The count from Crimea’s 16 March referendum was largely known in advance. Unknown still after the result, and dangerous, are its consequences.
The most hopeful sign for socialists was a 50,000 strong demonstration in Moscow on 15 March saying “Putin, get out of Ukraine”, and opposing war.
Our solidarity should be with the Ukrainian people, for its self-determination against Russia’s drive to dominate; and with Ukraine’s left, against the neo-liberal government in Kiev and the cuts it will push through on the IMF’s say-so. We should demand that US and EU governments cancel Ukraine’s foreign debts, to give the country a chance for recovery.
Crimea is an area historically distinct from the rest of Ukraine. Unlike any other area of Ukraine, it has a majority which identifies as “Russian”. Its people have the right to determine a future distinct from the rest of Ukraine’s if they wish.
But the 16 March referendum was nothing like a democratic exercise of that democratic right. The lead-in to it, over the previous four weeks, was:
• Russian troops going onto the streets, surrounding the Ukrainian armed forces’ military posts, and setting up roadblocks.
• Russian troops installing a new government based on a party which held only three seats in Crimea’s 100-seat autonomous parliament.
• A torrent of publicity presenting the choices as between Crimea being annexed by Russia and subordination to a “fascist coup” in Kiev. Suppression of dissident media and of campaigning against Russian annexation.
• A bar on foreign observers, and a staged endorsement of the referendum by invited politicians from the European far-right, such as Hungary’s Jobbik.
• A boycott of the referendum by the area’s indigenous people, the Crimean Tatars, and by many Ukrainians living in Crimea.
A referendum in 1991 - when only few of the Tatars had yet returned to Crimea after being deported en masse by Stalin in 1944, and allowed to return only from 1989 - showed 56% in Crimea for separating from Russia. The most recent opinion poll in Crimea before the Russian military takeover showed only 41% for Crimea becoming part of Russia.
The Crimean vote is essentially a ploy by Putin, using a Russian population for his own purposes, rather than the product of a popular movement which happens secondarily to be backed by Putin.
Russia may now formally annex Crimea. If Putin does that, he will not be satisfied. Crimea is a poor area which has required subsidies from Ukraine to sustain it. It will require subsidies from Russia too. Putin’s real interest is in the agricultural and industrial wealth of Ukraine.
He may use either annexation of Crimea, or the referendum result and an offer not to annex formally just yet, as a lever to intervene in eastern Ukraine, first in the areas which provide essential supplies to Crimea. He may step up the pro-Russian demonstrations in Ukraine, small so far, but widely reported to be boosted by people bussed in across the border from Russia.
(“Those taking part”, the Financial Times reported on 17 March, “are largely older people, many nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union, bolstered by a strong contingent of burly young men in black jackets and knitted caps”.)
He may seize, or try to seize, eastern areas of Ukraine proper as he has seized Crimea. He may provoke conflict with Ukraine’s armed forces, so as to give himself a cover for invading deeper into Ukraine.
For decades or centuries, Russia dominated large parts of central Europe and central Asia, not just in the sense of being a big economic centre with clout through the market, but politically and administratively.
That was the Russia which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels repeatedly denounced as the main international force of counter-revolution.
Russia was changed by the strike movements of its new industrial working class, climaxing in 1905, which meant that its government could no longer seek empire without worry about resistance at home; and then decisively by the workers’ revolution of 1917.
But the Stalinist counter-revolution, generated by the isolation of the new workers’ government in poverty-plagued territory, restored many of the patterns of the old Tsarist imperialism.
In 1989-91 the neo-Stalinist empire collapsed in face of a revolt of the peoples, in the subject nations and in Russia itself. Nations such as the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs and the Slovaks decisively escaped Moscow’s domination, and not even Putin aspires to recapture them.
But, as Russian industry and finance have rebuilt in their new crony-capitalist mode, Putin has sought to regain at least part of Russia’s old backyard. Unlike the US and EU, he does not have the economic clout which would make domination through market forces sure, cheap, and robust: he wants politico-military domination.
So far the limits of Putin’s ambitions, and the extensive links in the new era between Russian oligarchs and Western markets, have enabled adjustment and accommodation.
Ukraine raises the stakes. The economic sanctions being gradually stepped up by the US and EU, and the possible further military incursions by Putin, are pushing towards a second cold war (or, if the early 1980s are counted as the second, a third), and with hot spots.
Putin’s objective is a deal which gives him a dominant influence in the whole of Ukraine. He may be able to get that, or he may be driven back by the resistance of the Ukrainian people and the majority in Russia who do not want war (73% according to a recent poll). But the outcomes may well be less “smooth” than either of those. We are moving towards an era of tension more like the time of the Berlin airlift of 1948-9 than that of the concerted global capitalist unity-with-haggling of the last two decades.
Socialists should endorse neither those in the US and EU capitalist classes who - because profitable relations with Russia are most important to them - want a deal whatever the consequences for Ukraine; nor those who may come to push for war. Our demand on the US and EU ruling classes is that they cancel Ukraine’s crippling foreign debt, and give the Ukrainian people a chance to recover.
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.