Simon Pirani: ‘Our movement needs a different politics that is concerned with Ukrainian and Russian people not governments’
April 1, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Interview with Simon Pirani, socialist writer and editor of peoplenature.org by Sohrab Rezvani. This interview was conducted in the second week of March.
What is the current stage of development of the capitalist world economy? Are we still dealing with the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath? Or are we entering a new stage?
If you asked me this question one month ago, I would have probably said that we are living in a world shaped by the crisis of 2008-2009. The crisis of neoliberalism. I have been reading Crashed, by Adam Tooze, which describes the extent of that crisis, the way it has shaped the world that we now live in. The war that Russia has started in Ukraine signifies a transition to another stage of this crisis. Firstly, because this is the actions of a state that has nowhere else to go. This is not the first choice of the Russian state. This is not the logical choice. This is not the choice that is in the short-term economic interest of Russian capital. This is the state that somehow convinced itself, in some complicated way, to prioritize this military adventure. Since coming into office in 2000, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin has always used military strength to compensate for the economic weakness of Russia compared to other empires.
There have been many comments in the press to the effect that Putin has gone mad. This is not an explanation, in my view. This is ideology – crazy from any humanist viewpoint, yes, but understandable in the context of the degeneration of capitalist statecraft in the 21st century. The Russian state has chosen to engage in this adventure, which is about controlling the geographical space, but is also about social control of its own population. And it has chosen to do that rather than to focus on building on and strengthening the position of the Russian economy in the world economy. And in setting out on this path, Putin and all the people in the Kremlin must have known that it will be ruinous for the Russian economy. The other thing we have been seen in the past few weeks, which is very relevant to your question, is that the governments and capitals of the big Western powers have both decided to cut Russia loose, if you like.
What do you mean by “cut Russia loose”?
In a way it seems that the new Western policy is comparable to their policy towards Iran and Venezuela. Whereas, before, capital saw all these countries as fields for investment – fields that can not be subdued militarily, as in 19th or 20th century imperialism, but could be subdued economically – now the Western powers want to limit the relationship further. They want to buy these countries’ oil on the world market, but allow the rest of their economies to collapse. In the thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is how capital saw Russia: a field for investment, and, under Putin, a gendarme to help control some geographical areas. Now, in the past two weeks, the policy has changed. Germany has given military aid to Ukraine. It canceled the big pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, which is central to Russia’s gas export strategy. The United States has sanctioned Russia. In the UK, while the government has supplied Ukraine with weapons on one hand, on the other it has been very cautious and selective with the sanctions it is imposing on Russian oligarchs, because they are very friendly with these oligarchs and try to make exceptions for their friends. It adds to the sense here that our government is a complete joke. But if you look at the sanctions organized by the US and European Union, they are very harsh. They have sanctioned the Russian central bank. That means it cannot get its hands on its own money. That is serious. That is what I mean by this phrase that Western countries are cutting Russia loose. They will no longer try to have relationships under which they can invest.
Furthermore, BP, Shell, Equinor, and ExxonMobil, four of the five biggest investors (including Total) in the oil and gas sector in Russia, have withdrawn. For BP, it is a massive part of its business. So, this is not a game. This means that the bourgeoisie internationally have decided to shut out Russia from the international financial system, to shut Russia out of any investment, and Russia’s population can starve! This is not only the new stage for the Russian ruling class, this is the new stage for the big Western powers. This also means more expensive fuels. The economic effect of this may kill off the attempts to mount an economic recovery after the pandemic. This war could very easily throw the capitalist world into a new crisis.
The other factor is climate change. All the scientists have been saying for many years, “please invest in renewable energy”; “think about oil as a declining industry”. I think this situation brings that issue forward. As we saw in the pandemic, I think these capitalist states are going to be trapped between the neoliberal approach, to withdraw the state to allow the market to rampage in its own way, and the need to direct climate policy, and energy policy, from the state.
Why has FDI into Russia declined since 2014. Do you explain this, as Ilya Matveev does, as a result of “exhaustion in the engine of Russian economy”?
I think there are two or three reasons. First of all, the Russian boom really came to an end in 2009, as a result of the world economic crisis. It took time to feed through, because, at least until 2012, oil prices stayed very high. They became more volatile, but they were on average, very high. And Russia continued to obtain huge export revenues from oil, gas and minerals. Nevertheless, economic growth was stagnating because of the underlying problems in the economy. Damage had been done to the banking system by the economic crisis of 2009; damage had been done to all the attempts to diversify away from oil and gas, to strengthen small business, to strengthen the services sector, to strengthen consumer focused businesses, to build a property market on a European model, and so on. All that really came to an end. And politically, at that time, the first really big protest movements against Putin got going within Russia in 2011, in response to perceived electoral fraud.
