The war in Ukraine (9) – Russian ‘talking points’ and the blue pill


Supporters of the Ukrainian state repeatedly refer to Vladimir Putin’s responsibility for the war and frequently cite his speeches as a guide to Russian motivation, often around the creation of Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union in 1922 or the essential unity of Russians and Ukrainians.   In doing so they not so much contradict Putin as ape him in holding up a distraction that is obviously incapable of explaining why the invasion happened.  An invasion to right the wrongs of 1922? Why now?  Ukrainians will be persuaded that they are really little Russians through an invasion?  Who could be that stupid?

It’s not that looking at what Putin or others say is not some guide to the actions of the Russian state but the leftists don’t quote those words of Putin that do most explain his decision–as one in defence of the interests of the Russian capitalist state.

As one of a number of previous posts explain, repeated warnings were made by Russia that Ukraine joining NATO was a red line, with many others predicting conflict if this line was crossed.  Suddenly, however, for supporters of Ukraine these words from Russia are irrelevant and have nothing to do with its motivation and intentions or cause of the war, because if this was the case then their favourite capitalist state would bear some responsibility for it and so would NATO.  This would then leave them looking like suckers in traipsing behind both, as minor camp followers of the Western war caravan pouring what it can afford into Ukraine.

Having failed to pay attention to what Putin said before the invasion ignorance now is not so much bliss as necessary to maintain their illusions in Ukraine and the West, on just about everything.  The massive propaganda campaign of the Western state and corporate media evokes not a single rebuke as this left is perfectly happy to have swallowed the blue pill.

But there is really no excuse.  It is unforgiveable to support one capitalist state in war with another, especially when this state is a proxy for the most powerful imperialist alliance in the world.  Unfortunately, when you are plugged into this western imperialist matrix you see and hear what you want and justify your position by quoting Putin, except when he says something that indicates his articulation of the vital interests of the Russian state and that might explain its actions.

In this situation this pro-war left becomes an echo chamber of the bourgeois media in which we have repeated denunciation of Russian ‘talking points’, even when these ‘points’ relate to why the war actually started.  So let’s look at some of what Putin said before the invasion; if any of the pro-war left is reading this they can scroll away now and click on something else, like ‘The Guardian’ maybe or the BBC, New York Times, CNN or any of the capitalist media outlets selling the same story and damning Russian ‘talking points’.

The historian Geoffrey Roberts states that ‘the first public sign that Putin was getting seriously concerned about the Ukraine situation were these remarks to his Security Council in May 2021’ when he said that:

‘It appears, and this is highly regrettable, Ukraine is being turned, slowly but steadily, into an antipode of Russia, an anti-Russia, a territory from which, judging by all appearances, we will never stop receiving news that requires special attention in regard to protecting the national security of the Russian Federation.’

Putin maintained support for the Minsk agreements, stating that ‘We have no other tool to achieve peace, and I believe they should be treated very carefully and with respect…’  This was, of course, before the other Western parties to these agreements revealed that they were purely to give time for Ukraine to build up its military capability.

This it did through growing western military support from 2014, mainly from the United States, which became more open and with clearer purpose:

‘In 2017 the Trump Administration began selling lethal weapons to Ukraine. Western states began to train Ukraine’s armed forces and allow their participation in military exercises. In February 2019, Ukraine’s constitution was amended to make NATO membership a compulsory government goal. Zelensky . . .  in March 2021 . . adopted the Crimean Platform – a programme to secure the return of Crimea to Ukraine by any means necessary, including unspecified military measures.’

‘In April, there was a confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian naval forces in the sea of Azov, which ended without violence, but in June the United Kingdom agreed to enhance Ukraine’s seaborne capabilities. That same month NATO reaffirmed its commitment to Ukraine’s eventual membership of the alliance. In July, the United States and Ukraine co-hosted a naval exercise in the Black Sea that involved 32 countries and in August signed a US-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework, followed a couple of months later by a Charter on Strategic Partnership. Between March and June, NATO conducted Defender 21, a multinational military exercise focussed on defending Europe from Russian attack.’

‘Russia responded to these developments by staging its own military exercises and by deploying more and more troops to areas bordering Ukraine. Estimates vary, but these certainly numbered tens of thousands by the autumn and increased rapidly during the ensuing war threat crisis. Ukraine responded by substantially increasing its forces in the Donbass area. According to Russian claims, half of Ukraine’s regular army was deployed there by the end of 2021.’

