Ukraine: No siding with nationalists
Eddie Ford argues that working class political independence cannot be built by backing the pawns of imperialism
At the time of writing, the Ukrainian ‘ceasefire’ agreed on September 5 just about holds. The deal brokered by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was jointly signed by Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and the former president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma. Key elements of the plan include allowing “temporary” local self-government in areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine under a “special status” law, ensuring the holding of “snap” local elections in these areas; removing “illegal” armed groups and all “mercenaries” from Ukrainian territory; prisoner exchange and the release of hostages; passing a law preventing the prosecution/punishment of people over “certain events” in the region, continual “monitoring” of the Ukrainian-Russian border and the creation of a “security zone”.
After the talks, Zakharchenko said the regions - or Federal State of Novorossiya - were still planning to declare full independence and told journalists that the peace talks had “legitimised” the fledgling republic - which now was on an “equal footing” with Ukraine. Clearly, Moscow wants the Donbass to essentially become a Russian ‘protectorate’, and in that way make sure that the rest of Ukraine can never join Nato or fully orient its foreign policy westward. As for the billionaire ‘chocolate king’, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, he unconvincingly declared on September 8 that the separatist forces would suffer a “crushing defeat” if they advanced on the city of Mariupol - the last city in Donetsk region still held by the Ukrainian government and a strategic port on the route to Crimea. Then, two days later, he stated that the ceasefire deal “envisages” the “restoration and preservation” of Ukrainian sovereignty on “all the territory of the Donbass” - though he did add that he would submit to parliament next week a “draft law” granting special status to “some areas” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as per the original OSCE plan.
Meanwhile, European Union member-states have agreed to impose a new package of sanctions against Moscow - even if the details are to some extent contingent on the continuance of the ceasefire and future Russian actions in the area. The new round of EU sanctions would also expand the visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials and entities, including separatist leaders in Ukraine. Herman van Rompuy, the EU council president, stated that the measures were aimed at “promoting a change of course in Russia’s actions”: that is, punishing it for “destabilising” eastern Ukraine.
Diplomats say the new package will target Russian oil companies Rosneft and Transneft, and the petroleum wing of the state gas monopoly, Gazprom. Their access to the financial markets will be restricted, which could be a serious matter for Rosneft, which only last month asked the Russian government for a $42 billion loan. Of course, that makes it a very important player in the EU’s own energy market, given that about 90% of the crude oil it uses is imported; and Russia is, by a large margin, the biggest supplier. However, crude oil is mainly transported by sea; therefore if trade was disrupted by sanctions any losses from Russian suppliers could potentially be replaced (albeit more expensively). Gas is another story though, as it is delivered to Europe by pipeline - making it very difficult to compensate for any loss of supplies from Russia. In other words, such a measure would almost certainly cause considerable damage to the already ailing euro zone economy - which probably explains why Gazprom’s main business is reported not to be on the new sanctions list.
In retaliation, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, warned that Moscow would respond “asymmetrically” - threatening, for example, to block international flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with the new sanctions. Medvedev warned that an airspace ban “could drive many struggling airlines into bankruptcy”.
Showing that the dynamic is still towards further conflict, maybe even a regional showdown of some sort, Poroshenko claimed (or boasted) at the beginning of the week that Ukraine is to receive “direct supplies of modern weaponry” from Nato countries - namely, the US, France, Italy, Poland and Norway. Indeed, according to the Ukrainian president, they had “pledged” weapons and military advisors to his country during the Nato summit last week in Newport. Three of the five countries hurriedly denied any such deal. An Italian defence ministry official told Reuters that such an idea was “incorrect”; in fact, we learned, Italy only planned to supply “non-lethal” military aid, such as helmets and bullet-proof vests. Amazing though how “non-lethal” aid swiftly becomes lethal - look at the nightmare that is now Syria.
