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Comment: Prospects for an anti-war/solidarity movement in Ukraine and Russia

Anti-war protest in Chernivtsi, western Ukraine, July 23, 2014. Signs read, "Bring our children back!" and "Stop the bloodshed!"

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has published various left viewpoints on the political situation in Ukraine. These do not necessarily represent the views of the publishers.

By Roger Annis

August 18, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In an article published on Left-East on August 10, Russian left-wing writer Ilya Budraitskis laments "there is no anti-war movement in Russia". His article is a rather bleak, despairing outlook on the prospects of organising against “war” in the border regions between Ukraine and Russia. He titles his article “Hope in a hopeless place”.

Budraitskis describes the war being waged by the neo-conservative governing regime in Kyiv as an "interstate conflict", meaning that Russia bears an equal, if not greater, responsibility for the conflict. This scenario is not only a gross misread of Russia's position and role in the conflict, it also leads us nowhere in understanding what to do.

The immediate victims of this war are the conscripted foot soldiers of the Ukraine army, the residents of south-eastern Ukraine and the international volunteers (mostly from Russia) who are fighting with self-defence forces in the southeast. In Budraitskis' discouraging scenario, the victims are hapless and without a voice or role.

He writes of the "unfortunate residents of Luhansk and Donetsk" who are left defenceless to "face the destructive elements of war". The nature of the conflict as “interstate” means they are bystanders to forces far more powerful than they. The “state”' that emerges victorious, he writes, will be "able to bring stability, even if to smoking ruins [and] will receive such a level of submission and obedience of which no state in peace time could even dream".

Budraitskis makes an explicit call for a “third”, anti-war, position, between the NATO powers backing Kyiv, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. He writes, "The anti-war moment, if it is really trying to bring disagreement back to society, should hold a 'third position'.”

Rather oddly, he explains, “Such a movement fundamentally should not determine the greater or lesser degree of responsibility of each side, it should not ‘understand the point of view’ of those who never have taken our [anti-war] point of view."

Two worlds

Fortunately for the victims of Kyiv's war, the author is dead wrong in his assessment. He grossly misreads and misrepresents the people of eastern Ukraine. There is not a chance they could have resisted for so long and so successfully Kyiv's NATO-backed military offensive if they didn't have a political and social cause worth fighting for.

Kyiv's “Anti-Terrorist Operation” was launched in April. Four months later, it has killed several thousand people and driven at least 850,000 people from their towns and villages into refugee conditions in Russia and Ukraine. But the regime's claims that it is on the verge of taking the large towns and cities of the Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) is looking increasingly like bluster. Indeed, on August 17, it’s delegation on its way to Berlin for talks with Russia that will try to achieve at a negotiation table what has eluded it so far on its battlefield—a surrender of the people of eastern Ukraine to its austerity economic program. Austerity is a condition by Europe and by international financial agencies for loans and for vague promises of trade deals and investments to follow.

Kyiv is in a race against time with its war. It reinstituted obligatory military service on May 1 (conscription was abolished last year by President Victor Yanukovych, who was overthrown in February this year). It has held three conscription drives. The latest one, announced last month, has provoked militant protests. These are spearheaded by the wives, fiancées and mothers of conscripts. The protests have been explicit in their concern about the high casualty rates being suffered by the army. As Bloomberg News reported earlier this month, “The fact that a third mobilization is needed is a sign the war is far from over.”

Kyiv's budget, including for war, is now entirely dependent on international financiers. So far in 2014, its currency is the worst performing in the world against the US dollar, losing 40 per cent of its value. A very serious energy crisis is upon it, due to the combined loss of supplies of Russian gas and Donbas coal. Hot water service has been cut in its cities (the Soviet system of planned economy created cheap, centralised provision of heat and hot water to dwellings) and fuel prices are rising sharply. What will happen in a few months when winter arrives?

Many young men are refusing to answer the conscription call, and the numbers of disaffected and deserting soldiers are on the rise. Conscripts are told they are being sent to fight a war against “terrorists” and pro-Russian fanatics. But when they arrive in eastern Ukraine, they find they are shooting at people who look and live a lot like them--people who are defending their homes, their families and their communities from what they consider to be a foreign invasion.

Conscripts doubly resemble the proletarian population of the east because as Kyiv's conscription reaches deeper into the population in central and western Ukraine, the wealthy classes are exercising the option to pay bribes (to doctors, for example) or fines to exempt their youth from service.

Because Western media has largely become a mouthpiece of Kyiv's propaganda services, it is difficult to quantify the effects of everything on the morale and fighting capacity of Kyiv's army. We don't know, exactly, what casualties it is suffering; varying reports show them to be very high. But we do know that in order to capture towns and rural territory, Kyiv cannot rely on its conscript army. It is obliged to use war crimes—the indiscriminate shelling of civilians—and the shock troops of its fascist militia battalions.

Not 'anti-war' but solidarity

Another issue that Budraitskis gets wrong is positing that Russian people should build an “anti-war” movement. This way of describing what is needed is vague and misleads. During the Vietnam War, everyone in the world knew what it meant to be “anti-war”—it meant opposing the murderous war of the United States government against the people of Vietnam. The anti-war movement of the day debated the finer points of whether and how it should solidarise with the Vietnamese people, but no one who was sincere denied the required solution to the conflict—a complete, total and unconditional withdrawal of US military forces from Vietnam and the region.

