Plucky little Kiev
Self-determination is not an absolute principle. We in the western left must train our main fire on our own warmongers, argues Paul Demarty
In the week since I last wrote on the mounting tensions in eastern Ukraine, the situation has got, if anything, more tangled than ever.
The bellicose rhetoric of the American and British governments has gotten all the more intense. It is difficult to tell if this is an acknowledgement that the bark of US policy in this theatre is worse than its bite, and therefore to make the most of the bark; or a real drive to provoke a major conventional war over the Donetsk and Luhansk so-called ‘people’s republics’ in the Donbas. What seems clear is that the US lacks the will or perhaps the political capital to conduct a major intervention of its own, so it prefers to organise a new drive to sanctions, with congress due to ram through relevant legislation soon, meanwhile sending vast troves of arms to the Ukrainians, where no doubt they will end up in the hands of the notorious fascist irregular brigades who have done the fighting in the Donbas.
This has further frayed resolve among European allies - after all, the main victim of sanctions on Russian oil and gas would be the Russians’ principal customers, who are the central and northern European countries and above all Germany. What is really notable are attempts from the Ukrainian state itself to calm things down. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, criticised the “alarmism” of his backers and the damage such “panic” did to his country’s already ailing economy (the hryvnia has depreciated significantly as all this has dragged on). The defence ministry is getting more dovish by the day; deputy minister Hanna Maliar dismissed in sharp terms US media reports (most likely leaked by CIA types) of Russian medical supplies being moved to the border: “Such ‘news’ is an element of information and psychological warfare … to spread panic and fear in our society.”
The exasperated reactions to this kind of thing in outlets like CNN and the Washington Post - nowadays essentially inert mouthpieces of the US security state - suggest that a key part of the US ‘negotiating strategy’ is the threat of Ukrainian escalation in the east, and the potential for an even worse quagmire to develop there. As a result, Zelensky’s unwillingness to yap at Putin like Scrappy-Doo is rather ruining the show.
It is difficult, on the whole, not to feel sorry for Zelensky, elected with an overwhelming majority on what was essentially a peace ticket in 2019, but since then knocked from pillar to post by rival factions in Ukrainian politics, and manipulated with ever greater shamelessness by the western powers. Meanwhile, Putin is happy to use ruthless methods to prevent Ukraine from tacking further west on the geopolitical stage. It’s a tough bind for a man who, not long ago, merely played an affable over-promoted president on television.
Likewise, sympathy for Ukrainian self-determination comes naturally to some on the left - more naturally to some than others. We expected little else from the Alliance for Workers Liberty, of course, since its voice is merely the smallest and most pathetic in the pro-US choir. A Russian invasion of Ukraine “looks increasingly likely”, worries an editorial in the AWL’s Solidarity1. This is down to Vladimir Putin’s “expansionist and imperialist foreign policy, aimed at bringing neighbouring ex-USSR independent states back into Russia’s sphere of influence.”
Ukraine falls into Putin’s crosshairs because it “was home to Russia’s only warm-water port (Sevastopol, leased to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union)”; because of its strategic position for getting gas pipelines through to Europe; and because that rascal Putin believed Ukraine “had no reason to exist as an independent state”. The Morning Star and Stop the War Coalition are predictably castigated for making this all about Nato expansionism or western imperialism.
Ukraine first raised the issue of Nato membership in 2008. Fourteen years later it is still not a member (although it has the status of “Enhanced Opportunities Partner”). Far from “inventing” the risk of a Russian invasion to pull in Ukraine, Nato has deliberately kept Ukraine at arm’s length.
All told, this is a quite fantastical narrative, and the rebuttal just quoted is almost laughable. First of all, what happened in 2008 was that George W Bush invited Ukraine and Georgia to apply for Nato membership; the enthusiasm was on the American side, not the Ukrainian. The reason it hasn’t happened is not that the west does not want such expansion, but because Mikheil Saakashvili’s insane war on South Ossetia and Abkhazia that year gave Putin the perfect opportunity to, let us say, demonstrate his feelings on the topic, and the Maidan coup of 2014 gave him another. The idea that this is about Russia expanding its sphere of influence is, likewise, bizarre, when the story of the post-Soviet era has been the attempt by the US to get Russia safely encircled by Nato members, prising states out of Russia’s influence, and the increasingly desperate and ruthless measures taken by the Russians to obstruct this process.
It matters not to the dead of the Donbas dirty war whether Russia’s interests are strategically defensive or offensive. But it matters very much if we want to get ourselves on top of the relentless jingo propaganda of our own government and its senior partner in Washington. The AWL, which our old friend Moshé Machover once nicknamed the Abominable Warmongering Left, only understands enough to add its voice to such jingoism.
We find, of course, at the end of this parade of Atlantic Council talking points, the assurance that the AWL does, in fact, oppose Nato and its expansion - the expansion, you remember, that definitely isn’t happening and is a lie made up by Vladimir Putin. There is little to say about this caveat except to remark that it is still there, two or three decades since this organisation started tirelessly repeating state-department propaganda: all the way along, every article on such subjects has carried a short paragraph to the effect that the reader should not confuse such fanatical loyalty with support for the US and its proxies! How much longer can this treacherous crew keep up the pretence? How many more trees must be cut down to print these nonsensical and utterly inoperative get-out clauses?
Fear of monsters
Alas, the time when such shame-faced Atlanticism went no further on the ostensible far left than the AWL is long passed, and the poison has spread at least as far as Anti-Capitalist Resistance, the latest iteration of British Mandelism, this time in cahoots with the Mutiny group founded by Neil Faulkner (formerly of Counterfire and then the Socialist Workers Party). They happily republish a statement from the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, under which name ACR, the AWL and some left-libertarian forces essentially republish articles and statements of anti-Russian left-nationalist outfits of dubious social weight. It has existed in one form or another since the 2014 coup.
