Two distinct views on the left have emerged to describe the political upheaval that has shaken Ukraine and Crimea in recent months. On February 21, the government of President Victor Yanukovych was overthrown and replaced by a pro-western government in which extreme rightists have a prominent place.
One view describes the political intervention of the US and other NATO countries in favour of regime change as playing a decisive role. So much so that the mass protests against the Yanukovych government are denied any popular and social legitimacy. Russia’s role in events is viewed uncritically.
An opposing view posits that two more-or-less equal imperialist camps are jockeying for domination and control—the US, Europe, Canada and their NATO military alliance on one side, and Russia on the other. Both sides are equally condemned. Curiously, this view is also giving short shrift to examining the precise goals and achievements of the protest movement of Ukrainians that rocked the country for months.
The former view is closer to the reality. The NATO countries pressed very hard for regime change and they were rewarded in their efforts. They have considerable influence on the political changes in Ukraine. The country is further under their domination and their threat to Russia is heightened. For these reasons, their intervention should be condemned.
That said, we gain nothing by turning a blind eye to the imperial ambitions of the governing regime in Russia. And much of the protest movement in Ukraine has worthy ambitions that should be appreciated and respected. To fully understand events and elaborate a guide to action in the face of escalating NATO threats, more detail and nuance is required in our analysis. I hope this commentary may contribute to that.
A threatening and aggressive NATO alliance
Canadian Marxist and historian of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, David Mandel, has published a very informative commentary on the present crisis. He provides a balanced and factual description of the differing class forces and interests at play. (The full article here).
Mandel writes in his concluding section:
The Russian government no doubt sees what has happened as another step in the longstanding policy of the US and NATO to contain Russia's influence to her own borders...
I think we can state the matter more sharply. Past and present imperialist policy towards the countries and republics of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has been about more than containment. The ultimate goal has been to destroy their nationalised economies and restore naked capitalist rule.
The imperialists achieved considerable success in their ambitions. The blind laws and imperatives that power international capitalism proved much stronger than the nationalised but bureaucratised economies, which were ultimately overwhelmed. The big capitalist countries brought much of the former Eastern Europe directly into their economic and military fold, destroying a large part of the prevailing welfare state provisions and drastically reduced the living standards of the working classes. The deformed and bureaucratised economies were unable, in the end, to resist capitalist penetration because that would have required a democratisation of planning and government institutions coupled with massive popular mobilisations to implement the decisions of new, institutional foundations.*
In Russia and its bordering republics, capitalism was recreated in a hybrid form where the state retains a considerable role in economic planning and policy making. The imperialists were unable to make the transformed country into an exclusive domain. That eluded their grasp. Russia remained an independent political and economic entity, and a powerful one to boot.
Russia’s independence, and that of other rising capitalist powers such as China and Brazil, is of considerable political consequence for the international working class. The frictions and conflicts between competing capitalist blocs create political and economic fissures through which peoples and countries can assert and defend their independent interests. This is most evident in Latin America, where US hegemony is in sharp decline. Progressive and revolutionary governments have come to power. They have been able to avoid the crushing economic isolation and embargos that made socialist development so difficult in the early Soviet Union and later in Cuba.
A very symbolic indicator of a progressively changing world is the political asylum that Edward Snowden has obtained in Russia. Moscow has rebuffed extraordinary political pressure from the US and Europe to turn Snowden over for jailing and a show trial. He continues to issue damning revelations of the violent and illegal ways in which the imperialists run the world.
Russians have lots of reasons to be concerned about the threat of imperialist encirclement and intervention. They lived two terrible experiences in the past century -- first the military intervention of 1918-21 that sought to overthrow the revolution of 1917 through civil war; and then the cataclysmic invasion and occupation of the western regions of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine and Crimea, by Nazi Germany in 1941-44. Those two gruesome attacks were followed by the encirclement and threats of nuclear attack by NATO countries during the long decades of the Cold War.
The threats and menacing encirclement have continued since the fall of the Soviet Union, including in violation of political agreements where NATO countries pledged not expand their military alliance eastward.