And then, of course, in 2014, we had the annexation of Crimea. This was followed by Western sanctions that then compounded the economic problems. At that time, there was also hesitation among Western companies about investing in Russia with respect to the rule of law. They were concerned that the state would somehow be able to confiscate their assets. They watched the move against finance minister Alexei Ulyukayev, who spent some time in jail as a result of a complicated case that involved Rosneft oil company. So, there are three causes of crisis: one, the economic crisis and the downturn of the Russian economy as a result of that; two, the sanctions imposed as a result of the 2014 annexation of Crimea; and three, much greater tension between the state and private business and the perception among Western businesses that the rule of law was not applied in the way that they liked and understood.
How do you conceptualize "neo-imperialism"? Are we looking at an inter-imperialist war in Ukraine?
I don't have a worked-out theory about this. I just think that imperialism in the 21st century takes a very different form from the forms it took in the 19th and 20th century. In the case of Russia, I see an extraordinary combination of this very powerful militarized state. In terms of its relationship with the large Western states, and its position in the world economy – principally as a supplier of raw materials – Russia is very definitely in a subordinate position. But in relation to Ukraine and other countries around it such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, and states in the Caucasus, it definitely acts as an imperialist power. It's a different type of imperialism. For many years since the fall of the USSR, and in the first two decades of Putin's presidency, we could have called Russian state imperialist in many respects, the gendarme acting on behalf of the Western states. Now we're seeing a division opening up between the Russian state and those Western states, and Russia no longer playing that role of gendarme, but rather as an imperial power in the geographic region around it. We need to take note of that new reality.
Coming back to the early observation that you made, it appears to me that there is a kind of divergence between the, let’s say, territorial logic of the Russian empire and the economic logic. It seems that the territorial logic is getting more dominant. This is the way that Ilya Matveev explains the current situation of Russia. But it is still hard for me to understand what happened in the interaction between the great Western powers and Russia that created the situation that forced Russia to prioritize territorial logic?
I really like Ilya Matveev’s analysis; he is one of the few people who really thought about the Russian economy and policy from a Marxist standpoint and came up with some very clear answers. But if we take these two logics that you referred in your questions, it is not really the geographical vs economic logic. It is more the political vs economic logic.
First of all, let’s not forget the turn in Russian policy in 2014. In response to the crisis in Ukraine, and the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, Russia annexed Crimea and gave some financial and military support to these so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of Ukraine. Why? Prior to that, there had been a discussion about economic development; there had been a critique of Russian policy within the Russian elite, from liberal economists in the Russian state (most consistent of them was probably Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister) that there is a need for Russia to move away from a dependence on oil, gas and metal export proceeds. There was a discussion that began at time about the so-called “resource curse”, which is when a nation is completely tied to these commodity exports.
Just like Iran...
Yes. Well, it is the curse that inflicts Iran and Russia, but when people analyze it, they are generally talking about countries that are not rich countries and are subordinated in the world economy. Some people call them “developing countries”, but some of them actually cannot develop because of the unequal relationships. In Russia, and to some extent in Iran’s case, this curse is afflicting economies that are much more developed and powerful in the military and political sense.
Anyway, the change of policy in 2014, over Ukraine, put an end to all the attempts by anybody in Russia to move the economy away from that model. Nobody in the elite thought about it seriously any more. Because all the political efforts were put into the conflict and change of policy with Ukraine, and managing the effects of Western sanctions.
Now why was it worth it? It is not just the territorial question. It was a question of social control. The Kremlin saw what was happening in Ukraine – the so-called Maidan protests, that is, the huge social movement that erupted against Yanukovych in the first three months of 2014 – and they were scared. They didn’t want that to happen in Russia.
You mean there was a potential for the same thing to happen in Moscow? Just like the protests that happened in Kiev?
Yes. It was a very complicated movement. I don’t agree with people that glamorize it. It was a very complicated and confused movement. Certainly, the Ukrainian nationalists and fascists played a part in it, but the idea that it was a fascist coup is ridiculous. But it was not a nice and clean movement without reactionary politics. When a movement brings out, literally, half the population of a big city like Kyiv onto the streets, obviously, then you're going to have everything that you have in the population of any big city, including fascists, but also including many other people. And one of the things that motivated many of those people was the desire to be closer to Europe. This certainly came from the Ukrainian ruling class and Ukrainian capital. They certainly wanted to have that better trade relationship with Europe.
But also, I think it came from working class people in Ukraine. You know, we live in a very connected world. I think they were very aware that their standard of living in countries like Slovakia, Hungary, Czech, Poland, had risen during the time that those countries have been in the European Union. And let's not forget millions of Ukrainians, even before 2014 and Russia’s recent invasion, had already migrated to other European countries, simply because the wages were better and maybe the working conditions were better in some cases. I think these pro-European sentiments were all part of the Maidan rebellion. And I think that the Russian elite was correctly worried. Many young people in Moscow – working class people, middle class people – would also look to Europe and would think, OK, this is the sort of life we want to lead, we can migrate or we can have a better life here in Russia. And so, I think this Maidan protest was very alarming to the Russian elite for that reason.
