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

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