Mandel’s article comments only briefly on the situation in Crimea. The region has become the key flashpoint in the present situation. He calls Russia's intervention “pursuing primarily symbolic goals”. I concur with the suggestion here that Russia’s Crimea intervention is a defensive act imposed by the aggressive imperialist intervention in Ukraine. Mandel writes further that Russia act send a message to the rightist government in Kiev “not to get carried away”.
Yes, one can identify all kinds of blundering and rights violations by Russia’s Crimea intervention. It is not a liberation. Russia is an authoritarian capitalist state with imperialist ambitions in its own right. All this is important to explain. But Russia is acting first and foremost in response to aggression from the US/Europe/NATO alliance and from the new government that has come to power in Ukraine. Another way to view matters is to ask if Russia would be promoting Crimea secession and joining the Russian Federation if it was not being threatened by the NATO countries’ incursions into Ukraine? I think not.
Two equal imperialist camps?
Many writers (not David Mandel) are equating Russia’s interests and actions with those of the NATO countries. Some go so far as to compare Russia's intervention in Crimea, where not a single life has been lost to date, to the “shock and awe” of imperialism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that killed tens of thousands and destroyed entire countries.
We’ll never get to a thorough discussion and understanding of Russia’s motives in Crimea if we make simplistic comparisons of the two big-power sides. We need a dynamic analysis of the evolving geopolitical alliances in the region and the rival national, capitalist and imperialist interests at play, not phrases and slogans. For starters, this should easily tell us who are the greater aggressors (US and NATO) and who are the lesser (Russia) in the present conflict over Ukraine.
Furthermore, as a recent article by UK writer and activist Chris Bambury reminds those of us in Europe and North America, “Here in the West, we should concentrate our fire on [NATO].”
There are some useful historical analogies to the Ukraine situation, all proportions guarded, to which we can turn to help us appreciate the importance of distinguishing degrees of threat by the class enemy.
Three decades ago, a military regime was in power in Argentina and it made a stupid and blundering grab to retake the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands from the colonial power Britain. The generals’ grab was an effort to stem rising domestic protests against its rule. Britain responded with a naval assault to retake its colony. Progressives throughout the world responded by condemning and protesting the British action. They said that whatever the blunders and intentions of the Argentine dictators, the overriding concern should be opposition to yet another neo-colonial adventure by one of world’s big imperialist powers.
Just a few years before that, in 1980, Iraq launched an invasion of Iran. At the time, Iran’s anti-Shah revolution of 1979 had been blocked and pushed back by the Iranian bourgeoisie and a reactionary, clerical political leadership. The Iranian masses correctly perceived that behind the Iraqi move was the hand of imperialism aiming to restore a version of the dictatorship they had overthrown with so much heroism and sacrifice the year before. The invasion was a deadly threat to their country’s independence and to the further advance of a social revolution.
Accordingly, a large part of the Iranian population rallied to defend their country.
But large sections of Iranian radicals reacted otherwise. They had fiercely resisted the clerical regime that was using force and violence to halt any further revolutionary advance. So they declared a plague on both houses—the Iraqi invaders and the Iranian governing regime. In so doing, they lost credibility among much of the population and weakened the fight against the counter-revolution of the Iranian bourgeoisie and clerical leaders that was in full swing at the time of the Iraqi invasion. They never recovered from the loss of influence caused by their disastrous stand.
Today’s Russia is a rising imperialist country and thus quite different from the Argentina and Iran of 30 years ago. Its governing regime and capitalist class are a considerable threat to its own peoples and those of its neighbouring republics. But Russia is a weaker power compared to its rivals in the West. The workers of Russia or anywhere else in the world gain nothing from the drive of the larger rivals of capitalist Russia to weaken it or overthrow its government.
A recent editorial by the International Socialist Organisation in the US concludes:
During the Cold War between the ex-USSR and the U.S., Socialist Worker had a slogan that encapsulated our rejection of both superpower camps. That slogan is relevant again today: Neither Washington nor Moscow, neither Kiev nor Simferopol, but international socialism.