There was a second motivation for the Russian action in 2014, and in 2022. It’s what we saw in the speech by Putin on 21 February: a true Imperial speech. Some of the things he said sounded crazy, for example, his allegation of genocide in eastern Ukraine is really crazy. But I don't think there is a psychological explanation. What was very clear in his speech was that this was an imperial declaration, that Ukraine is not a nation; it's a construct that [Vladimir] Lenin or somebody else invented. I see no difference between this and some reactionary British politician saying Ireland is just a construct, somebody invented it. And, you know, actually we're all English and so on and so on. You we can find parallels in the Middle East, for example, suddenly Iranians could say that Kurdistan, is just a construct. And so on.
All these factors played into the change in 2014. They operated within the background that you mentioned at the beginning: the failure of capital’s representatives, the failure of the Russian government, to find a strategy through which to reestablish Russia's place in the capitalist world on terms that are good for the Russian ruling class and at least tolerable for Russian people.
Very interesting. As you say, it seems that after 30 years of rapid and insane attempts to integrate Russia into the world economy, the final result has been to cut Russia loose. But I wonder what the main effect of this recent international war and the pandemic will be?
It's too early to say what are the effects of this war in general. But we can keep in mind these turning points: the 2008 crisis, then the pandemic, then this war, which are somehow all part of the same process. I think we're seeing the breakup of the US attempt to establish this new neoliberal order. This order is coming to an end. The US view of Russia in this neoliberal order was that it is a place to be plundered for oil and gas, a place to open up consumer markets. This has now come to an end. China is rising and that's going to change this picture, but the other thing that the pandemic has left us with is a huge social crisis in the United States, in many European countries, and certainly in the UK. And we have seen the rise of right-wing populism. So, I think this whole neoliberal order is now in a mess. But where it goes from here? I don't know.
There are some arguments which suggests that if the US, after the fall of Soviet Union, had implemented a kind of Marshall Plan in Russia, we would not be facing this war right now, but that instead of a Marshall Plan, what we saw was wild and harsh neoliberal deregulation of the economy. Do you share such an opinion that if we had a kind of Marshall Plan than we would have seen something else here in Russia?
I think the problem with this argument (which I have heard many times in many forms) is a political problem rather than a problem of analysis. To suppose that there would have been a Marshall Plan type of intervention is to suppose that in the 1990s the big capitalist powers would have been politically led by some form of Keynesian centrists or by some social democrats and the point is that they weren't. That era was the ascendancy of neoliberalism. That was the age of the open denial of climate science by most of the US elite. It was the age of the first Gulf War. It's more important to understand why this all happened, and what its consequences were, than to play games, imagining how things might have been.
If we're talking about politics, I think that this argument about the missing Marshall plan suggests there is a cause and effect, which is not there. It is absolutely true that the Western powers and their companies trashed the Russian economy, and indeed the Ukrainian economy, and the economy of the other former Soviet countries in the 1990s. Of course, they were responsible. They sent advisors to Russia. These guys from Chicago came and gave advice to the [Boris] Yeltsin government about deregulating everything. Clearly, they thought the fact that these oligarchic groups were being formed by the former bureaucrats together with semi-criminal gangs was not an issue that needed to be addressed. They thought it was better for those corporations that were founded by those guys to have control over the assets than for that control to be in the hands of the state. Now, if you sit, as I've done many times, in Russia and watch a late-night TV program about the collapse of the Soviet Union, you can often hear a story-line influenced by the remnants of the Communist Party, that this is all part of a big plot, effectively put together by the CIA, to destroy the power of Russia, to destroy its power as a great nation. And you'll hear echoes of all that in Putin’s speeches.
Politically, it’s clear that Putin always sought to re-establish the strong Russian state. His first action after he came to office was to step up the brutal, murderous second Chechen war. When Putin came in, Russia had lost the first war in Chechnya in 1996-97, to the secular Chechen leadership that wanted a measure of autonomy. The second Chechen war was waged with great ferocity, with every war crime you can imagine being committed: it was one of the most savage wars of our times, and NATO couldn't care less that the Western powers looked the other way. After that, Putin sought to rebalance the relationship between the state and the business groups that had become strong in the 1990s. Then, during the oil boom of the 2000s, he saw the potential for reasserting Russia’s position as a global power. Then in the 2010s came the wars in Ukraine and Syria.
I think the issue of NATO expansion, which is very central to the Kremlin's rhetoric is not the real issue. I don't mean NATO is not expanding, but I do not accept the Kremlin's own explanation for its military adventure. That expansion of NATO happened a long time ago, in the beginning of 2000s. Most of the countries have joined a long time ago, in the beginning of 2004, and since then only four small Balkan countries have joined NATO. At the same time, from that time, the Western powers sought a relationship with Russia where they would use it as a gendarme in some geographical areas – as they did in Ukraine, and in Syria – and somehow keep it under control. That has now broken down. This was a policy of striking deals between NATO and Russia, not simply a policy of NATO expansion.
