No to Russian Imperialist Aggression, No to US/NATO Interference
A Democratic, Socialist Ukraine and the Right of Self Determination for All Oppressed Nationalities
March 5, 2022
We unequivocally condemn the Russian aggression on Ukraine.
Beyond all discussions about how rightwing the Ukrainian regime is, what relationships it has with neo-Nazis or with NATO, there are certain basic truths. Ukraine had been an oppressed nation under Tsarist Russia, which denied the distinctiveness of Ukrainian language and culture. Even after the February Revolution, the Ukrainian bourgeois democrats found little support in Petrograd from the Russian Provisional government. It was the Bolshevik Party that inscribed the slogan of the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination. They accepted this for Finland, as well as for Ukraine. Even at the discussions at Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik delegation from Soviet Russia acknowledged the right of Ukraine to self-determination, while insisting that puppet regimes put up by an imperialist power did not consist of genuine self-determination.
In this sense, Vladimir Putin, who seeks to extend the power and authority of Russian imperialism, is absolutely correct in stressing that modern Ukraine was created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. That was, however, negated by the repressions of the Stalin era, the violence on the Crimean Tatars, the terrible famine, and general Stalinist assimilationist policies.
As Putin put it clearly in his February 21 address, “It is logical that the Red Terror and a rapid slide into Stalin’s dictatorship, the domination of the communist ideology and the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, nationalisation and the planned economy—all this transformed the formally declared but ineffective principles of government into a mere declaration. In reality, the union republics did not have any sovereign rights, none at all. The practical result was the creation of a tightly centralized and absolutely unitary state.” Putin went on to rue that nonetheless, “It is a great pity that the fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed [by Stalin] of the odious and utopian fantasies [of Lenin] inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.”
Putin does not see his government’s conflict with Ukraine as an international conflict. He wants to revive the imperial ambitions of Russia. As the second largest of the Republics of the former USSR, Ukraine occupies a major space. Russian imperialism has been created out of the former Stalinist bureaucracy. Vladimir Putin, with his ex-KGB credentials, neatly summarizes that transition. Russia has had a painful transition to capitalism and therefore, has emerged as capable of only a weaker imperialism than that of the US. But it is imperialist nevertheless.
The Former Soviet Union broke up and while Moscow would like to assert its hegemony everywhere, it has been forced to take small steps, since other imperialist powers pose hindrances, as do the national ambitions of formerly dominated nations. Nevertheless, Putin has been relentless in his march, both in domestic terms and internationally.
Within Russia, opposition voices have been stopped, the media is state-controlled, and Putin and his minions have wielded uninterrupted Presidential authority for a generation. Internationally, Putin (then running the show from the prime minister’s desk behind Dmitry Medvedev) invaded Georgia in 2008, to prevent it from joining NATO. Thin justification was claimed by citing support for the secession of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Putin encouraged to claim independence. In 2014, apprehensive that if Ukraine joined NATO, then Russia would find itself hemmed in, Putin invaded and took over Crimea. Doing so violated the 1994 Budapest Agreement wherein Ukraine gave up the third largest nuclear arsenal in return for treaty-written security assurances that its territorial integrity and sovereignty would be fully respected by foreign powers, specifically including Russia. They expressly hoped to forestall illegal military interventions.
Putin also intervened militarily in that same year in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine encouraging separatist groups there to declare independence. Unlike in Crimea where ethnic Russians are in a majority, in the Donbas eastern region, the majority are Ukrainians who speak Russian while ethnic Russians constitute around forty percent of the region’s population. In both the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, Putin believed that the US was too weak to confront him. In 2008, the US was stuck in the Iraqi crisis of its own brutal making, and in 2014, after accepting failure in achieving all its goals, it pulled almost all its troops out of Iraq, finding itself with a partial revival of the post-Vietnam War military paralysis. That the US finally pulled out of Afghanistan abandoning its puppet government and did little more than express its displeasure at the sending of Russian troops to Kazakhstan in January this year to prop up the authoritarian regime, may well have figured in Putin’s own calculations.
Post-Soviet Ukraine: Oligarchic Rule
Given Russia’s recent aggression, why did we get to the point of this renewed, large-scale invasion? After all, the 2014-15 war over Donbas led to the deaths of thousands. Over 150,000 were ousted from their homes. To begin an analysis of recent developments we need to return to the 2014 Maidan protests. In turn, to understand them, we need to go back to the foundations of independent Ukraine, the rise of the oligarchy, and the weakness of Ukraine’s economy despite its extraordinary wealth of resources which act as a magnet for competing imperialist interests.
