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By Richard Brenner
1 May 2014
In the course of the argument over Ukraine, Workers Power has been accused of being soft on Russia or even supporting Russian imperialism.
This is absolutely not the case. We opposed Russia’s war in Chechnya; we oppose Russian imperialism’s backing for the Assad regime in Syria. We supported the independence of Ukraine and the Baltic States in 1990 and 1991. We oppose any Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
But there is more to the crisis in Ukraine today than simply the threat of Russian imperialism. Ukraine is not just a dependency of Russia.
The territories comprising modern Ukraine have been the battleground between Western European and Russian powers for centuries. The territories of former Volhynia, Ruthenia, Galicia and so on have been part of the Austro-Hungarian and Polish empires in the past, while the eastern regions have been in Russia’s sphere of influence. These dual influences persisted into the 19th and 20th century and the Second World War.
Ukraine has been independent since 1991, nearly a quarter of a century. In that time US policy has been to draw it into NATO, to strengthen its hand in central Asia and prevent the consolidation of a Eurasian imperialist rival.
It is only when we remember both sides of Ukraine’s position in the world imperialist order that we can correctly orient ourselves in the current crisis. Failure to account for one of the other aspects of the situation can lead to disastrous mistakes.
The Maidan movement was reactionary
Many on the left saw the Maidan movement as nothing more than a national liberation struggle of a Ukrainian people oppressed by Russian imperialism. As a result of this one-sided starting point, they were left unable to account for how that movement developed so quickly in an ever more right wing direction.
A starting point based on recognition of the dual influences at work over Ukraine, by contrast, allows us to analyse this movement clearly and without illusions. Unlike the Russophobic analysis, we do not need to mangle the facts to make it fit our thesis.
The Maidan protests began in November 2013 after President Yanukovych suspended negotiations on the signing of the ‘Association Agreement’, a free-trade deal between Ukraine and the EU. The protests began by people who wanted to sign a reactionary deal which would have meant massive impoverishment of the working classes in the South and East. It was called and coordinated by a coalition of nationalist, neoliberal and fascist parties, with the open backing of German and US imperialism.
It was an expression of western Ukrainian nationalism, which is not just against Russia but is for a more European Ukraine – one which wants to define Ukraine according to the ethnic and cultural aspirations of just one part of its people. Like the Orange Revolution of 2004, it spread like wildfire in the west of Ukraine and met with sullen opposition in the East.
A number of left wing organisations, viewing Ukrainian history with one eye shut, decided that the Maidan movement must therefore be progressive. As it became increasingly clear that view varied with reality, they deployed ever more desperate and threadbare arguments in defence of their analysis.
We were told it was a democratic movement because it was opposed to the reactionary government of Yanukovych. This non-sequitur assumes that any movement against a right wing government is progressive, even if it is pushing a right wing agenda itself. And the positive programme the Maidan movement promoted was a reactionary one, for Ukraine to be integrated into Europe at the cost of a vicious austerity programme, and against the wishes of a very large section of its people.
Some defenders of the Maidan told us that the movement was contradictory, and brought together people with very different aspirations. This is of course true by definition of every mass movement. But it does not get us away from the fact that the movement advanced reactionary demands. It only raised the call for democratic reforms in response to its own repression, and never as the main aim of the movement. This was ‘EuroMaidan’, not ‘DemocracyMaidan’.
These groups say that the left should have intervened more energetically in the Maidan and this might have prevented the dominance of more right wing forces. This fantasy is contradicted by every account of events. Unlike the movement of resistance to the new government that is spreading in the east today, where socialist organisations have been able to take part and play a prominent role, those socialists and anarchists who tried to intervene in the Maidan were given short shrift by the demonstrators and ultimately driven away by far right fighting squads. The fascist party Svoboda and the hardline neo-Nazis of the Right Sector were able to come to the head of the street movement and drive it in a radical direction because they were simply the most consistent expression of the movement’s underlying goals.
When the Maidan movement took the power it set up a neoliberal-fascist coalition government.
