Many on the left see events in Ukraine only as a clash between Russia on one side, the US and EU on the other. The trouble with this perception is that it fades out Ukraine’s right to national self-determination.
From the perception, some deduce support for Russia because they identify “imperialism” solely with the US and the EU. Others see Russia also as imperialist, and deduce “a plague on all houses”.
The Morning Star (linked to the Communist Party of Britain) often confines itself to bland factual reporting and wishes for peace, but has boosted an article by Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour MP with a good record on British class-struggle issues who is now close to the CPB on world affairs.
“It is the US drive to expand eastwards which lies at the root of the crisis in the former Soviet republic, and it’s time we talked to Russia... On Ukraine, I would not condone Russian behaviour or expansion. But it is not unprovoked...” (Morning Star, 17 April). Corbyn’s article is also boosted by the Stop The War campaign (run by ex-SWP splinter Counterfire).
Socialist Worker confines itself to lamenting the big-power conflict, even-handedly. “The imperial brinkmanship in Ukraine escalated this week... The potential for the situation spiralling out of control remains” (Socialist Worker, 15 April).
In its reporting on events the US Socialist Worker (estranged cousin of the British SW) registers, as we shall see, more light and shade. Its bottom-line conclusion is the same as the British SW’s:
“As the confrontations play out in eastern Ukraine, there are signs of hostility toward both imperialisms — the US and its EU allies to the west, Russia to the east — and of a desire for an alternative that defends the interests of the working class. But it is exactly this alternative that the imperial powers battling over Ukraine both wish to squelch... As long as Ukraine remains a battleground for imperialist rivals — and proxy forces representing one power or the other — working people in Ukraine will bear the brunt of the poverty, violence and suffering”. (Alan Maass, socialistworker.org, 21 April).
The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, offers similar generalities. “Only the organised, united working class, with independent and internationalist policies, can decisively counter reactionary nationalism and end big capitalist powers’ meddling” (The Socialist, 19 March).
In some circumstances, to fade out the specifically Ukrainian issues would be a wise refusal to let secondary issues obscure the gist. During World War One, some socialists argued for backing Britain, France, and Russia on the basis of the “Belgian” and “Serbian” issues, i.e. the rights of the people of Belgium and of Serbia to resist German and Austrian conquest.
Lenin retorted: “Let us suppose that all the states interested in the observation of international treaties declared war on Germany with the demand for the liberation and indemnification of Belgium. In such a case, the sympathies of Socialists would, of course, be on the side of Germany’s enemies. But the whole point is that the... Entente is waging war not over Belgium... England is grabbing Germany’s colonies and Turkey; Russia is grabbing Galicia and Turkey, France wants Alsace-Lorraine and even the left bank of the Rhine... In the present war waged by the present governments it is impossible to help Belgium without helping to strangle Austria or Turkey, etc.!”
Today, the specific Ukrainian issues are not, or not yet, overwhelmed by a world war over which big power dominates where, a war to which socialists can respond with Lenin’s call to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” or Trotsky’s call in 1940 for a “proletarian military policy”. Responding as if the Ukraine crisis is world war now produces no more than bland hand-wringing — not so much “third camp” as “no camp”.
There isn’t even a military symmetry over Ukraine. The US Socialist Worker, despite its hand-wringing “symmetrical” conclusion, notes that: “As for the US and its allies in Europe, their reaction to the eastern Ukraine uprisings has been a lot of hypocritical rhetoric about respect for sovereignty and the rule of law — but little action to back it up”. It also factors in the historical background: “All parts of Ukraine suffered from Russia’s imperial rule — first, for centuries under the Tsar; then, after a brief recognition of national self-determination following the 1917 Russian Revolution, under the tyranny of the Stalinist counter-revolution; and now, under Moscow’s new empire re-established after the breakup of the ex-USSR...”
The US and the EU are predatory capitalist outfits. But their interest in Ukraine is to integrate it into the capitalist world market dominated by themselves through economic clout, not to subdue it militarily. Neither the US nor the EU is about to send troops to occupy and annex a chunk of Ukraine.
The crisis in Ukraine broke out not because of conflicts between the big powers for which Ukrainian movements were essentially just proxies, but because of the mass movement in Ukraine which toppled the pro-Russian president Yanukovych on 22 February.
Russia has responded by invading and annexing Crimea, by massing troops on Ukraine’s eastern borders, by instigating or encouraging local seizures of power by elements of the ethnic-Russian minority in some districts of east Ukraine. It refuses to recognise the ouster of Yanukovych, and wants to stall the May elections scheduled in Ukraine.
Against those Russian moves, socialists should support national self-determination for Ukraine. If it should come to clashes between Russian troops invading Ukraine, and the Ukrainian army, we are on the side of the Ukrainians, though we give no endorsement or confidence to the neo-liberal, oligarch-dominated government which has replaced Yanukovych in Kiev.
As well as the perception of the events as essentially a EU/US-vs-Russia clash, with Ukraine functioning only as a token, another consideration pushes socialists towards a stance of just wishing that the conflict would go away. That is the right-wing tone of Ukrainian nationalism.
There is some cross-cutting here: the far-right forces in the anti-Yanukovych movement, Svoboda and the Right Sector, are not pro-EU, so if you want to dismiss the movement as a proxy of the EU, then you must fade out the far-right element in it, and if you want to dismiss the movement as far-right, then you must fade out the “EU vs Russia” dimension.
