Discussion: Murray Smith on what Russia is doing in Ukraine
Russian troops in Crimea.
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has published a range of views from the left on developments in Ukraine and Crimea HERE.
By Murray Smith, translated for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Dick Nichols
March 11, 2014 -- Déi Lénk (The Left), Luxembourg -- So, the Crimean parliament has voted to reunify with Russia. The notorious referendum, initially set for May 25, then brought forward to March 30, will finally take place on March 16 and “will serve to confirm” the decision of parliament. Clearly, they are already on their way to joining Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Over there, you never hold an electoral consultation without having decided the result beforehand.
We must grasp the enormity of what has just happened. For the first time since 1945, a country has annexed by armed force part of the territory of another country. Up until now we have had armed interventions, bombings, even wars in the Balkans. But never this. And for the time being, nothing indicates that it will remain an isolated case.
Those who predicted that Putin was only waiting until the end of the Sochi Olympic Games to strike weren’t mistaken. Because the intervention into Crimea, which began on February 27, was anything but a spur-of-the-moment reaction to the dramatic events in Kiev the week before. It involved the transfer of warships from the Baltic fleet to the Black Sea, the preparation and transfer of 2000 assault troops, not to mention simultaneous manoeuvres mobilising 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.
No room for improvisation
Everything was thus prepared beforehand. Moreover, the intervention is an integral part of Putin's geopolitical plan. Vladimir Putin considers that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the biggest geopolitical disaster” of our time. And in fact, the collapse of the USSR really was a social disaster, which had an impact on the lives of dozens of millions of its citizens.
A “human disaster” was the way the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm described it. But that is not what concerns Putin. He has carried on the work of destruction of the social state begun under Yeltsin in the 1990s. Today he presides over a society where 110 multi-millionaires own 35% of the country’s wealth.
But let’s return to the geopolitics, because it is essential to understanding the overall objectives of Putin’s Russia. What he misses is the great-power status that the Soviet Union used to have. What he wants is to restore the power of Russia and to impose its hegemony over the territories which were once those of the USSR and the Tsarist Empire.
USSR without socialism
In 1913, the third centenary of the dynasty of the Romanovs was celebrated with great pomp. Four years later, revolution had thrown them into history’s garbage bin. Definitively, so it seemed. But no. After the fall of the USSR, they were exhumed, literally and figuratively. In 2000, Tsar Nicolas II, known in his time as Bloody Nicolas and a great lover of anti-Jewish pogroms, was canonised.
And, in 2013, Russia celebrated the fourth centenary of the Romanovs. What was showcased and taught to schoolchildren, with supporting interactive maps, was the role of this dynasty in the expansion of the Russian empire. And it's true: under the Romanovs, from Ukraine to the Baltic countries, from Central Asia to the Caucasus, Russia built up its empire by methods no less barbaric than those used by the British, French and other imperialists all over the world.
When he came to power in 2000, Putin was preoccupied by the decline of Russia and swore to restore the authority of the state, something he has largely achieved. This translates into “guided democracy”, growing control of the mass media, suppression of any serious dissidence and a policy of rearmament.
The whole against a backdrop of Great Russian chauvinism — that ideology which Lenin so detested and against which he fought tirelessly. And which today is broadly shared in the Russian political universe, from the extreme right of Zhirinovsky to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).
Alliance of Great Russians
With regard to this last point, Putin started off with an extremely brutal liquidation of the de facto independence of Chechnya, on a smaller scale than that of US President George W. Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair in Iraq three years later, but with similar methods. All without really restoring “order” in this North Caucasian republic, which gave his Tsarist predecessors and even Stalin a hard time.
Next, Putin worked out his plan to incorporate the former Soviet republics. Initially it involves a customs union, which Kazakhstan and Byelorussia have for the moment joined, to be followed by Armenia. But then he announced its real characte: from 2015, he wants to transform the customs union into a Eurasian Union, defined as economic and political union.
This is the union into which he wanted (and still wants) to draw Ukraine: hence his furious opposition to Ukraine’s signing of a partnership with the European Union. Of course, it is not a matter of annexing all the republics of the former USSR but of uniting them into a union dominated by Moscow. That can be done via variable geometry.
The CPRF talks about “the unified state of Russia and Byelorussia” as something that already exists in reality. That is inaccurate. Agreements in this sense already exist, but they are not very clear and Byelorussia is showing some reservations.
What is clear and what everybody agrees on, whether they are for or against, is that Ukraine constitutes a key part of the plan for a Eurasian Union. That's why it would be wrong to conclude that Putin will stop after the annexation of the Crimea. He cannot simply watch the new government get established, get closer to the European Union and sign a partnership agreement.
It is clear that Russia has been and remains very active in the east and south of Ukraine. Russia has tried to stir up demonstrations in favour of union with Russia. For the time being these have been a failure. There have been some demonstrations, but comparatively limited, in the order of thousands, 10,000 at the most — not much for cities like Donetsk, Odessa or Kharkov, with populations of a million and more.
On the other side, there have been demonstrations in favour of the unity of Ukraine, at times bigger (15,000 in Odessa) but not massive either. And then attempts, sometimes initially successful, to seize government buildings and hoist the Russian flag over them. These were well-organised attacks, involving some hundreds of men, some of whom clearly came from Russia.