Let us think back to the era cited in this statement. Washington and its allies waged near-genocidal wars against the people of Korea during the 1950s and the people of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. They threatened nuclear attack on many countries during the Cold War years. There is little doubt they would have repeated the use of nuclear weapons unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the Soviet Union and then China not developed their own nuclear arsenals.
As to Soviet Union as a “superpower”, its ruling elite proved considerably weaker and more vulnerable to overthrow than the imperialist ruling classes. Their post-World War II crimes do not compare to those of the US and Europe.
The ISO view of Ukraine today is abstracted from the living situation. That’s a recipe for wrong conclusions. One imperialist camp has conspired to encourage and facilitate the overthrow of an elected government and replace it with a more right-wing government ever more subordinate to NATO-country imperial interests. Rightists, fascists and billionaires have been appointed to important ministerial and other posts. They openly advocate aggression against Russia and against Russian-speaking people living in Ukraine, including regressively changing Ukraine’s official language policy from a tolerant bilingualism to a reactionary unilingualism.
(An excellent, two-part interview with Pers Anders Rudling of Sweden describes the history of right-wing nationalism in Ukraine. It was broadcast on The Real News Network and can be accessed here: Part one and Part two.)
The politics of “neither nor” third campism has a failed history that we should avoid replicating today. Its most lamentable expression was at the outset of World War II, when in 1941 German imperialism launched a horrendous military offensive against the peoples of the Soviet Union that ended in the deaths of tens of millions of Soviet workers and peasants and millions of German workers in uniform. Entire regions, including Ukraine, Crimea and western Russia, were obliterated by the German invaders and occupiers.
Even if the Soviet Union had by then evolved entirely away from its socialist origin into some kind of “state capitalist” system (which I do not believe was the case), it was incumbent on the working-class movement internationally to oppose the Nazi aggression, just as Japan’s parallel assaults on China and Southeast Asia had to be opposed.
A correct approach to the present conflict in Ukraine is to see that both Ukraine and Russia are under attack by European and North America (and probably Japanese) imperialism. The international left should oppose this aggression, including how it threatens the autonomous status of Crimea (where the legitimacy of Ukraine’s historic claim is less than that of Russia, including by virtue of the March 16, 2014 referendum vote).
A progressive government in Russia would offer political and material solidarity to the people of Crimea as their autonomy comes under attack by the rightist government in Kiev and its NATO backers. It would pledge support to Crimea’s autonomy and to Ukraine’s independence. It wouldn’t rush into a referendum on less than two weeks’ notice nor deny a ballot option to maintain the autonomous status quo with Ukraine. All of this would better enable it to defend its own borders and its military installations in Crimea (which Ukraine is bound by treaty to respect).
The fact that Russia is hiding its intentions and shrouding them in obfuscation complicates matters. That should be exposed and criticised. But it shouldn’t cause the international left to lose all sense of proportion and balance. The NATO countries are the key aggressors here and should be condemned for escalating tensions and manipulating and derailing the legitimate protests of Ukrainians (and Russians) against their pro-capitalist governments and policies.
Such an approach could help strengthen the working class and pro-democracy forces that propelled so much of the recent protest movement in Ukraine. It would help weaken the political right in Ukraine and its allies abroad that have cynically and hypocritically laid claim to the progressive aims of so many of the protesters.
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Some voices from Crimea
On the March 17 broadcast of CBC Radio One’s The Current, a teacher in Crimea, Yulia Dorogan, explains why she and so many others voted in the March 16 referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Oleg Smirnov, a professor of communication and journalism at Taurida National University in Simferopol, tells the program why he considers the referendum to be illegal. He is cautiously optimistic there will be no civil strife resulting from the vote.
* Capitalism rules by the whip, including the ever-present concern of workers of unemployment and destitution. Its constant revolutionising of production and technology is driven by the dog-eat-dog world of competition and profit. Socialism posits entirely different imperatives for the development of society--social justice and egalitarianism. But without citizen engagement and inspiration at its core, socialised economies stagnate and lose the technological and cultural battle for innovation with the old capitalist order. Economic compulsion has a role to play in a socialist transition process, but it cannot be a driving force. Citizen engagement and the realisation of the creative potential of every human being must be at the heart of the socialist project.