The war in Ukraine (13) – the unity for democracy

Extraordinary Summit of NATO Heads of State and Government held in Brussels, Belgium on March 24, 2022. (Photo by NATO Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the previous post we repeated an earlier review of two of the many indices of democracy in the world and the ranking of Russia and Ukraine.  These indices are, of course, ideological constructs that compare the real world with a bourgeois ideal that excludes what Marxists consider real human freedom. For these bourgeois indices freedom includes ‘economic freedom’, which Marx described as the freedom to exploit.  The freedom to own capital is also the freedom to exclude ownership to the vast majority, which without their own capital have to work for those that do, and without which those that do have capital would be able to do nothing with it.  A society in which the working class collectively owns and controls the means of production and has ended private capitalist ownership does not exist but would be one that would really be on the road to freedom.

There is therefore no point to a Marxist index that reported that in no country does the mass of the people, especially the working class, control its own destiny and impose its own will through its economic and social power, with whatever state organisation is still required to defend its collective ownership of the productive powers of society.  The left supporters of Ukraine however claim that there is something qualitatively different to ‘democracy’ in Ukraine in comparison to ‘authoritarianism’ in Russia.  The indices that we have quoted are simply a demonstration that there isn’t.

The point is not only that both are capitalist societies defended by capitalist states, which is the difference that socialists consider determinant, but that there is little difference between them in terms of the functioning of bourgeois democracy.  For socialists such democracy is mainly of value in order for the working class to develop its political consciousness and its organisation more freely.  For the pro-war left this is irrelevant, for while it complains about the attacks on workers’ rights and organisation by the Zelensky regime it nevertheless defends this regime and the state it sits upon. It betrays the cause of the working class at both the level of principle and immediate practice.

Its rationale for this has been argued against repeatedly on this blog, as we have noted the identity of its argument to that of the western capitalist powers, recited endlessly by their state and corporate media.  We see this again with a third index of ‘democracy.’ 

This third index is that of The Economist Intelligence Unit, which reported in its 2021 index that ‘Ukraine’s score declined from 5.81 in 2020 to 5.57 in 2021, taking it further below the threshold of 6.00, above which countries are classified as a “flawed democracy”. Russia’s score, already a lowly 3.31 in 2020, fell further to 3.24 in 2021.’  This meant that Ukraine was 86 out of 167 countries while Russia came in at 124.  The report stated that ‘Ukraine’s score registered the steepest decline among the four east European countries in this category’, (Hybrid regimes in Eastern Europe), and ‘declined in part as a result of increased tensions with Russia. Government functioning under a direct military threat usually restricts democratic processes in favour of the centralisation of power in the hands of the executive and the security or military apparatus with the aim of guaranteeing public safety. In Ukraine, the military played a more prominent role in 2021 and exerted more influence over political decision-making; government policy also became less transparent.’ In the 2022 report Ukraine has dropped only one place to 87 out of 167 countries while Russia falls to 146 place from 124.

’The Economist’ is a virulently opinionated ‘newspaper’ that champions capitalism and Western imperialist ‘values’ so its rationale for its open support for Ukraine is striking for its more or less perfect alignment with the justification of support for Ukraine by the pro-war left.  One is almost tempted to say that one of them hasn’t quite understood what is going on, but it is too easy to identity the mistaken party.

’The Economist’ reports that ‘Ukraine’s score in the 2022 Democracy Index declines compared with 2021, from 5.57 to 5.42. . . . Despite the overall decline in Ukraine’s Democracy Index score in 2022, there were also many positive developments, not least in the way in which the war has given rise to a sense of nationhood and national solidarity. Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion is a demonstration of how ordinary people are prepared to fight to defend the principles of national sovereignty and self-determination.’  

It goes on to say that ‘Russia’s invasion led to a strong “rally-around-the-flag” effect, after which trust in the country’s president, government and armed forces surged to all-time highs. Citizens’ engagement with politics and the news also increased. In response to the invasion, the Ukrainian government imposed martial law, which curtailed freedom of movement and placed sweeping emergency powers in the hands of the president, Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Checks and balances on Mr Zelenskyi’s authority were effectively suspended as normal political processes assumed a lower priority in the face of an existential external threat. The banning of pro-Russian political parties, such as Opposition Platform—For Life, as well as media outlets reporting pro-Russian views, is understandable in the context of the invasion and amid Ukraine’s attempts to consolidate and defend its national identity.’

