Barry Sheppard: Some comments on the debate around Ukraine

An unguided Ukrainian government Grad rocket hit the house of Valentina Fedorovna, 77, in the Kuibyshivskyi district in Donetsk on July 19, 2014. Photo by Human Rights Watch.

Read more on the situation in Ukraine HERE.

By Barry Sheppard

July 28, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- It is clear that people who consider themselves to be some form of revolutionary socialist do not agree on the facts about Ukraine. We do not even have agreement on whether or not Russia is imperialist, or even what the word means.

I would urge caution and patience in assessing the current situation.

But here is my take in a nutshell of what I think are the facts, culled from various sources.

The Maidan demonstrations were originally sparked by opposition to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich's rejection of the European Union's austerity conditions for financial aid and his acceptance of Russia's better offer. Maidan grew as Yanukovich unleashed massive repression, with laws and violence. In the physical fight with the police, far-right Right Sector armed groups were in the lead, as could be seen when they took over a government building (city hall?) and erected flags with their modified swastika and the flag of the American Confederacy, and when they beat up leftists trying to join the demonstration.

The main  participants of Maidan were not Right Sector, but at no time disassociated from it. They were however, anti-Russian. When the main oligarchs of Ukraine turned against Yanukovich (himself one of them), he was forced to flee. A right-wing government (not fascist but including fascists) was formed. Key posts were given to Svoboda, which has a fascist past and has called for Ukraine to be a white, Christian nation (perhaps that is on the back burner right now) and this sentiment is widespread in western Ukraine.

Maidan has won its main demand, as the new rightist government in Kiev has accepted the EU's austerity program.

In the 2004-2005 “Orange Revolution” ( the desire for Ukraine to become part of NATO was proclaimed. While that government went down in the flames of corruption, the emergence of a new rightist (many bourgeois analysts say the most right wing in Europe) government in Kiev, Russia correctly assumed that this new government would take control of Russia's naval base in Crimea, its only warm water base, and would start down the path of joining NATO, turning that base over to NATO. That was the reason for Russia's annexation of Crimea.

I am against any demand for Russia to "return" Crimea to Ukraine. Those (including US President Barack Obama) who raise this demand base it on a legality, that then premier of the USSR Khrushchev (himself Ukrainian) shifted Crimea from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukraine SSR, not much of a change since Crimea and the USSR's naval base (it wasn’t a Russian SSR base) remained in the USSR. This was done likely for technical reasons having to do with the USSR building better infrastructure between Ukraine and Crimea. I find it ironic that Obama and other Western powers look to a technical edict by a Soviet premier for justification of their position. It is even odder to me that many leftists, who didn’t support most edicts of Soviet premiers, do so.

When Ukraine won independence (in 1991 or so), Ukraine agreed that the naval base in Crimea would be turned over to the Russian Federation. At that point, Russia had no objection to the rest of Crimea remaining Ukrainian. That agreement was effectively nullified when the new openly anti-Russian government took power, and the Russians swiftly acted.

Ukraine was a major battlefield during the civil war following the Russian Revolution. When Ukraine was incorporated into the USSR, it was as an independent Soviet Socialist Republic, under the Bolshevik's policy of national self-determination of the oppressed nationalities under the former heel of tsarism. Crimea became part of the Russian SSR because it was predominately Russian, and had been by the mid 1800s, after it was captured earlier from the Ottoman Empire by Catherine the Great. (The Crimean War was waged 1853-1856 by France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia against Russia, not Ukraine, which didn’t yet exist.) At the same time, the Crimean Tatars were given self-rule as an autonomous region.

As we know, the Stalinist counter-revolution reversed Bolshevik policy on this and many other questions, and re-instituted Great Russian chauvinism.

All reports from the bourgeois press indicate that the great majority of Crimeans today (except for the Tatars) support being returned to Russia.

The Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine have good reason to fear the new government in Kiev. The fact that it initially voted to outlaw Russian as an official language made that clear, and the acting president’s subsequent vetoing of that law under US pressure is a fig leaf. Attacks on Russian speakers began -- the worst was the fire in Odessa that killed 40 people. The fire was the work of the Right Sector, according to the British Guardian. Most observers say that fire swung most Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine over to support the armed resistance.

The nature of the armed resistance to Kiev in eastern Ukraine is murky. There appear to be different groups with different programs and these programs are unclear. How much Russia is backing these groups is unclear, but what is clear is that other than in words, Russia is not at this time resisting the destruction of eastern Ukraine by Kiev forces (at least some of which are Svoboda and Right Sector).