More worryingly, Nato announced on September 5 that a 4,000-strong “rapid reaction” force would be set up to counter the supposed “Russian threat” - with British troops making up 25% of the unit for initial deployment in the Baltics. David Cameron talked of the need for a “spearhead force” deployable anywhere in the world in “just two to five days”. He also spoke about boosting the British presence in the Baltics. There are currently 1,500 British troops involved in “exercises” in the Baltic states, and Cameron plans to send an additional 2,000 in order to send a ‘warning’ to Russia - this is now a western sphere of influence, and don’t forget it. Britain is already committed to staging a major military exercise this October in Poland. Nato is effectively holding more or less permanent exercises in the Baltics, modernising its air bases and putting extra heavy equipment in place so as to be in a state of “readiness”. Unlike Ukraine, of course, the Baltic states are Nato members and any action against them would theoretically draw in other signatory states in an act of imperialist solidarity.
Aggressive western expansionism into the Russian ‘near abroad’ looks set to continue. On August 29, Arseny Yatseniuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, announced that he would ask parliament to put the country on a path towards Nato membership.1 Naturally, Vladimir Putin will do whatever he can to stop this happening.
Under these dangerous circumstances of rival nationalisms, with direct imperialist support for one of the players (ie, Kiev), it is absolutely vital that socialists and communists unambiguously stand up for internationalism and elementary working class solidarity.
Alas, this has not been the case. Disgracefully, most left groups have lined up with either one camp or the other - portraying the opposing side as the greater evil or somehow beyond the pale. Choosing the butcher. Unsurprisingly, the staunch social-imperialists of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have been one of the worst offenders. With almost praiseworthy honesty, the AWL had already informed us in the pages of Solidarity: “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 can only mean siding with the west’s anti-Russian war drive and acting as the left wing of Nato. The very latest issue of the AWL paper stupidly tells us that what amounts to a “straightforward” Russian invasion of Ukraine is underway and that the conflict “stems fundamentally” from a “longstanding Russian imperialist policy” - as opposed to mere Russian Realpolitik going back centuries (September 1). AWL supporters, of course, have gibbered on about “Putin’s Crimean Anschluss”, etc.2
Anyhow, the AWL - along with Socialist Resistance and others - is now ‘critically’ touting a statement by the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, to which the Labour Representation Committee is unfortunately affiliated. The USC has no functioning website, but it does have a Facebook page.3 In the statement, the USC declares its solidarity with an undifferentiated “Ukrainian labour movement” and campaigns, amongst other things, for the “self-determination of Ukraine as a whole” (free from the “intrigues” and “corporate business-interests” of Russia and the western powers); for the “immediate withdrawal” of Russian and pro-Russian paramilitary forces from Ukraine, the “return to barracks” of the Ukrainian armed forces and the “removal” of ultra-right nationalist organisations from positions in the Ukrainian government; the creation of a “wide demilitarised zone” around Ukraine’s borders, the “restoration” of the autonomous republic of Crimea with a “fully democratic referendum” on the status of Crimea; the “restoration” of the Budapest Treaty and recognition of Ukraine as a “united, nuclear-free, neutral state”- and ends by calling for the “payment of reparations” by Russia for the “reconstruction” of Donbas.4
The reactionary, and totally utopian, nature of the statement is clear. To call for the self-determination of Ukraine “as a whole” by definition means the denial of the right of the Russian peoples in the south-east to self-determination - ditto with the demand for the “restoration” of Crimea into Ukraine. And how is this going to be done exactly - by force of arms? The current crisis was not sparked off by Russian expansionism, as the AWL would have us believe, but far more by a western-backed coup against Yanukovych, carried out with the aid of fascistic street fighting squads. It was hardly an accident that two of the very first actions of the Kiev government were to downgrade - delegitimise - the Russian language and to move towards banning the Communist Party of Ukraine. Explicitly far-right and Banderite militias comprise the main bulk of the Ukrainian National Guard, forces that have pitilessly bombarded Donetsk, Luhansk and other cities.
Revealingly, the AWL does not think that calling for Ukrainian troops to go back to barracks is the “right way” of posing it, when Russian and pro-Russian forces are “rampaging around”, and disagrees with “equating” Russia and the US. Presumably, for the AWL, the USC’s statement is insufficiently pro-imperialist.
