Image: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS
New Left Review states that ‘Putin’s war, the second type of conflict at stake, has an ambiguous double character, defined by its twin adversaries, NATO and Ukraine. On the one hand, Russia’s mobilization began as a desperate defensive gamble against the advance of US military power. On the other, the invasion is a neo-imperialist war of conquest or partition, wavering in scope, provoked by Kiev’s declared option for incorporation into the West.’ The editorial states that ‘the two aspects of the war are distinct in their origins, aims and ideologies.’
This argument, however, sustains only one real difference, which is the ideological cover given by Putin for the Russian invasion; in all other respects the two aspects are one. As I argued on Facebook to a member of the Fourth International (FI) who condemned Putin’s imperialist justifications regarding the validity of Ukrainian claims to nationhood – Marxists should not take ideological justification for explanation.
There are not two wars going on in Ukraine, only one. That Ukraine is still fighting is due to Western support. Its justification is for self-determination and its left supporters have rallied to this flag in wilful ignorance of its meaning for socialists. The self-determination demanded by Ukraine entails the right to join NATO, which obviously threatens the self-determination of Russia, not to mention those in Crimea and other areas of the Ukrainian state that no longer wish to be ruled from Kyiv. Wilful ignorance exists for them too.
The result of a Ukrainian victory would be the subordination of minorities in a Ukrainian state. In the October issue of The Atlantic magazine the very pro-Ukrainian US journalist who visited the country notes that there is ‘a burning hatred of all things Russian, whether Putin or Pushkin, and open contempt for the Russian people, who are widely regarded as Putin’s slaves.’ What price the rights of those who see themselves as Russian in a victorious Ukraine?
A victory would see Ukraine join NATO as a subordinate member of that imperialist alliance. Militarily subordinated, already dependent on western arms, the Ukrainian state will have to sign up to new IMF or other lender conditions for help, for which the Ukrainian working class will pay. And this is what is termed self-determination! There would not be two victories in this war because there are not two wars going on, only one.
Nevertheless, New Left Review (NLR) states that ‘Russia’s invasion generated a third type of conflict: Ukraine’s war of national self-defence’. This is the argument that the war has two political characters that I have repeatedly rejected here and the series of posts starting here.
The argument presented is that:
‘The trauma of the invasion has inevitably forged a new national consciousness in Ukraine . . . Pride in Ukraine rose from 34 per cent in August 2021 to 75 per cent a year later. This has come at the price of a visceral hatred for Russians—‘the orcs’—whose terms Zelensky shares: ‘Until they get smashed in the face, they won’t understand anything’, he told the Wall Street Journal.’
‘In August 2022, 81 per cent of Ukrainians reported they felt ‘cold’ or ‘very cold’ towards Russian people, and nearly half regarded the populations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in the same hostile light. The proportion of people who think Ukrainian should be the only state language has risen from 47 to 86 per cent.’
The article notes one result – ‘Given the mixed genealogies and trans-border extended families in the region, this translates into innumerable strained or broken relationships; a third of Ukrainians define their predominant feeling as grief.’
A more pointed summary is expressed in The Atlantic magazine: ‘Ukraine’s present unity is unprecedented, but war – always intolerant of complexity and ambivalence – is pushing Ukrainians to construct an identity that is simpler than the country’s history. The war will not resolve the abiding question of what it means to be Ukrainian.’
The purported war of national defence is intensifying an already reactionary nationalism that no amount of left apologetics can render progressive. The Atlantic magazine author is correct that this ultra-nationalism does not reflect Ukrainian history, and the ‘new national consciousness’ is being built upon the worst history of the old. This new consciousness is not progressive, no matter that some Ukrainian socialists claim: that the war is an opportunity to create a progressive nationalist consciousness.
Its reactionary character can be seen in the views of many Ukrainians reported by the NLR editorial:
‘After the Maidan uprising in 2014, two-thirds of Ukrainians thought the country was ‘going in the wrong direction’, with a brief exception for the peace moves in 2019; now, over 75 per cent think it is heading in the right one. An overwhelming majority believes Ukraine will win the war, even though they think it may take a year or more.’