The Maidan movement did not come to power through democratic means. When an EU-brokered compromise fell apart under US diplomatic pressure, they encircled the parliament and in the absence of many opposition deputies voted in a new government.
The one-eyed Russophobic analysis watched these events and then went into denial. Anyone pointing to the fascist component of this new coalition government is held up for ridicule with straw man arguments like ‘there has not been a fascist coup in Ukraine’ or ‘this is not just a fascist government.’ No, there are not only fascists in the regime, but there are undoubtedly fascists in key positions.
The chief of the National Security and Defence Council, Andriy Parubiy, is a founder member of the Social-National Party. His Deputy is Dmitry Yarosh, a leader of Right Sector.
Some then try to argue that the Svoboda party, which has several key ministerial posts in the new government, is not fascist. Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network attempts this argument in his recent article. But this doesn’t hold water. Svoboda’s origins were in the Social-National Party; they are a classic fascist front party which ditches the explicit homage to Nazism to present themselves as a legitimate party, whilst maintaining a thoroughly fascist political programme of corporatist economics, national renaissance and repression.
If Svoboda is not a fascist party then neither is the FN in France or the BNP in Britain.
It is very odd when socialists who have spent their entire political lives combatting every manifestation of fascism, including comparatively small outbursts of it, suddenly go into denial when faced with the assumption of power by open fascists for the first time in a European country since 1945.
As has been widely reported, the new government immediately tried to introduce a law reducing the official status of Russian and all other minority languages in Ukraine. This was only cancelled by the President under US and EU pressure.
Of course, if you view Ukraine as nothing more than a colony of Russia struggling to be free and turn a blind eye to the aspirations of western Ukrainian nationalism then this language question is going to be an insignificant question or even a blow against the oppressor. But for the 30 to 40 per cent of Ukrainian citizens for whom Russian is their first language it could be not seen as anything other than an attempt at national oppression and attempt to institute a mono ethnic western-oriented Ukraine.
Across Ukraine, workers and young people rightly and understandably reacted with alarm to this development.
Crimea, the referendum, and the ‘Russian invasion’
The population of Crimea has been predominantly Russian for over 100 years. The original Tatar and Greek and other minority inhabitants were brutally deported by Stalin and the Crimea was settled with Ukrainian and Russian speaking people.
In 1954, without consultation or any democratic mandate from the people in Crimea, Khrushchev gifted the Crimean peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and that was the first time it ever became part of any Ukrainian state. When Ukrainians voted for independence from Russia in 1992, the vote in Crimea was almost half what it was in every other province.
This year, the illegal rise of the far-right government and its reactionary policy provided the perfect opportunity for the pro-Russian Crimean government to hold a referendum on leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. Socialists do not support or justify the way in which this was done.
Nevertheless when the new Ukrainian regime in Kyiv declared this illegal it did so because it regards Ukraine as indivisible, i.e. it does not recognise the democratic right of its regions to self-determination. Russian troops, which were already present in barracks under a treaty with Ukraine, moved out of their bases to seal the airport and land entry points to the Crimean peninsula. As a result the Ukrainian referendum went ahead without repression from Ukrainian state forces.
The picture presented that voters were herded in at Russian gunpoint is completely false. Why would Putin need to force people to vote for separation? It was always clear that if a referendum took place, there would be an overwhelming majority who would vote to leave Ukraine and join Russia, particularly given the circumstances. The image of 90 per cent voting yes conjures up images of Stalinist Albania. But we should not forget that this was because many Tatar and Ukrainian voters chose to register their opposition by boycotting the referendum.
It does not imply support for Russian imperialism or denial of the repression of the Tatars to recognise a simple fact: the majority of Crimeans wanted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. We should recognise that right and not join with Obama, Merkel and Cameron in denouncing it.
Is Crimea like a little Israel or Northern Ireland? Should we refuse to recognise its right of national self-determination because of the crimes committed against the Tatars? This would be to inflict reverse oppression on the Russians – to grant Ukraine the right of veto over its subject nationalities. We can support the right of Tatars to self-determination at the same time and oppose all Russian discrimination against them. To refuse to recognise Crimea’s right to separation because of the position of the Tatars, would be like refusing to recognise Sri Lanka’s right to independence from Britain because of the Singhalese majority’s discrimination against the Tamils.