‘However, in fighting a war that is widely understood to be existential, Ukraine’s leaders have sometimes curtailed the rights and freedoms of citizens, political parties and the media. Much of this is par for the course in wartime, but such extraordinary measures have inevitably resulted in downgrades in various indicators in the Democracy Index.’

‘The Economist’ index thus reports the continuing reduction in democracy with more sorrow than anger and reduces its impact on Ukraine’s overall score by increasing the score of the sub-category of ‘political participation’, which is not actually independent popular action but, as it says, a “rally-around-the-flag” mobilisation that subordinates the Ukrainian working class to its state.  That much of this has been voluntary simply emphasises the subservience.  It is no accident that this ‘political participation’ has been enthusiastically supported by the pro-war left as an example of working class mobilisation, another indication that it cannot distinguish between the power of the Ukrainian state and the power of the Ukrainian working class.

On one thing the magazine may appear obviously correct: ‘Every so often in history something happens that requires people to take sides as a matter of principle. In 2022 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine posed such a choice.’  The pro-war left has demonstrated that it agrees that it must ‘take sides’.

Boffy has ridiculed this idea, as if we must accept one of the alternatives presented by capitalism and the competition between its rival states; but the pro-war left has accepted this choice and in doing so has accepted the principles advanced by one of the alternatives, in its case the policy of the Western capitalist powers.  So, just like this pro-war left, ‘The Economist’ champions the centrality of ‘self-determination’, ironically also asserted by Russia and China in their own singing of the praises of national sovereignty: ‘Sovereignty and democracy are indivisible. Ukraine’s fight to defend its sovereignty has drawn attention to the importance of a principle that has been much denigrated . . .’

It then goes on to note, with total lack of self-awareness, that ‘Ukraine’s elections were marred by substantial irregularities that prevented them from being free and fair. There were serious constitutional flaws, with power being concentrated in the presidency rather than the legislature. The judiciary was far from being independent. Corruption was rife under a system dominated by oligarchs, who exercised huge influence over the main institutions of power. There was a pluralist media, but many outlets were owned by wealthy businessmen or controlled by vested interests. Public trust in government, political parties and the electoral process was very low.’

This however is blamed mainly on the influence of Russia, with the wishful thinking claim that the war ‘may have provided the shock that will ensure no return to the status quo ante in Ukraine. Russia’s war of aggression has raised the level of national consciousness and will amplify expectations of change afterwards.’

In fact, the opposite has already been the case, with nationalist radicalisation after 2014 being used as cover for the lack of economic and social progress and thorough democratisation.  Instead, national consciousness has amplified the worst parts of Ukraine’s past with its celebration of fascist predecessors who now play the most honoured role in Ukraine’s new nationalist revival.  Just like the pro-war left, this far-right is accorded no importance and the growth of nationalism celebrated.  Ethnic nationalism is endorsed through steps to erase Russian culture and define what is really Ukrainian, given a gloss on the left through stupid or dishonest claims that this is some sort of progressive decolonial project.

The pro-war left has therefore no essential difference with the ideological standard bearer of capitalism when the latter declares its verdict that:

‘Nothing that the Western powers did forced Russia to go to war in Ukraine. Russia had in late 2021 listed its grievances and concerns about NATO expansion, arms control and other matters, and the US’s door remained open for further discussion and diplomacy. The US made clear that it was ready to pursue negotiations with Russia. That Russia went to war in Ukraine is all down to the Kremlin.’

This Left holds this same view because its political conceptions are based on the same vacuous moralistic grounds declared by ‘The Economist’, which can be filled with whatever reactionary content is currently prevalent:

‘Democracy is a moral system as well as a system of government, and it is moral in the sense that it expresses an attitude towards people. The basic moral premise of democracy is the idea that all people are equal. Democracy is made for people, not the people for democracy.  From the idea of the equality of people follows the idea of the equality of nations: the principle of national sovereignty also has a moral dimension and is a bedrock of democracy.’ 

In expressing these political conceptions ‘The Economist’ faithfully grounds itself on the class interests of Western capitalism and can really only be charged with hypocrisy.  On the other hand, in basing itself on the same moral arguments and resulting political positions, the pro-war left betrays the class interests of those it claims to represent.

Back to part 12

The war in Ukraine (12) – democracy and authoritarianism?

The war is supported by the Western powers, its media and its pro-war left, and justified as a war of democracy against authoritarianism.  In several Facebook debates I engaged in with this left a version of Godwin’s law kicked in quite quickly as Russia was denounced as fascist, and everyone knows you can’t support fascism.  It appears that the logic is that you must then support Ukraine.  And if it turns out that supporting Ukraine also involves support for their significant fascist armed units, well, these apparently aren’t significant enough to matter.

