Originally published in the Weekly Worker.
Over the last few days the crisis in Ukraine appears to have escalated. Fearful that they were losing control of the Donetsk region, and the eastern part of the country as a whole, the Ukrainian government late on April 15 launched an “anti-terrorist operation” to dislodge ethnic Russians who had occupied government buildings in at least 10 cities and towns. Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting president, now claims that special forces have “liberated” Kramatorsk airport and that the nearby town of Slavyansk would be recaptured by Kiev – as will all the other regions. He promised – or warned – that there would not be “any terrorists left soon”. They will “find themselves in the dock”, which is “where they belong”.
There is now the real possibility of increasingly violent clashes between the Ukrainian armed forces and the so-called separatists. And, inevitably, imperialism and the generally supine western media are saying that events in Donetsk and elsewhere are a repeat of what happened in Crimea – meaning de facto annexation followed by an ‘illegal’ referendum(s). Of course, in a certain narrow sense, there is a truth there. Moscow is obviously trying as best it can to direct events in its favour, and it is certainly the case that the ‘separatists’ are demanding the Kiev authorities stage a referendum on whether Ukraine should be turned into some sort of federation, within which the regions and localities have a much greater degree of autonomy – perhaps with the right to fully separate from the central government (Turchynov does appear to have offered a referendum of some description on the constitution, possibly to be held on May 25).
As previously discussed in this paper, various officials in the Russian administration have been calling for the ‘federalisation’ of Ukraine for quite some time – most notably Sergei Glazyev, a top adviser to president Vladimir Putin. He essentially argued that the various regions should have the ability to “form their budgets” and even the possibility of “partial foreign identity”. He cited the example of Greenland – slightly disingenuously, it does have to be said – which is an autonomous country within the broader kingdom of Denmark. What Glazyev really wants, unless you are extremely naive, is for the new ‘federal’ Ukraine to be swallowed up piecemeal by Russia – or at least firmly fall under the Russian sphere of influence again, as opposed to coming under the orbit of the European Union and Nato.
But, having said all that, the distinct implication of those – both on the right and left – who fulminated against the ‘illegitimate’ referendum was that the Crimean people should have no right to decide whether they wished to remain within Ukraine or join Russia. Hence we had the disgraceful, and utterly moronic, argument from Liam Mac Uaid of Socialist Resistance that the Crimean situation was “roughly analogous” to the north of Ireland or Israel. That is, the Russian-speakers are a settler population not entitled to the right to self-determination because they are an ‘oppressor people’. So a “defeat for Russian imperialism in Ukraine” would be a “victory for that [Ukrainian] mass movement” and in fact “the Russian working class” – even if it comes at the hands of the western-backed Kiev government, presumably.1
By a perverted but logical extension, this argument is now being put forward for the entire Ukraine – please step forward Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the latest issue of Solidarity (April 8). Arguing that responsibility for the current crises “mostly” lies with “Russian imperialism” and “not democratic protest”, Thomas goes on to say that, because Ukraine is a “nation historically oppressed by Russia”, its right to national self-determination automatically trumps those of the ethnic Russians or Russophones. Yes, he generously adds, Russians living in Ukraine “should enjoy democratic minority rights”, but for him “their rights cannot cancel the right to self-determination of the whole Ukrainian nation” – as apparently the “immediate threat” to Ukrainian “political self-determination” comes from Russia “invading” Crimea, “massing” troops on Ukraine’s border, “fomenting” small coups in east-Ukrainian cities and demanding Ukraine fit its constitution to Russian wishes.
This Russophobic drivel from the AWL and SR almost perfectly mirrors the propaganda that comes out of the White House or Downing Street – a narrative that portrays an ‘expansionist’ Russia as the villain of the piece, aggressively set upon a “Crimean Anschluss” or worse.2 But such attempts to demonise Russia or Putin are entirely one-sided. The orange-brown ‘revolution’ in Kiev, enthusiastically backed by the west, and an extremely ugly resurgent Ukrainian nationalism are just as much to blame for the crisis – if not more so. It was hardly an accident that the very first acts of the new Kiev government after it had booted out Viktor Yanukovych (despite coming to a ‘compromise’ deal with him only the day before) were to strip Russian of its official language status, move to outlaw the Communist Party of Ukraine and appoint six members of far-right and fascist groups to the most senior positions in the new cabinet – including minister of defence, commander of the national defence and security council, deputy prime minister, prosecutor-general, and so on.
Similarly, we have had little time for the hypocritical cant about the exceptionally authoritarian (even ‘totalitarian’) or corrupt nature of the Yanukovych administration. On what objective or rational basis was his government any less ‘legitimate’ or more ‘corrupt’ than previous Ukrainian governments – or today’s, headed by the shady Oleksandr Turchynov? At the end of the day, Yanukovych was elected in a reasonably free and fair election, with the support of large sections of a Russophone population that had suddenly felt disenfranchised by the central authorities in Kiev – for good reason, not just because of an outbreak of Russian nationalism.
