The following is an edited version of a talk by Roger Annis on August 22 that was delivered to a session of the Peoples Social Forum that took place in Ottawa from August 21 to 25. Approximately 75 people attended the session. The co-presenter to Roger Annis was David Mandel, a professor of political science in Montreal and expert in the history of the working class movements in Russia and Ukraine. You can read his talk published here in The Bullet. It is titled “Understanding the civil war in Ukraine.”
I want to thank the Peoples Social Forum and NoWar/Paix in Ottawa for hosting this event and organizing it. It’s so important that we discuss the war situation in eastern Ukraine and find ways to join with the people of Ukraine and Russia to put an end to Kiev’s and NATO’s military offensive.
In my talk today, I want to discuss what I view as four great misunderstandings about the war in Ukraine. We must clarify and overcome these if we are to build a strong movement of solidarity with the people being devastated.
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Allow me to preface my remarks by reminding us of the scale of the humanitarian crisis that has been created by the war in eastern Ukraine. Towns and cities are being routinely bombed and shelled by heavy artillery. Basic support systems of life – water, electricity, food supplies and medical care – are shattered or disrupted. Transport of vital supplies is reduced or cut.
Many thousands have been killed. Nearly one million people have been displaced as refugees -most of them are in Russia, where they receive assistance, but some 120,000 are in Ukraine where they are largely dependent on charity for comfort or survival. In addition to the artillery batteries, the shock troops on the ground of this war are the militias and re-founded National Guard composed of volunteer cadre of the parties of the right and extreme right.
All of this is supported by the countries of the NATO military alliance. Canada alone has contributed $5 million in military equipment. Like other NATO countries, it has positioned fighter aircraft and a warship in the region to threaten Russia. NATO’s aggressive military moves are expanding.
Mainstream western media is playing a complicit role in this war through its refusal to publish basic facts of the war, including the involvement of extreme right militias in Kiev’s army and the sharp, right wing turn of the new Ukraine government earlier this year that is at the root of the war drive. Media parrot Kiev’s propaganda services which make a parody of events by propagating fictitious claims of Russian “invasions” or interventions in Ukraine territory. Meanwhile, the heavy bombing and shelling of towns and cities is portrayed as something rather normal and to be expected. There is not a whisper of moral outrage over the carnage and war crimes being committed by Kiev and NATO.
1. Origin of the War
The origins of this war are twofold. Firstly, Ukraine has been deeply divided since independence in 1991 over its economic and political destiny. Can Ukraine co-exist with its two neighboring economic powers – the European Union to the west and the Russia-led Customs Union to the east? In what form? Must it choose one over the other? This division was resolved by force and violence in February with the coming to power of the neo-conservative government that includes participation by extreme right and fascist parties. The government is committed to a sharp turn to harsh, Greece-style austerity and unbridled hostility to all things Russian.
The east of Ukraine reacted strongly to the new government’s accession to power, saying it does not represent the region’s political will or aspirations and that a new, decentralized governmental and constitutional makeup is necessary for Ukraine to resolve its historic divisions. Demands for autonomy (“federalization”) were rejected by Kiev and the extreme right. Instead, the two began a campaign of military violence to force the people in the east to surrender and submit. The east said no and organized self-defense. The violence of the austerity government and extreme right militias has escalated ever since.
Secondly, NATO has been pushing and egging on the rightist government. That’s because Kiev and the rightists are helpful allies in NATO’s historic goal to weaken and even dismember the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation. NATO has expanded its member countries in Eastern Europe to the point where it is now knocking on the border of Russia itself as it lures Ukraine into the fateful fold. This is a reckless course and a direct violation of the understandings made at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union to the effect that NATO would not take advantage of the disarray to strengthen its military posture in the region.
2. Resistance to the Austerity and Pro-NATO Turn
For many historical and socio-economic reasons, the populations of eastern and southern Ukraine as well as Crimea strongly opposed the neo-conservative turn of Kiev. They took up self-defense in the face of the violence unleashed upon them by the rightist militias and then the armed forces of Ukraine. The violations of political rights and popular will these past months have deepened the popular, anti-austerity struggle and they have created a new dimension of the struggle for political self-determination. A solidarity movement must take account of this evolving reality and support the right of these people to decide their political future.
Because of their unique history and geographic location, the people of Crimea were able to exercise a quick and distinct solution to the threat of civil war coming from the new regime in Kiev. A plebiscite for self-determination was held in March and a large part of the population opted to secede. While the vote may have fallen short of the democratic ideals that a peacetime situation could have provided, few serious observers doubt that a large majority of Crimeans voted to get out of the way of Kiev’s chosen path to civil war by seceding. It’s important to note here that Crimea’s historic ties and ethnic composition are much closer to Russia than to Ukraine. Crimea only came under the administration of Ukraine through an arbitrary decision of the Soviet Union in 1954.
Russia, of course, had compelling, national security interests that coincided with the will of the Crimea plebiscite. Its only warm-water naval base is located in Simferopol, Crimea. It welcomed the plebiscite and it took decisive moves alongside local officials to block rightist paramilitaries from Ukraine from infiltrating into Crimea in order to sow violence and mayhem.
I emphatically reject a description of the events in Crimea as being an “annexation.” I believe that Crimeans seized the only realistic political option available to them to avert being drawn into Kiev’s course to austerity and civil war. Their chosen political option meets any reasonable definition of political self-determination.
3. The Maidan Movement and the Rise of Right Wing Nationalism in Ukraine
In the years since independence, right wing ideology has come to dominate Ukraine nationalism. It would take an entire session and more to examine this. Some of it is rooted in Ukraine’s post-1917 history and the deep, national oppression instituted by the Stalin regime of the Soviet Union (reproducing the oppression of the pre-Revolution era under the Russian Czars). Some is explained by the ideological confusion generated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in which the collapse was presented as a failure of socialism as an ideology and a program.
