Facts on the ground

Eddie Ford argues that supporting Ukrainian self-determination, without taking into account Nato expansionism and the rights of the Russian minority, effectively means backing US imperialist interests

Various recent reports, along with satellite imagery, seem to show that the Russian army is establishing field hospitals on its side of the border with Ukraine - something that will obviously be needed if it engages in armed action. Additionally, Russia recently held a major training exercise involving army medics evacuating and “operating on severely wounded” soldiers.

The mobilisation of the military police from around Russia has another significance. Their primary job, so we are told, would be keeping the civilian population under control - for which they are apparently specially trained. Then there is dealing with the inevitable enemy special forces who will be left behind the lines - with the intention of mounting guerrilla operations (sabotage, assassinations, etc).

Of course, these reports are from western sources, which have an agenda of their own, needless to say. They are fed information, or misinformation, by various agencies and government departments - most crucially the United States. Where do you think all the satellite images and pictures come from? Certainly not the Russians.

There are the ongoing joint military exercises conducted by Russian and Belarusian forces from February 10-20. Furthermore, there has apparently been a ‘nod and wink’ agreement between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping about not doing anything that will spoil the Winter Olympics in Beijing, due to finish on February 20. Inevitably, this has fuelled speculation in some quarters that these military exercises are actually pre-invasion preparations.

Having said that, I do not see any prospect of Russia trying to conquer Ukraine - it just does not make sense militarily, politically or strategically. As we all know, such campaigns can go drastically wrong when faced with facts on the ground. Everybody knows that you take territory but then you have to keep it. Yes, it is perfectly true that the US could invade countries like Iraq or Afghanistan in an amazingly short time: America could within days drive all the way to Baghdad and pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein. But then you have to hold the country, which the US simply could not do. Then there were the British, whose forces were meant to go in with soft hats and perform brilliantly because of their long history of colonial operations, yet they ended up huddled in miserable, besieged, forts. Naturally enough, the same applied to Afghanistan - Nato occupation forces could hold Kabul (and other cities), not the countryside.


The same would apply many times over to Ukraine. Clearly, there is a Ukrainian nationalism of a particularly fanatical kind - precisely because of the history of Russian tsarist imperialism. And also, because of the experience of the early Soviet Union, VI Lenin did not really predict that there would be a Ukrainian national question, but reality showed him otherwise.

Indeed, that was why the Soviet Union was formed in the first place. The original plan of the Bolsheviks was for a centralised republic. The right to national self-determination applied to the tsarist empire. Their model was not a federal republic. Right up to 1917, you can read Lenin attacking the idea of federalism as something alien to Marxism. In general, that is absolutely right. Communists do not favour federal republics in general, even if we in the CPGB call for one right now for England, Scotland and Wales. But it is not the norm for the Marxist programme.

Regarding Ukraine, national antagonisms were certainly compounded by the treatment meted out to the population - particularly when it came to collectivisation. We had the expropriation of the kulaks, but all peasants suffered, especially in Ukraine. Though we may never know the true figure, maybe millions starved to death - usually a slow process that goes hand in hand with disease. That helps to explain why so many Ukrainians, at least initially, welcomed the invading German army - some volunteering to fight alongside the Germans (most were quickly disabused by the barbaric treatment meted out by the Nazis). But all this means that strong national feelings exist.

Excluding Crimea and Sevastopol, Ukraine has a population of over 41 million - therefore it will not be a pushover. You would expect stiff resistance - not only from the Ukrainian army, but the population in general. The Russian high command knows that and Putin will certainly know it too. You can amass a hundred thousand troops on the border. Yes, you could probably get to Kyiv in a ‘lightning strike’, but could you actually hold it? Russia does not have enough troops for that even if their numbers are reinforced.

At the end of the day, sabre rattling aside, Russia is basically protesting against any prospect of Ukraine joining Nato. Obviously, Crimea is a different question. There is no denying that the seizure and then formal annexation of the peninsula in 2014 following a referendum clearly violated the United Nations Charter agreed after the end of World War II (even if the large majority of Crimeans supported the annexation). According to the UN, redrawing boundaries and conquering territory was a crime against the new world order.