On the other hand, we have USC’s near mirror-image in the shape of Solidarity with the Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine - founded on June 2 in London and backed by Workers Power, Lindsey German from Counterfire, Boris Kagarlitsky from the Institute for Globalisation Studies and Social Movements, Andrew Murray from the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Alan Woods from Socialist Appeal and Sergei Kirichuk from Borotba in Ukraine.5 Yes, of course, the organisation is quite correct to oppose the Kiev government attacks on democratic rights and the repression of leftwing groups, etc, and Nato’s planned exercises in Ukraine.
But the group falls into a disastrous form of vicarious Russian nationalism, when it rather pathetically bigs up the ‘anti-fascist’ credentials of the Russian separatists. Depressingly, WP’s Richard Brenner and Alan Freeman of the distinctly peculiar Socialist Action group attended a conference in Yalta on July 6-7 organised by Boris Kagarlitsky. Apparently, the main aim of the conference was the creation an “international network of support for the movement for the creation of Novorossiya”.6 Predictably, our comrades at the Hotel Yalta-Intourist found themselves in extremely dubious company, to put it very mildly - like the far-right New Rus Coordination and Support Centre, the Osnovanye Fund (established by two editors of the anti-Semitic Russian journal, Zavtra) and Nikolai Starikov, leader of the Party of Great Fatherland.
Sadly, Kagarlitsky has convinced himself that there are “proletarian forces” to the fore in Novorossiya - the masses in the Donetsk People’s Republic have “risen up in genuine revolutionary protest” in a fashion that is the “perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order”.7 Similarly, WP believes that the anti-Kiev forces constitute the genuine “anti-fascist resistance” in Ukraine, which is “made up overwhelmingly of ordinary Donbass workers” - thus there is “clearly total justification for a military united front with all those willing to defend the people of east Ukraine”. Yes, OK, there are “reactionary political forces within it” - but what the heck, WP breezily continues, “all mass movements are heterogeneous”: the question is, they ask, what political forces “predominate and determine” its character?8 Showing wilful blindness, WP insists that rightwing Great Russian chauvinist and pan-Slavic groups (including fascists) are not the predominant force, even amongst the armed defence groups - “unlike their equivalents within the Maidan”, we read. The Maidan are bad nationalists, it seems, as opposed to the Russian/pan-Slavic good nationalists.
By contrast, and showing the appalling disorientation of the left when it comes to Ukraine, Alex Callinicos’s recent article in Socialist Worker comes across as a beacon of sanity.9 Though his argumentation is not perfect, the comrade usefully reminds us of the need to treat inflated western claims about Russian expansionism “with a pinch of salt” and rightly dismisses the idea that there has been a “straightforward” Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rather, he writes, Moscow’s “tactics are those of a relatively weak imperial power” that is “seeking to preserve what had been the status quo in Ukraine - a country divided between east and west, and outside Nato”. But those who want to “change the status quo” now have the “initiative” and would like to see Nato “reach Russia’s borders” - noting, however, that the US seems to have “little stomach for a real confrontation with Russia”. Comrade Callinicos believes we have a “paradoxical situation”: a conflict between “two imperial powers” that both see themselves as “acting defensively” - but that does not make the Ukraine crisis any “less dangerous”, he thinks: after all, the centenary of World War I should remind us that it is possible to “stumble into catastrophe”.
We need independent working class politics to counteract the poison of nationalism, whether Ukrainian or Russian. There should be no support of any kind for the political platforms of either the ‘Maidan movement’ or the pro-Russian militias in the east, whilst at the same there must be support for the right of peoples to self-determination - up to and including full independence if they so decide, or integration into Russia.
1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28978699 (August 29).
6. For the AWL’s account of the conference, which obviously has to be treated with some caution, see www.workersliberty.org/story/2014/07/23/popular-front-russian-nationalism.
9. ‘Ukraine crisis and the two imperialisms’ Socialist Worker September 2.