Blessed by Russian Orthodox church

The price of nationalism

Mike Macnair reviews the cynical geopolitical manoeuvres of the rival power blocs

At the time of writing, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has just announced an agreement in principle with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that there ought to be a “ceasefire process” in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s office has immediately commented that, since Russia is (they say) not engaged in fighting in eastern Ukraine, Russia cannot deliver a ceasefire: this is merely an agreement on what ought to happen.1 Indeed, even if - as western governments and media claim - regular Russian forces are involved, it is quite clear that a lot of the fighting on the ‘pro-Russian’ side is being conducted by Russian rightwing nationalist militias.

Of course, it is not clear that Poroshenko can deliver a ceasefire either: the fighting on the Ukrainian ‘government’ side is being conducted mainly not by the regular army, which collapsed in the face of initial civilian resistance in April,2 but by privately funded rightwing militias.3 So US president Barack Obama is perhaps right to be sceptical about the ‘ceasefire’ announcement.4

The backdrop in eastern Ukraine to this development is that over the last week, the military tide, which was running strongly in favour of Kiev ‘government forces’, has been reversed: the pro-Russia militia, perhaps with aid from Russian regulars, have scored a series of successes and opened a new front on the coast of the Black Sea.5

The easterners have now for some time been using the tsarist-era term, ‘Novorossiya’ (‘New Russia’), for their territory: it refers to the province covering the whole north shore of the Black Sea, excluding the Crimea, which was annexed by the tsars from Ottoman Turkey in 1774, and lasted in that form till 1917.6 The present boundaries of Ukraine were shaped by the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, dictated in German interests to include the maximum territory;7 the USSR after conquering the country in the civil war kept these and added some more, precisely in order to include a large Russian population as a check on Ukrainian nationalism.

Moscow has recently signalled an aim of, in effect, partitioning Ukraine to create a separate ‘Novorossiya’, perhaps smaller than the original. On the one hand, Putin called on August 31 for “substantive and meaningful negotiations and not only on technical questions, but on questions of the political organisation of society and statehood for south-eastern Ukraine”.8 On the other, he pointedly remarked in a telephone call to the EU’s José Manuel Barroso: “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks” - a remark Barroso’s office immediately leaked. Putin’s office complained this was taken out of context, but even without context it plainly means that Putin is saying that he is - contrary to the western media - showing restraint: he could take Kiev, but is actually asking merely for negotiations on “statehood for south-eastern Ukraine”.9

Meanwhile, a Nato summit is due to meet in Newport, Gwent on September 4 and 5, and ‘responses to Russian aggression’ are high on the agenda. David Cameron, addressing an EU summit, warned of the dangers of “appeasement” in the style of 193810: a tired old story we heard about Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti in Iraq before 2003, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran until the 2013 election of Hassan Rowhani made ‘Ahmadinejad = Hitler’ narratives useless ...

But the practice of the US and its allies for the moment remains what US rightwingers have called, reversing Theodore Roosevelt’s old tag, “speak loudly and carry a small stick”. Nato has announced it intends to beef up its presence in its eastern European member-states. It has also announced the creation of a “rapid reaction force” - yet again, since such announcements have been a periodic feature of Nato public statements since the 1990s.11 The problem is that, in reality, only the US has the actual military infrastructure to be able to do such things: as became apparent in the ostensibly Anglo-French-Italian intervention in Libya, which actually depended on US military support.12

Obama is expected at the Nato summit to blame “Europe’s failure to commit to spending 2% of GDP on the military, and its lack of political will in relation to Putin”.13 Supplying heavy weapons to Kiev is “debated”, with some US Congressional leaders in favour, but Obama opposed; the president of Lithuania in favour, but Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande opposed; Obama is quoted as saying last week that “a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming”.14 Federica Mogherini, the new EU head of foreign policy, has remarked that “the prospect of Europe going to war to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression ‘simply does not exist’”.15

So the answer on offer is more sanctions: The Times (September 3) carries suggestions of EU countries banning footballers from attending the 2018 World Cup, scheduled for Moscow, and of barring Russia from the Brisbane G20 summit due in November. Shades of 1980 and the (unsuccessful) boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Russian “invasion” of Afghanistan16 ... David Cameron said on September 1 in the Commons that the west would “turn the ratchet” on Vladimir Putin, and that western sanctions would “‘permanently’ damage the Russian economy”.17