Putin said of Ukraine in November 2021 that “it is imperative to push for serious, long-term guarantees that safeguard Russia’s security in this direction because Russia can’t be constantly thinking about what could happen there tomorrow.”  On 1st December he said that:

‘The threat on our western border is really growing, and we have mentioned it many times. It is enough to see how close NATO military infrastructure has moved to Russia’s borders. This is more than serious for us. In this situation, we are taking appropriate military-technical measures… ‘

‘While engaging in dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on the elaboration of concrete agreements that would rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to us in close proximity to Russia’s territory. We suggest that substantive talks on this topic should be started.’

‘I would like to note in particular that we need precisely legal, juridical guarantees, because our Western colleagues have failed to deliver on verbal commitments, Specifically, everyone is aware of assurances they gave verbally that NATO would not expand to the east. But they did absolutely the opposite. In effect, Russia’s legitimate security concerns were ignored and they continue to be ignored in the same manner.’

The next day the Russian foreign minister Lavrov stated: “Absolutely unacceptable is the transformation of our neighbouring countries into a bridgehead for confrontation with Russia and the deployment of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of areas of strategic importance to our security.’

Only the most stupid or mendacious could possibly claim that noting these remarks excuses Russia, are irrelevant or need not be heard, or that they are diversions away from the real reasons behind the invasion. These purported reasons are, after all, other points quoted from Russians. The leaders of western imperialism are not stupid and I presume to believe that the majority of the pro-war left are not mendacious.

Back to part 8

Forward to part 10

The war in Ukraine (8) – Ukraine’s democratic revolution?

Maidan ‘revolution of dignity’ February 20, 2014 in Kyiv Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In explaining the Russian invasion supporters of Ukraine often proclaim the agency of ‘Ukraine’ while remaining silent on its agency in bringing it about. The purpose is to deny the critical role of Western imperialism in creating the war and sustaining it beyond anything purely Ukrainian agency could effect. They do however condemn imperialism, if only their Russian variety to any real purpose.  But what of the more powerful Western variety?  Can it really be claimed that its intervention now is without effect?  Why do they support NATO arms to Ukraine if this is to be without meaningful consequences?

Was its prior intervention–before February 2022–without effect?  How then do they explain the performance of the Ukrainian armed forces during the invasion, and their (mistaken) belief that they will prevail, given their previous quick defeat in 2014 by a much inferior Russian intervention?  Would this not be an indication of the agency of Western imperialism in strengthening these armed forces?  In other words, is not the agency of Ukraine a product not simply of the Ukrainian state itself?  Or does admission of this lead too readily to having to acknowledge the proxy character of the war?

Western intervention, in the shape of the catastrophic introduction of capitalism, similar in impact (if not worse) than that on Russia, was widely condemned by many of those who now support the Ukrainian state.  The role of western imperialist institutions such as the IMF was denounced, yet it is these organisations that are part and parcel of the intervention they now defend.

But it takes two to tango and we have already seen that the Ukrainian state has long actively sought to be a (subordinate) part of the architecture of Western imperialism.  We have also seen that the problem has been to convince the majority of Ukrainians that this is a good idea, the solution to which has ultimately been provocation of a war. 

This has required continuous outside political interventions, especially by the United States, involving investing over $5 billion in ‘Ukrainian democracy’, according to US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland in 2013.  This included sponsorship of pro-Western NGOs, of which one former Ukrainian government minister boasted the year before that “we now have 150 NGOs in all the major cities . . . The Orange revolution was a miracle . . . We want to do that again and we think we will.” As indeed they did, although it was not a miracle.

The US view of what constituted ‘Ukrainian democracy’ didn’t actually mean exercise of the will of the Ukrainian people, but the imposition of a pro-Western Government with the trappings of what comprises western democracy.  A 2009 Pew research survey found that two thirds of Ukrainians believed life was better under ‘communism’ while only 30 per cent approved of the change to the multi-part system–a sign of majority disenchantment with this ‘Ukrainian democracy’, and living proof of the travesty and deceit that is the reality of democracy in a capitalist state.  This had led to the Orange revolution, which then failed the democratic impulses of many of its supporters, which was to be repeated in the ’revolution of dignity’ in 2014, where Nuland and the NGOs played their allotted roles.

This ‘revolution’, which failed to unite Ukraine’s people precisely because it wasn’t one, became the launchpad for all subsequent events right up until the war today.  Its character is still misunderstood, especially by those on the left who should already know the nature of bourgeois democracy but now wave its flag as the solution–through demanding capitalist state ‘self-determination–to the problems that it itself has caused. The unity of the people of Ukraine could not be achieved under the Maidan ‘revolution of dignity’ banner and one wonders why this left considers itself socialist if the demands of socialism are not to be raised in circumstances where bourgeois democracy has failed.

