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Getting Ukraine’s History Right Is Crucial for Anti-Imperialist Politics

Ten years after Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, what should the left make of it?

The Ukrainian flag flies at the Heavenly Hundred Heroes Memorial in Lviv, Ukraine, on February 20, 2014.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and in turn prompted the Russian seizure of Crimea and the Russian-backed secessionist movement in the Donbas. It also marks the second anniversary of the Russian invasion eight years later.

Western anti-imperialists have correctly recognized a number of provocative actions and other missteps by the United States and NATO which are a necessary part of the context for the ongoing tragedy. However, it is essential for us to get our criticisms right if we are going to build a progressive, internationalist alternative. To begin, it is not accurate to characterize the popular uprising as a “U.S. coup.” During the Cold War, the United States actively supported and even initiated coups in Latin America and elsewhere, which involved supporting top-ranking military officers using troops under their command to seize control of governmental institutions by force. The Maidan uprising, by contrast, included upwards of 800,000 protesters in Kyiv and hundreds of thousands elsewhere in the country. Based on my interviews with participants in the uprising and my study of the members of the resistance coalition, which did include some right-wing nationalists but was overwhelmingly dominated by a range of democratic parties, it is clear to me that the vast majority of the Maidan uprising were liberal democrats who engaged in legitimate acts of nonviolent resistance against severe government repression. Many of them spent months in freezing temperatures in a struggle for a better Ukraine dominated by neither Russia nor the West. To label participants in the Maidan uprising as puppets of Washington is as unfair as labeling peasant revolutionaries in El Salvador during the 1980s as puppets of Moscow.

There were some neo-fascists in the protests who engaged in weeks of street fighting. In addition, some armed far right groups seized government buildings in the final hours of the uprising, but this was after Yanukovych fled Kyiv and those buildings were emptied after government workers joined the general strike against his regime. The inclusion of some of their members in the 2014 provisional government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk was disturbing, but they were gone within months and have not been in any governments since. Indeed, far right parties have not received any more than 3 percent of the vote in subsequent elections.

Claims that the United States spent over $5 billion to finance regime change in Ukraine, often attributed to the then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, need to be assessed in terms of their context. That figure represents the total amount of money provided to Ukraine up to that time since its independence in 1991 and included aid to pro-Western Ukrainian administrations (which the United States presumably would not have wanted to destabilize). Like most U.S. foreign aid, it was calibrated to bring the recipient country closer to the United States (just as Russian aid to Ukraine was used to promote its influence) and, also like most foreign aid, some of it was for legitimate support for liberal democracy and development and some of it less so. There was also some funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and other organizations to some opposition groups that were involved in the 2014 uprising, but this was in the millions of dollars, nothing remotely close to $5 billion. This aid went primarily to centrist democratic groups, not the far right, so claims that the United States directly and intentionally supported fascists in Ukraine appear ungrounded. And the “democracy funding” went to civic education, election monitoring and related activities, not a massive grassroots civil resistance campaign, which the State Department is not capable of forging.

The limited amount of U.S. funding of opposition groups did not “cause” the Maidan uprising any more than the Soviets providing arms to leftist movements caused revolutions in Central America, Southern Africa or Southeast Asia. The world is not shaped solely by the machinations of empires and without the agency of ordinary people. The United States can’t just send in the CIA and instantaneously cause a change of government. It’s one thing to get some generals to stage a coup, which arguably is what happened in Guatemala, Iran, Chile and Brazil. Getting millions of people out onto the streets is something different entirely.

There are certainly other legitimate criticisms about the Maidan uprising, including the opposition’s refusal to abide by the compromise agreement of February 21, 2014, which called for early elections and limited presidential powers, and to instead seize power directly, which fed Kremlin accusations that it was some kind of coup. Whether for good or for ill, however, and despite whatever attempts Western powers may have made to influence the outcome, the change of government was ultimately the outcome of choices made independently by the Ukrainian opposition.

This is not to say there aren’t legitimate criticisms of U.S. and NATO policy toward Ukraine and Russia.

To label participants in the Maidan uprising as puppets of Washington is as unfair as labeling peasant revolutionaries in El Salvador during the 1980s as puppets of Moscow.

The triumphalism following the Cold War, which included the facilitation of neoliberalism in post-Soviet Russia and the eastward expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries and three former Soviet Baltic Republics certainly contributed to the rise of Putin’s reactionary ultranationalism, militarism and imperial designs toward Ukraine and elsewhere. This was compounded by the Western refusal to consider a neutral status for Ukraine. Expanding a military alliance when Russia — which had been invaded from the West on no less than four occasions during the previous 200 years — was at its weakest no doubt fed Russian fears that NATO was not about defending Europe but extending U.S. hegemony.

At the same time, given Putin’s insistence that Ukraine has no right to exist as its own nation and that it is inherently part of Russia, it is unfair to claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is therefore solely NATO’s fault. While it is important to acknowledge how Western hubris has contributed to the tragedy, the responsibility for the invasion rests on the Russian government. Indeed, the argument that the invasion is justified by the U.S.’s military alliances with Russia’s near neighbors is as dubious as the charges that Moscow’s efforts during the Cold War to establish security ties with Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua, or other near neighbors justifies U.S. sanctions and military intervention.