In the large citizen protest movements that arose in western Ukraine in 2013/14 (the “Maidan” or “Euromaidan” movement), many participants were genuinely protesting authoritarian government and economic inequality. But the weakness of a socially progressive outlook for the movement was coupled with an aggressive ascendance of right wing nationalism, producing a toxic outcome. Illusions in what capitalist Europe could offer to Ukraine as well as the false notion that “Russia” is responsible for the country’s economic ills – not the wealthy, capitalist billionaires controlling Ukraine’s economy – created yet more space for the ideology of the right wing to gain ascendance.
4. What About Russia?
This is the question of all questions in the Ukraine war because Ukrainians as well as international observers are bombarded on all sides with the message that the root of Ukraine’s ills and of the military conflict that has arisen lie in is the territorial and other ambitions of Russia over the country. This is the most deeply rooted, enduring and dangerous of all the false interpretations of the current conflict.
The modern-day Russian Federation emerged out of the political and economic decline and collapse of the Soviet Union. That decline was long foreseen by Marxists. Unlike capitalism, socialism cannot prosper or even survive according to the whip. Socialism’s goal is not to create an improved version of the expansionist, productivist and authoritarian wasteland called capitalism. Its goal must be to elevate humanity to a higher social and cultural plane. The climate change emergency that we are facing today is the harshest and most compelling reminder that socialism is not only a desirable alternative to capitalism, it is a life or death imperative for the planet.
But to succeed, socialism requires the voluntary and creative participation of citizens, who in the course of their common engagement enrich and improve not only society in general, but also themselves as individuals. The possibility of creating such a system and resisting the siren song of capitalist consumerism was lost in the Soviet Union over the course of the 1920s and 1930s due to the extreme privation that World War One and then the Civil War of 1918-1921 imposed, as well as the very weak cultural and political legacy inherited from the old, Czarist order.
The Soviet Union flourished in a productivist kind of way following World War Two. But it was also locked into a political and cultural decline due to the weakness or absence of popular, citizen engagement in fundamental decision-making. This all came to a head at the end of the 1980s when the bureaucratic, socialist systems in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed. What happened next was the largest spree of privatizations that the world has ever known.
Those who rose to economic prominence in Ukraine and Russia did not do so out of any particular skill set or social contribution. Rather, they were the ones who just happened to have access to finance or were located close to decision-making and could acquire the state assets being privatized or create new, capitalist enterprises.
If the new Russia has emerged more prosperous that Ukraine, much of this is due to the revenues made possible by the sales of its vast natural resources, notably oil and gas. As well, the Russian state was able, over time, to impose a certain order over its nouveaux riche whereas the Ukrainian state is entirely dominated by the new billionaires and they have failed to create a national project of any consequence.
Russia today is a middle capitalist power, resembling much more its BRICS partners than any of the major imperialist partners such as France, the UK or Canada, leave alone the US, Japan or Germany. Again, this is a complex topic requiring much more time than we have today. Let me just say that the left and Marxist movements internationally have failed to sufficiently develop a materialist analysis of what became of the Soviet Union. We are paying a very heavy price today in the form of ideological confusion and a deepgoing, political split over how to respond to NATO/Kiev’s war offensive in eastern Ukraine.
An excellent place to start in catching up on lost ground over understanding Russia is to read the new book by Ruslan Dzarasov titled “The Conundrum of Russian Capitalism: The Post-Soviet Economy in the World System” (Pluto Press, Dec. 2013). I made my own, modest contribution to needed debate in the form of an article two months ago: “The Russia as ‘imperialist’ thesis is wrong and a barrier to solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russian people.”
5. Self-Determination, Working Class Unity and International Solidarity
At the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine last March and April, the popular demands in the region were for “federalization,” that is, something not dissimilar to the decentralized constitutional setup in Canada and the US. Because of the war in the southeast, the political solutions there have radicalized. The war has created profound wounds that are unlikely to be healed short of a formal separation from Ukraine. On that basis, new forms of association and working class unity can arise.
Indeed, association and unity across the political divides in Ukraine are greatly needed. Europe and the US (and Canada) have big ambitions to open up Ukraine to relentless capitalist penetration. And they want to use Ukraine as a platform to penetrate and overwhelm the Russian economy, too.
I will leave you with these thoughts on proposals for a solidarity movement that I hope we can build. The valiant people of eastern Ukraine and throughout the country need our support and solidarity as they struggle against austerity and war. So, too, the peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia need our solidarity in the face of the threats and aggression of the NATO countries.
- Protest Kiev’s war crimes in eastern Ukraine and Canada’s and NATO’s backing of Kiev’s war.
- Join with people in Wales who are protesting at NATO’s Sept. 4, 5 summit meeting outside of Cardiff.
- Progressive Canadians should renew our historic demand for Canadian withdrawal from NATO.
- Support the right to self-determination of the people of eastern Ukraine and other national minorities in the country. Support the common struggle of Ukrainians against Europe/US-imposed austerity and militarism.
- Support the struggle for democratic rights in Ukraine. Condemn the banning of the Communist Party of Ukraine from the Ukraine Parliament and the right-wing vigilantism that has driven political activists underground or into exile. Condemn the harsh measures enacted against press freedoms and internet freedoms and the new law authorizing police to shoot on sight anyone deemed to be advocating “separatism”.
- Create channels of information to tell the truth about the war in Ukraine and the rise of fascism in that country and elsewhere in Europe. Websites, social media, writers, correspondents and translators are needed.
- Organize speaking tours to Canada of leading democratic voices from Ukraine and Russia.