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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