If we're analyzing the causes of the current conflict, I don't see them in the 1990s and the retreat of the Russian state at that time. There’s more to it: this chapter, from the second Chechen war to the present, where the Western powers were playing this complicated game with Russia, has to be explained. Another thing that is wrong with the Kremlin’s explanation, that NATO expansion drove it into this war, is that it completely discounts all the factors about the way that society and the economy were proceeding in Russia and Ukraine themselves; it discounts the way that the Kremlin has always used nationalism as part of its method of social control in Russia over the past 15-20 years; it means that you don't really give the significance that is deserved to the way that the strong state developed under Putin. This was the reestablishment of the strong Russian state.
The process of reestablishment of the Russian state?
Yes. The renaissance of the strong Russian state. I think the political problem with such arguments that you mentioned previously – the argument that the current war was provoked by NATO expansion – is that such arguments paint the picture as one of a conflict between Western states and the Russian state, as though the Russian state is a victim. That's exactly how the Kremlin has tried to illustrate the situation. But it underplays this story of the re-emergence of the strong state; it underplays the tension we discussed between Russia's economic interests and its military-political interests; and it underplays the dynamic between that state and the Russian population.
So, it seems to me, based on your answers, that the process of reconstruction of the Russian state was somehow integrated or, let's say, coincided with different wars in Chechnya, in Syria and in other places. So, why was it necessary for the Russian state to reconstruct the state through these wars?
Of course, as socialists we would say that it was not necessary, and if we were in Russia in the 1990s and we were talking about what sort of society we wanted to live in, we – whether we were anarchists who were opposed in principle to the state, or whether we were other kinds of socialists who either accepted its existence grudgingly or simply believe that we could have some other different kind of state anyway – what socialists, I'm sure, would all have agreed on is that in no way were these wars inevitable or necessary; in no way were they in the interests of the Russian people.
In the 1990s we witnessed the collapse of the state, in many ways. And when I say collapse, I mean that the state did not collect taxes. Tax collection, above all from the oil, gas and metals companies, sank into a very low level. The welfare state that had been established in the late Soviet period – which was, as anyone who lived there would tell you, very far from perfect, but anyway, there it was – was also falling to pieces. The state was losing its monopoly on armed force, not only with the situation in Chechnya and some of the other republics, but also just in terms of the number of guns that were in the hands of criminal gangs who could participate in the economy by seizing property or other methods.
Of course, it was in the interests of the Russian capitalist class to change that situation. So, when Putin came, he not only put at the center of his policy the prosecution of these wars, but also in the first few years of his first term as president starting in 2000, he made very clear to the companies that taxes from now on were going to be paid. And the oligarchs who argued with him the most fiercely, or were otherwise politically dangerous to him, ended up either outside the country, or in jail, or, in a couple of cases, dead. Putin tilted the relationship of power between the state and capital to the state's advantage.
This power relation in the era of Yeltsin was in favor of capital, not the state. Right?
When Yeltsin was president in the 1990s, the state was very weak. It was unable to control the activities of the oligarchs and indeed relied on their help for survive. When Putin came in, he very quickly won the second Chechen war. And then he started to change the policy about the relationship with business and taxes. This culminated in 2003 with the arrest of one of the oligarchs who was very outspoken against Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Actually, he wasn't outspoken at that time: he just was obviously very powerful. After his arrest he spent 10 years in Siberia. But probably most important, his oil company – Russia’s biggest one, Yukos – was taken away from him and folded into the big state oil company Rosneft, which is now the biggest oil company. They simply took his assets away from him, partly as a result of the legal actions against him personally, but also with some not-very-legal expropriations of property. So, this then switched the balance of power. By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear that companies could not ignore what the government said. It was clear from Chechnya that republics and regions could not ignore what the government said. At that time there were not really any very big protest movements, but it soon became clear in 2010-12, with the protest movements against the fixing of elections, that the population also could not ignore what it was told by the government. It was the same for media. There was an increasing level of censorship of the media, arrests of journalists. This is a continuous process.
Let’s continue with the issue of NATO. You said that people on the left, and also Putin, exaggerated the role of NATO? People on the left usually raise the arguments that Ukraine has become de facto member of NATO in recent years and that NATO, by taking control of Ukraine, has reached very near to the gateways of Moscow, so it was very hard for Moscow to ignore this threat and this was a natural response from Moscow to this military aggression. Why do you say this is an exaggeration of the reality?
I think there are two sides to this: the first is a political side. It's become a habit again in the left in the West to assume that because US imperialism is clearly hegemonic, and is the most powerful imperialist power, that it somehow is the task of the left (I have to say I do not even like using that term: the left) to support any force that is opposed to that hegemonic imperialism.
In the 1970s, we used to have a lot of arguments about is it conditional support or critical support or god knows what, which came out of the history of the Communist International. Since you're publishing this interview in Farsi language, it is probably relevant to speak about the revolution of 1979 in Iran. As you know, there was a big split among Iranian leftists, but more particularly among Western leftists, about this issue: should the Western left somehow support the Islamic Republic against imperialism? This issue came up very sharply because we had friends and comrades here in London who came from Iran. And they were extremely angry that some of the Western leftist organizations had downplayed the issue of leftists and trade unionists in Iran who were imprisoned at this time, and in some cases subjected to torture and murder by the regime. Western leftists downplayed this issue, because they thought that somehow this would weaken the cause of the Islamic Republic against imperialism. I'm sure people inside Iran had more important things to worry about than what these Western leftists were saying. But I remember that they wrote articles dismissing the women's movement, which I think was the last mass movement before the complete bloodbath and silencing of all opposition in Iran in 1980-81.