So, tens of thousands have been killed with many more injured; millions have become refugees at home and abroad; the economy has contracted catastrophically and the country effectively bankrupt. It faces a continuing war in which it either accepts defeat and loss of territory or it seeks to regain this territory against the wishes of much of the population it will conquer. All this is set to continue. This is not ‘heading in the right direction’.
Dig deeper, and it becomes clear that while the views of most Ukrainians may have been coloured by war, the long familiarity by many of the corrupt character of the state they are fighting for has not been forgotten.
The highest support is for the armed and security forces of the state, the most common expression of war in any country. Support for the President is also high. Support for other organisations is much lower and when it comes to the state bureaucracy, courts and political parties it becomes strongly negative. The expressions of hope among the majority of Ukrainians recorded in another opinion poll are not new; they have been raised many times before in the recent past, including, for some, after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan uprising in 2013/2014, plus the elections of various Presidents including Zelensky.
One of the most dramatic turnarounds in popularity is that of President Zelensky and this is the most marked illustration of the reactionary character of the war. Elected promising an end to corruption and peace he has been exposed as having his own offshore account, like previous oligarchs and corrupt leaders, appointing his own supporters to positions of power, and delivering his country into an avoidable war, for which he should not be absolved of his share of responsibility. His popularity is testament to the fact that he has, certainly he wouldn’t have had his picture in Vogue if he hadn’t.
Further evidence of the reactionary character of the war in legitimising the reactionary direction of the Ukrainian state are the words of one Ukrainian ‘socialist’ in a radio interview, who, while pointing out the regressive social policies of Zelensky, declares enthusiastic support for his policy of war, lamenting only that he does not unite the country to his satisfaction! His words have been spoken before by every social-imperialist lamenting that his capitalist rulers do not reciprocate their own prostration to their class enemy:
‘What the Zelenskyy government does is absolutely awful and creates a lot more social instability [inaudible] in times of war by using the situation as a pretext for attacking the rights of trade unions, of the people who are in precarious conditions, attacking of housing rights, of social rights, depriving of basic social securities for the needs of advancing their market fundamentalist ideology.’
‘At the same time, they are progressing privatization laws. They are even privatizing the [inaudible] industry, so in times of war, where war economy is needed and social dialogue and social stability is absolutely necessary to enforce, they are pushing for awful neoliberal reforms.’
‘They’re actually using the situation of the war to push for the most horrible reforms in economic democracy and trade union rights that were introduced a few years ago, that they failed to push at that time. For them it’s a possibility to achieve their vision of Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s a pretty good vision, especially in times of war. It’s absolutely compromising the Ukrainian defence.’
The war therefore, contrary to the view of New Left Review (NLR) is not one of ‘Ukraine’s war of national self-defence’, and the growth of Ukrainian nationalism preceding and during it has not been the expression of universal emancipatory beliefs. As we have seen, the views are Russophobic even while presented by Ukrainian ‘socialists’ as ‘healthy’. These views are a more accurate reflection of the nature of the war being fought by the Ukrainian state than the strident appeals to democratic values equally hypocritically trumpeted by the West.
The view that the war is the responsibility of the Russian people (no doubt while it is also illogically maintained that Ukraine is more democratic than Russia) is confirmed by the earlier opinion poll quoted above. It recorded that while ‘86% of respondents believe that the Russian leadership is primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine 42.5% also believe that the same responsibility lies with the citizens of Russia.’ The poll, however, also records that ‘at the same time, about 20%, in addition, blame the Ukrainian leadership for the invasion, and 18% and 16%, respectively, blame NATO member states and the U.S. leadership.’ This shows a greater appreciation among a significant number of Ukrainians of the causes of the war than the left cheerleaders of the Ukrainian state inside and outside it.
This finding illustrates that there are still deep fissures in the Ukrainian population, even among those still part of the Ukrainian state. The process of radicalisation of the population by ultranationalism has not been comprehensively successful. This is one reason it is wrong to characterise Ukraine as either a fascist state or dominated by fascism. Equally however, it is more than disgraceful that Western left supporters of the war have sought to minimise or downplay its importance, which they would, one would hope, not be so keen to do if similar influence existed in their own countries.