As thing stand now, we have a situation where anything that happens could be used as a trigger for war. On the Ukrainian side, there are ultra-chauvinistic forces that do not recognise the rights of the Russian people in the east of Ukraine - or in the country as a whole, for that matter. These people talk about “Russian imperialism” - how the Russians in Ukraine are foreigners, a permanent fifth column and so on. They are armed and very dangerous - the Right Sector, the Azov battalion, National Corps, etc. These forces are quite capable of staging some sort of provocation, perhaps in the hope that the west will come to their aid. Far right and openly fascist groups hope and dream of driving out the Russian military in Crimea (though its vital naval bases have long been agreed and a 1991 referendum approved by 94% the restoration of Crimea’s autonomous status as independent from the Ukrainian republic).

The Ukrainian government is definitely trying to dampen down talk of war for obvious reasons. It wants to keep foreign investment - whether from American, British or Chinese capital, but the fear of war might make them want to move their money to somewhere safer.

Yet at the same time we have the mobilisation of reservists in Ukraine, and the ready receipt of British and American military equipment - especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. The country might be cash-strapped, corrupt and oligarchical, but there is no shortage of troops and arms. If we are to believe the analysts, it is pretty effective weaponry too.

Do not forget how the introduction of the Stinger missiles in Afghanistan was an absolute game-changer. Immediately they put at risk Russian air superiority, along with the much humbler - though very effective - improvised explosive devices planted along roads which could blow up anything apart from a heavy armoured tank.


Communists do not adhere to the UN charter on the inviolability of borders - it is not a principle for us. For example, we are for a federal Britain, but, when it comes to the United Kingdom, we positively favour the redrawing of the borders. Communists want to abolish the border dividing the Six Counties from the Twenty-six Counties and achieve a reunited, independent, Ireland.

Self-determination is one of the weapons in our armoury, which we uphold - generally speaking - where there is a genuine national question. Communists certainly do not view the right to self-determination as an absolute principle. Looking back at Lenin’s 1914 pamphlet, The right of nations to self-determination, is a useful exercise. He used the example of Norway’s separation from Sweden in 1905, without a shot being fired. Of course, we were dealing with a unity of crowns, not states. Behind the scenes, the British empire was trying to pull Norway into its own sphere of influence - as opposed to Sweden, which was under German influence.

Anyway, Lenin essentially argued that if the separation of Norway was certain to trigger a generalised European war then it would have been advisable to oppose separation. The bigger picture decides. That is why during World War I the internationalist left did not champion the national rights of Belgium. To have done so would play into the hands of Anglo-French imperialism.

Broadly, this is how communists approach the question of Ukraine. We do not want a European war over Crimea or the two so-called people’s republics of Luhansk and Donestk (or put ourselves in the position of giving foreign policy advice to Boris Johnson, or any government that follows him). Therefore it is deeply unfortunate that sections of the left are echoing the line of the foreign office and the US state department - the imperialist line being that we stand for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the right of Ukraine to self-determination. If that right is violated, they say, we would view that as an act of aggression - an act of war.

War is clearly a danger under these circumstances, even if Emmanuel Macron told reporters this week that Vladimir Putin assured him that Russian forces would not ramp up the crisis. Then again, Russia said any suggestion of a guarantee was “not right”. In the Russian press fairly shortly after the annexation of Crimea, there was also talk of annexing Donetsk and Luhansk. However, Putin put a stop to that as being a “provocation”.

Showing their confusion and inability to confront the imperialist agenda, some left groups have affiliated to the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign - eg, the Labour Representation Committee, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, and Socialist Resistance. The USC says it seeks to organise solidarity with the labour movement and the left in Ukraine - which sounds very worthy. But that goes hand in hand with a demand “to support the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future free from external intervention from Russian or western imperialism”.

Russia is only imperialist in the sense that ancient Rome and China were. Most Russian money flowing to the west is not capital, self-expanding value. It goes into property, into buying football clubs, etc. No less to the point it has been the west, ie, the US and its UK lapdog, which have driven through the expansion of Nato right up to the borders of Russia, oversaw regime change in Kiev and promoted Ukrainian and Georgian membership of Nato too. That is why Putin acted over Crimea and in the Russian-speaking east.

To simply call for Ukrainian self-determination under these circumstances is to line up with the western imperialism that the USC purports to oppose.