Tim Nelson has argued that we could only support Crimea’s independence if Russian troops had been withdrawn form Crimea. This follows the argument of Ukrainian group Left Opposition, which said that Crimea only had the right to self-determination once Russian troops were withdrawn, and even called for the creation of self-defence units to prevent (!) the disarming of the bourgeois Ukrainian army.
Astonishingly no demand to withdraw from Crimea during the referendum is made of the Ukrainian armed forces! A clearer expression of the dangers of the one-sided analysis could not be hoped for. Because as we see today, where peoples of the Ukrainian regions demand a referendum and do so without the protection of Russian troops – as in Donetsk – the Ukrainian regime attempts to clamp down on them with all the military force it can muster.
So if we recognise that the Russian military presence in Crimea allowed the majority to express their democratic wish to secede, does that imply that we support the Russian military presence? Not in the slightest.
- Socialists did not support the NATO intervention in Libya, but we welcomed the fact that the Libyan revolutionaries took advantage of it to defeat Gadaffi.
- Socialists opposed NATO’s threatened bombing of Syria, but if it had happened we would not have called on the Syrian revolutionaries to suspend activities against Assad; on the contrary we would have expected them to take advantage of those conditions to step up their offensive.
Our attitude to the referendum in Crimea was the same. Russian imperialism had its own reasons to be there – but this does not stop us recognising that their presence allowed the national majority to express their wish to secede from Ukraine. If there were a referendum with no Russian or Ukrainian troops present, would the result have been any different?
Socialists do not support breaking up large states into smaller ones as a matter of principle. We would not have encouraged people to vote to secede in Crimea, and nor would we do so if a referendum were held in Donetsk. But where a people clearly want to secede then they have the right to do so and that must be recognised by socialists.
What alternative do our Russophobe pro-Maidan socialists propose? Deporting the Russians? Holding Crimea in Ukraine against its will?
British imperialism recognises the far right government in Kiev, but refuses to recognise the outcome of the referendum. We take the opposite view: without illusions in either of the imperialist blocs.
The struggle in East Ukraine
As the events in Crimea unfolded, protests developed in Eastern Ukrainian cities, where the majority of Ukrainians are Russian-speakers. These are not Russian colonists – they are as Ukrainian as anyone else. Failure to recognise this is to accept the mono ethnic narrative being promoted by the ultra-nationalist regime in Kiev.
Mobilisations in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Mariupol, Dnepropetrovsk built in strength and began to copy the methods developed in Maidan, but deployed them against the Maidan government: setting up self-defence squads, deploying shields, batons etc, raising barricades, opening arms dumps and seizing government buildings. They refused to recognise the authority of the oligarch local governors appointed by Kyiv and turfed them out.
The dominant political complexion is threefold:
- ‘Pro-Russian’. This does not mean they want to join Russia – indeed most interviews with protesters say they just want a referendum on regional autonomy and the resignation of the government in Kiev. They fly the Russian flag and appeal for its help against the Kyiv regime – as the Kyiv regime appeals for help from NATO against its own people in the East.
- In addition many of them fly Soviet flags and look back to the USSR for inspiration.
- There is also a growing antifascist force influenced by the Borotba union which has an explicitly revolutionary socialist agenda. Unlike the Maidan, where socialists’ attempts to influence the movement failed miserably, in the east the antifascist opposition to the Kyiv regime is fertile ground for socialists, who are contesting the Russian nationalist agenda and fighting for a socialist Ukraine.
As noted above, all mass movements are by definition contradictory. There is some far right and Russian fascist influence. Unlike in the Maidan however, it is minor and heavily contested. The Eurasian far right movements are tiny and peripheral to the movement.
We think it was a mistake when the protestors in Donetsk proclaimed the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic. This adventure had no backing from any mass working class organisations, but it did serve to galvanise opposition and to capture the imagination.