Now we can look back with the benefit of hindsight, and see how disastrous and how damaging these articles were and the postures adopted by these Western leftists, most of whom had no practical involvement with what was going on in Iran. Now, of course, we're in a different situation. Russia is not Iran. But I think there are some parallels. I see some well-known Marxist writers who look at this whole issue, from the point of view of US imperialism on one side and the Putin government on the other. Then we see their arguments about what should we say to our political parties in the West and should we support the no fly zone. But these political arguments completely miss out what I, as a communist, understand to be important about how we change the world, which is that we start with the social forces, we do not start with the relationship between governments. Clearly all of them represent the capitalists of their countries in one way or another, whether it's Russia or Ukraine or the US. That's what those governments do. They administer, in their different ways, society on behalf of the dominant economic class, and clearly that class is, the capitalist class. Sorry to make this sound like a basic lecture!
We need to embrace a different kind of politics, that is concerned with the Ukrainian people, the Russian people, the people even in our own countries as the motive forces that can bring about change. I see a big resistance by Ukrainian people to this Russian invasion. There are remarkable pictures being circulated online and films of Ukrainian citizens without weapons, standing in front of tanks, in large numbers, to try to stop the invasion. So, it's not just a battle of one army against another. It's clearly a battle, which involves at least a section of the Ukrainian population. These videos and pictures are coming from the Russian speaking areas of Ukraine, which, while we're making this interview this week, is where the bloodiest fighting is taking place. I don't want to wave any flags or say that I'm happy or anything like that, because I think we know from the experience in Syria, that this sort of repression by the Russian army can just turn into a bloodbath. And I'm very afraid that may happen in some places. But what I want to say is that in some respects, what's going on in the east of Ukraine at this moment is like some sort of people's war.
I don't want to exaggerate that. I don't think it's the entire population that's involved. I think a lot of families just decided, “OK, we're going to get out of Ukraine”, and they left and now, apparently, more than 2 million people have left because they're frightened and they don't want to be killed in a war and they've gone to Poland or Slovakia or Hungary and trying to make their way westwards. But there's also a kind of people's war being fought. Many Ukrainians are signing up to join volunteer detachments, a lot of Ukrainians living in other countries, and also a lot of people from other countries are going to join these detachments. And, of course, that also carries the danger that some fascists will join the volunteer battalions in Ukraine that are dominated by the Ukrainian fascists. That's also happening. I think there's no doubt about that.
Having said all of this, the political point is that this is not a conflict, in the first place, between Russia and the US, or between Russia and the NATO powers. It's a conflict – in the first place – between the Russian army instructed by the Russian government, and the Ukrainian population as well as the Ukrainian government. It's complicated, but then life is complicated.
Now the second part is how do we actually analyze this relationship between the Western powers and Russia? Here are some very provisional thoughts – and I’d like to emphasize that they are only provisional.
I think in order to analyze you need to look at this whole period, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. After that collapse, the powers on each side were faced with a new situation that differed from the old arrangement where they had the Iron Curtain and the world was divided into two, with the so-called socialist Soviet Union on one side and the so-called capitalist West on the other side, and which suddenly collapsed. One point to bear in mind is that, while it was called socialist, the Soviet Union, to my understanding, was not socialist in any sense whatsoever. There was state property and there were many limitations on the working of the market – there is a big argument among economists, about whether it was a market at all, because many products were provided very, very cheaply for the citizens of the Soviet Union. There are some theories about the lack of goods being used instead of market forces. In other words, you just couldn't get stuff. You couldn't buy basic stuff that people needed. On one day of the week, you could buy it, it was very cheap, but mostly you couldn't buy it. So, this was a different way of controlling consumption from a market way. That's a long story, but the point is that, whether it was a market economy, with many limitations, or another way of controlling consumption, this was not socialism. It's a complete ruination of the word socialism to use it to describe this setup. There have been so many arguments among leftists, about what word should we use? Was it a degenerated workers’ state? Was it a bureaucratic something? And so on. It's a long conversation, which we used to have at that time.
The point is, that in 1991, this came to an end. And so those controls and limitations that had been used by the Soviet authorities to keep Western capital out of their territory collapsed. And for the next 10 years or more, the Russian authorities sought integration into Western markets. In some of the other republics, things worked slightly differently, For example, the Central Asian republics tended to turn towards China. The Russian authorities worked with the institutions of Western capitalism to integrate Russia into Western capitalist markets. At this time, the oil, gas and metals industries remained mainly under Russian ownership. We've seen cases where US neo-imperialism, if you want to call it that, in the 20th century moved into countries, and actually US ownership has taken over a lot of stuff. I think this is the case in some Latin American and some Middle Eastern countries. But the level of ownership by foreign capital was really quite low in Russia. Russian property remained largely in Russian hands, and Russian oil and metals were sold on the world markets. And then all the paraphernalia of Western markets, banking, relationships, stock markets, etc., began to be established in Russia where, of course, in the Soviet Union, they had been entirely absent.
