Ukraine (3) – Self-determination?

Photo: The Guardian. A demonstration in United States

We showed in the previous post that behind support for the demand for self-determination of Ukraine lies a struggle within that country about what that involves and over the choices that should be made.  The issue is not therefore whether Ukraine should be an independent state, because it already is, but what it should do with whatever independent policy it can determine.  In this case, whether it should join NATO.  Joining this alliance is not a decision that can simply be labelled ‘self-determination’ and accepted as such; it cannot help affecting the politics and security of other states while also involving subordination to US imperialism.

It is not therefore a question, as the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International, put it in an article published before the escalation of the war in January that ‘it is up to the Ukrainian people – and not to blackmail and negotiations between great powers – to decide on their membership or not of NATO.’

Ukraine joining NATO cannot involve anything other than negotiations and threats with the ‘great powers’ because it involves taking sides between them.  To cloak such a decision in the garb of some expression of democracy is a travesty of what is involved.  For socialists to advocate and defend the freedom of capitalist states to join NATO is like championing the right to be subject to IMF adjustment programmes or the right to site nuclear weapons pointing at your neighbour. Does this right to self-determination also include the right to suppress labour rights and opposition parties, as it has already done?

The right to self-determination understood by Marxists, and not in its bastardised version often employed by the pro-war left, is the right for an annexed nation to separate, which annexation or separation socialists can either support or reject, although always with a view to what most lends support to the unity and independence of the working class across the states involved, and further afield.

Once separation has occurred it is no business of socialists to demand that the separated state is successful; that the country becomes ‘really’ or maximally independent of others, or that it can adopt whatever reactionary policy it wants because it has the self-determining ‘right’ to do so.  This is absurd, but that is exactly what is being argued by the pro-war left in its support for the Ukrainian state.

This left covers its claims, or attempts to, by claiming that the objective of Russia is to end Ukraine’s existence as a separate state.  They refer repeatedly to the putative psychology of Putin and his Great Russian nationalist narrative of Ukraine as part of the Russian family; its existence as an artificial state whose boundaries were originally the creation of Lenin and whose enlargement was due to Stalin and Khrushchev.

Reference is also made to Ukraine as a former colony of Russia although one writer has compared Ukraine to Scotland and not Ireland – “ Anatol Lieven has likened Ukrainians’ role in the Russian empire to that of the Scots rather than the Irish— except that, in the legal and economic domains, it was ‘impossible to tell who were the “colonizers” and who were the “colonized”.’ In this Ukraine differed from the Central Asian and Caucasian Soviet republics, where something closer to a colonial relationship obtained.’

The pro-war left both inside and outside Ukraine is keen to defend the existence of a Ukrainian nationality but the history of the country, including the divisions within it – while confirming such a nationality – do not lend themselves to the creation of a single conception of what its history has involved or what it implies for political arrangements today and tomorrow.  Since internal elites, the far right and reactionary Western intervention is happy to impose the most reactionary variety of Ukrainian nationalism, and war polarises views in any case, the pursuit of any progressive and broad democratic conception of Ukrainian nationalism by the pro-war left is a fool’s errand.

The borders of Ukraine should be decided through the democratic wishes of the inhabitants, including those of Crimea and the Donbas, although this is subject to the qualifications that apply to that of the Ukrainian state as a whole, which we have already set out in this and the previous posts.  The Ukrainian state and Western imperialism are less vocal about these rights to self-determination and the wishes of these local inhabitants. Before the Russian invasion the Ukrainian Government had announced that it had approved a security strategy aimed at retaking Crimea while refusing to engage in a process that might offer some autonomy within Ukraine to the Donbas areas that had separated.  Of course, this does not make the nationalism of such areas, in whatever form, ‘progressive’.

The Russian invasion did not have enough forces to conquer and occupy the whole of Ukraine, but it is nevertheless true that the war has caused enormous damage and suffering to its people.  It is a fundamental reason why the invasion must be opposed.

The article in which the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International defends the prerogatives of the Ukrainian state says that ‘the withdrawal of foreign forces (Atlantic and Russian) and the military neutrality of Ukraine are the only protection of its independence. The problem is that neither US imperialism nor Russia intends disengaging from Ukraine and military neutrality is not the policy of the Ukrainian state.  If the authors of these words meant what they said they would be calling for an end to US and NATO arming of the Ukrainian regime; the declaration of military neutrality by the Ukrainian state and the withdrawal of Russian forces to the lines of 24th February.

Instead, supporters of this organisation support NATO arming the reactionary Ukrainian regime and the subordination of Ukrainian socialists to its fight against Russia, including the objectives of reconquering Crimea and Donbas regardless of the views of their inhabitants.  The claim that this is an immediate and concrete policy ignores what the policy is and whose interests it serves. 

Back to part 2

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