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Following the Maidan ‘revolution’/coup, which precipitated the division of the country, the Government in Kyiv became more involved with, and dependent upon, the West.  This included immediate agreement to the proposed deal with the EU by the Ukrainian politician favoured by the US and effectively put in place by it, as revealed in an infamous leaked discussion.  He did so before any new elections and without seeking to negotiate any of its conditions, which implied drastic consequences for uncompetitive Ukrainian industry, especially in the east of the country. 

Acceptance of a new $40 billion IMF loan entailed massive imposition of austerity, with salaries and pensions cut, state sector employment reduced by 20 per cent, and the healthcare system and 342 state enterprises privatised. State education services were slashed and 60 per cent of universities were closed.  By December 2015 a Gallup poll found only 8 per cent of the population still had confidence in their new government, down from 19 per cent for the previous Government of Yanukovych that had been overthrown by the Maidan ‘revolution’/coup.

For left supporters of the Ukrainian state Maidan was a revolution but it is a strange revolution that enthroned a government favoured by the US and that immediately included prominent fascist figures within its ranks.  It is a strange revolution in which these latter forces were able to intimidate left wing activists in the demonstrations and occupation at the Maidan that comprised it, and it is a strange revolutionary regime which effectively covered up responsibility for the violence that triggered the final collapse of the Yanukovych regime and the subsequent massacre in Odesa.  A strange revolution that put a ‘chocolate’ oligarch in power introducing a regime of austerity; and a strange revolutionary regime that had US Vice President Joe Biden declare that he had spent thousands of hours on the phone with this chocolate oligarch for “longer periods  . . . than with my wife.” All another example of Ukrainian reality defying the wishes of its own people and the apologetics of some on the left.

Only 13 per cent of Maidan protests took place in Kiev, with two-thirds occurring in the western and central regions. It did not have majority support in the southern and eastern regions, which had predominantly voted for the deposed Yanukovych, and the majority in these parts did not support either the EU Agreement or the protests.

The far right were legitimated as heroes of the ‘revolution’ and subsequently in the war, securing top positions within the security apparatus, and establishing armed military units under their control—now downplayed in the West or justified in the name of patriotism by many in Ukraine.  Its slogans of ‘Glory to Ukraine!–Glory to heroes!’, which had become the rallying cry of the Maidan protestors has now become the battle cry of the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ and evokes no aversion or rebuff when reported in western media.  

This doesn’t mean that everyone in Ukraine has become fascist but that their popular nationalism has swallowed its fascists whole.  Among the consequences are the exclusion of more democratic slogans and demands, despite these being the inspiration of many of the protesters, and more obviously exclusion of a fight against the fascists themselves.

One other result demonstrated immediately was that this nationalism could not unite everyone who was Ukrainian but started to define who could not be, a process that has intensified during the war, even as its most enthusiastic supporters are also the most enthusiastic about reunifying the state.

These were the circumstances in which Crimea was taken by Russia, and parts of the Donbas took up arms in imitation of the pro-Maidan insurgency in the west of the country.   This received decisive Russian assistance when it looked to be on the verge of defeat, but Putin did not instigate the rebellion, but rather tried to limit it and then control it, frequently being opposed to its original leaders. Separate republics were not his optimal choice.  

Given the coup/’revolution’ he acted to defend Russian state interests in Crimea and Donbas against an anti-Russian regime that had come to power violently, with the occasion to defend a pro-Russian rebellion in the east presenting both a challenge and an opportunity.  A challenge in relation to his authority inside Russia, and to Russian influence in Ukraine as a whole, which would be weakened by the exclusion of the population in the Donbas.  The opportunity was to address these problems through a peace agreement that would maintain this population inside the Ukrainian state but with a certain autonomy that could provide some guarantee of the population’s separate interests, and also of Russia’s.

This appeared to be achieved by the Minsk agreements but as we noted in the previous post, for western guarantors this was just considered a staging post before the renewal of war by Ukraine to recover its lost territory.  That this could be conceivable existed only because of Ukraine’s deepening relationship with NATO, and especially the United States.  The promise by the new Ukrainian President Poroshenko before his election that he would establish peace was broken within weeks (just as Zelensky was later also to promise peace but lead his country into an even more disastrous war).

Instead, the breakaway regions simply became an anti-terrorist problem to be solved by an Anti-Terrorist Operation, leading to regular attacks on civilians in the region.  The painting of such nationality problems as one of simple terrorism is, of course, a familiar one, usually involving state repression that socialists reject, even when we do not endorse the particular nationalist struggle or its political leadership.  That the Ukrainian state is absolved of such judgements is yet one more indication of the consequences of endorsing its ‘self-determination’.