So the whole relationship changed. In the 1990s, or the beginning of the 2000s, some Eastern European states applied to join NATO and their membership was accepted. If you just see the world in terms of US hegemony and anybody who's against it, of course, all you see is NATO moving its forces closer to Russia. But let's at least spare a moment to think about those countries that joined NATO at that point. You have the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who are not Slavic. Their languages are not Slavic; they have their own languages, more closely related to the Scandinavian languages. In 1939 the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was made by Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, to divide Eastern Europe among themselves. The Baltic states, because of that agreement, were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. Putin also makes it very clear, that he thinks that was a good deal. So, look at all these issues from the point of view of these Baltic states.
Or look at it from the view of Poland. Polish people often joke about Poland's misfortune to be stuck between Germany and Russia. Going back to the 19th century, when Poland was colonized by the Russian Empire, this has been a source of great unhappiness to Poland. So, even a very basic analysis of what happened in the 1990s has to bear all this history in mind. The ruling elites of those countries in Eastern Europe were naturally not as concerned as the elite of Mexico, let’s say, about the expansionist drive of US imperialism. They were a little more concerned about the expansionist drive of Russian imperialism. And we can understand the reason for this by opening a history book. And, of course, those countries then signed up to NATO.
Another thing we have to say, analytically, is that there are reasons why Ukraine did not sign up to NATO. The first was that NATO did not want Ukraine. They did not see Ukraine as part of the sphere of influence because it was part of the Soviet Union for much longer, and was much closer to Russia. Ukraine had always been a Russian colony of one kind or another. There is an analogy with Ireland’s position, as Britain’s oldest colony.
In 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed, under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the principle that all the countries that signed, including Russia, would respect each other's borders. From the point of view of the Ukrainian elite, that was a good deal. Having nuclear weapons was a headache. They didn't want to play the game of having nuclear weapons, with all the trouble that would cause; they wanted to concentrate on making their country, as the Ukrainian elite saw it and talked about it, a “normal” capitalist country. And they really hoped to join the European Union – while the EU never wanted to have Ukraine, just as it never wanted to have Turkey. Once the EU had integrated the new member countries in Eastern Europe – Czech, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Baltics and so on – they shut the doors. In the mid 2000s, they had enough cheap labor to supply their companies. The door was shut on Ukraine and shut on Turkey.
My understanding of all these analyses that focus solely on NATO and solely on the interaction between Russia and the United States is that they are too one sided. From the time Putin’s set-up became established, from the point of view of Western capital, they had a good relationship with Russia. Russia was supplying oil, gas and minerals to the world market. They were obeying the rules of that market. They were trading on terms which the West could understand. They were accepting all the rules of international finance and the dominance of the Western banking system. They were accepting everything. Of course, Russian military expansionism concerns the Western powers because they like to be in control. But I think as long as Russia confined itself to killing people in Chechnya, and helping Bashar al-Assad to kill people in Syria, I think this was seen by the Western powers as a manageable situation. The invasion of Ukraine has forced the Western powers to re-evaluate.
Why you are not comfortable with the term "The Left"? Can you elaborate it?
I felt, particularly during the war in Syria, which is in some ways one of the roots of the current war in Ukraine, that people who were taking a position in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime and circulating propaganda in its favor in Western countries while that regime was drowning a popular uprising in the country in blood, I felt that these were people who had nothing in common with me and my ideas about how to bring out about a better world. Their attitudes were so far from mine that I didn't want to be part of anything they were part of. And I said this to a friend at the time and that friend said, well, yes, but couldn't you have said that about the Communist Party members back in the 1960s and 70s, when they defended the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks, or those who defended the suppression of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s.
But Syria felt different. In the 1970s and 80s, we had a big workers movement in the UK and many of those Communist Party members were actually activists in the workplace, representing their colleagues; they understood a lot about the class struggle. Now that the workers’ movement has declined, the sociology of the left in the West has changed. I am not blaming anyone who thinks of themselves as a leftist; I am just trying to see things as they are. We have many people who claim to be leftist activists or writers but are not, perhaps can not be, involved in labor movements or social movements. Maybe they're in universities, earning their living by teaching students. Or maybe they are doing something else, just not very connected with any big social movements, because we don’t have many. Some of these people declare themselves “leftists”, and can kind of pontificate on the internet about supporting Bashar al-Assad or whatever. This is as far away from anything I understand to be the struggle for socialism, for communism, for a human society, as you can get. So I think the whole idea of the “left” as an entity needs to be rethought.
Coming back to 2014 Maidan protests in Ukraine, some people think that it was a coup because in the early moments of this movement, snipers started firing on people and agitating for people to occupy government buildings. They said it was designed as a coup against the government that was leaning toward Russia. How did you see this situation?