This destruction is widespread, as can be seen in photos in even such pro-US and pro-NATO and pro-Kiev papers such as the New York Times, the British Guardian and British Financial Times of bombed-out buildings in cities “liberated” by the rightist government’s forces. Eastern Ukraine has become another source of refugees in the world.

According to the British Guardian of July 23, 2014:

  • About 2000 refugees per day are crossing the border from Ukraine to the Rostov region of Russia, and some 400 refugee camps, run by local authorities, are stretched to the limit.
  • Since June 4, more than 220,000 refugees have crossed the border from Ukraine to the Rostov region, Governor Vassily Golubev said.
  • Since April 1, over 515,000 people have arrived from southeastern Ukraine, the head of Russia's migration service Konstantin Romodanovsky said.
  • Germany's Merkel has called for a ceasefire. Obama is opposed. Obama is giving material and political support to Kiev's continued massive bombardment.
  • New Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has promised to "kill dozens or hundreds" of "terrorists" for each Ukrainian army soldier killed. He is keeping his promise.

Since I live in the United States, my main opponent is my own imperialist government.

Concerning the downing of the Malaysian airliner, it does appear to have been an accident. I don't think either Kiev, the eastern Ukraine fighters or Moscow had any interest in doing this deliberately. But they all would have an interest in denying committing this atrocity. So I don’t put much stock in what they say, or what Washington says, or what Britain say etc. Perhaps the situation will become clearer.

In the meantime I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions based solely on what all these people assert without proof. And any “proof” must be scrutinised to see if it was faked.

Washington is using the crash like it utilised 9/11 to buttress its arguments for sanctions against Russia and that Kiev must use all the force necessary to destroy any opposition in eastern Ukraine. (Unlike 9/11, Washington can't invade.) The US media has fallen 100 per cent behind Washington, whipping up anti-Russian sentiment 24/7.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988. Read more by Barry Sheppard HERE.]

Submitted by Fred F (not verified) on Wed, 07/30/2014 - 16:29


Barry says that the "Maidan" forces rejected the "better offer" by Russia.
He doesn't say why it was better, from whose point of view, etc. Also who
gets to decide which offer to accept, if any? Russia, Barry, Green Left,
myself? Or the Ukrainian people?

Barry makes no mention of the substantial intervention by Russia, before the
government bombing cmpaign began, as a factor in the situation. Including
permitting (and almost certainly also assigning in some cases) Russian
nationalist political activists and arms. My impression is that this is not
decreasing today. What does Russia have the right to decide in the Ukraine?

As far as the "better offer" goes, I don't think you have to be a fascist in
the Ukraine to be under the illusion that the US and European imperialists
offer a sounder road to prosperous capitalism than the Russian road to same.
The fact that we reject neo-liberalism, the EU, and all means simply that we
disagree with a lot of Ukrainians about these matters, and they have some
illusions that they will have to overcome through experience more than
through our teachings.

It is clear that the Ukrainian government is relying on the Ukrainian
fascists for some tasks they judge their official forces to be unable to
csrry out at present. This is partly a product of the fact that the Maidan
protests ended up pretty much dispersing the army and police, an outcome the
Ukrainian bourgeoisie did not seek.

The fascists have benefitted from the nationalistic and even panic-stricken
response of the Ukrainian-speaking nationality to the evidence that the
Russian state is again trying to impose its will, This has helped the
non-fascist bourgeois Poroshenko regime consolidate support and begin
strengthening its military forces.

When this conflict began, I hoped that something revolutionary or at least
progressive might develop in the east. That has not happened. The masses in
the east remain passive as they have essentially been from the start of the
crisis. I am now convinced that no revolutionary upheaval is occurring
either east or west, and that the leaderships are predominantly right-wing
and reactionary in both east and west.

The fact that there have been a couple of demonstrations in Donetsk by a
reported 1,000 coal miners (a small minority of the miners in the region)
does not demonstrate that the masses in the east are rallying to the
militias, even in the face of the government's criminal bombing.

The government launched the air war, with the particularly strong
encouragement of the US government. The demand that the war be ended
immediately and unconditionally should be aimed primarily at Poroshenko and
his government. Ending the war is vital to recreating political space for
working people to discuss how to resolve the country's deepening crisis. It
is my impression that the democratic right to discuss the situation has been
narrowing both in the east and the west.

If basically outside power forcibly prevented Ukraine from associating with
the EU would be a savage blow to the consciousness of the working people of
the whole country, reinforcing the widespread illusions (including in the
east) that the US and the EU represent the road out of foreign domination
and economic decay, and that Russia remains the main enemy of the national
and social aspirations of the Ukrainian working people.