In reality, western European political leaders have walked into a trap set by the US when it backed the ‘Maidan’ miniature pseudo- ‘colour revolution’ - effectively a coup by a small far-right minority in collusion with a section of the military command, against former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych in winter 2013-14. In the middle term US and EU expansionism in eastern Europe risks tipping over into great-power war, by raising nationalist passions, by pushing (as we see in the run-up to the Nato summit) for rearmament, and by raising possible war tripwires. But in the present events US military action against Russia was never seriously on the agenda. What was posed, therefore, and continues to be posed, is economic siege warfare/blockade against Russia - aka ‘sanctions’. The effect of those sanctions may be to “‘permanently’ damage the Russian economy”; but there is no real doubt that they will also seriously damage the euro zone economy,18 already stuck in stagnation and at risk of deflation.19 Squeezing both Russia and the euro zone is win-win for the US (and its British sidekick).

On the other side, Russia’s state interest, and that of the Putin administration in particular, is perfectly clear. As far as the Russian state is concerned, access to the Crimea and the Black Sea - ie, ports not closed in winter - is a fundamental geopolitical interest and has been for three centuries. The Poroshenko regime in Ukraine has insisted that it will recover the Crimea as well as reasserting control in eastern Ukraine20; this aspiration requires the Russian state to try to secure at minimum a weakened Ukraine, and preferably land access to the Crimea. In addition, Russia was invaded twice in the 20th century, with enormous resulting devastation and suffering, and Russian state actors are therefore understandably keen to retain a degree of control over states in its borderlands: a circumstance recognised by rightwing western opponents of EU and Nato expansionism in eastern Europe.21

As far as the Kremlin is concerned, Putin has marketed himself from the beginning as a Russian nationalist strongman. In the present crisis, this line has been highly successful: an August poll showed he had an approval rating of 87%.22 There are, therefore, strong immediate political reasons for him not to be seen to back down or to abandon the ‘fellow Russians’ of eastern Ukraine, to be added to the geopolitical reasons for Russia to pursue the policy it has.

But the implication of the combination of these needs with the exigencies of diplomacy is - as I said earlier - that Russia acts in Ukraine largely through proxies. And these proxies are in substance what would have been called in the politics of the tsarist period ‘Black Hundreds’: rightwing nationalist gangs.

The victims of all these cynical geopolitical manoeuvres and of the ‘facts on the ground’ associated with them are, of course, the inhabitants of Ukraine. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that a million people have been displaced by the fighting; so far 2,600 are reported killed.23

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has warned that an additional $19 billion “bailout for Ukraine” will be needed, over and above the existing $17 billion agreed in April to avoid default.24 As with the ‘bailout’ of Greece, this is to pay the western banks who have lent to Ukraine, not for the country itself: Ukraine could really be ‘bailed out’ if the banks were forced to accept the losses. If anything, the IMF’s assessment understates the problem, as Michael Roberts has shown in a recent blog post on the issue.25 Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk characterised implementation of the IMF’s demands as “political suicide”.

The full implementation of the IMF’s ‘reform agenda’ actually implies much worse for Ukraine: the liquidation of the industry concentrated in the east (which, so far as it survives, is tied in to Russian industry), together with substantial depopulation, and the conversion of the country into an classical agricultural-supplier semi-colony. The depopulation would, of course, imply large waves of labour migration, putting downward pressure on wages and terms of employment in the destination countries - another win-win, this time for the capitalist class.


Ukraine’s inhabitants are paying - as they have been paying since 1991, but now in a more extreme form - the price of nationalism. The critics of the orthodox Second International position of the ‘self-determination of nations’ already identified this price. Separation of German Poland from the German market and Russian Poland from the Russian market would, Rosa Luxemburg and her co-thinkers argued, lead to economic regression. The claim was verified in inter-war Poland. The Austro-Marxists, Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, offered a different alternative line: that of autonomous national-cultural corporations in a single state, but they too predicted that breaking up an existing state and its associated market - in their case the Austro-Hungarian empire - would lead to economic regression. For Austria and Hungary at least this came true in 1919-39.