The statement insists that “the international trade union movement and socialists globally must vigorously denounce and oppose Russia’s threats against Ukraine.” It does at least prominently address the question of Nato:
Increased Nato deployments in other parts of eastern Europe are motivated by western rivalry with Russia, to protect business interests and influence, not the needs of Ukrainians. We stand for neither Washington nor Moscow, as both are untrustworthy.2
On the whole, though, it is more a matter of ‘not Washington, but definitely not Moscow’. From the evocation of centuries of tsarist and Stalinist oppression, to the insistence that one should not “overestimate” the danger of fascist elements, whose existence in any case is down to the “exacerbation” of the national question by Russian imperialism, the statement is down the line of a strictly Ukrainian nationalist character.
ACR’s enthusiasm for this kind of stuff, as we said, is a little newer than that of the AWL. Mandelism globally was knocked badly off course when several of the mass revolts in the Arab world in 2011 went pear-shaped, and in two cases (Libya and Syria) devolved into civil wars with varying levels of US intervention. A few among their ranks were to be found backing the ‘no-fly zones’ in Libya that essentially became cover for blanket aerial support for the Islamist militias fighting Muammar al-Gaddafi. By the time the Syrian civil war reached its grisly nadir, various sections of the Mandelite Fourth International had reconciled themselves to US interventions on the side of (Islamist) ‘revolutionaries’ against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, at one stage, and US intervention against Islamic State in defence of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at another.
At the same time, however, the western left became bewitched by liberal identity politics, and none more so than the Mandelites, who had long before started to describe themselves as “Marxist-feminist-ecosocialist” and readily absorbed contemporaneous views of anti-racism and sexual liberation politics alongside those primary categories. By the middle-2010s, ‘intersectionality’ was all the rage among such circles; but its radical subjectivism made it trivially manipulable by the powers-that-be. It was enough for some individual from an oppressed group to claim something for it to be taken as gospel truth. In the Obama years, it was trivial to present measures against IS as binding on those concerned for womens’ rights in Syria and Iraq, for example; and in the Trump years, the sharp turn to social reaction of Putin’s second period as president was presented in increasingly hysterical form as the driving force of reaction in the whole world, especially Trump’s America.
Among those most concerned about this turn, in the British left context, were Socialist Resistance - the previous Mandelite outfit - and Mutiny, who have essentially adopted a perspective that the whole world is creeping towards fascism, and fused into ACR on that basis. It is in this context that their worry over ‘Russian imperialism’, and their insouciance about US imperialism now that the bad orange man is out of office, is intelligible. “We take the culture war seriously as a site of conflict between socialists and reactionaries,” says ACR’s ‘About us’ page3 - that is, we side with the liberals. It is a very short hop from there to liberal imperialism, and then to wilful blindness about the kind of nationalism at work in places like Ukraine. ACR sees fascism everywhere, it seems, except in the paramilitary squads bushwhacking in the countryside of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Rights and principles
There remains the one matter of substance: that is, of Ukraine’s right to self-determination, the formal occasion of all these errors, as raped Belgian nuns were in 1914, and so on. Indeed, even Stop the War - despite its general inclination towards the Russian side in this case - demands respect for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”.
It is the question of territory that of course raises difficulties here. It is straightforwardly the case that there exists a Ukrainian nationality, with a common language, historic culture and so on. To argue that this nationality legitimately governs the whole particular territory called ‘Ukraine’ in 2013 is not so plausible. In deep history, there is nothing like a necessary link between the two, though in this Ukrainian nationalism is merely typical of all nationalism. Its position on the Eurasian steppe ensured a long history of shifting borders; its modern form is merely the outworking of contingent bureaucratic initiatives on the part of tsarist and then Soviet bureaucrats.
Marxists do not support national self-determination as an absolute principle. It is a strategic approach on the road to the defeat of nationalism; and it is useful only conditionally in the interests of the working class as a whole. We have no use for imperialist crocodile tears over ‘plucky little Belgium’ and what have you, and so we ought to have no hesitation in identifying the greater threat to human liberation in the remorseless war drive of the US rather than the limbo in which the Ukrainian nationality presently finds itself.
There is plainly the right to self-determination, at least within the territory overwhelmingly dominated by Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians; but that is not the territory at issue. Crimea has a huge Russian demographic majority, and in any case belongs historically to the Crimean Tatars rather than the Ukrainians, who acquired it in a reshuffle under Khrushchev. It is vanishingly unlikely to return to the sovereignty of Kiev. As for the ‘people’s republics’ in the Donbas, the picture is more complicated; though majority-Ukrainian in ethnic background, Russian is the primary spoken language, and these areas were the bedrock of the tendentially-pro-Russian political parties. Neither the USC statement nor the AWL’s diatribe address what it really means to insist that these areas are intrinsically Ukrainian, never mind the darker question of what it would take to ‘Ukrainise’ them. Their autonomy is almost unavoidable; the question is merely whether it will come in the form of Russian annexation, which is certainly possible, or federalisation of Ukraine. The choice should be for the people in these territories; any peaceful way out of this mess surely ought to involve the self-determination of the Russian-speaking territories of eastern Ukraine.
We said ‘almost unavoidable’, of course, because there is always the possibility that Putin really will back down and abandon the Donbas Russians to the tender mercies of the Azov brigade. In the absence of any serious approach to the question of the rights of non-Ukrainian nationalities within Ukraine, the leftist allies of Ukrainian nationalism betray dangerous insouciance as to the reality of the situation in the east.
The danger, however, springs not from Ukraine, but rather in the corridors of power in Washington and secondarily London, who have done their best to raise tensions out of increasingly nihilistic global power-plays - and so, for us, the main enemy is at home.