What does "anti-war" mean today in the context of Ukraine and Russia? It's a term which easily lends itself to misunderstanding because it means very different things depending on who is uttering it and who is listening. To informed people, it is clear who and what is responsible for the war—Kyiv, its desired austerity/economic association with Europe and NATO's military expansionism. But to “third positions”' like Budraitskis or to people influenced by Western media or otherwise uninformed, it can mean that “everyone” is to blame—Russia, NATO, Kyiv, eastern Ukrainian “separatists”.

So what's needed in place of an “anti-war movement” that means something or nothing to the observer is a solidarity movement. Such a movement must support the victims of the war and of NATO expansionism, and it should support people throughout Ukraine who oppose the plans of Ukraine's billionaire elite for Greek-style austerity. Once a movement gets that basic orientation figured out, it can discuss and decide its exact stance towards the political movements of the people of the east and southeast.

Some sections of a solidarity movement will want to solidarise directly with the socially progressive and proletarian content of the struggle of the peoples of the south-east and their declared “peoples republics”. The declaration of the Ukrainian delegates who attended the anti-war conference in Yalta, Crimea on July 6-7, 2014, is an excellent expression of this, not only for south-east Ukraine but for all of the country.

Meanwhile, the foundational program for a broad, solidarity/anti-war movement must demand an end to Kyiv's war and NATO's support to that. An excellent guideline for this comes, again, from the Yalta conference in the form of an appeal for international solidarity against Kyiv's war.

Like the Ukrainian delegates' declaration, the anti-war call proposes measures for a political resolution of the conflict. These must be centered on recognition of the right of people in the east of the country to political self-determination.

Self-determination for southeast Ukraine may or may not take the form of secession. The surest and only way for Ukrainians to have a unified country is to recognise Ukraine's diverse and multinational character and fashion a decentralised and democratic government and constitution accordingly. What's more, this applies not only to eastern Ukraine but also to the multinational regions in the south and west of the country.

A solidarity movement already exists in Russia

Once we clear away the confusion that Budraitskis' terminology creates, we can see that he is quite wrong in his bleak estimation of the situation in Russia with respect to the war in eastern Ukraine. A rather substantial solidarity movement already exists in Russia and it offers much more hope than he lets on.

Many Russians or residents of Russia have volunteered to go and fight against Kyiv's and NATO's war. Tens of thousands of Russian people are working to shelter and care for the three quarters of a million residents-and-counting of south-east Ukraine who have been forced out of their homes and country by Kyiv's war.

On August 12, the Russian government dispatched a large truck convoy of humanitarian aid to the towns and cities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions that have come under intense bombardment and are now lacking basic, life-supporting systems such as water, electricity and communication. The convoy has helped to focus Russian and international attention on the humanitarian disaster that Kyiv has created.

Russia has embarked on a program of massive spending of social services and economic investment in Crimea to raise the social and economic conditions inherited from post-independence Ukraine, which are much lower than in Russia. Substantial aid will be required for reconstruction in southeast Ukraine once Kyiv is obliged to withdraw its army and militias.

Russians are debating how to pay for all this. One proposal in Russia's parliament is to raise income taxes on the wealthy. Presently, Russians pay an across-the-board, 13 per cent income tax, a very low rate compared to imperialist countries.

Russians are also debating what to do about the sanctions that Europe and North America have levied against Russia. What to do about food procurement, for example? Presently, Russia imports about 40 per cent of the food it consumes. What must be done to promote food sovereignty as well as expanded economic relations with Asia and Latin America?

All of Russia is bracing for worse to come from the NATO countries that are backing and arming Kyiv, including more sanctions and military provocations.

So a solidarity movement in Russia truly exists. It just doesn’t happen to take the “third camp” form that Budraitskis would like to see. As he more or less explicitly recognises, most Russians are wise enough to see who it is that has created the crisis in Ukraine. It's not their own government.

It's true there are not popular, citizen mobilisations in the streets of Russia's cities to oppose Kyiv's war. There should be, just as there should be in Europe, North America, Latin America and elsewhere. Russia's capitalist government represses the right to protest, just as other capitalist governments do. And to the extent that progressives in Russia and elsewhere in the world project “third camp” views, this, too, results discourages and demobilises people.

Pro-Kyiv Ukraine propaganda says that Russia is arming and inciting the rebellion in the south-east. But this turns matters on its head. Russia has the right to defend itself against the stated goals of NATO and Kyiv to weaken and subjugate it. Any solidarity or anti-war movement worth its salt should recognise this and condemn Kyiv's and NATO's ambitions.

As well, Russia can hardly be expected to bow to NATO's demands that it become a policeman in eastern Ukraine on NATO's behalf. Indeed, a solidarity movement should explicitly demand that it refuse to do so. The very clear will of the Russian people is to see an end to Kyiv's war and an end to NATO's threats against Russia. The Russian government should act forcefully to represent and carry out that will.