The Kyiv regime is now deploying tanks, helicopters and fighter jets against the rebellious eastern towns. Obama is showing his utter hypocrisy for criticising the movement in the east for exactly the same tactics that he praised to the skies in the Maidan. The attacks by army units and paramilitary forces like Right Sector against people in the East have already seen several killed. Moreover Kyiv’s forces are weak, poorly paid, morale is low and its units are prone to defections.
The Russophobic one-sided analysis sees these protests as nothing more than Russians campaigning for colonial influence over Ukraine. By leaving out the other side of the picture, it completely fails to understand the movement’s dynamics. According to this view it would be better to fantasise about how we could have influenced a right wing movement in western Ukraine than to build on the influence already secured by socialists in eastern Ukraine, overcome the influence of nationalists and hegemonise the resistance.
That is why we are in solidarity with Borotba, have sent members of our organisation to meet with it on two occasions in eastern Ukraine and participated in the protests. We call on all socialists to do the same.
If the main enemy is not at home, where is it?
In the course of debates at meetings and online, supporters of the Russophobic line have shown a worrying trend to play down the role of western imperialism in the Ukrainian crisis.
If that was ever unclear, there is no excuse for it now, given the announcement of joint NATO-Ukraine drills in Ukraine itself, and the massive escalation of NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic States.
NATO fleets and aircraft are patrolling the Baltic. NATO is engaged in a troop build-up in Poland and Ukraine. The day before the first attempt of the Kyiv regime to launch an assault on the Donetsk region, CIA boss John Brennan visited Kyiv – it is clear that the US is giving financial, logistical and diplomatic support to the repressive operation in Donetsk.
Some British socialists have even thought it their duty to downplay the role of Britain in this, rather than to expose it and try to stop it. In fact Britain has recognised the regime, denounced the referendum, denounced the antifascist resistance in the east as Russian separatists, and provided materiel such as RAF planes and intelligence to the NATO operation.
A rounded view of Ukrainian history means that the NATO intervention is far from unexpected. Our job as international socialists is to oppose both Washington and Moscow. Worryingly, some socialists have taken this new emergence of sharp inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and Russia to dismiss the communist slogan ‘the main enemy is at home’ at the exactly the time when its relevance should be clearest to all.
Who can stop the US military build-up? The main job for that force is the US working class. Who can pull the US’s allies out of its campaign? The working class and anti-war movement in other NATO powers, such as Britain. Who can stop Putin and his band of oligarchic plunderers from using the crisis to extend his empire? The Russian working class and anti-war movement. Who can bring down the nationalist/fascist regime in Kiev? The Ukrainian working class.
If the main enemy is not at home, it is somewhere else. If Russia is the main threat and Ukraine is simply a former Russian colony struggling to be free, then the only consistent position would be to organise protests outside Russian embassies in the west at exactly the time when Obama, Cameron and Merkel are issuing threats and building up their forces. In Ukraine it would imply not passive neutrality in the struggle between the regime and the antifascist resistance (which would be bad enough) but active support for the reactionary offensive of the Kiev regime against its own people in the east.
It is not Workers Power that is living in the past or trying to impose an old historical schema on contemporary events. To those who tell us ‘the USSR is long gone, this is not 1942’, we say ‘we agree and this is not 1991 either.’ We are not living in the period of the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, where subject nations of Great Russian chauvinist Stalinism were justly struggling to be free. In the near quarter century that has passed since then, US imperialism has succeeded in drawing much of central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus into its orbit.
In fact we are living in a new period, the period of the breakdown of the post-cold war order. In this multi polar world we must not simply read off from readymade analyses located in the previous period. There are two imperialist forces at work over Ukraine and our entire approach needs to be informed by this.
Down with NATO’s military build-up against Russia.
Down with the US, UK and EU backing for the far right regime in Kiev
Solidarity with the resistance in eastern Ukraine
For the right of nations to self-determination: Ukraine, Crimea, Tatars
No support for Russian imperialism; solidarity with the Russian anti-war movement
For a united socialist Ukraine under the rule of the working class – east and west
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