None of this prevents the supporters of Ukraine also claiming that support for Ukrainian self-determination doesn’t depend on the nature of its regime!  The supporters of Russia take very much the same approach, on the grounds that US imperialism is the main enemy.  The nature of the Putin regime is entirely secondary to their support for a multi-polar world, although that did not really work out very well in the last century; particularly between the years 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945, never mind the numerous smaller wars that have continued over the past number of decades.

Any attempt to present Russia as any sort of democracy, as supporters of Ukraine have pretended with their favourite capitalist state, faces the difficulty that Western propaganda has enough raw material to advance the case that it isn’t.  For a capitalist country Russia is not a very democratic bourgeois democracy; ‘The Economist’ magazine democracy index classifies it as ‘authoritarian’ while Ukraine is classified as a ‘hybrid regime,’ which sits below the categories of ‘democracy’ and ‘flawed democracy’.

One way the lack of democracy reveals itself is at ground level, where it impacts most on the most vulnerable, who became even more economically insecure because of the mass privatisations following the fall of the Soviet Union. This left many people more dependent on local political and economic elites, who were often the same people.  These elites were then able to engage in vote buying and coerced participation in demonstrations in support of favoured candidates etc., achieved through threats to the payment of wages; threats of unemployment; and threats to access to benefits, health and education services and to infrastructure, for example to gas supplies and public transport.

In areas with large facilities such as factories, agricultural enterprises, hospitals and schools and universities, political officials could demand political support from their workers and even relatives, with the open or veiled threat that the factory might close, the hospital staff might lose their jobs, or the school might not get the funds to maintain ageing infrastructure etc.  In one region the intervention of local officials had become so reliable and acute that in 2017 upon the expected visit of such officials on the first day of school the parents formally begged that the visit might happen on the second day.

In rural areas targeting voters has been carried out on a more individualistic basis with what might appear relatively minor figures wielding significant influence, often under pressure themselves, and so on up the tree of vertical command.  In one village, the mayor’s secretary worked on her homestead while also having a second job.  In her secretarial role she had lists of young men eligible for drafting into the army, which many avoided through payment at a widely known price.  This price went up from 200 in 2010 to 1,000 in 2019, although because of currency devaluation there was actually no significant increase.  During the war however the price shot up ten or twelve times the normal level.  During an electoral campaign this power could be put to good use to ensure a high turnout, with the implication that if you didn’t participate “we’ll take your son into the army.”  In small towns and villages, the political operatives would seek to ensure their instructions were followed by demanding that people bring their mobile phones and take a picture of their ballot paper.

These threats to withhold rights and benefits, which should be entitlements but became privileges, could be withheld if votes were not cast as required. Achieving compliance became easier using state resources, including databases of those receiving a pension or other government assistance. State employees were expected to see themselves as working for the current political leadership.  When one chief physician at a district hospital, whose wife was head midwife, was challenged by activists over his wife’s poor record in new-born mortality and his vote buying, he replied “I am not a public servant! I am not a public servant!”

While this is how political corruption operates at the lower level, it could not work so easily on those with some personal independence and therefore not so vulnerable, or with those so poor they might have nothing to lose.  At a higher level, political support has been wrought through increasing nationalism, which conveniently would play the role of diverting attention from the economic and social conditions that facilitated such corrupt political practices in the first place.

These individual stories and description of the general landscape of corruption are taken from a book ‘Staging Democracy, political performance in Ukraine, Russia and beyond’.  The author states that ‘Russia and Ukraine are widely viewed as occupying different places in regime-type taxonomies.  Yet key instruments of explicit political manipulation and control over most people’s everyday lives, if not the frequency of their use, are similar in the two countries.’  The examples quoted are all from Ukraine.

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In a previous post I noted the narrow differences in the political complexion of Ukraine and Russia:

‘The right wing US think-tank The CATO Institute has an annual ‘Human Freedom’ index, a combination of separate indices for personal and economic freedom.  Its 2021 report shows that Ukraine is the third worst country out of 22 in Eastern Europe while the Russian Federation is the worst.  Over 165 countries Ukraine is number 98 while Russia is 126.  The freest country at number 1 is Switzerland, which scores 9.11 for human freedom while Ukraine scores 6.86 (75% of the Swiss score) and Russia scores 6.23 (or 68% of the Swiss score).  We are expected to support the war of Ukraine with 75% of the ‘human freedom’ of the freest against Russia with 68%.  The war of 7%. It is relevant to note that while in 2021 Ukraine ranked 98th, it ranked higher at 82nd in 2008, so that relatively it has gotten worse, but so has Russia from 112th to 126th.’