This self-determination involved the banning of the Communist Party of Ukraine in 2015, despite having 13 per cent of the vote in 2012, as part of a drive to ‘decommunization’ that also included closing Russian media channels and banning Russian books.  As the Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko has noted; ‘once the government defined what this actually meant polls showed that Ukrainians were not very interested in renaming the streets and cities or banning the Communist Party. At the same time, they were not ready to defend it, because they did not see it as particularly relevant to their politics. They were not however supporters of decommunization either; they were passively against it, though not actively resisting it. . .   Other groups were also targeted by the far right, like feminists, LGBT, Roma people, and the left.’  By 2018–19, when Ishchenko was still in Kiev and involved in organizing leftist media and conference projects, he noted that ‘we were having to operate in a kind of semi-underground manner.’  A strange situation arising, one might think, within a regime issuing from a democratic revolution.

Ishchenko noted that ‘Before the war, Zelensky failed in everything. . . . Zelensky also pushed through a land market reform, which has been a big question since Ukrainian independence and very unpopular; over 70 per cent of Ukrainians were against some of the clauses.  By the start of 2021, Zelensky had lost much of his popularity. The Opposition Platform—a successor to the Party of Regions and the runner-up in 2019—was ahead of the Servant of the People party in some polls.’ 

Zelensky began to impose serious sanctions on the opposition, with Viktor Medvedchuk—one of the leaders of the Opposition Platform party, which was ahead of Zelensky in the polls—a principal target.  The imposition of sanctions, sometimes without any serious evidence against the people they were targeting and taken by a small group, the National Security and Defence Council, was against Ukrainian citizens without a court ruling. They were however welcomed in striking terms by the US Embassy, shortly after Biden’s inauguration in late January 2021. The same Biden who had been in charge of Obama’s ‘project Ukraine’.

Zelensky’s repression included the imposition of sanctions much more widely, against oligarchs, those suspected of organized crime but also against other opposition media. By the start of 2022, his government had blocked most of the main opposition media, including one of Ukraine’s most popular websites,, and the most popular political blogger, Anatoly Shariy, who sought asylum in the EU.

Ishchenko argues that ‘Before the war, the polls were not good for him, and in some he was even losing to Poroshenko . . . the sanctions against Medvedchuk in late January 2021 were followed just a few weeks later by the first signs of Russia’s build-up on the Ukrainian border. Putin was able to take the exclusion of Medvedchuk from Ukrainian politics as a clear message— ‘an absolutely obvious purge of the political field.’’

The loss of Russian political influence in Ukraine was thus one cause of the invasion, which was in turn partly due to the nature of the bourgeois ‘democratic’ regime of the Ukrainian state, ironically accelerated by the Maidan ‘revolution of dignity.’  It was however not the main development within the Ukrainian state that precipitated Russian military action.

Back to part 7

The war in Ukraine (7) – unprovoked because unforeseen?

Ukrainian veterans of the Azov Battalion, formed by a white supremacist and previously banned from receiving U.S. aid, attend a rally in Kyiv on March 14, 2020.Vladimir Sindeyeve / NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2008 a memo was sent from the US ambassador in Russia to Washington, which was later revealed by Wikileaks, entitled ‘Nyet means Nyet: Russia’s NATO redlines’.  It stated that “Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat.  In Ukraine . . . there are fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.”  A similar US intelligence report in 1994 had previously warned about divisions within the country that could lead to civil war. (Quoted in ‘Ukraine in the Crossfire’, Chris Kaspar de Ploeg)

A simple question therefore arises.  If the consequences of NATO expansion to Ukraine could be seen fifteen years ago, why can’t many on the Left not recognise it now when it is front of their eyes?

Of course, this left will claim that Russia has no right to invade Ukraine but this is not enough for them; for what they have to do is justify their support for the Ukrainian state, which must also have foreseen the potential ruinous consequences of its action. This left now justifies their defence of western imperialist intervention when it is this intervention that has precipitated the war.  Besides embellishing and decorating the Ukrainian state and absolving western imperialism of any culpability it must emphasise the responsibility of Russia and exaggerate its power, lest it be clear that the claims of Ukraine and western imperialism that Russia seeks to conquer not only Ukraine but also roll over Eastern Europe be seen for the fantasy that it is.

So, in order to do so we have the speculative interrogation of Putin’s mental state and blinkers placed on the interpretation of his actions, including ignoring his support for Russian membership of NATO; his support for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan; his backing of the sanctions against Iran, and his sharing of intelligence with the US.  As he later put it “Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much.  And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it.”

