Talking about Ukraine while ignoring the Ukrainians

By Richard Seymour

February 25, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Richard Seymour's Patreon blog — The news we depend on, while mentioning Ukraine a lot, isn't really talking about Ukraine. Ukraine is an afterthought, one element in a geopolitical puzzle, the stake in a great power rivalry. It is discussed by secretaries of state, military and intelligence officials, and hawkish MPs. It is spoken of in a way that makes Ukraine a pawn on the Brzezinskian chessboard, in which either NATO or Russian imperialism prevails. One is given no way of understanding what what is at stake for Ukrainians.

According to Volodymyr Ischenko and Taras Bilous, the question of whether Ukraine will join NATO (and the European Union) or ally with Russia is fundamentally about Ukraine's struggle to define itself as a nation. The regions of Ukraine have distinct historical memories, distinct ethnocultural and linguistic traditions, and distinct industrial trajectories. The southern and eastern parts have historically been linked to heavy Russian industry, and Russian markets. The westernmost part is dominated by agriculture and a large Kiev-based services industry. The Donbass region (covering Donetsk and Luhansk) have higher growth rates and lower unemployment, and have historically tended to favour an alliance with Russia.

One way in which a nation-building project could have been imposed would have been for a dominant faction of the capitalist class to impose, through a parliamentary faction answerable to it, its own preferred narrative of Ukraine's historical development and destiny. However, while the neoliberal reforms implemented after 1990 produced many rich oligarchs, amid absolute economic devastation for everyone else, it didn't produce a coherent capitalist class or a single faction capable of dominating. This weakness and incoherence has been a spur to authoritarian projects, but it has also impeded authoritarianism. No single bloc within Ukraine has been able to develop a hegemonic national project, though all sides in the recent civil war have been able to mobilise 'oppressed nation' tropes. 

The failure of Russian-aligned oligarchs to solve the national question, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, opened the way for a liberal-nationalist civil society project. A project that would recuperate pre-USSR Ukrainian history, mobilise strongly anticommunist tropes, seek integration into the European Union, and join NATO. This has been glossed in terms of the popular aspiration for democratic rule, but it has in practice meant supplanting one elite faction with another. And this circulation of elites, though prompted by grassroots protest, has also been governed by the rhythm of inter-imperialist conflict. 

Russia, though having been encircled by NATO's eastward expansion, and the Bush-era installation of US military bases along its southern flank (since dismantled), has been reasserting itself in the 'sphere of influence' it claims in the post-Soviet territories. In economic terms, it has been floating the the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an alternative to the EU since 2011. Politically, especially since its speedy military defeat of Georgia in 2008*, it has sought to use its clout to consolidate its alliances, and if possible spread its authoritarian mode of domination, throughout the post-Soviet space. It sees this as part of a multipolar world order, in which it constitutes a major continental power but not a global power. In this sense, it would be just as troubled by Ukrainian accession to the EU as by its membership of NATO, since that would foster new modes of capital accumulation, new oligarchs, and new political elites. And if it that could happen in Ukraine, why couldn't a Navalny-style movement inaugurate such a development in Russia? This is the logic of Putin's alliance with far-right, anti-globalist forces. After all, Putin rose to dominance amid a popular, largely conservative backlash against the catastrophic 'westernization' of Russia which, in the form of 'shock therapy', resulted in millions of excess deaths.

The Maidan Square protests that ousted the oligarch Viktor Yanukovych (misleadingly labelled as 'pro-Russian'), with some intervention from the United States, were led by liberal-nationalists but had a powerful far-right wing that was subsequently incorporated into the state. I'll come back to this. But Maidan was matched by anti-Maidan, with protests against the new Kiev authorities starting in Donetsk, Luhansk and in the Crimean Peninsula. It is alleged that these were paid protesters, organised by far-right parties, acting as Russian puppets. But to reduce the protests to that activity would be no more convincing than to reduce Euromaidan to US subventions. Rather, these were interventions in a broader movement, in regions with little enthusiasm for NATO or the EU, or love for the "Kiev junta", designed to shore up the hard secessionist wing of the protests. 