It is not complicated to see that Russia's capitalists want to preserve their ties to capitalist Europe and international financial markets and have little, real sympathy with the autonomous political movements in eastern Ukraine. Capitalism is a system that thrives on social inequality, exploitation and war. But Russia's elite must take account of very strong domestic opinion that opposes NATO's threats and the course of the rightist regime in Kyiv. That is a good thing.

The flow of rifles, ammunition and other weaponry to eastern Ukraine from Russia is politically impossible for the Kremlin to prevent. That, too, is a good and necessary thing, however much we may lament war and the loss of life. Let's not forget that most rebels are poorly armed and many equip themselves from the capture of the poor and outdated equipment of the other side.

A solidarity movement should also be thankful that unlike so many governments in the world coming under attack or pressure from the imperialist governments and militaries, Russia's government is prepared to defend its interests and fight back. This encourages and creates important political space for other peoples to defend themselves similarly, such as in Latin America.

This is the complex mix which a solidarity movement must navigate.

It is no loss that the third camp anti-war movement advocated by Budraitskis finds little support or social base in Russia today. He references the large march against “war” that took place in Moscow in mid-March as events in Crimea were heating up. But that event was a hindrance, not a help. Much of it was directed at blaming Russia for stirring up trouble in Crimea. It urged Russia's rulers to leave Kyiv a free hand there. Luckily, the people of Crimea exercised much better judgement than what misguided “leftists” in Russia had on offer. They voted in a plebiscite in March to get out of the way of Kyiv's planned austerity civil war and secede. Thus ended Crimea's brief 23-year association with independent Ukraine.

The Russian state didn't want a war in Ukraine, nor did it provoke it. The slide to war began when fascist bands began making raids into the Ukrainian south-east as early as late February this year in order to impose a centralised, intolerant and socially regressive governing authority out of Kyiv. Local people took up arms to defend themselves and Russia became confronted not only with a conflict that it could not ignore but also with an opportunist NATO military alliance that seized an opening to press its goal of dismembering the Russian Federation.

It is in the vital interest of the free people of the world that neither Kyiv nor NATO succeeds in its ambitions.

* * *

One of the outlets where the articles of Budraitskis are published, including this latest one, is International Viewpoint. It is a monthly, print magazine published under the auspices of the Fourth International, an association of small Marxist parties in Europe and some other countries of the world.

International Viewpoint's reporting on the war in Ukraine consists exclusively of a “third camp”, Russia-and-NATO-as-equal-protagonists outlook. I co-authored a critique of this viewpoint in early July: Fourth International needs to oppose the war and austerity drive against Ukrainian people.

Two key themes in the Fourth International view is that Russia is an "imperialist" country and that the Maidan political protest movement in Ukraine that sparked the overthrow of Ukraine's government in February of this year was a progressive social movement. This view is shared with many of the groups of the International Socialist tradition.

The Fourth International also argues that the ascendance of right-wing nationalism in Ukraine, including its large, fascist wing, is a fiction. Writer Murray Smith argues this view forcefully in a July 26 article in International Viewpoint. He goes a step further in saying that a much larger far-right danger exists in Russia. Little wonder, then, that his article expresses zero sympathy or support for the popular struggle in eastern Ukraine. On the contrary, he writes in a postscript that the article was originally published in May and he sees no need for any changes in re-issuing it. In other words, the past three months of grisly war and killings by Kyiv have changed nothing in Smith's outlook.

Among the Fourth International groups, the most vociferous in arguing the view described above is Socialist Resistance, in Britain. Its latest article, “The imperialist carve-up of Ukraine: where does the left and anti-war movement stand?”, is published in International Viewpoint on August 12, 2014. This one reads alarmingly in several places like the “State Department socialism” that Marxists warned against during and after World War II, that is, the view that the Soviet Union as it then existed (soon emulated by China and Korea) was a larger threat to “democracy” than imperialism itself.

Author Fred Leplat chides the Marxists in the UK who, in his opinion, argue wrongly that “today, the major threat of war comes from Western imperialism, in particular the USA as it is the major military and imperialist power in the world”.

Leplat's article condemns the decision of anti-war groups in Britain to invite Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky to speak at protest events planned next month in Wales on the occasion of a summit meeting of NATO. Kagarlitsky is probably the sharpest writer being published in English to describe the complex and contradictory reality of Russia today.

Russia is a middle-ranking capitalist power whose security ambitions, in total contrast to those of the US and Europe, are narrowly local. Its foreign policy stances, like those of the USSR before it, are cautious and typically regressive (such as its long-standing support for Israel). Mostly, its foreign policy is focused on its border security.

Nothing in the current conflict suggests a break with this pattern. But NATO's pressure and threats are radicalising the political context. Strong anti-war, anti-fascist and social justice views are being stirred among the populations of Russia and Ukraine. Russia is obliged by the embargos it is facing to shift its economic ties and foreign policy outlook towards the countries of Asia and Latin America. Presenting Russia as an “imperialist' mirror image of the likes of the US, France or Britain is a muddle from which only confusion and political disarray can follow.

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