The growth of nationalism has gone hand in hand with the process of ‘decommunisation’, both of which have had the function of covering for the attacks on working class living standards and political rights resulting from the drastic imposition of capitalism into a previously non-capitalist society. While directed at the symbols and history of Stalinism, decommunisation has been useful to discredit any left alternative to what is called neoliberalism. Nationalism has repeatedly been employed by successive politicians and their oligarch sponsors to deflect from the failure of their austerity to deliver improvements for the majority.
The hegemony of nationalism has been demonstrated again and again as even popular uprisings against corruption have been exploited by the far right to advance its cause. The inchoate strivings by many Ukrainians, for example in the Maidan uprising, have empowered the far right and its oligarch sponsors. Their leading role has endowed them with legitimacy and witnessed their slogans become popularised outside their ranks. Its historical figures, such as Stepan Bandera, have become the precedent for, and exemplar of, Ukrainian nationalism, to be celebrated in iconography, stamps, a national holiday, street names, demonstrations and re-writing of history.
This has also involved assimilation of prominent far right figures into other parties and into the armed detachments of the state’s security forces. Far right violence has been tolerated and sometimes important in setting the limits to state action, such as its implementing the Minsk Accords. The ideological influence of the far right has far exceeded their numbers.
The Atlantic magazine journalist interviewed a sculptor in Lviv who ‘could hardly keep up with requests from Territorial Defence units’ for busts of Stepan Bandera. When asked what she thought of his views, the sculptor ‘had little to say’. He was just a symbol of resistance – “Don’t fuck with Ukraine.”
The problem is not that the majority of Ukrainians have thereby become fascists, the excuse is often offered that they are not aware of his views. It is that his followers today have a standing that means they are not and cannot be challenged, and without challenge their reactionary views cannot be confronted. The post-Euromaidan civic nationalism of liberals did not therefore undermine ethnic nationalism but empowered it, helping exclude a radical socialist agenda.
The strength of the far-right reflects the nature and strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the latter is not a replacement for it. The assimilation, prominence and legitimacy of it all reflects not so much the independent strength of fascism in Ukraine, which is real enough despite embarrassed attempts to now minimise it, but the particularly reactionary nature of a mainstream Ukrainian nationalism that can assimilate it, accept its precepts and prominence, and lend it legitimacy. This is not simply an ideological problem, or even barrier to the left, but a threat to any idea of being able to reconcile to its rule to the populations of eastern and southern Ukraine the state wishes to reoccupy.
Ultra-nationalism influences the potential for continued war. The opinion poll above states that:
‘. . . the question arises, what can be considered a victory? The majority of respondents (55%) say that the withdrawal of Russian troops from the entire territory of Ukraine and the restoration of borders as of January 2014 can be considered a victory. Another 20.5% are even more radical – a victory in the war for them would be the destruction of the Russian army and assistance to the revolt/breakdown inside Russia. A relatively small proportion of respondents would consider the end of the war with some kind of concessions from Ukraine a victory. About 9% would consider the withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukrainian territory except occupied Crimea a victory, 7.5% would consider the restoration of the status quo as of February 23, 2022.’
But war imposes a view of its own, whether dressed up as national defence or not. In a recent Irish Times article the author of a book on Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ reports his findings in a survey during the summer in three Ukrainian cities close to the southeast battlefields. He states that ‘almost half agreed it was imperative to seek a ceasefire to stop Russian killing Ukraine’s young men. Slightly more supported negotiations with Russia on a complete ceasefire, with a quarter totally against and a fifth declaring themselves neutral . . . Those most touched by the war, namely the internally displaced, were more likely to prioritise saving lives. Other research reveals that those farthest from the battlefields have the most hawkish attitudes.’
Maybe this goes some way to explaining the moral righteousness of those western leftists supporting the Ukrainian state’s war; that and their rotten politics.
Back to part 1
Forward to part 3