In Ukraine, Putin did not instigate the rebellion in the East of the country in 2014 but tried to limit it and then control it, frequently being opposed to its leaders’ policies. Separate republics were not his optimal choice for this would remove his greatest leverage over the whole of the country.  Given the Maidan coup/revolution, he acted to defend Russian interests in Crimea against an anti-Russian regime that had come to power violently.  Some pro-Russians in the East also took up arms as some pro-western Ukrainians had done in the west of the country.

Through the Minsk agreements he subsequently hoped to retain the Donbas areas under Russian influence while supporting a degree of autonomy within Ukraine sovereignty.  The Ukrainian state rejected this and sought to reinterpret Minsk as first Ukrainian state control and then some steps to an autonomy that it rejected, not least because of opposition from its far-right and fascist forces.  Had Putin always wished to remove Ukraine from the map the poor state of the Ukrainian armed forces in 2014 made then the time to attempt it.

German officials claimed that the United States opposed the Minsk agreements and regularly pressurised Ukraine against their implementation, with the US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt meeting the Ukrainian President every two weeks.  German intelligence also claimed that CIA advisors had help set up a ‘functioning security structure’ in 2014 and hundreds of American private military contractors from Blackwater were sent to the East of the country. NATO then announced increased cooperation with Ukraine “to promote the development of greater interoperability between Ukrainian and NATO forces, including through regular Ukrainian participation in NATO exercises.” (This and the following quotation from ‘Ukraine in the Crossfire’, Chris Kaspar de Ploeg)

Ukraine itself became a significant exporter of arms even as it “was begging for newer weapons from the West.”  US politicians encouraged it to seek a military solution with Lindsey Graham visiting Ukrainian troops saying “Your fight is our fight, 2017 will be the year of offense” and John McCain stating that “I believe you will win.”  In the following year the US ambassador to NATO  threatened to “take out” any Russian missiles she thought violated existing Treaties and the Secretary of the Interior threatened a “naval blockade” of Russia.

At this time the people of Ukraine were divided on what role NATO was playing, with 35 per cent seeing it as a threat, 29 per cent as protection and 26 per cent as neither.  While Germany and France appeared as guarantors of Minsk the former chancellor and President, Merkel and Hollande, have stated that the agreements were needed for the purpose of letting Ukraine gain time and build up its military power for another conflict.

When this context is considered it explains why the supporters of the Ukrainian state have been so keen to argue as if the world began on 24 February 2022, and only the Russian invasion matters for any analysis and programmatic response.  It explains why the justification for this support, based on the idea that the Ukrainian capitalist state must be allowed the right of self-determination, must ignore its previous exercise of this right. Taking account of Ukraine’s ‘self-determination’ before this date would reveal this state’s role in deceiving its people on the road to war that it was embarking upon, and the role of the United States in creating that road.

Neither of these justify the invasion, but socialists must take the world as they find it, not as they would like it; not as they believe it should behave, and not with illusions on the role and function of any capitalist state, whether it be of Ukraine, the United States or Russia.  Above all it is the role of socialists to inculcate in all workers the deepest mistrust and hostility to the capitalist state, not defend its right to self-determination, behind which lies its determination to divide and exploit the working class.

This is the ABC of socialist politics, the slogan of ‘self-determination’ has become a reactionary formula behind which the real historical record of its exercise by the Ukrainian state has been hidden.  Support for it cannot survive exposure of its real existence beyond the slogan.

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Forward to part 8

The war in Ukraine (6) – NATO expansion against the Russian threat?

At the end of 1991 a plan was put together to determine how NATO would relate to the newly independent states in Eastern Europe through creating a new organisation, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), open to all former Soviet Union republics as well as former Warsaw Pact members.  One country, however stood out from the rest–Ukraine.  The US ambassador to Russia stated that loss of Ukraine was a more revolutionary event than the fall of communism.  Gorbachev was furiously opposed to US communication with Kiev, pointing out its large Russian population and its artificial borders that included Donbas and Crimea.  The US “Draft Options Paper” thus recommended “the possibility of Ukraine joining the NATO liaison program at a later time.”

At this time the US was concerned with Ukraine’s possession of nuclear weapons and its policy that this was unacceptable, although some US officials argued that the problem would disappear if Ukraine joined NATO.  Clearly, they believed that the nuclear weapons that would be kept would be pointing at Moscow and not at Washington.

The view that won out was one of a step-by-step NATO expansion that was not too obvious but that “will, when it occurs, by definition be punishment, or ‘neo-containment,’ of the bad Bear.”  Even Yeltsin was compelled to complain of the creation of a “cold peace” while Bill Clinton believed “Russia can be bought off.”  Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Borys Tarayuk told the US that “No matter what we say publicly. I can tell you that we absolutely want to join NATO.’