The 1996 constitution of Ukraine, approved under President Leonid Kuchma, gave the president more powers than parliament, but not to the same extent as in Russia: it was a presidential–parliamentary republic, rather than a purely presidential one. This was also a very important factor in the evolution of the political system. Presidential elections were not winner-takes-all contests to the same extent as in many other former ex-Soviet countries.
With the state’s assistance, figures like Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, Viktor Pinchuk and Victor Yanukovych acquired old Soviet industries at fire-sale prices. They then made huge fortunes not so much by investing or upgrading as by using them to make quick money, shifting their capital to Cyprus or other offshore havens. For many years, Kuchma and his prime minister, Victor Yanukovych, were also able to balance on the question of whether to integrate into Europe’s economic sphere or Russia’s, moving neither decisively to the West nor to the East. This shielded Ukraine’s oligarchs, preventing them from being swallowed by stronger Russian or European competitors. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the oligarchs were able to play a different role in the political system from their Russian counterparts: here the state was unable to dominate them and exclude them from participation as Putin did.
The end result of the 2004 large-scale public protests labelled the “Orange Revolution” saw no structural change, only a mere change of oligarchic elites. The unrest erupted because of illegal manipulation, corruption, and electoral fraud (to which the Central Election Commission was a party) in favor of Yanukovych against the other main candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, in the presidential run-offs of that year. The Ukraine Supreme Court ruled in favor of a re-vote which was won by Yushchenko, a former prime minister between 1999 and 2001. Then-President Kuchma could not legally run again beyond the two terms of office he had already served. At any rate, his own reputation and credibility had been fatally scarred by a major earlier scandal when irrefutable evidence was revealed that he had ordered the kidnapping of a journalist. In 2004, constitutional amendments were passed by parliament to balance the system into more of a parliamentary-presidency one. Since the office of President now meant less, Kuchma agreed to stop backing Yanukovych.
After winning, Yushchenko’s pushing of a nationalist anti-communism discourse could not prevent his popularity from tumbling. He became mired in corruption scandals along with favored oligarchs and was solely preoccupied with political manipulations. He opted to dissolve parliament and dismiss members of the Constitutional Court to get his own way rather than address the travails of a deeply unstable economy which was dependent on fluctuating export revenues and investments. As metal prices dipped, inflation levels rose and the growth rate plummeted from 12% in 2004 to 3% in 2005 and then with the advent of the Great Recession falling to 0.1% in 2008 and minus 2.9% in 2009. Yushchenko was ousted in the 2010 elections, coming fifth with just 5.45% of the votes. Even today, the per capita income of Ukraine is less than it was in 1991 while its population has fallen from fifty million to forty-one million at present.
Elected as President in 2010, Yanukovich tried to revert to the 1996 constitution. This also meant half the MPs in the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) would again be elected in first-past-the-post constituencies, and half from party lists. As well as attempting to monopolize political power, Yanukovych tried to concentrate financial and economic power around his own team, especially his family. The result was a tremendous amount of personalized corruption as well as alienation and dissension from a host of other oligarchs.
Yanukovych’s announcement on November 21, 2013, that he would be suspending negotiations on the EU Association Agreement, was the initial trigger for the protests that eventually led to his downfall. Yet this fate was not preordained. Ukraine was quite evenly split with about forty percent in favor of signing the Association Agreement and forty percent supporting an agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. So when the protests began it was definitely not a nationwide people’s revolt.
Why would this matter so much, either for the EU or for Russia? This can be explained when we look at the Ukrainian economy. It is the second-largest country by area in Europe, has the agricultural potential to feed six hundred million, and has a population of over forty million, which is six million more than Poland’s.
Ukraine ranks as:
- Fourth in the world by the total value of natural resources;
- First in Europe in proven recoverable reserves of uranium ores;
- Second in Europe and tenth in the world in terms of titanium ore reserves;
- Second in the world in terms of explored reserves of manganese ores (2.3 billion tons, or twelve percent of the world’s reserves);
- Second largest iron ore reserves in the world (thirty billion tons);
- Second in Europe in terms of mercury ore reserves;
- Second in Europe (thirteenth in the world) in shale gas reserves (twenty-two trillion cubic meters);
- Seventh in the world in coal reserves (33.9 billion tons).
Ukraine is an important agricultural country. It ranks as:
- First in Europe in terms of arable land area;
- Third in the world by the area of black soil (twenty-five percent of the world’s volume);
- First in the world in exports of sunflower and sunflower oil;
- Second in the world in barley production and fourth in barley exports;
- Third largest producer and fourth largest exporter of corn in the world;
- Fourth largest producer of potatoes in the world;
- Fifth largest rye producer in the world;
- Fifth in the world in bee production (seventy-five thousand tons);
- Eighth in the world in wheat exports;
- Ninth in the world in the production of chicken eggs;
- Sixteenth in the world in cheese exports.