Ukraine’s equivalent was the break-up of the USSR. Independence from the Soviet Union offered ‘freedom’, and with statehood access to international capital markets, which (according to western theorists) would allow development and modernisation. The grossly undemocratic character of the Soviet regime, and the fact that the bureaucracy absolutely routinely lied (to itself as well as to the outside world) meant that the few who warned of adverse consequences from the break-up were not believed. The effect was to partially break the material links between Ukrainian and Russian production, drastically weakening the economy. No new ‘Marshall plan’ (the revival of western Europe after World War II by US subsidies, US toleration of state industries and US protectionism) was in the 1990s, or is today, on offer; this plan was a response to the victories of the USSR in World War II and was never going to be repeated when the ‘Soviet bloc’ fell. Statehood and access to international capital markets turned out to produce not modernisation, but kleptocracy and debt, and a choice between creating a political regime which would be a puppet of Washington or a puppet of Moscow.

But failed nationalism has not as yet resulted anywhere in the rejection of nationalism (with the possible exception of the February 2014 Bosnian protests), but rather, deeper and more poisonous nationalism: true of the inter-war states of central Europe carved out of the old empire, and true again of the states carved out of the old USSR. The reason is that economic independence in a world dominated by capital is a utopian dream; and the result of the unavailability of economic independence is (except for potential imperialist world hegemons) that political independence is an endlessly unfulfilled aspiration, like ‘pie in the sky’, which can never be achieved, so that its non-achievement can always be blamed on traitors (like Yanukovych) and enemies within. The tendency of nationalist break-up of states is thus further break-up, eventually into ‘failed states’ and warlordism. In Ukraine the symptom is the contest between a Ukrainian far right which is close to open Nazism, and a pro-Russian far right which uses the symbols of ‘Holy Russia’ Cossackism, and so on.

Any alternative to this calamitous downward spiral is, for the moment, a long way off. It is only the independent class politics of the working class, organising and acting as an international class, which can possibly create a dynamic of unity to counter its infernal logic. At present, the left, the potential ‘carrier’ of such an idea, remains deeply poisoned by nationalism. In relation to Ukraine, one part prettifies the ‘Maidan movement’, another prettifies the eastern militias.

In our own country, we are offered the choice between the Scots nationalism of a left ‘yes’ and the British nationalism of a left ‘no’. But, however far off it seems, internationalist proletarian class politics is the only hope of a way out.


1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-29042561.

2. ‘Ukraine push against rebels grinds to halt’ New York Times April 16 2014.

3. ‘Ukraine strategy bets on restraint by Russia’ New York Times August 9 2014.

4. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-29044117.

5. Eg, ‘Ukraine withdraws from Luhansk airport after “Russian tank column” attack’ The Daily Telegraph September 1 2014.

6. ‘Novorossiya’, Wikipedia.

7. New York Times February 17 1918.

8. The Daily Telegraph August 31 2014.

9. The Daily Telegraph September 1 2014; The Guardian September 2 2014.

10. The Guardian September 2 2014.

11. The Daily Telegraph September 2 2014. On a prior incarnation see, for example, ‘Transformation reversed: Nato rapid reaction force to be eliminated’ Der Spiegel September 20 2007. Indeed, according to Nato, a force already exists: www.natolibguides.info/nrf.

12. ‘Libya’s dark lesson for Nato’ New York Times September 1 2011.

13. The Daily Telegraph September 1 2014.

14. Financial Times September 3 2014.

15. The Daily Telegraph September 1 2014.

16. www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02/carter-olympic-boycott-1980-103308.html#.VAcRH4UrZ30.

17. The Daily Telegraph September 1 2014.

18. Eg, ‘Eurozone recovery is stalled over Russian sanctions’ Belfast Telegraph August 15 2014.

19. http://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/draghi-fights-the-drag.

20. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28159396.

21. Googling ‘Ukraine, EU expansionism’ produces numerous posts of this type (including, for example, one from Essex Ukip!).

22. http://time.com/3088126/putins-popularity-hits-87-russia.

23. The Daily Telegraph September 2 2014.

24. The Guardian September 2 2014.

25. http://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/ukraine-a-grim-winter-ahead.