‘The second index is that of ‘Transparency International’ which reports the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 180 countries/territories around the world. It scores these countries out of 100, with the lower the score the more corrupt a country is perceived to be.  The 2021 publication reports that the least corrupt countries included Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, scoring 88 each.  Ukraine is 123rd on the list while Russia is 139th. A better indication of the difference is that Ukraine scores 32 out of 100 while Russia scores 29, meaning that the former scores 36% of Denmark etc. while Russia scores 33%.  Not a pile of difference; 3 to be exact.’

In both countries the degree of political freedom has shrunk even further over the past year, at exactly the same time some from the pro-war Left have invited us to support one or the other capitalist state. While socialists should not do so in peacetime, we have even less reason to do so in war.

Back to part 11

Forward to part 13

The war in Ukraine (11) – the final steps

In the diplomatic engagement two months before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia published its proposals on security guarantees on 17 December 2021. These demanded a formal end to NATO expansion and restrictions on western deployments of troops and weaponry in Eastern Europe.  Putin stated that it was “extremely alarming that elements of the US global defence system are being deployed near Russia . . . If this infrastructure continues to move forward, and if US and NATO military systems are deployed in Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will be only 7-10 minutes, or even five minutes for hypersonic systems.”

He stated that Russia required legal guarantees, not verbal assurances that NATO expansion would stop, because “fine words and promises” had not stopped this expansion. If western states persisted, Russia would “take appropriate military-technical measures and will have a tough response to their unfriendly steps.” 

According to Russian sources Joe Biden expressed a willingness ‘to engage in a serious and substantive dialogue’ at negotiations in Geneva in January 2022, although by the end of the month Russia’s central demand for a written guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO had been rejected.

Putin responded in a press conference:

‘Listen attentively to what I am saying. It is written into Ukraine’s doctrines that it wants to take Crimea back, by force if necessary. This is not what Ukrainian officials say in public. This is written in their documents.’

‘Suppose Ukraine is a NATO member. It will be filled with weapons, modern offensive weapons will be deployed on its territory just like in Poland and Romania – who is going to prevent this? Suppose it starts operations in Crimea, not to mention Donbass. Crimea is sovereign Russian territory. We consider this matter settled. Imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and starts these military operations. What are we supposed to do? Fight against the NATO bloc? Has anyone given at least some thought to this? Apparently not.’ 

‘The United States is not that concerned about Ukraine’s security. Its main goal is to contain Russia’s development. This is the whole point. In this sense, Ukraine is simply a tool to reach this goal.’

On the last point he is correct, which no doubt scandalises the pro-war left–that anyone would agree with Putin on anything, but their alternative is to claim that the United States is only interested in Ukraine’s welfare and not in Russian power, which is patent nonsense.

For them to accept that the US continues to act as the imperialist hegemon would mean accepting the last part of Putin’s statement–that Ukraine is simply a tool and that it is waging a proxy war.  Since the pro-war left supports Ukraine it too would become a proxy for US imperialism just as, in the old children’s rhyme – the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, the hip bone’s connected to the backbone, the backbone’s connected to the neck bone . . .  All separate but effectively joined as one.

Putin went on to say:

‘This can be done in different ways: by drawing us into some armed conflict, or compelling US allies in Europe to impose tough sanctions on us . . . or by drawing Ukraine into NATO, deploying attack weapons there and encouraging some Banderites to resolve the issues of Donbass or Crimea by force . . .’

In the past year this is what has happened. The provision of NATO weapons to Ukraine, along with intelligence resources, has drawn the country further into the alliance itself; Europe has been persuaded and bullied into sanctions; NATO weapons supplied have become more powerful and, of course, Ukraine’s fascists have employed them; all with the support of the pro-war left, showing, in other words, that they have become extensions of imperialism as well.

A year ago a leading spokesperson for this left declared that only the supply of defensive weapons could be supported and stated that ‘we must also oppose the delivery of air fighters to Ukraine.’ He swallowed the nonsense that ‘for now, NATO members are declaring that they will not cross the red line of sending troops to fight the Russian armed forces on Ukrainian soil’, and he parroted these imperialist lies with all the appearance of a rookie amateur while his followers inhaled the illusions like naïfs.

Since there is no real distinction between defensive and offensive weapons the reason for such delicate distinctions is only the brutal appearance of the real nature of the war that these steps would reveal.  Their position on the war has always relied on the superficial, with a studied disregard for its real and essential nature, but to accept the word of imperialism has opened these leftists to ridicule.

But now there is no hiding the proxy nature of the war for anyone except those who place their hands over their eyes.  Main battle tanks and fighter aircraft are being supplied by NATO and ‘the red line of sending troops to fight the Russian armed forces on Ukrainian soil’ has been crossed.  Over a year later all this is forgotten as the war proceeds, so that since the real character of the war must be ignored so also must the significance of the triumphant provision of imperialist weapons.  However, just as the road that brought us to war received no opposition neither has its results.

The much awaited Ukrainian offensive against Crimea threatens massive escalation should it look like succeeding and massive destruction of Ukrainian lives if it fails, and once again the degenerate pro-war left is on board.

*                 *                  *

When Macron visited Putin on 7 February 2022 he asked if he intended to invade Ukraine, Putin replied that ‘“We are categorically opposed to NATO’s eastward expansion…It is not us moving towards NATO but NATO moving towards us.” He also reiterated the point that Ukraine’s membership of NATO was dangerous because at some point in the future it might attempt to reoccupy Crimea and the Donbass by force and thereby spark a broader Russian-Western conflict.’ A few days later he complained that his proposals had not received a substantive response and stressed “the reluctance of the leading western powers to prompt the Kiev authorities to implement the Minsk agreements.”

In response to Western counter-proposals, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned that in the absence of legally binding security guarantees Russia would resort to ‘military-technical means’.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what is not wonderful is ignoring it. The Russian invasion was a surprise to many, including this author, and it immediately needed to be opposed. With hindsight however it could have been more readily anticipated.  The US and British intelligence services were more on the mark, but then the policy of both states was to provoke an invasion and they knew what the Russian red lines were.  The Ukrainians simply became fodder for western strategy to weaken Russia and thereby more easily isolate and neuter China.  The story of US policy regarding China would explain the progress to war much more than nonsense about it being Russian imperial ambition to change the borders of Ukraine etc.

Geoffrey Roberts argues that:

‘The final trigger for war might have been President Zelensky’s defiant speech to the Munich Security Conference on 19 February, in which he threatened Ukrainian re-acquisition of nuclear weapons. As Gordon Hahn has pointed out, there were no western protests at Zelensky’s threat to abrogate both the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine’s nuclear status and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Ukraine was also a signatory.’ 

‘Another crucial contingency was a significant uptick in ceasefire violations along the border between Kyiv-controlled Ukraine and Donetsk and Luhansk.’

On 21 February Putin stated that:

‘The information we have gives us good reason to believe that Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the subsequent deployment of NATO facilities has already been discussed and is only a matter of time. Given this scenario, the level of military threats to Russia will increase dramatically. At this point the risks of a sudden strike on our country will multiply.’ 

Seven months into the ‘special military operation’ Putin stated that Western states ‘have always been seeking the dissolution of our country – this is very true. It is unfortunate that at some point they decided to use Ukraine for these purposes. In effect . . . we launched our special military operation to prevent events from taking this turn.’

The following month he said that ‘What is happening today is unpleasant, to put it mildly, but we would have got the same thing a bit later but in worse conditions for us, that’s all.’ 

As long as Ukraine sought NATO membership and NATO was prepared to award it; as long as it strengthened its armed forces and was armed with a policy of regaining lost territory in Donbas, the leadership of the Russian state believed that war was inevitable, and it was better to have it before both Ukraine became more powerful and it had joined NATO.  To wait for the former would make a Russian invasion harder, just as it was much harder in 2022 than it would have been in 2014, and if it waited until Ukraine joined NATO it would have signalled war against the whole of Western imperialism.

This is of some consequence today.  The execrable Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall forecasts that the Ukrainian offensive will cause lots of casualties but may fail to expel the Russians, at which time Russia might agree a conditional ceasefire, while ‘Volodymyr Zelenskiy is obliged to temporarily postpone his drive to restore his country’s pre-2014 borders . . . The US and its west European Nato allies declare that democratic Ukraine’s sovereign independence, and the global rules-based order, are saved . . . Richard Haass, an influential former senior US diplomat, and Georgetown professor Charles Kupchan noted last week [that] “the west should do more now to help Ukraine advance on the battlefield, putting it in the best position possible at the negotiating table later this year. Ending the war while deferring the ultimate disposition of land still under Russian occupation is the solution” while a truce on this basis “could prevent renewed conflict and . . . set the stage for a lasting peace.”

Do the western powers really believe that they can pull another Minsk agreement that promised peace but was put in place to buy time to strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces for a renewed war? This time it is proposed that a ceasefire would involve NATO membership, as NATO powers have promised when the war is over.  After all that has happened why on earth would Russia agree to a ceasefire after it has defeated a Ukrainian offensive?

Undoubtedly if or when the Western powers believe there is nothing more to be gained from Ukrainian deaths, they will don the mantle of peacemakers and condemn continued Russian aggression, but Russia will be more interested in ensuring that Ukraine with NATO membership is unable to pose a threat.  By promising membership to Ukraine, the NATO powers have condemned Ukraine to further devastation, just as its history of intervention with this objective brought about the current war.

The workers of Ukraine will continue to be victims of rivalry among the biggest capitalist powers and their ruling class will continue to be complicit.  The only alternative is to oppose all these capitalist forces and the only solution to their war is socialism, as one other famous Russian called Vladimir put it.

Back to part 10

Forward to part 12

The war in Ukraine (10) – taking the red pill

In July 2021 Putin said that Russia remained “open to dialogue with Ukraine and ready to discuss the most complex questions . . . but it is important for us to understand that our partner is defending its national interest, not serving someone else’s . . . We respect the Ukrainian language and traditions. We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous. I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia [which] has never been and will never be ‘anti- Ukraine’. And what Ukraine will be – it is up to its citizens to decide.”

It is possible to read these words with absolute cynicism, given the subsequent invasion, and as simply lies, but this is not quite the case.  Putin was not lying when he said that the ‘sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia’, by which he obviously meant–not part of NATO.

Left supporters of Ukraine will object to the limits of Ukrainian sovereignty being defined by Russia but this view is really to live in a world of illusions–that within capitalism it is possible for any state, never mind the smaller and weaker, to do what it wants.  Ukrainian membership of NATO, with the right of self-determination to site nuclear missiles, may be an exercise of the right of self-determination for Ukraine but a threat to exercise of the very same right by Russia.   Socialists do not set themselves the task to ensure that such ‘rights’ exist, only the most naïve nationalists believe such nonsense, or that there is some just and fair balance between states that legitimately constrains self-determination, only liberals pretend that this can be true.

Marxists support the freedom of humanity, to be achieved by the abolition of classes, which is itself to be brought about through the emancipation of the working class.  The struggle we support is therefore of the working class against capitalism–and the states that defend it–and establishment of its own power, the rule of the working class irrespective of sex and race etc. and the abolition of nation states, not proclamation of their inviolable rights. We do not determine the interests of the working class by accepting the rights of the states they live within and we do not confuse the interests or rights of people living within these states with the states themselves. We do not do it in relation to Russia or the United States and do not do it in relation to Ukraine.

The struggle against capitalism is an international one because capitalism is international.  To believe that any country can be independent within this international system is to ignore that the international capitalist system, which is understood as imperialism, cannot be returned to purely national forms that never really existed in the first place.  Opposition to imperialism is not therefore opposition to one capitalist state interfering in the affairs of another because this is the nature of the system; and it is not opposition to political interference (as opposed to economic) because the two are aspects of the same system.

In the past, the world capitalist system included large empires and numerous colonies, but this is no longer the case as the colonies achieved independence.  To repeat, it is not the job of socialists to achieve their ‘real’ independence since this is impossible, just as it is impossible–and not our job–to defend small capitals against bigger monopolies or small states at war with larger ones.   Socialists have historically supported anti-colonial struggles for a number of reasons.

First, these weakened the more developed capitalist states and weakened the obstacles to the struggles of the working classes within these countries, while also dealing blows against the rivalry between the empires that lead to war.  Secondly, in so far as these colonies had small and immature working classes (because they had limited and immature capitalist development), they furthered the development of these countries politically and economically and in so doing advanced their working classes political and economic progress.

In such countries the small nature of the working class often ruled out a more or less direct struggle by the working class for its own power.  In such cases tactical alliances with other classes was possible and necessary and socialists would support such tactical alliances provided the working class was separately organised to fight for its own interests and actually fought for these interests.  In some cases, through the process and programme of permanent revolution it could offer the promise of local and temporary victories until the larger working class of the advanced capitalist states could achieve their own victories. In all cases it sought to develop its own separate organisation as the promise of its future struggle.

All this history of the socialist movement has been dumped by the pro-war and pro-Ukraine left.

For them, Ukraine must be defended in its advance to membership of the major imperialist alliance even though this has led to war and its prolongation, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and millions of displaced people.  Support for self-determination is not a policy that socialists can support in these circumstances and for these purposes. Not in relation to capitalist states that are already politically independent, that have already gained ‘self-determination’ in so far as it is available to them, and has availed of that self-determination to provoke a war in alliance with the biggest imperialist alliance, that will assuredly not take self-determination as its guiding light if victorious.

With a policy of ‘self-determination’ for already independent capitalist states it would be necessary to support all and every such state since all would have their freedom circumscribed by defeat in war, which today would mean supporting Ukraine and Russia.  In doing so one would have to dump the politics of socialism that sets out the class divisions of society as the lines of struggle and adopt entirely secondary, or bogus, criteria in order to support one capitalist state against another.  Once this is done it would be possible to defend your adopted capitalist state on the grounds of ‘self-determination’ and having done so, go along with all the nationalist crap which inevitably comprises its struggle, such as the imposition of nationalist myths and destruction of ‘alien’ cultures embodied in language and books etc.

This is the result of failure to come to terms with the world as it really is, as a Marxist; not as some believer in ‘justice’ or other moral good unhinged not only from the real world but also from any coherent alternative to the way it currently works.

In the course of outlining the view of the Russian state in the previous post and the actions of Ukraine and the United States/NATO we are left with the following situation as the year 2021 ended:

Ukraine vowed to regain Crimea and was making its armed forces stronger and stronger. Ukraine demanded, and NATO committed to, Ukrainian membership of NATO while the US decided to go ahead without the rest in developing political and military cooperation. Russia stated repeatedly that Ukrainian membership of NATO was unacceptable while it also argued that the Minsk agreements were irreplaceable in securing peace, although these had already been effectively rejected by Ukraine. Finally armed confrontations became closer with the massing of troops on the line of contact between both states, including increased shelling by Ukrainian forces immediately prior to the Russian invasion.

The answer to the question why the invasion occurred is clear as is some clarity why it occurred when it did.  Unless of course you have swallowed the blue pill and all this is irrelevant, and the invasion is about righting some historical wrong about the artificial character of Ukraine’s borders, or to convince Ukrainians that they are really Russian by making them so.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

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.

*       *        *

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.

Back to part 6

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!

Back to part 5

Forward to part 7

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)

                *               *             *

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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The war in Ukraine (4) – the consequences of being ‘unprovoked’

On February 24 2022 the US President Joe Biden condemned Russia’s invasion as “a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity” and a “flagrant violation of international law.” Putin he said, “rejected every good-faith effort the United States and our Allies and partners made to address our mutual security concerns through dialogue to avoid needless conflict and avert human suffering,”

Boris Johnson pronounced that ‘President Putin has chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction by launching this unprovoked attack on Ukraine’, while then foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said she had summoned the Russian ambassador “to meet me and explain Russia’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”.  The British Government website continues to have this as its leader – ‘The UK and our allies condemn the Russian government’s unprovoked and premeditated war against Ukraine.’  

The Irish Government as part of the EU has repeatedly supported its sanctions, even demanding they go further, joining Poland and Baltic states in calling for more.  Upon the invasion Tánaiste Leo Varadkar stated that whilst Ireland is militarily neutral, “in this conflict, Ireland is not neutral at all”, stating its “unwavering and unconditional” support for Ukraine.’

This Wikipedia entry sets out a whole list of States responses in which the word ‘unprovoked’ appears 29 times at my last count.

The media followed suit: the New York Times described it as ‘an unprovoked invasion’; the Financial Times a ‘naked and unprovoked aggression’; the Guardian ‘an unprovoked assault’, while the Economist thundered that ‘Russia’s president has launched an unprovoked assault on his neighbour.’

On 14 October 2022, Defenders Day in Ukraine, the US ambassador issued a video message saying:

‘The United States, our partners and allies, will continue to support Ukraine to hold those who commit war crimes accountable and to work to bring together the world to maintain pressure on the Kremlin until it ends its brutal, unprovoked war against Ukraine and our shared values. And we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.’

The position of much of the Western Left, certainly in Britain, is much the same, with a recent Ukraine Solidarity Campaign statement also calling for ‘a week of action’ against ‘the brutal and unprovoked invasion’.  It sees no provocation; absolves western imperialism and the Ukrainian state and regime of any responsibility; supports ‘Ukraine’s freedom, presented as ’self-determination’; has failed to oppose sanctions while mouthing hypocrisies about not supporting them either; sets no political limits to its support – that is ‘unconditional’; and supports western supply of arms, which along with sanctions and financial support are the main western imperialist interventions.

If anything, the political resources required by the support of the pro-war Left for Ukraine might seem to be much greater than that of the various capitalist states, politicians and media.  It has faced opposition from those socialists opposed to capitalist war, something that has been a principle of our politics at least from the exemplary case of the First World War, the character of which has recently been graphically exposed by the film “All Quiet on the Western Front’.  The pro-war left has had to face this opposition–which capitalist Governments and its bourgeois media are not of course concerned with–and reject its arguments, sometimes claiming how comfortable it is for its critics that they take such a position!

However, because it claims the mantle of socialism its position very quickly became dishonest, confused, as well as reactionary.  Consider the exchange of views in Britain between Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR) and the Stop the War coalition (StW).  Like many organisations not interested in principled politics, ACR argues the prime necessity for action and berates Stop the War for putting up conditions to joint activity.  

We have dealt with what sort of anti-war movement is required before, so suffice to say here that its own insistence on the absence of certain demands, such as opposition to NATO, is also a precondition.  The point of a political campaign is to fight for particular objectives that are directly relevant and to raise the consciousness of the working class.  To exclude certain demands is to avoid fighting for these objectives and failure to raise political consciousness around them.  Lack of concern for political principle leads to this obvious truth being passed over.

Since it is impossible to hide the political differences, it quickly became clear that those such as ACR calling for a broad approach, ‘designed to build the broadest possible movement against the war’, were not actually against the war but for it, war until Ukrainian victory.  This is where the pro-war position is dishonest.

ACR refuses to support demands opposing NATO, rejecting the view that ‘NATO’s expansion has “contributed to the war”’, stating that ‘this is not clear at all. It could equally be argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an act of unprovoked imperialist aggression.’  Having said that it could equally be argued that the war was the fault of Russia, what ACR really means is that Russia was wholly at fault, and the problem with the StW coalition is that it is not ‘engaging with the central issue: the unprovoked war on Ukraine.’

ACR wants to oppose an ‘unprovoked attack on Ukraine’, oppose the war and ‘to organise constructively against it – not in a way that fans the flames of war – which is why the demand “No to war” is included – but in a way that solidarises with the plight of the Ukrainian people.’  It thinks, or perhaps pretends to think, that you can demand solidarity with one of the sides waging without supporting war and without fanning its flames, all while supporting a greater and greater supply of weapons.  This is where the pro-war position is (shall we say?) confused

In their exchange of views the StW coalition raised the question of opposing arms expenditure as an urgent issue, but ACR regarded this as belonging to ‘a whole range of other criticisms’ that can be parked and not form part of the movement. But this identification of the issue by the StW coalition turned out to be very prescient: the British Trade Union Congress voted shortly after to support increased ‘defence spending’, more honestly stated as spending on war.  The ACR position would have left, and still would, any supposed anti-war position silent in this debate.  Since, in any case, the ACR defends the arming of Ukraine by the British state this is a perfectly logical position for it to take.  This is just one case in which the pro-war position is reactionary.

As the argument supported by ACR shows, the stance of the pro-war left rests, like that of western imperialism in general, on the view that the Russian invasion was unprovoked.  Of course, provocation does not equate to justification or automatically follow from it.  In the world of capitalist state competition provocation may be seen as sometimes inevitably resulting in war, but that does not require socialists to support either the provocation or the response.  In fact, opposition to both is clearly a principled socialist approach.

But this would not be enough for the pro-war left because admission of western imperialist and Ukrainian provocation would require taking this principled position.  Both western imperialism and Ukraine would then be seen as playing their own part in causing the war; Ukrainian agency as they call it, and having responsibility for it, in which case defending either would be anathema. The pro-war left cannot concede this reality; let’s call it the homage that treachery pays to principle.

The pro-war left denies reality when it absolves western imperialism and Ukraine of any provocation and therefore any responsibility.  In doing so, in denying recent history and current reality it signs up to an infantile view saturated with bourgeois morality in which Ukraine is Good and western imperialism Innocent; innocent of acting on its essential nature. 

The reality of capitalist war becomes instead a morality tale of heroic resistance, and the messy reality is only so much noise – unpleasant, unwelcome and better drowned out.  The unpleasant nature of Ukrainian nationalism for example, that shades into the relatively large constituency for fascism; or the fact that there are a large number of Ukrainians who support Russia, are just irrelevant noise to signal. 

Instead, they can fight for what is Good; while other socialists fight in opposition to their own capitalist state and capitalist class, watching and reading mass media propaganda about the ‘unprovoked’ war.

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