We should also keep in mind that the Soviet interventions in East Germany,
Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the martial law regime in Poland ENORMOUSLUY
strengthened illusions and fantasies about capitalism and bourgeois
democracy in the Soviet bloc.

Poroshenko's hand is also being strengthened by the tendency of the militias
and other opponents to put forward proposals to break up Ukraine into a
bunch of basically independent mini-states, with the Russophone ones
rallying to Russia, and the Ukrainian ones left helpless and powerless
relative to both the imperialists and Russia.

This is bound to make nationalist minded Ukrainian-speaking working people
think that the existence of the country is threatened. It is an obstacle to
efforts to convince them that the main threat to their rights and national
survival is coming from the US and EU imperialists.

I tend to think that actual daily experience with the class struggle under
the conditions of the US-European road might be the best antidote to their
illusions about these.. This seems to be working, slowly but surely, in
parts of Eastern Europe. Including their learning that they now face much
more powerful and dangerous enemies of their independence, sovereignty than
Russia in the imperialist powers of the West.

The greatest threat to the Ukraine is not that the west will go fascist or
the east will be seized by Russia, but that the Ukraine will disintegrate
and collapse as an independent sovereign country rather like what we are
seeing in Libya, Iraq and Syria today, and saw in Yugoslavia in the mid and
late 90s.

This trend, which is growing stronger, is a product primarily of the US and
EU imperialisms' efforts to extend their realm to Ukraine, but I don't see
anything helpful, to put it mildly, in Russia's participation thus far.

I favor defending Russia against any imperialist attack, but I don't think
that this is posed at this time. The country under attack today is Ukraine,
not Russia. It is the Ukraine that is being bombed, threatened with being
torn into pieces, facing EU austerity and attacks on sovereignty and so

In defending Russia, we don't (as we rightly did with regard to the workers'
state, even under the Stalinist dictatorship) present the Russian state as
in some key respect the way forward for humanity. We don't call on others,
including Ukrainians, to take today's Russian road. I think our stance
should resemble more the way revolutionaries can defend Libya or Syria or
Iraq or Panama from an imperialist attack without conceding anything to the
regime's alleged progressive character.

I don't think the airplane disaster has changed things much, despite the US
effort to whip up one of those patented "world-wide outrage" campaigns. I
don't think their aggressiveness is gaining momentum on the scale it did
after 9/11.

Does Barry think that Russian-speakers in Ukraine have become an oppressed
nationality relative to the Ukrainians and that they should exercise their
right of self-determination by becoming an independent state or attaching
themselves to Russia? It seems to me that the Poroshenko bombing campaign in
the east is likely to convince some of this. Does Barry think the same was
true in Crimea.

I favor reviving the slogan "For an Independent Socialist Ukraine" as a way
of counterposing a working-class perpective in this conflict to the
reactionary perspectives that now prevail.

Submitted by Louis Proyect … (not verified) on Wed, 07/30/2014 - 16:42


Louis Proyect on Re: [Marxism] Barry Sheppard: Some comments on the debate around Ukraine

This article is obviously in line with Kagarlitsky-soft, the unfortunate position adopted by the Socialist Alliance at its last conference. There is not a single word in it that allows for the possibility that Ukrainians, except for the ones backed by Russia, have legitimate grievances.

It is also besotted with a typo that almost certainly reflects Sheppard's unfamiliarity with the terrain: "The main participants of Maiden were not Right Sector, but at no time disassociated from it." Maiden? Maiden? Get your red-hot virgins here.

Everything is about Russia, not about Ukraine. Barry writes:
In the 2004-2005 “Orange Revolution” ( the desire for Ukraine to become part of NATO was proclaimed. Zero interest in the other side of the Orange Revolution (why the scare quotes for Barry? Obviously to scare people.)

Given Barry's "old school" Leninism, it is not surprising to see him refer to Bolshevik policy in an uncritical manner: "When Ukraine was incorporated into the USSR, it was as an independent Soviet Socialist Republic, under the Bolshevik's policy of national self-determination of the oppressed nationalities under the former heel of tsarism...As we know, the Stalinist counter-revolution reversed Bolshevik policy on this and many other questions, and re-instituted Great Russian chauvinism."