The bulk of the population has not been involved in protest. However, a March 3 opinion poll shows that the highest percentage in favour of incorporation in Russia is one third, in the region of Donetsk, then 24%, in Luhansk and Odessa, with no more than 16% elsewhere. But we cannot conclude from that that the danger has passed.
It is easy to organise provocations as a pretext for military intervention, especially in regions where there are strong pro-Russian minorities. You occupy the regional council, you have a vote, and you close down all independent mass media, as in Crimea.
Today the Crimea, tomorrow Kiev?
Beyond the question of possible interventions and annexations lies the broader issue of the complete destabilisation of Ukraine. If a presidential election takes place on May 25, it is still not clear who will win, but we know that it will not be a pro-Russian candidate. So, it is necessary either to prevent the election from taking place or to ensure that the elected president rules over a weakened, divided and destabilised country. Nothing, absolutely nothing is out of the question, including an invasion of the entire country, or at least as far as Kiev.
When all is said and done, what Putin will or will not do will depend on the degree of opposition he meets, both in Ukraine and on the international level. Within Ukraine, it is not enough for the government to simply assert its authority, including in the east. It must take into account the concerns of all its citizens.
It is a good thing that the acting president has refused to sign the cancellation of the 2012 language law, a measure which had pointlessly worried the Russian-speaking community. It is also necessary to end the situation where in certain regions certain parties cannot function normally. In particular, the attacks on the Communist Party of Ukraine must be stopped.
Of course, the holding of a presidential election would not in itself resolve the problems of Ukraine.
What is needed is a top-to-bottom democratisation, a social program and a constituent assembly. But none of that can be done without lifting the threat of a Russian intervention.
Two motives are and will be advanced to justify a Russian intervention. First, that the country is supposedly in a state of chaos and anarchy, with attacks on minorities, and especially anti-Semitic actions. This is untrue. The best answer is provided by this open letter to Vladimir Putin signed by a broad range of the Jewish community in Ukraine.
The second reason would be that rather than being the aggressor, pursuing a policy worked out long before the recent events in Ukraine, Russia is in reality the victim, the target of provocations from the United States and from the European Union. In particular, with the goal of accepting Ukraine as a member of NATO. There is certainly some truth in this. Since the fall of the USSR, the United States has followed a policy aimed at “containing” Russia: the eastward expansion of NATO, the anti-missile shield …
The perspective that Ukraine should join NATO is shared by certain powers and forces in the West, but not by all of them. And by the parties today in government in Ukraine. However, opinion polls have systematically shown that a majority of Ukrainians are opposed and prefer a non-aligned status.
That would certainly be the best solution, for the Ukraine and for peace in Europe. However, the least that can be said is that if a future opinion poll were to show a majority for NATO membership, that would doubtless be a result of the present Russian aggression.
Towards a clash with NATO?
To conclude: the economic and diplomatic measures which have been taken against Russia, or are being envisaged by the United States and the European countries, will have a certain effect. But also, due to globalisation, with consequences for a number of European countries. It is not certain that they will really be effective, or that they will be maintained for long, and Putin must have taken this into consideration before acting.
Up until now, those in the West who talk about military action are a very small minority. But it would be wrong to consider that this option is completely ruled out. The US and the Europeans were surprised by intervention in Crimea, and even more by its annexation. If things stay as they are, one can say that the risk of armed conflict between Russia and NATO is minimal.
If Russia were to go further into Ukraine, this risk would grow and the most militaristic sectors in the West would be reinforced. That is why we must condemn all foreign intervention in Ukraine and defend the sovereignty of Ukraine. The Ukrainian people must be able to solve the considerable problems they face without any foreign interference whatsoever.
[Murray Smith represents Luxemburg’s Déi Lénk (The Left) on the executive council of the Party of the European Left.]
[Posted on behalf of Murray Smith]
As Michael points out, there are quite a few examples of forcible annexation outside Europe since 1945. However in this article I wasn’t concerned with the rest of the world, I was dealing with Europe.
No doubt it would have been clearer if I had specified “in Europe since 1945”. That does leave Cyprus, as a number of comrades have pointed out to me, but that doesn’t change much.
The point I was making is that the frontiers established in Europe in 1945 have basically held, even through the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European bloc and the break-up of Yugoslavia. The internal frontiers of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia became international frontiers. East Germany was absorbed by West Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated, Kosovo became independent. And there were de facto independent entities like Transnistria and Abkhazia.
But none of that involved the forcible annexation of a part of one country by another. As for the will of the majority of the population in Crimea…No poll that I know of up to February 2014 showed such a majority. Nevertheless I believe it is possible and indeed probable that there was majority support for union with Russia on March 16, particularly when you include Sevastopol which was not administratively part of Crimea up until now.
Given the circumstances of the referendum, the presence of Russian armed forces, the propaganda barrage, the closing of opposition media, the intimidation and repression of pro-Ukrainian demonstrations, it is probable that a big enough majority of the Russian electorate voted for union for that to constitute a majority of the total electorate. And also that some non-Russian voters were intimidated into voting for union.
But even then the majority would be much closer to 60 per cent than the ridiculous figure of 97 per cent. There are also questions about the number of electors who are supposed to have voted. I hope to take a closer look at the referendum in a future article.
All the best,