We must also reject the argument that the Russian invasion was trying to protect the Russian-speaking minority in Eastern Ukraine from genocide. While there were many hundreds of civilian casualties on both sides from the low-level civil war in 2014 and 2022, there was no deliberate campaign to annihilate Russian speakers. The International Court of Justice, which — in a near-unanimous ruling — noted that the preliminary evidence strongly suggests that Israel is violating the Genocide Treaty, also recognized that Russia’s charges of genocide against Ukraine were without merit. And the 2022 “referendum” on the region joining Russia, like the referendum in Crimea soon after the Russian seizure of that territory in 2014, was not free and fair. There were no international observers, opponents were not allowed to campaign, and the occupying forces claimed outrageously inflated results in terms of the turnout and voting.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Russian-speaking Jew, was elected president of Ukraine in a free and fair election in 2019 with 74 percent of the vote and promised to clean up the corruption riddling both the pro-Russian bloc and the main pro-Western bloc. Facing entrenched opposition, he had made little progress at the time of Russia’s 2022 invasion, but it seemed that in many ways Ukraine was stumbling toward a more functional government and economy that could eventually transform it into a modern European Union state. Just as the United States could not tolerate what Noam Chomsky has called “the threat of a good example” in the form of successful socialist models in the Western hemisphere, Putin may similarly have been troubled by the prospects of a successful liberal democratic alternative among a people with such close geographical, cultural and historical ties.

There are very good reasons, though, to question Biden’s motivations in supporting Ukraine. Biden supported the invasion of Iraq, which — like the Russian invasion — was an illegal war of aggression. His administration recognizes Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and Morocco’s illegal annexation of the entire nation of Western Sahara, both of which — like Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Donbas region — constitute an illegal expansion of territories seized by military force. He supports Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza in the face of the broad international consensus for an immediate ceasefire despite widespread attacks on civilian population centers, which — like Russia’s bombing of civilian areas of Ukrainian cities — constitute serious violations of international humanitarian law. His administration provides arms to 57 percent of the world’s dictatorial regimes which — like Russia — engage in widespread repression and deny basic freedoms to their peoples, raising serious questions about his claim that U.S. support for Ukraine is rooted in U.S. support for democracy against authoritarianism.

It would be strategically misguided for anti-imperialists to insist that the United States has to be consistent in its principles before taking action against aggressors or that a government can’t do the right thing for the wrong reasons. However, it would be naïve to deny that Biden’s stance toward Russia and Ukraine is more about geopolitics than principles. The task of anti-imperialists today is to be clear about how to navigate these tensions.

Reasonable people can disagree about Western policy toward the conflict at this point. Some progressives argue that this is a rare case where arms transfers actually serve a legitimate purpose in defending a democratic country against an authoritarian invader threatening to destroy it. Other progressives, while recognizing the illegitimacy of Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s right to defend itself, question whether additional arms will simply prolong a war of attrition and that the human, financial, environmental costs — combined with the risks of a wider war (including even the possibility, however remote, of a nuclear exchange) — is worth Ukraine recovering the 17 percent of its territory under Russian occupation.

Indeed, the U.S. insistence that Syria give up the Golan region to Israel, the Western Saharans give up their entire nation to Morocco and the Palestinians give up large swathes of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to illegal Israeli settlements illustrates that the United States has no real interest in upholding the inviolability of internationally recognized borders as a matter of principle.

There is a strong case for demanding more attention on nonviolent alternatives to weaken Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine. For example, if the United States and the Europeans were willing to offer temporary asylum to Russian Army deserters, draft resisters and their families, it would undermine Moscow’s military offensive quicker and with far fewer human and financial costs than by providing additional weapons to Ukraine.

Still, in questioning U.S. policy, we must be continually wary of any lines of argumentation that justify Russia’s actions or misrepresent Ukrainian history and politics.

Indeed, those of us in the international left need to recognize that the leading adversaries of Western imperialism today are not what they were during the Cold War. While the national liberation struggles we supported back then may have been more militaristic and authoritarian than our ideal, there was no question that, compared to the right-wing dictatorships and the colonial/neocolonial forces backed by Washington at the time, they were the progressive alternatives. Today, many of the dominant challenges to the West are reactionary — Salafi Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Iranian regime and its allies, and Putin’s Russia. And it’s critical to recognize that Moscow also has imperialist ambitions and engages in imperialist wars.

This does not mean we pull back on our opposition to U.S. imperialism or that we don’t point out ways that U.S. policy has helped give rise to such reactionary forces or international conflict. However, neither should we defend these forces or repeat their lies to justify their aggression. To do so not only harms our credibility in terms of winning allies in ongoing anti-imperialist struggles elsewhere but also undermines the moral necessity of rejecting all forms of national chauvinism and imperialism, regardless of their source.

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