Ukraine is an important industrialized country:
- First in Europe in ammonia production;
- Europe’s second and the world’s fourth largest natural gas pipeline system;
- Third largest in Europe and eighth largest in the world in terms of installed capacity of nuclear power plants;
- Third in Europe and eleventh in the world in terms of rail network length (21,700 km);
- Third in the world (after the U.S. and France) in production of locators and locating equipment;
- Third largest iron exporter in the world;
- Fourth largest exporter of turbines for nuclear power plants in the world;
- Fourth world’s largest manufacturer of rocket launchers;
- Fourth place in the world in clay exports;
- Fourth in the world in titanium exports;
- Eighth in the world in exports of ores and concentrates;
- Ninth in the world in exports of defense industry products;
- Tenth largest steel producer in the world (32.4 million tons).
Beyond any claims to self-determination or its usefulness as a “buffer-state,” it should now be clear why both imperialist blocs wanted Ukraine. And the EU with its “merely” economic offer was dangerous for a Russia still unable to compete industrially with the West and which sees expanding its already extraction-based export economy as its best way forward.
The Euromaidan and After
In the beginning, the Euromaidan movement of Nov. 2013- Feb. 2014 mostly consisted of middle-class Kyivians and students, who were mainly driven by a European ideology. There was also a strong anti-Russian, nationalist component. In fact, any idea of a Ukraine built on a nationalist rather than democratic foundation would have to incorporate a degree of anti-Russianism. The Maidan protests posed the choice between the EU Association Agreement and the Russian led Customs Union in very stark, almost civilizational terms: is Ukraine with Europe or with Russia? Is it going to line up with Putin, Lukashenko (Belarus) and Nazarbaev (Kazakhstan) or have nothing to do with them?
However, regardless of that, the Maidan protests were from the beginning large movements. The very first protests saw fifty thousand or more people in Kyiv. On November 30, there was a crackdown on the movement. The TV channels, owned by the oligarchs who had been supporting Yanukovych, suddenly showed the crackdown in a bad light. The protest held in Kyiv on December 1 was enormous, with up to two hundred thousand people present. The movement also spread geographically: there were Maidans in almost every city. There was a considerable far-right presence which included neo-fascists, but the protests were far from only neo-fascist. In reality, only a tiny minority of the protesters at the rallies were from the far right. However, the far right acted in a united way and managed to mainstream their slogans.
After the initial explosion and then intensification and spread, from mid-January onwards, the protests seemed to enter a third phase. Negotiations between the government and opposition continued even as violence was escalating, right up to Yanukovych’s ouster on February 22. Perhaps the major turning point was the shooting of protesters in the center of Kyiv by snipers on February 18, 19, and 20. There was another important development on February 18 in the west of Ukraine, where protesters started to attack police stations and raid their arsenals, getting hold of guns in large quantities. This happened in Lviv, in Ternopil, in Ivano-Frankivsk, and in many other areas.
This development changed the situation drastically. The riot police were ready to disperse protesters when the latter were armed with sticks, stones, and Molotov cocktails, but they were not ready to die for Yanukovych. After February 18, the western parts of Ukraine were under the control of the protesters, who occupied the administrative buildings and the police and security service headquarters. In some places, the police shot at protesters, but in many areas they left without offering much resistance.
The Yanukovych government fell in late February. Putin, and a section of the left that sees in Putin its dream of continued resistance to “imperialism” (identified with the US or the West alone), have repeatedly asserted that what happened was a fascist coup. A “coup” suggests a planned, organized conspiracy to take power whereas this was far from the case. Moreover, the far right were only one component of the government that came in. Finally, the assumption that the far right was a tool of US imperialism ignores the internal dynamics, and treats all national conflicts in a left version of geostrategic theories that focuses, to an unreasonable degree, only on great power rivalries.
At any rate, the Russian annexation of Crimea gave enormous advantages to the new government, since it gained a lot of legitimacy and could push social issues into the background, highlighting “national unity” against foreign aggression.
Fearing a Russian social and political movement like Maidan, Putin described the post-Yanukovych regime in Kyiv as dominated by anti-Russian fascists, distorting reality in order to legitimate his annexation of Crimea and the so-called need to “protect” Russophone populations. While “Ukrainians” were often identified with “fascists,” the “hybrid war” instrumentalized by Moscow in Eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country’s turn toward western institutions transformed political life in Ukraine. It had the effect of increasing hate and the hysterical rhetoric of vengeance which has been used by the ruling elites all over the country as excuse for their anti-social politics.