In reality, there was not that much "re-institution" under Stalin since there was never that much self-determination to begin with. For that sad tale, I recommend this:…

Finally, in this sorry mess of an article, there is this: "How much Russia is backing these groups is unclear, but what is clear is that other than in words, Russia is not at this time resisting the destruction of eastern Ukraine by Kiev forces (at least some of which are Svoboda and Right Sector)." This is so ignorant that you have to wonder whether Barry has even bothered to read a single article that deviates from the perspective. Strelkov, The military leader of the Donestk People's Republic, is a veteran of Russian colonial campaigns, most particularly the blood-drenched Chechnya affair, while the prime minister is a Russian citizen who used to edit Zavtra, a far right magazine.

This is from Zbigniew Kowaleski, the author of the article linked to above. Read it and weep:

Who is this Strelkov? “I consider myself a supporter of the autocratic monarchy in Russia”, he explains. Moreover: “I am firmly convinced that to this day the Bolshevik power continues to exist in Russia. Yes, it has changed, become unrecognisable, but in its essence it remains unchanged: from the point of view of its anti-Russian, anti-patriotic and anti-religious orientation. In its ranks can be found the direct descendants of the people who ‘made’ the revolution of 1917. Quite simply, they have been disguised, but their substance has not changed. They have remained in power, having thrown away the ideology that prevented them from enriching themselves and enjoying material goods. But the process of direct destruction of the Russian nation (and of other aboriginal peoples of the Russian Empire) continues by other means; with a ‘success’ such as makes one dizzy. In 1991 there was a putsch; but the counter-revolution has not been completed.”

“To save the situation, we need in Russia a fundamentally new White ideal”. New, Strelkov explains, because “a large part of the population meets the ideology of the White movement with hostility. To take it to the masses ‘in its pure form’ would mean to condemn ourselves in advance to failure.”

“Probably, with the present government we can only build a Great Honduras, where before there was Great Russia. I have the impression that this has already been fully successful.” This government “is the enemy of Great Russia, just as is ‘the opposition’. They came to power with the help of the West, and they do not want to give it up to the new ‘chosen ones’ of the West.” […] Strelkov also writes that: “All the ‘explosions’ of discontent in Moscow and Petersburg are funded secretly from abroad. Of course, ‘the money for the revolution’ is not directly given by the West to its puppets. It is the local oligarchs-sponsors (‘of democratic orientation’) who give it … because their interests are inextricably linked to international Judeo-Anglo-Saxon capital, of which they are a subsidiary.”

This political orientation is shared by Aleksandr Borodai, whom Strelkov recalled from Russia to make him the “Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic”. The separatist movement in Ukraine, which they lead, is – according to their strategy – the armed base of the Russian monarchical counter-revolution, indissolubly linked to the reconstruction of the empire, as well as to “the politico-religious revolution that can save humanity from degradation and extinction, with as the objective of its development: the transcendental values of the spirit and the aspiration to divinity.” Borodai, son of a philosopher, supporter of the ideas of Lev Gumilev[5] and nationalist militant, is also a militant ideologue of the far right.

Borodai affirms: “It seems that only we – the Russians – are suited to play this role of initiators of the religious revolution. For if we believe Gumilev, our superethnos is still very young; although it has used, in a few centuries, enormous resources to create super-states (Third Rome – the Russian Empire – the USSR), it is still capable of finding within itself the strength necessary to undertake a crusade in the name of the higher values of the spirit. [...] The religious revolution is an inevitable war against evil; it is also a bitter, ruthless war. Is the Russian nation capable of such a feat? What will be the contours of the future religious revolution? Will its banners and flags carry Orthodox crosses and other Christian symbols?”

In the “Constitution of the Donetsk People’s Republic”, Borodai and Strelkov inserted a formula copied verbatim from the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire of 1906, which states that “the supreme and ruling faith” in this “republic” is the Orthodox faith. They also wrote there that this faith “is the matrix of matrices of the Russian World”. They added that it is the faith “professed by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)”. In Ukraine, there are also other churches, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.

From the Ukrainian periphery, the counter-revolution must extend to the whole “Russian World” and lead to the restoration of “historical Russia” – the Russia of the Tsars. In their “constitution”, Borodai and Strelkov have proclaimed “the creation of a sovereign and independent state, oriented towards the restoration of a single cultural and civilisational space of the Russian World, on the basis of its traditional religious, social, cultural and moral values, in the perspective of accession to Great Russia, halo [sic] of the territories of the Russian World”. What will become of the rest of Ukraine, when it also falls, after “Novorossia”? All of Ukraine, affirm Borodai and Strelkov, must, along with Russia and Belarus, “be reunited in a single viable state, provided with a Slavic national core”.