First of all, it's not correct to talk about the Yanukovych government as a “pro-Russian” government. The Ukrainian elite was split as to its relationship with Russia, on the one hand, and Europe on the other, and this went back through the 2000s and even back into the 1990s. Take the second president of the new Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, who was a very authoritarian and ruthless man in some ways. Personally, I was involved, with friends who were journalists in Ukraine, in researching the case of Gyorgy Gongadze, who was kidnapped by police officers – that had been encouraged in this by Kuchma – and who was beaten and then killed by having his head cut off. We campaigned against the politicians’ impunity in that case. So it's not a government I liked. But this government was actually quite skilled at playing this game of having a relationship with the European powers on the one hand and Russia on the other. So, from the 1990s Ukraine did not just have a relationship with Russia, it had this two-way policy. Part of this was that the EU constantly made promises to Ukraine about friendly relationships, but actually Ukraine’s prospects of joining the EU were always pushed back, as were Turkey’s. This was because of the EU's considerations about how to regulate its labor markets and its economy. In this sense, Ukraine was kept at arm's length.
Then there was the first big popular revolt against corruption politically, the Orange Revolution, in 2004, against what most of the population thought was the fixing of a presidential election result. The election was then rerun, and Viktor Yushchenko was elected. He was considered “pro-Western”, which again, was a simplification. He tried to maintain this binary policy while definitely leaning more towards the EU and the US. In 2010, in the next presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych was elected. He was described as “pro-Russian”, and wanted to tilt the balance back the other way. But again there were nuances. What first brought the movement onto the streets at the beginning of 2014, against Yanukovych, was a discussion in the government about signing this association agreement with the EU, an economic agreement that would tilt more towards the EU.
I was in Kyiv at that time. I was speaking with a journalist friend who was following the discussions in the government and elite day by day. I found it hard to believe that Yanukovych’s team would finally sign the deal. My friend said that everything she could hear from parliament, the cabinet – and this person whose job it is to keep her ears open – is that they're going to sign. And right at the last minute, they didn't sign. Students went out and demonstrated, but it wasn’t an issue that most people were ready to take action on. Then the police came out and beat up students and this produced a response: suddenly there was a big demonstration defending the students. Somehow the police attack on the students angered people; it shone a light on the whole relationship between the authorities and the population. There was a big demonstration to support the students, and then everything spiraled from there into a really mass movement.
Now, if we talk about a coup, let's read the history of Bolivia or somewhere where there were and are big social movements, but there have also been times when a very small group of army officers, against a background of those social movements, would decide to go and change the government. I think in such a case, it's reasonable to use the word coup. But, what happened in Ukraine in 2014 was different. There was a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people who occupied the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). They were there overnight, and this was in a proper Ukrainian winter, when it’s minus 15 or 20 degrees . Now that's a mass movement. It's impossible to define it in some other way. Were there other things going on? Absolutely yes. Were there provocateurs? Absolutely, of course – on both sides: on the government side and on the anti government side. Were there politicians trying to make deals on both sides? All absolutely without question. But if we're communists, and we somehow care not only about what politicians do, but also about what the population does, then we must start by acknowledging this was a mass movement. We might not like the way it behaved or we might disagree with the slogans. But this was a mass movement, and we can't analyze those events in 2014 without recognizing that.
Some of what actually happened is still very disputed. First of all there was firing into this big crowd and the assumption in the crowd at that moment was that the firing came from government forces or Russian forces supporting the government. So, there has been a police investigation, which has never been conclusive, like most police investigations in Ukraine. And there are some people who say that there is evidence that there were provocateurs on the other side. To me it remains absolutely unclear. There's nothing to stop me believing either version. But, in any case, what followed was the crowd turned against the police officers, in many cases, disarming them.
At this point, it's also undoubtedly the case that armed fascists became very active in the crowd. We have many friends – socialists, trade unionists, feminists – who were also in the crowd, and who actually felt threatened and also tried to organize themselves to protect themselves from these fascists. There's no question that fascists played a role at that point. And there's also no question that the government fell to pieces. It had very little popular support. And, Yanukovych left. He left and the demonstrators arrived at his home, which was more like a palace out of the 19th century. The demonstrators went in and there are many photographs and so on. And then for some days there was a very unstable situation. People were forming self defense units in their areas of the cities. The police basically collapsed. Because of the police action against the demonstrators, many people were no longer prepared to accept the police as guardians of order. The new government took some months to reestablish the police force with new commanders and new uniforms, as if was something different.
The other proof, to my mind, that this was not a fascist coup was the character of the new government. They held an election in which – as in all Ukrainian elections – the fascists got a very small proportion of the vote: a national total of under 3%. Don’t forget that at this time in some Eastern European countries, some of the fascist and extreme right parties were together getting 10% and 15%, in France 25%. The Brexit party in the UK – which was not a fascist party, but was extremely right wing – had 15 million votes at one of the European parliamentary elections. We can say, certainly, that the electoral support for the fascists in Ukraine was not substantially greater, and was probably smaller, than in most European countries. There is a difference, of course: from 2014, from the moment of the overthrow of Yanukovych’s government – which also involved attacks on local government and local police headquarters, so that then there were more guns available – the armed gangs of fascists became more numerous. Every time, after that, that our socialist friends in Ukraine tried to organize a demonstration, the threat of the fascists was much greater. No question. The war that started in Donbas in 2014 was probably the biggest factor of all in the growth of the armed fascist movement, which was incorporated into the Ukrainian state forces.