The sectors of the left that see in Maidan a US/NATO conspiracy are thus effectively tagging all Ukrainians as fascists and the Russian speakers as progressives. As a matter of fact, what happened since 2015 is very different. To be sure, Volodymyr Zelensky is no radical and did not have a positive program. But the electoral triumph of this television comedian reflected a moment when Ukrainians were trying to reject the oligarchy. With seventy-three percent of the votes, he won a landslide victory. In fact, however, there was, once again, simply a reconfiguration of the oligarchs.
Re-establishing the status of Ukrainian culture and language is an inevitable part of the national sovereignty and identity project due to historic and current geopolitical reasons. In a way, Russia’s aggression and frequent Kremlin remarks on Ukraine being a non-country and non-culture has also helped to promote a dangerous binary of supposedly inescapable opposition between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian nationalism in a country where near everyone can read and understand Russian, where seventy percent of the population including huge numbers of Ukrainians can also speak it, and where Ukrainian is the language of state while Russian dominates the market for cultural goods and products. Their complete separation is impossible due to intimate historic intertwining. The future of the Ukrainian language and related culture needs to be built on its own terms, embracing the nation’s multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism.
We also need to consider that the Donetsk National Republic and the Luhanskh National Republic, the Russian-backed regimes, have shown a clear hostility to any multiculturalism. One of the first acts of the Russians in Crimea and the Donbas was to replace multilingual signs with Russian only ones. Ukraine, at least, has a system where the minority language has to be officially supported in a municipality if the number of speakers is over a certain level (ten percent); and there are other languages like Hungarian, Rumanian, Polish, Tatar.
Re-establishing a language and a culture that has been historically repressed are important and necessary, but doing so also calls for a balancing act vis-à-vis Russian and related expressions of culture. But Poroshenko, the President before Zelensky, wanted to go beyond that, pushing a more aggressive anti-Russian line. However, the reverse also holds true. Those who want to blame the Ukrainians for Putin’s invasion need to remind themselves again of his own stance, in his Presidential address to Russia’s citizens on Feb. 21 preparing them for the invasion a week later. As he said, “I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”
According to Putin, Lenin with his principle of the “right to self-determination” is the real culprit. As Putin puts it, “From the point of view of the historical fate of Russia and its peoples, the Leninist principles of state building turned out to be not just a mistake, it was, as they say, much worse than a mistake.” Again, “it was Lenin’s harsh directives on the Donbas which was literally squeezed into Ukraine,” but history has now taken its revenge because “‘grateful descendants’ have demolished monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. This is what they call decommunization.” Putin promises to complete the job: “Do you want decommunization? Well, that suits us just fine. But it is not necessary, as they say, to stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”
Even as they decry Putin’s invasion, Western anti-socialist ideologues have their own reasons to welcome this anti-communist rant and indictment of Lenin and what he stood for. But will those on the left who support Putin rethink their commitments?
The US, the EU, and NATO: Inter-Imperialist Rivalry
There is no doubt that the US is the biggest and most powerful imperialist globally. It has the worst record in supporting brutal dictatorships abroad and in carrying out unacceptable military interventions in other countries. It holds the record for being directly and indirectly responsible for killing civilians, an overall tally since WWII which easily surpasses several millions.
But this does not excuse the behavior of other countries big, medium, or small, seeking to establish and expand their regional or global hegemony and dominance. These other powers include several West European allies of the US and bodies like NATO but also the likes of Israel, Turkey, India, Pakistan and of course, Russia and China. No doubt there are and can be other entrants into this broad club of imperialist and aspiring imperialist powers. The justification made for such expansionism is invariably to cite the demands of “national security” and the need to “react” against other named culprits. The international Left must be careful not to fall into the politics of defending the presumed “lesser evil” or even denying or diminishing its imperialist character. We must avoid succumbing to the “anti-imperialism of fools.” In the case of Russia, there should be no reason for confusion.
Let us explore this issue of Russia’s relationship with the US and NATO since the Soviet break-up. NATO has, in our eyes, never had any justification whatsoever so we oppose its existence, full stop. However, even by the logic of the Cold War which it had advanced, it should have been wound up once the Warsaw Pact ended.