Under the Clinton administration the US became Russia’s largest foreign investor but this did not prevent it going ahead with new missile deployment–the Theatre or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system–reversing the previous view that it violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, thus slowing down agreement over arms control.  Later, in 1997, fifty former US senators, cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and others signed a letter demanding that “the NATO expansion process be suspended.”

Russian policy proposed collaboration in the defence industry, with legal prohibitions on nuclear weapons in new NATO states and stationing of foreign troops, but neither got anywhere while Clinton approved the testing of new nuclear weapons systems.  Promises from Yeltsin to potential NATO members of a security guarantee and complaints of Russian humiliation achieved nothing.  In any case, Yeltsin was Washington’s man with Clinton stating that “Yeltsin drunk is better than most alternatives sober.”

Supporting ‘Yeltsin drunk’ meant helping procure condition-free loans of $10.2 billion from the IMF to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election as President in 1996, while Russian oligarchs met privately at Davos to ensure a victory that would assist their procurement of state assets.  Despite suffering his second heart attack and virtually disappearing from public view he won the election.  Yeltsin had used the money to travel the country dispensing it to buy votes in what his campaign staff in night-time planning sessions called ‘what-shall-we-hand-out-tomorrow’ meetings.  As Clinton said, “If the Russian people knew how much I wanted him re-elected, it might actually hurt his chances.’  Time magazine hailed their intervention as “Yanks to the Rescue’ (July 15 1996.)

In effect, the US had interfered big time in the election to get its favoured candidate elected in a vote that involved “widespread voter fraud” according to a member of the OSCE election-observation team.  This observer also claimed that he was pressured to keep quiet about the irregularities, including that in Chechnya fewer than 500,000 adults remained but more than a million had voted, 70 per cent for Yeltsin.  All this puts into perspective more recent US Democrat complaints about purported Russian interference in Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton. 

A new a NATO-Russia agreement in 1997 was sealed by yet more money from the US along with lots of promises, including that NATO had “no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons” or substantial combat forces.  Privately Clinton was assured that his early assessment was correct that no absolute commitments had actually been made, the only real one being simply a commitment to meet. By the end of the year Madeline Albright was already telling the Russians that the US “would not consult on future infrastructure including on the territories of the three invitees’–the newly invited Central and East European members of NATO.

In 1998 Yeltsin asked Clinton for more help with IMF loans but the money flowed out of the country almost as quickly as it flowed in, prompting US officials to note that “the infamous oligarchs continue to put their personal interests above the common good.” They seemed not to consider that this was a result of the introduction of capitalism into Russia that they had promoted, or that putting ‘personal interests above the common good’ was one description of what capitalism is all about.

Some US officials were wary of being too openly antagonistic to Russia and its long-term consequences, while French President Jacques Chirac told the US National Security Advisor Tony Lake that “we have humiliated them too much” and that “one day there will be dangerous nationalist backlash.”  Chancellor Kohl also worried about the long-term reaction to NATO expansion, and even the British worried about the Article 5 guarantee being too strong and risky to offer too widely.  The American proposer of the original post World War II American containment strategy, George Kennan, argued in 1997 that NATO’s expansion was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-war era.”  

None of this advice for a more cautious approach prevented the US and NATO bombing Serbia without a UN Security Council resolution, without invoking an Article 5 guarantee and without aggression by another state.  To Russia this proved that NATO expansion was not about bringing peace to Europe and claims it was doing so were a lie, with Yeltsin’s critics saying ‘Belgrade today, Moscow tomorrow.’  The example of Kosovo and the justification for war was subsequently employed by Russia itself. The New York Times then reported that Russia had resumed “targeting NATO states with nuclear warheads.”

Looking back in 2015 Bill Clinton’s defence secretary Bill Perry concluded that arms control became “a casualty of NATO expansion” and that “the downsides of early NATO membership for Eastern European nations were even worse than I had feared.”  The CIA noted in 1999 that Vladimir Putin was concerned over the capabilities of its conventional forces, the increased threat from NATO, the need for new nuclear capability and the fear “that a future conflict could be waged on Russian soil.” 

NATO expansion was thus not a result of Russian aggression or threats, or of the need for NATO to establish peace in Europe, but a product of Russian weakness and US determination to impose the fruits of its victory in the Cold War.  Bourgeois figures in many countries noted the provocations involved and the future risks entailed.  Even Joe Biden admitted in 1997 that, rather than NATO membership, “continuing the Partnership for Peace . . . may arguably have been a better way to go.”  Yet now we are to believe that none of this is relevant to the war in Ukraine, with its constitutional imperative to join NATO.