It's also important to compare the fascist movement in Ukraine to the fascist movement in Russia. Sometimes it is subject to heavy clampdowns from the state; at other times it is allowed by the state to, for example, terrorize migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, to terrorize the left. The state, to some extent, regulates the extent to which the fascists are able to do street activity in Russia. And the use of Russian fascist gangs, supported by the Russian state, was the key force in the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the establishment of the so-called “people’s republics” there. Russian fascists and extreme nationalists, and some of the Chechen armed gangs that are used by the Russian state to control Chechnya, were heavily involved. The Russian fascists and nationalists are a greater force, and a better armed force, whichever way you measure, than the Ukrainian fascists.
What are the potentials for workers movements and progressive social movements right now In Ukraine?
From the point of view of developing social movements and developing the active power of working people, nothing could be more of a disaster than war. This is the worst possible thing. It means that governments can terrorize people with weapons, whether it's people in other countries or people in their own country, and that things are more and more decided by the use of state violence, and less and less decided by other means. So, this is a disaster. What can we do in this situation? One thing is to bear in mind the huge reaction in Ukrainian society to this invasion. People are taking defensive action to protect their families by leaving the country, or leaving their own homes to go to another part of Ukraine. We now have more than 2 million refugees outside Ukraine and an estimated 6 million people displaced inside Ukraine.
But we also see a high level of organization by people to resist the invasion. I mentioned these videos and photographs, which we've seen, of this resistance, much of it in areas with a majority of Russian speakers. Even the most gloomy and pessimistic of our friends – and it's a time when many people feel gloomy and pessimistic – see this is a cause for hope. If we think about the First World War, or the Second World War, they went on for years before there were big social movements against war. I do not want to exaggerate this. But take also the reports of the reasons that the Belarusian army has not joined the war on the side of the Russian army. The President of Belarus said that they would support the military action. But reports are coming from Belarus that the reason this has not happened is that the high command of the Belarusian army is concerned that soldiers, once they reach Ukrainian territory, may either surrender collectively in large numbers to Ukraine, or may turn on their officers and shoot their officers. We have also heard isolated reports of Russian soldiers doing such things.
I don't know what the Belarusian soldiers are thinking. But don’t forget that Belarus is a country where in 2020, there was a huge popular uprising that was suppressed by the government, but which avoided bringing the army into it as much as it could and concentrated on using the police and the Russian army to suppress that revolt. The Belarusian army is a conscript army. Moreover, in Russia, it's clear from many sources of information that many Russian soldiers have no idea that they're going to fight a very fierce war against Ukraine, which is a country where millions and millions of Russians have relatives and friends. They have no idea where they're going. They think they're going on a training exercise or, at most, to a very limited military operation. This is the evidence that we can see. It shows that the Russian state, which appears so horribly strong, is also so weak that it can not explain to its own soldiers what is going on.
The danger is that things develop as they did in Syria, where, despite all the social movements and the unrest and the collective mobilization, of which there was an enormous amount in Syria, in the end, force and violence prevail. That's the danger. And that's in my view the greatest tragedy of the 21st century. This could happen, of course. What I can say is that, as in Syria, we saw these popular reactions on a big scale. The question is whether they can be strong enough – which in the end, they were not in Syria, despite all that they achieved – to push back this militarism and violence.
What about other countries in the European Union and Great Britain? Will this fuel the engine of anti-war movements or any kind of solidarity campaign, like the campaign that Bob Myers and his comrades started for the war in Bosnia?
We've seen over the past week a big campaign by Western governments and institutions to put in to people's minds a sort of anti-Russian hysteria, a sort of mobilization of popular support by people who are many miles away from the war to say that it's all those horrible Russians. I think this is very dangerous and we should not think of anti-war solidarity on the government's terms. This is the Kremlin’s war, not a war by Russian people.
We should build solidarity on our terms. First of all, it means accepting all refugees. I'm sure you saw on the news, horrible scenes of the Black students, African students from Ukraine, blocked while trying to cross into Poland, while the white Ukrainians were accepted. Two categories of people were not accepted. One was Ukrainian men who are not permitted to leave Ukraine, because they are eligible for conscription. And the second are people from Africa, who are Black. The Polish authorities and others reacted in an absolutely racist manner. We have to accept all refugees.
Second, our opposition to war has to be genuinely internationalist. That would include support for the popular resistance in Ukraine. All these aspects of a solidarity movement – support for the popular resistance, whatever form it takes; support for refugees, unconditionally; and international solidarity with the anti-war movement in Russia – all these things, to my mind, are positive, because they developing a social response, a response from society and not just from government.