Yes, obviously, the seizure of governmental/administrative buildings in the Donetsk region was well coordinated – the ‘irregulars’ were relatively well-armed and equipped, though the degree to which that is the case has been exaggerated. While it would be astonishing if Russian state agents were not involved, that does not necessarily mean that Russian special operations units are running the show.
In other words, even though the seizing and occupying of government buildings was clearly planned and coordinated, it happened in thecontext of mass, grassroots, spontaneous, self-organising social protests when Yanukovych was toppled – not as the result of an outside conspiracy. Hence the widespread talk in eastern and southern Ukraine about dignity, regional identity, historical memory and language, Soviet heroes of the Great Patriotic War, etc.
Illustrating the potential dangers in the situation, Jay Carney – the White House spokesman – declared on April 14 that, although the use of force was not a “preferred option” for the US administration, the Ukrainian government has a “responsibility to provide law and order” and that the provocations in eastern Ukraine were leaving Kiev with little choice but to “respond” to the “untenable situation”. On the same day, Barack Obama telephoned Putin to tell him of his “grave concern” about Russian government support for the pro-Russian ‘separatists’, who were threatening to “undermine and destabilise” the government in Kiev – he urged the Russian president to use his “influence” with the armed groups to convince them to leave the government buildings.
Giving fairly short shrift to Obama’s declared anxieties, Putin claimed that reports of Russian interference were based on “unreliable information” and in turn implored the US president to dissuade the authorities in Kiev from using military force against pro-Russian protestors in the eastern regions. If not, Putin added, that could seriously “undermine” the chances for the April 17 ‘peace conference’ in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the US and EU. In fact, the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin has generally hardened – denouncing the “anti-constitutional” and “criminal actions” of the Kiev government, which is using “brute force” in eastern Ukraine.
Gloomily, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry’s human rights representative, remarked that “to all appearances”, events in Ukraine are beginning to move towards a “worst-case scenario”. Even more pessimistically, if anything, prime minister Dmitry Medvedev issued a Facebook update saying “blood has once again been spilled in Ukraine” and now the country is “anticipating civil war”. As for Turchynov, he has requested that United Nations “peacekeepers” be deployed in the region – and maybe he had an intimate chat at the weekend with John Brennan, the CIA’s director, who turned up in Kiev for “talks”. Hardly reassuringly, the present stance of the US government is that it is “not actively considering lethal aid” – remembering it said exactly the same about Syria.
Meanwhile, in various tit-for-tat measures – or economic warfare – Ukraine has suspended payments to Russia for deliveries of gas until price negotiations between the two countries are concluded. Earlier this month, Russia’s state energy company, Gazprom, almost doubled the price for Ukrainian consumers for its gas, stating that Kiev was no longer “eligible” for the discounts it had previously enjoyed.
The west is now threatening to introduce “far-reaching” sanctions attacking Russia’s banking, energy and mining sectors. When foreign secretary William Hague was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Todayprogramme if he was ready to see the City of London, which has Russian money running through its financial veins, “take a hit”, he replied in the affirmative – though time will tell, of course, just how serious he is. EU foreign ministers have also approved measures to provide up to €1 billion (£800 million) of economic assistance to Ukraine. Furthermore, the ministers backed the “temporary reduction or elimination” of customs duties for Ukrainian exports to the EU. In Washington, the US signed a $1 billion loan guarantee agreement for Ukraine after a meeting between US treasury secretary Jacob Lew and his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksandr Shlapak.
We communists unequivocally denounce the imperialist campaign for sanctions against Russia – the Ukrainian masses, not high-ranking officials in Moscow or the oligarchs, would end up the losers. Rather, we seek to expose the hypocrisy and machinations of the western governments, which are adding fuel to the nationalist fire by egging on the regime in Kiev and peddling absurd fairy tales about the Kremlin being hell-bent on conquest or Putin being the new Hitler. Silly and dangerous.
For us, the real fact on the ground is that the Ukrainian peoples areinterpenetrated – and the same essentially goes for the army and the state machine as a whole. You are not dealing with ethnic population centres that can be tidily divided up everywhere. Therefore we fight for a solution that cuts across the rival nationalisms at play in Ukraine and beyond, while insisting on the right to self-determination on a genuinely democratic and internationalist basis, which respects minority rights. We do not think the ‘pro-Ukrainian’ far right is better than the ‘pro-Russian’ far right, that Ukrainian nationalism is more progressive than Russian nationalism (or vice-versa) or that the Ukrainian oligarchs are more enlightened than Russian oligarchs – least of all that the Kiev government or western imperialism is the ‘lesser evil’, compared to so-called “Russian imperialism”.
2. In this manner, the Shiraz Socialist blog – which has very close links to the AWL – notes the “remarkable similarities” between the strategy, tactics and justifications used by Putin in his takeover of the Crimea and those used by Hitler in the Sudetenland in 1938 (http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/putins-crimean-anschluss).