Today’s leaders of these countries deny that the expansion of NATO and the steps towards Ukrainian membership have anything to do with current Russian policy and actions. How incredible is it then that certain parties on the Left agree with them, going so far as to support Ukraine and defend NATO and in doing so further, in so far as they can, membership of the former within the latter? And all this under the flag of ‘anti-imperialism’ and a war of national liberation!

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The War in Ukraine (5) – the amnesia of the pro-war Left

Getty Images

One of the problems with the view that the war in Ukraine is unprovoked is that it erases much of history, wipes clean western imperialist actions, supports the idea that this imperialism is democratic, and robs the working class of the knowledge it needs to orient itself in the world.

Far from being unprovoked the war is a result of repeated provocations that we can outline, beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, when the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze made this “reasonable proposal” to James Baker, the US secretary of state: “Let’s disband both NATO and Warsaw Pact.”  It hardly needs saying what the reply was and how it relates to the current war; unless of course you belong to the band of ‘socialists’ who blame Russia in toto.

There was nevertheless an obvious problem for western imperialism, and the United States in particular: how to justify the existence of NATO as a ‘defensive’ alliance when the enemy no longer existed.  Further to this, the problem was couched in the context of a possible Soviet Union offer for quick unification of Germany in return for leaving NATO and declaring neutrality. This was even further complicated by the knowledge that this offer would have “widespread support among the members of the public in both East and West Germany”, as the German chancellor Helmut Kohl later admitted. Polling showed that 84 per cent of West Germans wanted to denuclearise their country and leaving NATO in return for German reunification would win widespread support across the country.

The US and NATO has portrayed its expansion into central and Eastern Europe as an exercise in democracy–’all the countries joined of their own free will’–but the German events are only one example of the dismissal of the views of local populations that was repeated later in Ukraine.  This includes Soviet offers to get rid of nuclear weapons that the US rejected but that, if we follow the logic of the pro-war left, we should now endorse.  Not that this left currently follows its own reasoning to its conclusion.  It is just that it has no logical claim to reject it, and leaves the working class in the West open to the argument that the problem is an aggressive Russia and the solution a suitably armed NATO with nuclear capability to prevent Russia from doing what it wants.

The US faced the additional problem that the German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher publicly supported the idea that there should be no expansion of NATO to the East, something repeated on several occasions.  The US was bitterly opposed, as one US official stated in an internal memorandum, this “would forfeit the prime assets . . . that have made the United States a post-war European power.”  However, when Gorbachev stated that any expansion of the “zone of NATO” was unacceptable, US secretary of state James Baker stated, according to Gorbachev, that “we agree with that.”  This, of course, was a lie, one that became particularly controversial and the focus of repeated complaints by the Russians that are still routinely derided by the western media today, but was repeated by Kohl in relation to the territory of the then East Germany.

While the German chancellor was saying that NATO would not expand its territory eastward into East Germany, Genscher repeated the position that “for us, it is clear: NATO will not extend itself to the East”. The secretary general of NATO, Manfred Worner, also asserted that the fact it would ‘not deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees.’

After agreement to German reunification the problem then became how to remove Soviet troops without also having to remove NATO ones.  Proposals by Gorbachev for the Soviet Union to join NATO were rebuffed, as were later attempts by Yeltsin and still later ones by Putin for Russia to become a partner of western imperialism; something that discomforts both supporters of ‘Russia is to blame’ and ‘Russia is to be supported’ camps today. 

The weakness of the Soviet Union at this time was exposed by its requests to Germany for funding for its troops stationed in the country, a weakness that the West, and particularly the US, exploited when it promoted the shock therapy applied to introduce capitalism into Russia.  Throughout the NATO expansion, Russia was too weak to resist, and the US was able to proclaim a “new world order” that included this expansion and wars against Iraq and Afghanistan plus others.  It might seem impossible to separate this history of imperialist aggression from the war in Ukraine, but that is exactly what supporters of the war must affirm if it is to be seen as uniquely free from Western complicity.

However, as early as 1992 an official of the US State Department had contacted the Ukrainian ambassador in Washington to urge Ukraine to join NATO, while in the following year the Ukrainian deputy foreign minister was stating that it was “unacceptable for NATO to expand without Ukraine becoming a full member.”  Russian leaders were meanwhile saying that it should be first.

In 1994, Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to conclude a framework agreement with NATO through the Partnership for Peace initiative, a road by which Central and Eastern European countries could join NATO, and was its most enthusiastic participant, seeking to join exercises and contributing 400 troops to the Implementation Force in Bosnia in 1995.  The next year its Foreign Minister discussed the potential to become an ‘Associate Member’ of NATO while Russia made it known that this would be considered an ‘unfriendly policy’ with ‘all the resulting consequences.’

