West and Putin up the ante
Mainstream hypocrisy takes some beating, writes Eddie Ford
As expected, the March 16 referendum in Crimea saw a clear vote to join the Russian Federation. The Crimean authorities claim there was a 96.8% ‘yes’ vote on a turnout of 83% - even though ethnic Russians make up only around 60% of the population and you might have expected most ethnic Ukrainians (24%) and Tartars (12%) would abstain, since there was no option on the ballot paper to maintain the status quo.
This led some pundits to prattle on about a “North Korean-style” election result - the obvious implication being that the whole thing was fixed from above. Yet it is clear that there is a majority in Crimea who want union with Russia and voted for it with some genuine enthusiasm, not because of a sinister conspiracy - though it goes without saying that the Kremlin ensured it got the result it wanted.
Across the spectrum, reporting on the crisis has been abysmal. Take the Financial Times for instance, which is supposed to be a serious paper - and in many regards it is. Yet, when it comes to Ukraine, pro-Russian demonstrators are always said to be “thugs” or part of a “mob”, with a number of reports ludicrously suggesting that many - if not most - of the protesters have actually been ferried in from Russia and are being paid with Moscow gold. An allegation, unsurprisingly, that has been repeated by the supposed ‘third campists’ of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - who tell us that there have been “small” pro-Russian demonstrations in some cities in eastern Ukraine and “plausible” reports that they were “boosted” by people bussed in from Russia.1
Come on, pull the other one. These demonstrations clearly have a mass, popular character - regardless of the machinations of the Russian secret services. Anyhow, what about the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev, which had a fairly obvious CIA-directed input - were all of those people thugs or paid? We all know that there were plenty of thuggish elements in Independence Square - fascist thugs at that. But to claim that the majority of Ukrainian nationalists are paid by the CIA would be just as absurd as saying that the majority of pro-Russian demonstrators are paid by the Kremlin.
It is no wonder that demonstrations in Russian-majority cities and towns have become increasingly militant and angry. Ethnic Russians in Ukraine tend to be poorer than their compatriots and indeed Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a nominal per capita income in 2012 of £2,329, less than that of Jamaica, Tunisia or Paraguay. Meanwhile the new government in Kiev is kow-towing to the oligarchs - appointing them as provincial governors in eastern Ukraine, for instance.
Perhaps exemplifying liberal imperialist opinion is Timothy Garton Ash in the pages of The Guardian. He writes about “pro-Russian groups now working to produce chaos, disorientation and violence in cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv” - all “actively supported” by Moscow (March 18). Therefore, he argues, the west must “also up the ante” by making sure the Ukrainian authorities “have the money to pay the bills right now” and, more importantly still, by threatening Moscow with sanctions “far worse than those currently imposed” because what Putin has done “threatens the foundations of the international order” - something very precious to the bourgeoisie, of course. But it is not very difficult to grasp the mentality of the Russians, or see how this crisis started to escalate. Just look at the demonstrations in Independence Square, staffed and policed by ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist organisations like Spilna Sprava (Common Cause), Right Sector, Svoboda, etc - many carrying pictures of Stepan Bandera, founder of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator.2 You get the message. Or just look at the first bills fielded by the new parliament - ie, stripping Russian of its official language status or moving to ban the Communist Party of Ukraine. You definitely get the message. We are dealing here with a resurgent Ukrainian nationalism which defines itself against Russians - something easily understood in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
We are not vicarious Russian nationalists or Putin apologists. But it is a simple statement of fact that ethnic divisions in Ukraine have got a lot deeper over the last year. Nor are we saying that the referendum in Crimea was the perfect model of electoral probity - no-one can be that naive.
Yet double standards abound. Some people, both on the left and right, insist that the referendum was in itself ‘illegitimate’. But the implication is not just that Crimea had no legal right to organise such a referendum, but that Crimeans have no right under any circumstances to vote to join Russia. Similarly, on what basis was the previous administration of Viktor Yanukovych any less ‘legitimate’ (or corrupt) than today’s government headed by the dubious Oleksandr Turchynov? After all, Yanukovych was elected in a reasonably free and fair election, and, of course, his ‘home’ constituency was the Russophone population - who felt disenfranchised and alienated by his sudden removal from office, despite the fact that only a day earlier he had come to an ‘agreement’ with the opposition that he should remain in office until at least December.
Anyhow, on March 17 Russian and Crimean leaders signed the treaty formally absorbing the peninsula into the Russian Federation. Within the coming months Crimea will switch to the rouble, introduce Moscow time and the Russian visa system - not to mention the nationalisation of all Ukrainian state property, including the major oil and gas companies.3
In a grandstanding speech at the Kremlin the next day, Putin told Russia’s parliament that Crimea had “always been part of Russia” and in signing the treaty he was righting a “historical injustice” - adding that he did “not want to be welcomed in Sevastopol by Nato sailors”. Here, of course, was the real reason for Moscow’s intervention. Quite clearly, the US and EU had a plan to remove Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence and take it into the orbit of the west - just as they attempted in 2008 in Georgia. But there was no way Moscow would tolerate having Nato troops right on its long southern borders or lose its Black Sea access to the Mediterranean. Hence on both occasions there was a predictably swift and decisive response - in the case of Georgia carving out two Moscow-loyal enclaves and in Ukraine incorporating Crimea - albeit with a high level of support amongst the local population.