There were strands of anti-Russian Ukrainian chauvinism in the movement, and the rights of Ukraine’s Russian minority should be defended. But those elements should not be exaggerated, as they are by many Stalinist nostalgics (both people, sometimes workers, in east Ukraine, and commentators in the West). Kiev is a majority Russian-speaking city.
The anti-Yanukovych movement was dominated by conservative and neo-liberal forces, and the new Kiev government is oligarch-led. Support from socialists world-wide for the frail forces of the Ukrainian left is urgent.
That should not mean fading out Ukraine’s national rights. But it does for some.
Thus the French Trotskyist weekly Lutte Ouvrière avoids dismissing the conflict as just a proxy battle, but comments: “The popular masses of Ukraine are caught between opposed nationalisms, and called on to choose one or other camp, though neither is theirs”. (Lutte Ouvrière, 18 April).
Just as the right to free speech is not conditional on saying left-wing things, and the right to vote is not conditional on voting left, the right of nations to self-determination is not conditional on the nation having left-wing leadership.
In the decades after 1945 when dozens of nations won independence from European colonialism, the national movements often had a leftish tinge. But the leftism was rarely solid enough to stop the independent governments becoming crony-capitalist outfits, and sometimes it was the fake-leftism of Stalinism, which would make the independent regimes prison-houses for the workers. Those nations deserved support because of the democratic principle of self-determination, not because their leaderships were left-wing enough.
National self-determination for Ukraine is a right, even when the Ukraine is under right-wing governance.
In a world where big powers jostle for advantage, national struggles by peoples oppressed by one big power will almost always attract support from the rival big power, which will gain advantage from the people gaining independence or moving to some degree into its sphere. The independence struggles after 1945 of Europe’s colonies usually got support and encouragement from the USSR; they still deserved support.
The picture of the crisis in Ukraine as being generated by a “US [or EU] drive to expand eastwards” is as disorienting as the old right-wing European imperialist line which condemned every independence struggle as the work of “the communists”.
In 1989 the nations of Eastern Europe escaped four decades of stifling Russian domination. Most have sought to cement their independence and seek the least-bad terms for integration into the capitalist world market by joining the EU. The EU is, to be sure, bureaucratic, capitalist, and neo-liberal, as is the world market. In relation to Ukraine, socialists should demand that the US and EU cancel Ukraine’s foreign debts, instead of helping the IMF to impose neo-liberal measures as the price for bail-out loans.
But the EU is a capitalist consortium, not a colonial empire like those of the first half of the 20th century. Brussels does not rule Poland or Bulgaria in anything like the same way as London used to rule India and Nigeria. The EU has not stopped the Czech Republic, for example, maybe the East European country most integrated with the “west”, being a notorious “awkward squad” member within the EU.
There is no prospect of Ukraine joining the EU soon, because the EU will not admit it soon. A desire by Ukrainians for closer ties with the EU is not a desire to become part of an empire ruled from a foreign city. To see the (hesitant) EU and US support for the anti-Yanukovych movement and the new Kiev government as the symmetrical counterpart to Russia’s military imperialism in Ukraine is to skew things badly, and to fade out essentials.
Some groups have not faded out Ukrainian self-determination in favour of just-a-big-power-quarrel or all-nationalisms-are-bad schemes. The “Mandelite” Fourth International issued a statement on 25 February in which it was difficult to discern any conclusions at all.
Its writer Catherine Samary, in the French weekly L’Anticapitaliste, demands the withdrawal of Russian troops (but seems to feel that this immediate demand is unbalanced unless coupled with the more far-off demand for “dismantlement of NATO”) (L’Anticapitaliste, 10 April). As a general answer, she proposes a constituent assembly (an elected parliament with constitution-making powers) for all Ukraine including Crimea (27 March). “Against all diktats, military and economic, the defence of social and national rights is the only hope for Ukraine, and only the people themselves can impose that” (17 April).
RS21, the most recent splinter group from the SWP, has generally suggested the same “plague on all houses” line as the SWP. But its website has carried an informative article on the miners of the Donbass: “When protestors in Kiev were attacked by the security forces in December 2013, miners in the Donbass put out a statement that they were prepared to go on all-out strike to bring down Yanukovych: ‘People of Ukraine, in 1989, you supported our mass strike for our rights. Today’s miners stand with you’. Now the miners are torn. Russia cut its investment in coal by 40% last year, so incorporation into Russia has little to offer; meanwhile, the EU-Ukraine deal will also mean dramatic ‘downsizing’ of the coal industry, in favour of onshore gas exploration by multinationals...” (Nick Evans, 16 April)
The International Socialist Network (ISN), which splintered from the SWP in 2013, has carried an informative article on the pro-Russian “people’s governor” who briefly took over Donetsk in early March. On 19 April its website published an article by Tim Nelson which rightly (in our view) stressed “the direct military threat Russia poses to Ukrainian self-determination”.
“The Stop the War Coalition argument that ‘the real enemy is at home’ slogan was appropriate ceased to be a principled anti-imperialist position, and became nothing more than apologism for Putin’s Russia and the regimes he supports. This is not internationalism, as the real enemy for the people of Syria was not the US, but Al-Assad and the Russian state backing him. The same is true for the Ukrainian people now”.
As Nelson comments, “the anti-imperialist consensus” — i.e. the consensus in a large-ish circle around the SWP and the CPB that being left-wing in world affairs meant backing whoever fought against the USA — “has largely broken down”. Ukraine shows the need for more substantive, less negative, criteria in politics.