In 1997 the Ukraine Foreign Minister went further in stating the strategic goal as complete integration into NATO.  Later he voiced concern that this might involve the deployment of nuclear weapons in Ukraine’s western neighbours and proposed a nuclear-weapons free zone, which NATO rejected.

Ukrainian President Kuchma continued steps to join the European Union and in 2002 established a schedule for meeting accession requirements by 2011, while the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council also discussed the need to “start practical implementation of the course to join NATO”.   Ukraine continued to pass parliamentary resolutions stating its objective of joining NATO until mid-2004, sending 1,650 troops to support the US occupation of Iraq. In 2005 the new President, Yushchenko, sought a NATO Membership Action Plan, and in 2008 the Ukrainian government’s aspiration that Ukraine would become a member was approved at the NATO summit in Bucharest, pushed by the United States against some European reservations.

Yet opinion polls regularly recorded that there was still not majority support within the country for membership, with opposition reaching over 60 per cent in one poll, a result confirmed and reported in others here and here. One other from Gallup reported as its conclusion that ‘Ukrainians Likely Support Move Away From NATO, Residents more likely to view NATO as a threat than protection.’ 

As one of these argued: ‘As for public opinion, NATO membership should generally not be a matter of broad public acquiescence, but of a conscious geopolitical choice by a consolidated national elite. As part of NATO’s post-Soviet expansion, only Slovenia and Hungary have held referendums on membership – and Hungary’s was nonbinding. Slovakia’s 1997 referendum was declared invalid, as it gathered only 10 percent of eligible voters.’ 

Opinion polls in Ukraine repeatedly demonstrated majority opposition to NATO membership, or at least major division, even after the Ukrainian government approved ‘a four-year, $6 million “information campaign” to improve NATO’s image.’  The article quoted above argued that ‘While the jury is still out regarding its effectiveness, even with the best of PR campaigns and outreach programs, the West by now has generally accepted the uncomfortable fact that NATO may never gain broad popularity among Ukrainians, especially in the eastern regions of the country.’

We now know, of course, that the United States never gave up intervening into Ukrainian politics with the objective of moving the country into NATO. The author of these lines showed remarkable naivety in believing that popular opposition was anything more than an obstacle to be overcome rather than a democratic wish to be respected.  The price to be paid to overcome this obstacle was forecast right from the start, as we see below.

Russia reaffirmed its opposition to NATO expansion, and in particular into Ukraine and Georgia, on the grounds of violation of the principle of equal security and the creation of new dividing lines in Europe.  While Putin claimed that Russia had ‘no right to interfere’ with Ukraine foreign policy’, and if it wanted to restrict its sovereignty (by joining NATO) ‘that is its own business’, Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that “Russia will do everything it can to prevent the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO’.

In the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ the American columnist Charles Krauthammer stated that ‘this is about Russia first, democracy only second . . . The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east . . . The great prize is Ukraine’.  As Putin complained, they “have lied many times’ and in Ukraine “have crossed the line”.  “Everything has its limits.”  The Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov was even more blunt in stating in 2011 that “NATO expansion into Ukraine is something Russia would view as absolutely unacceptable because it then becomes a vital threat.  In political jargon, this kind of threat means war.’ (The quotations not referenced are taken mainly from. ‘Not One Inch, America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate’, M E Sarotte, Yale University Press)

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At the start of the invasion I commented on Facebook that the Russians had warned that Ukraine could not join NATO and that this was a red line, only to be rebuked that, in effect, I was saying that Ukraine ‘was asking for it’.  I replied that this was, as a matter of simple fact, what had just happened.

Facebook is not a great medium for political debate so it should be elaborated here that, as we can see, the Ukrainian state played its own role in advancing the war through its repeated attempts to join NATO, even voting to place it as a constitutional imperative in 2019.  So, while the Ukrainian people did not invite war, its political leadership and its western backers certainly did.  How tragic is it then to now rally to the defence of the state that walked you into war and rely on western imperialist forces that led you there?

Even in 2012 only 28 per cent of Ukrainians supported membership of NATO.  What we see here is thus a sterling example of the old socialist maxim that ‘the main enemy is at home’; in this case the main enemy of the Ukrainian working class was its own capitalist state for whom it is now fighting and dying.  How much more obvious must it be that this should be opposed by all those who claim to be socialists and Marxists?  How obvious is it now that if they don’t, their claims to express any sort of socialism must be repudiated?

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