outside of both the European Union and NATO despite attempts by the Zelensky government to join both bodies. John Follain writes in Bloomberg, “President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to the European Union to fast-track membership for Ukraine. But despite enthusiastic support from several member states, the country faces an arduous process that typically stretches out for years.”

While the EU decides on Ukrainian membership, NATO countries are sending weapons to arm Ukraine. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive branch, said in a speech to the EU Parliament, “European security and defense has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades.”

The U.S. is mobilizing thousands of additional troops to be deployed in European countries and train alongside other NATO forces. Patricia McKnight reported in Newsweek, “The U.S. has already committed 12,000 stateside troops to be stationed in NATO partner nations along Russia’s western border.”

“The department has placed a range of multi-mission units in the United States and Europe on a heightened preparedness to deploy, which increases our readiness to provide for the U.S. contributions to the NRF on a shorter tether than what we could do before,” said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. “We stand ready if called upon by NATO to support the NRF in the defense of the alliance, and will absolutely do that.”

The rapid escalation of the NATO intervention in Ukraine signals a sharp turn in the conflict. It raises questions about how antiwar activists should respond to such developments while building upcoming international anti-war actions on Sunday, March 6.

We are in a fluid situation where things develop quickly. At the outset of the invasion, for example, it was unclear how China would react after Putin and Xi released a joint statement that discussed closer economic and political ties. However, as the conflict progresses, China has seemed to step back from outright support for Russia. Bloomberg reports, “Wang said the world’s second largest economy also ‘deplores the outbreak of conflict between Ukraine and Russia,’ according to a statement posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. The remarks were published after a call between Wang and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the most senior exchange since Russia’s Vladimir Putin launched the invasion Thursday.

“Wang also acknowledged the conflict was a ‘war,’ rather than a ‘special military operation’ as described by Russia. Kuleba said Ukraine was willing to strengthen communication with China and that it looked forward to China’s ‘mediation for the realization of the ceasefire,’ according to the statement.”

The call by many socialists and antiwar activists for defense of the Ukrainian people against the invasion of Russian imperialism is a principled one. It is also necessary to oppose the intervention of Western imperialist powers. At some point, it is possible that the Ukrainian government will completely subordinate itself to U.S. and European imperialism. This outcome, in fact, is becoming increasingly possible, as no major working-class forces are coordinating the resistance to the invasion on the ground or challenging Zelensky for power.

The movement needs to develop an analysis of how to confront inter-imperialist rivalry. For example, at every turn, working people in the U.S. should oppose the type of chauvinism being drummed up in the media—including the call for sanctions, which harm Russian workers the most. Ann M. Simmons of The Wall Street Journal reports, “Some Russians shelved plans to buy a new home after mortgage interest rates more than doubled to 20%. Meanwhile, Russians have started to stock up on products such as foreign medications out of fear they might become scarce or completely run out in the coming weeks and months. Around 55% of Russian medications are imported, according to 2021 data from the DSM Group, a Moscow-based marketing agency that specializes in pharmaceutical market research.”

The current conflict is not because of “Putin’s madness.” This is not “Putin’s war.” It is the logical conclusion of a world system that thrives on competition over resources and markets. The system is driven forward toward war since differences in the capitalist class are not easily settled. Now, the entire world exists within the dynamic of capitalist greed, exploitation, and inter-imperialist rivalry. However, the balance of class forces can change quickly.

The working class has the ability to step away from the sidelines and assert itself in this conflict too. What would happen if in Ukraine the working class mobilized its own militias, the regular soldiers begin their own organizing committees, and they start fraternizing with Russian soldiers while demanding they lay down their weapons? What if the antiwar movement in Russia grew and penetrated the ranks of the working-class organizations and the soldiers who are being sent to fight for the benefit of the Russian oligarchs?

What if the working classes in Europe, Asia, the U.S., Africa, and Latin America could organize massive antiwar and solidarity campaigns that oppose war in Ukraine and the destruction of lives and the environment? The working class can advance through this conflict by building a world defined by solidarity and breaking down the barriers of racism, sexism, homophobia, and national chauvinism established by the capitalist class to maintain their rule.

Photo: Ukrainian refugees arrive at Zahonyi railway station, near the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, on Feb. 27, 2022. (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP)