Ukraine: U.S. Aggression Drives Imperialist Frenzy
The crisis around the fate of the Ukraine is rife with imperialist lies and propaganda emanating from Washington and ably promoted by the compliant pundits of the U.S. press. Chief among these nose-lengthening fairy tales is that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine, not the fascist-led coup government in Kiev, and certainly not the ever-so-innocent U.S. and its well-meaning allies in the European Union!
Just listen to Nicholas Kristoff, the Harvard-trained commentator and New York Times columnist who supported the Bush government’s invasion of Iraq as long as it didn’t cost too much, only to question it later when the lies were exposed:
“For decades, Ukrainians have been starved, oppressed, and bullied by Russians, and, with Russia now inciting instability that could lead to an invasion and dismemberment of eastern Ukraine, plenty of brave Ukrainians here say they’ve had it and are ready to go bear hunting.”1 Kristof, like the U.S. media in general, is still ready to back-up the latest imperialist fabrications.
Actually, in the decades since the counterrevolutionary overturn of the Soviet Russian degenerated workers state in 1991-92, Ukrainians have been starved and oppressed by capitalist restoration, spurred on from and aided by the West. The Ukrainian economy had been the second largest in the USSR, being an important and integrated component of the country’s planned economy. Now, it was subjected to being divided up by opportunist bureaucrats-turned-oligarchs, who gorged themselves on the wealth long produced by Ukrainian workers. Industrial employment fell off drastically. Ukraine lost 60 percent of its GDP between 1991 and 1999, and suffered runaway inflation. By 2000 real wages had plummeted to about one-third of 1991 values.
While the International Monetary Fund (IMF) denies responsibility, it confirms that Ukraine “suffered from hyperinflation that peaked at 10,000 percent in 1993, a dramatic output collapse, and huge declines in the population’s standard of living,” due to “proliferation of tax privileges,” and “unofficial privatization” (read theft) of state-owned enterprises, among other things.2 Some recovery took place in the late 1990s, but Ukraine was hit hard again in the 2008-09 financial crisis, brought about by Wall Street bankers. And now, a deeply indebted Ukraine faces a new round of austerity measures at the hands of world bankers.
U.S. aggression has deep roots
Just as important in the background to the present Ukraine crisis is the U.S.’ open conspiracy to strangle the Soviet Union after World War II. Even before 1945, the U.S. (with its British ally) prepared for its next enemy by directing bombers to German targets such as the working-class Hamburg “red quarter,” instead of local industrial areas, among other things. After the war—in which the Soviet Union almost single-handedly defeated Nazi Germany—it was open season on the USSR and its allies anywhere in the world. Nazi spies and German scientists were mobilized for the anti-communist crusade, as well as right wing elements in Eastern Europe. In the Ukraine, the U.S. linked up with Stepan Bandera’s pro-Nazi force—which had fought the Red Army and helped the SS by murdering Jews, communists, and Poles in the Ukraine during the war—and turned them into an anti-Soviet guerilla force, and a mainstay of “Radio Free Europe.” Bandera’s present day supporters were some of the fascist thugs who led the February 22nd coup, and are now in ministerial positions in Kiev.
After the collapse of the Eastern European deformed workers’ states and of the Soviet Union, the U.S. employed shock doctrine tactics to reform the economies in a capitalist mold, and to encircle Russia as much as possible by whittling away its borderlands. Despite assurances given to the Russian Federation that the former buffer-zone states adjacent to Russia would not be admitted to the NATO alliance (and after capitalist Russia itself was refused admittance to NATO), nearly all these former Soviet allies have become part of this “cold war”-like anti-Russian alliance... except, so far, the Ukraine.
Ukraine in the crosshairs: Orange “Revolution” and Maidan
Politics in the Ukraine have long reflected the deep divisions between the Western and Eastern portions, as roughly defined by the Dnieper River, which flows north to south through Ukraine, and empties into the Black Sea. The East grew into an industrialized heartland in the Soviet years, and is still an important trade partner for Russia’s defense and technology sectors; while the West is more Europe-oriented and agricultural. Thus U.S. and EU meddling has focused on the West. In 2004, the U.S. and other imperialist powers, supported by dozens of imperialist-financed NGO’s [Non-Governmental Organizations], engineered a series of “pro-democracy” demonstrations, which resulted in the dumping of the pro-Russian president, Victor Yanukovich, whose base was in the East primarily, and the installation of the West-oriented, anti-Russian Victor Yushchenko.
While Yanukovich was indeed corrupt and deserving of no support, the “Orange Revolution” was no revolution. It wasn’t even effective in stopping Yanukovich, who returned to power as Prime Minister in 2006, and President in 2010. But the real nature of the “color revolution” syndrome was shown in the Maidan (central square) in Kiev in 2014, when the fascists were mobilized to force the issue of the West vs. Russia.
Despite his ties to the pro-Russian East, Yanukovich had run on a platform of accepting EU integration based on an elaborate plan, which included loans totaling $160 billion—which would allow Ukraine to dig out of its current crisis, and make up for lost trade with Russia—as well as full EU membership. He lost support from members of his own Party of Regions by demanding that they accept his plan. But the offer included only $850 million from the EU and $5 billion from the IMF, with severe conditions. Ukraine would have to pay back earlier debts of nearly $5 billion in the first year, meaning no “bail-out” benefit to Ukrainians, and also accept onerous austerity measures. Furthermore, there was a ban on accepting any aid from Russia; and there was no EU membership in the deal (a less beneficial “associate” status was offered). Yanukovich balked, and accepted a Russian offer of $15 billion loan instead.3
An “offer you can’t refuse” rejected
The EU/IMF “offer” was a typical bailout plan designed not to help the country in question, but to squeeze it dry to pay Wall Street, extract capital and open the doors to international corporate investment and dominance. But more than that, as Yanukovich and the world soon found out, it was an “offer you can’t refuse.” The U.S. and EU allies (Germany particularly) had put decades of planning into ripping off all of Russia’s borderlands, and Ukraine was the big prize they weren’t going to walk away from. As soon as Yanukovich backed out of the IMF/EU deal, dozens of U.S.-sponsored NGOs, chiefly the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a latter-day stand-in for the CIA, whipped up support for accepting the EU, despite the general lack of awareness of exactly what the terms were. The mostly peaceful anti-corruption demonstrators in the Maidan were soon joined by hordes of new recruits, including violent gangs of thugs and outright fascists.
It is important to understand that these groups included real neo-Nazis. The Svoboda Party is the direct descendant of Stepan Bandera’s band of pro-Nazi murderers; they have staged big rallies in Kiev, including this January, honoring Bandera’s memory (Bandera was caught and executed in the Soviet Union in 1959). It was they, and the even more vicious Right Sector fascists, who fought the police, set up burning barricades, took over government buildings, and led the February 22nd coup that caused Yanukovich and his ministers to flee for their lives. The fascists likely also provided the rooftop snipers who, in the days before the coup, enraged the crowd by firing into it, killing several. (The government was blamed at the time, but subsequent investigation has shown that both demonstrators, as well as some police, were shot by the same sniper rifles, indicating a likely rightist provocation, rather than police action.)
The Odessa massacre
Both Svoboda and Right Sector now hold important ministerial positions in Kiev. It was Right Sector murderers who torched the union hall in Odessa on May 2nd, killing more than 40 anti-coup government demonstrators who had taken refuge there, including by shooting those who tried to escape. Swastika-like symbols and “Galician SS” (another pro-Nazi group in WWII) were scrawled on the walls.
The Odessa outrage clearly underscored the fascist threat posed by the imperialists and the coup they inspired. It had the immediate effect of boosting a positive vote in the East in referendums for self-rule in the pro-Russian industrial provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. And it led to significant working class mobilizations to support self-rule in those areas. Marxists support a Ukraine-wide workers’ mobilization of defense guards, militias, etc., to oppose the fascists and, in Trotsky’s words, “acquaint their heads with the pavement.” Such a mobilization, East and West in Ukraine, could lay the groundwork for mass opposition to the EU imposed austerity measures, which are surely coming, and counteract the nationalism that divides East and West.
“Yats is the guy”
The U.S. has never had any problem with working with right wing generals, fascist terrorists, Islamic jihadists, etc., as long as it divides the working class and keeps its enemies fighting one another. It didn’t take long after Yanukovich dropped the EU diktat for U.S. politicians such as Senator John McCain, and EU leaders such as Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, to meet with fascists such as the vicious anti-Semitic Svoboda leader Oleg Tyagnibok, as part of their drive to see the pro-EU Maidan rebellion succeed. But U.S. manipulation was most fully exposed when John Kerry’s Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, picked the leader of the new coup government in a (bugged, obviously, but by whom?) phone conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, in which Nuland says bluntly, to the oh-so subservient Pyatt, that, “I think Yats is the guy.” That would be the soon-installed coup “prime minister,” Arsenly Yatsenyuk, who later met with both Vice President Biden and Commander in Chief Barack Obama.4
Immediately following the February 22nd coup, the new “government” declared its loyalty to the EU, endorsed the austerity measures as inevitable, and banned use of the Russian language (the latter was quickly reversed, but conveyed a clear anti-Russian message none the less.) Vladimir Putin’s Russia soon took the defensive measure of annexing the Crimea, the most unambiguously Russian of Ukraine’s Oblasts (Provinces). (It was only added to the Ukraine Soviet Republic by the bureaucratic whim of Khrushchev, having formerly been part of Russia for centuries.) A referendum was held in Crimea showing a 97 percent yes-vote for secession from Ukraine and absorption into Russia (with a reported 83 percent of voters participating). This was clearly a defensive response to the fascist-led U.S./EU coup, but it caused a crescendo of outrage from the West over Russian “aggression,” and has led to a new round of U.S. provocations, including bolstering NATO military presence in Poland, and NATO promises of aid to the feeble Ukraine military.
Pro-Russian separatists in the East
Subsequently, pro-Russian agitation in the East, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk, two of the most industrialized and most Russian provinces, has led to the formation of pro-Russian factions who seized government buildings, held referendums, and proclaimed independent “peoples republics” seeking unification with Russia. Putin is not openly supporting these aspirations. More importantly for Marxists, the nationalist formations in these provinces are decidedly bourgeois class formations, including extreme rightists and other dubious characters; although since the Odessa massacre they have garnered significant working class support for some form of self-rule. While Donetsk and Luhansk are majority ethnic Russian, the rest of the Eastern provinces tend to have smaller Russian majorities, and as yet there is no clear majority east of the Dnieper for union with Russia.
The question for Marxists today is: Was the independence vote in, and Russian annexation of Crimea supportable or not? And, should Marxists support some form of autonomy or rights to secession for the predominantly Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian provinces of the East?
The right of national self-determination was a critical part of Lenin’s revolutionary strategy in the years leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Lenin saw that a strategy of liberating the Tsarist “prison house of nations” was key to making a revolution in Russia that would unite all the workers, not just those of the Russian nation. But more than that, Lenin opposed the idea, prevalent in the Socialist 2nd International, that the international socialist revolution superseded the need for national liberation, since socialism would take care of everything. Instead, Lenin counterpoised the idea that supporting the right of national self-determination was a way to get the national question off the agenda, thus paving the way for the united class struggle needed to lead to socialist revolution.
All nations have right
Furthermore, ALL nations and national minorities, even those belonging to the “great” nations such as Russia, have the same right to self-determination, as long as such self-determination doesn’t come at the expense of another peoples’ claim to the same right in the same territory. Today in Ukraine, the national question certainly needs to be gotten off the agenda, if the working class is to be united in a struggle against fascism and IMF austerity, as well as for the ultimate goal of a revolutionary struggle for socialism.
In 1939, Trotsky wrote an article, “Problem of the Ukraine,” which calls for a “Free, Independent Soviet Socialist Ukraine.” Some leftists have said that this means that Marxists should “oppose the dismemberment of Ukraine” today.5 I ask why should revolutionists oppose, if not the dismemberment, then at least the right of self-determination for the component parts of Ukraine (which might lead to dismemberment)? Ukraine has never been a united nation, except after WWII, when it was entirely a part of the USSR (except for Crimea, which remained part of Russia until 1954). Throughout history, Ukraine was most often divided at or near the Dnieper River, with the East being Cossack or Russian-dominated most of the time, and the West being variously under the Polish, Austro-Hungarian or Lithuanian feudal lords in shifting configurations. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the civil war that followed, parts of Western Ukraine were still held by Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
Revolutionary Russia honored national minorities
The Russian Revolution ushered in a period in the 1920’s in which all the nationalities, including Ukraine, were honored with support for their linguistic and cultural uniqueness and heritage. But the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only existed in the area east of the Dnieper (Western Ukraine was still in Polish hands.) The Stalinist political counterrevolution in the USSR wiped out many of the achievements of the Bolshevik Revolution, including the respect of nationalities, and substituted Russian great-nation chauvinism (including reversal of linguistic and cultural rights, and vicious purges and executions of Ukrainian communists.) This led to resentment against the Stalinist regime, and no doubt contributed to the welcoming of the Nazi invasion of 1941 by many in the West, and to the support given to the Germans by some of the Tartars in Crimea. Stalin, in an indiscriminate retaliation, exiled most of the Crimean Tartars to Siberia, where they remained for many years (they were finally allowed to return after the death of Stalin.)
Trotsky’s 1939 article, calling for an independent, soviet socialist Ukraine, was a program to address the plight of Ukraine under Stalin’s bureaucratic regime, which had suppressed Ukrainian national culture. But it was not a rejection of the workers state, which was still in place, despite the degeneration imposed by Stalinist rule. Trotsky’s plan would have undercut both the Stalinist subversion of Soviet society, and also the fascistic tendencies in the West, which were to play a different, pro-Nazi, subversive role. The central point is that Trotsky’s call was for an independent soviet socialist Ukraine, not just an “independent” Ukraine. Achievement of such a goal would have given impetus both to a socialist revolution in Europe, and to a political revolution in the USSR, and not at all to an anti-communist overturn in Ukraine. Trotsky and Lenin were both clear that an unconditionally “independent” Ukraine, irrespective of class content, was not what they were calling for.
This goes to the heart of Lenin’s idea of the right of national self-determination: the class question is key. Communists support national self-determination in order to pave the way for socialist revolution, not undercut it. In 1919, in the midst of a civil war in which imperialist backed reactionary white armies sought to reverse the Russian Revolution, Lenin made it clear that Ukraine could be independent, but the on-going struggle against the capitalists and landlords took precedence and would proceed. In cases such as that of Finland, in which prospects for a successful class struggle to overthrow capitalism were nil, the Bolshevik government had to let it go rather than keep a “duchy” of the Tsarist empire by force. Still, the purpose was to prevent the national question from getting in the way of class unity, and it worked well in the early USSR.
The class question is key
Today in the Ukraine, the Ukrainian vs. Russian national identities divide the working class, and historical, linguistic and cultural differences reinforce this. But the working class needs to be united in order to fight the fascist thugs of February 22nd and Odessa, and mount a unified defense against the imposition of U.S./EU/IMF austerity. With recognition that Crimea had the right to secede, and of Eastern provinces such as Donetsk and Luhansk to decide on local self-rule or secession, national differences within the working class could be overcome.
Working people of East or West have absolutely no interest in the current Kiev government’s campaign to suppress the pro-Russian rebels of Donetsk and Luhansk, nor should they have any faith in the current Petro “chocolate tsar” Poroshenko government in Kiev to grant “autonomy.” For the right of national self-determination/self-rule for the ethnically Russian Oblasts! Death to the fascists and anti-Semites on all sides, and down with the coup government in Kiev! Oppose the IMF Austerity, and build a united revolutionary working-class movement in Ukraine!
1 Nicholas Kristof, “In Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Aid,” Op-ed column in New York Times, April 17, 2014
2 “The IMF and Ukraine: What Really Happened,” at http://www.imf.org/external/np/vc/2002/083102.htm. The IMF insists it helped slow the rate of decline in 1996-97, and then reverse it.
3 See Elizabeth Piper, “Special Report-Why Ukraine spurned the EU and embraced Russia,” Reuters, December 19, 2013 (www.reuters.com)
4 A transcript of the Nuland-Pyatt bugged conversation is at www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26079957. The media has deep-sixed this, but the U.S. has not denied the veracity of this report.