In fact, of course, the US-led NATO not only did not wind up. It not only broke promises not to expand further, but has deliberately expanded its reach as close as it can to the borders of Russia. Of course we oppose and condemn this because it means undermining the global search for greater peace and justice, subordinates smaller and weaker countries, deepens ruling class alliances, and enables greater exploitation of the ordinary working masses of their own and other countries. Nor should we be at all surprised that the members of this imperialist club everywhere will resort to bullying their neighbors and seeking to expand their hard power and dominance as much as possible.
From Yeltsin to Putin, Russian leadership has constantly talked of its “legitimate security needs.” “Needs” is always a more effective word to use than “ambitions,” which would not go so well with the term “legitimate.” After the Soviet break-up, Russia became militarily and nuclearly the second power in the world. Does anybody in their right mind think the US or NATO will want to risk actually invading it territorially? But like all imperialists and aspiring ones, Russia too wants to establish and consolidate its own “sphere of influence,” a euphemism to disguise the actual project. Like any imperial power, that project amounts to externally dominating as much as possible that designated region whose borders are always open to expansion.
Despite US and NATO expansion it is absurd to think that Russia’s action in its “near abroad” or further afield are seriously motivated by the fear of its “security being deeply imperiled.” Its actions are not mere reaction or self-defense. Indeed, the most likely outcome of what Russia has done will be the strengthening of the commitment to NATO and possible (some would now say, likely) expansion of NATO membership in Europe, as well as a stronger stimulus to countries in the Asia-Pacific region to align and come closer to the US and its alliance structures.
We must categorically oppose all imperialisms. When apportioning global and historical blame for imperialism’s iniquities, the lion’s share obviously falls on the US and its allies. But this truth must not be used to rationalize away the iniquities and behavior of other imperialists. Putin did not just send troops under Russian dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to Kazakhstan as a “reaction” to the West or as a “compulsion” flowing from its “legitimate security needs.” He did so to stabilize a pro-Russian brutal authoritarian regime repressing its own people.
Two further brief comments need to be made here. We have seen hypocrisy at an unprecedented level, both regarding Ukrainian resistance, and regarding the refugees, by the EU and the Western media. These are countries and media that have always condemned Palestinian resistance as terrorism, but they are today all for civilian resistance to the Russians. We take their “support” to the Ukrainians as disingenuous, linked to the interests of the ruling classes of the Western powers, and not in the least motivated by genuine concern for democratic rights. The same goes for the media and state hypocrisy about accepting Ukrainian refugees, as it comes from countries that have been brutal towards refugees from North Africa in the recent past. Twitter, which has blocked accounts for crowd funding for Cuba (on non-military issues) is allowing crowd funding for military help to Ukrainians. This shows the clear links between apparently independent agencies and Western imperialist powers.
Indian Reactions—the Regime and the Big Parliamentary Left
What has been the response to the invasion of Ukraine among right-led countries like India’s, the context in which we write? Shamefully, but expectedly, the Hindutva Modi government expresses concern but no condemnation even as it has a de facto strategic relationship with the US. Unlike Hungary, led by the far-right Viktor Orban, who opportunistically agreed to EU sanctions, India’s stance is closer to Brazil’s in that it prefers to tip-toe a “neutral” line. Modi wants to keep Russia happy due to supposed diplomatic and military requirements. Greater security for India does not mean that Indian regimes should significantly reduce military spending to help eradicate poverty, or resolve the border dispute with China through give-and-take, or seek to promote peace in South Asia. Rather it should be interpreted to mean we must acquire more and more military power not merely to protect borders but to power project in South Asia and beyond, as any aspiring regional hegemon should be doing.
New Delhi claims that its priority now is to evacuate Indian citizens from Ukraine. We fully support this. But the government’s refusal to condemn the invasion makes getting the vital moral-political support from both the people and the government of Ukraine more difficult negatively affecting the speed and efficiency of evacuation and further endangering the lives of Indian citizens. Regarding the invasion, the bourgeois opposition parties are either silent or in the case of the Congress party, its official stance is no different from the government’s. No surprises here.
As for the major parties of the Left, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM does not go beyond calling the Russia‘ action “unfortunate” and along with the Communist Party of India or CPI plays the tune of the real culprit being the US and NATO to which Russia has reacted. The same was at least initially the case with the Workers Party in Brazil. There is not a shred of class analysis in statements by these parties which claim to be Marxist. But in India, neither of these parties have yet publicly declared that Russia (or China) are capitalist countries let alone that they are imperialist powers. They refuse this analysis even as Putin, the ruling class there, and the Russian public have no illusions that theirs is anything else but a capitalist country, and egregiously in the wrong economically and politically. How long will the parties of the mainstream Indian left keep burying their heads in the sand?