In response, the US and the EU imposed sanctions on various high-level officials from Russia and Ukraine deemed responsible for provoking the crisis - with the White House saying these sanctions would be “expanded”. As for US vice-president Joe Biden, during a visit to Poland and the Baltic states aimed at providing assurances about US/Nato security guarantees, he declared that Putin and Russia now stood alone and “naked before the world” - guilty of “international aggression” in their “land grab”.
Well, when it comes to Ukraine, western hypocrisy takes some beating. We do recall a certain ‘legitimate’ state called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Or how about the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia? Yet the west actively welcomed the break-up of these states - a fact referenced by Putin in his Kremlin speech, when he said it was ludicrous to claim that the recognition of Kosova by the west as an independent country did not set a precedent or had a claim to uniqueness. But, he stated, “we are being told that we are breaking the norms of international law” - western politicians, he went on, “call something white today and black tomorrow”. Only now, when it comes to Crimea, have they “remembered that international law exists”.
All sorts of states have been broken up in the past or had their borders drastically redrawn, but if it served the imperialist interests of the west it was no crime - or “land grab”. Nevertheless, communists are not worshippers of bourgeois or international law - let alone so-called national sovereignty. We are internationalists first and foremost. Nations, countries and states are not eternal and timeless - to claim otherwise would be reactionary, nationalist crap. Nations come into being under definite historical circumstances, then at some stage disappear or wither away. Communists, being consistent democrats, do not view Ukraine - or indeed any other country - as the incarnation of some sort of unbreakable unity or the ‘national spirit’. Even the sacred United Kingdom, blessed by god, will cease to exist one day.
In fact, what about the Scottish referendum? There is no constitutional requirement for one, Britain being a weird constitutional monarchy, where prime ministers wield the royal prerogative. Thus David Cameron could just say, ‘Sorry, Scotland remains part of the UK in perpetuity’. If so where would be the ‘legitimacy’ for a referendum on independence? The answer is more than obvious. When it comes down to it, it is just not a good idea to keep people in a country (or union) they do not want to be in. So give them an agreed exit. This is essentially what happened in Crimea and it hard to see any fundamental difference with Scotland.
Therefore, the CPGB does not agree with the slogan, ‘Russia out’ - as touted by the AWL, to name one left organisation. It is not good enough. Yes, we go along with the idea of a free and fair referendum for Crimea - though it is a done deal now anyway. The very real danger, however, is that you can end up as an apologist for the west, which is how the AWL appears. Echoing the sentiments of its apparent sister organisation in Ukraine, Left Opposition4, an editorial in Solidarity, apart from calling for “Russian troops out!”, emphasised how “we solidarise with the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination, and with the protests against Russia’s invasion and intervention made by the left in Russia” (March 12).
But this is a one-sided position which implicitly sides with the west’s anti-Russian drive, especially when you bear in mind the same editorial merely attacks the “Ukrainian chauvinism” of the new government of Kiev. But what about the fascists and Banderaites? Or the aggressive role played by imperialism in this crisis - which the editorial massively downplays, observing that the US is “most reluctant to intervene militarily” and that the EU powers “will not do so without US involvement” - which could almost be a note of regret. However, the next issue of Solidarity makes the AWL’s pro-imperialist viewpoint more than clear - for which we should be grateful in some respects, given its notorious slipperiness. “Independence for Ukraine!” the front page proclaims - showing a picture of demonstrators waving both CND symbols and the Ukrainian national flag - and the inside editorial bluntly states: “If it comes to a war between Russia and Ukraine, we are on the side of Ukraine - including of the Ukrainian armed forces, if they fight against Russian domination” (March 17) - which by logical extension means support for western powers that lend support to the Ukrainian government, whether military or otherwise. It seems that the AWL has now become Russophobic.
Showing how dangerous things have become, Ukraine has mobilised a National Guard of some 60,000 and the government has authorised troops to fire in “self-defence”. Further increasing tensions, a spokesperson for the Ukraine military said on March 18 that one of its officers had been killed in an attack on a base in the Crimean capital of Simferopol - at the same time, pro-Kremlin authorities reported that a member of their own forces had also been killed in the same incident. Ominously, the acting interim prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told an emergency meeting that the conflict is “shifting from a political to a military stage”. Not that the west wants a military showdown with Russia. But, the more the crisis drags on, and the more belligerent US officials become, the greater the possibility that an ‘unexpected situation’ might occur - leading to a hot war of some shape and size l
1. www.workersliberty.org/story/2014/03/11/ ukraine-russian-troops-out.
2. In 1944, Bandera moved the headquarters of the OUN(B) to Berlin - Germany supplying it with arms and equipment to use behind Soviet lines, also training its members in terrorist techniques and intelligence gathering.
3. www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/03/17/355058/ crimea-nationalizes-ukraine-property.
4. Which issued an appalling 10-point ‘plan for social change’, saying, for example, that Ukraine “should follow the example of Iceland” and that there should be “reductions” in spending on the security apparatus of the state (www.criticatac.ro/ lefteast/manifesto-left-opposition-in-ukraine).