Russia nonetheless took the opportunity to send troops, without insignia, first to Crimea (to "return Crimea to Russia"), then to the Donbass region. A plebiscite was organised in Crimea under Russian occupation, in which 97% voted to join Russia. In Donetsk and Luhansk, they coordinated and added firepower to a secessionist uprising by the forces of the self-declared, and increasingly surreal and authoritarian, Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic (LDPR). With Russian military support, the secessionist movement defeated the Ukrainian army. 

At this stage, Russia might have used its leverage to organise a Crimea-style plebiscite and annexe the richest and most industrially advanced part of Ukraine. The rump Ukraine would have been one of the poorest states in Europe, requiring extensive international aid, and would be a greatly reduced asset for NATO and the EU. Instead, however, Russia used its power in peace negotiations to impose terms of agreement that were greatly disadvantageous to authorities in Kiev. The LDPR would be reintegrated into Ukraine, but on terms that would make it a state-within-a-state. And since then, Russian power in the LDPR has only increased: the rouble is the official currency, Russia subsidises finance pensions and wages, and hundreds of thousands of Russian passports have been distributed. Networks of Russian influence and patronage are strong, and officials are routinely disappeared or murdered, and Russian mercenaries operate with impunity.

What of the authorities in Kiev? Here, we have to take seriously the coalition between liberal-nationalists and the far-right. Anglophone journalists have tended to whitewash or minimise this, but it won't fly. The coalition with the far-right reflects the logic of a nationalist project which is pivoted on anti-Russian, anticommunist ideology. The dissemination of a profoundly revisionist national history which whitewashes and honours Nazis, as well as the slew of monuments to and streets named after Nazi collaborators, is perfectly congruent with this particular version of Europeanism. It also reflects the balance of forces in the Maidan protests, in which the 'Right Sector' – far-right, anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries – were an important, well-organised force. 

It has been remarked, with some sense of scandal, that the President who replaced Yanukovych, billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko, was not averse to hanging out with Nazis. Well, of course he wasn't. The far-right were his allies in government and in the counterinsurgency in Donbass. On the softer end of the Ukrainian far-right is the Svoboda party whose leader was “on record saying that Kiev is governed by ‘a Jewish-Russian mafia’” when they were given four ministerial posts. On the harder end was the aforementioned 'Right Sector', whose founder, Dmytro Yarosh, was appointed an advisor to the Ukrainian armed forces in June 2014 - this after he had almost been appointed as a deputy to the national security and defence council. Right Sector paramilitaries were then deployed as 'volunteer' units in the counterinsurgency operation in Donbass. That only became a problem for Kiev authorities when, with substantial sympathy from the army hierarchy, they threatened the Poroshenko regime that they said had sold out to Russia. Finally, Nazis were recruited by the Ukrainian interior ministry, and formed as an infantry group known as the Azov Battalion, to do the government's dirty work in Donetsk.

So, it is in no way surprising that neo-Nazis have been on the march, and engaged in violence, without being curtailed. Or that antisemitism, ramifying into a series of attacks on Jews and Holocaust memorials, has found support within the state: consider the police chief who, as part of his war against criminal gangs, demanded a list of all Jewish residents of Kolomiya. Beyond that, anti-Russian paranoia sanctions every form of authoritarianism. Russian influence is blamed for everything, from protests against rising energy prices to anti-vaxxers. On this basis, the Kiev authorities have been banning books, banning journalists, curtailing journalistic freedom, locking up protesters on the grounds that they are Moscow stooges, using secret services to intimidate the mayor of Kiev, a rival of the current President, and shutting down opposition media. Amid this carnival of reaction, there is almost no space for leftist or democratic forces.

In April 2019, it briefly looked as though this pattern of authoritarianism and corruption might be broken in Ukraine outside Donbass, when Volodymyr Zelenskyi was elected president with almost three quarters of the vote. Zelenskyi was not a particularly interesting politician: a former comedian and actor, who had played president on television. He claimed no ideology, other than that he was an outsider who would end the war with Russia, disrupt the elites and end corruption. But, having had little success in ending the war with Russia, and having been faced with nationalist ire every time he made any concessions to Russia, he has taken to prosecuting the battle vigorously, and even more autocratically than his predecessor, on the home front.

Russian troops have gathered on the Ukrainian border before. But this deployment, involving over 100,000 soldiers, looks far more serious. The deployment in March and April was most likely an attempt to lean on Zelenskyi to expedite the parts of the Minsk Protocol that Russia prioritises, specifically the staging of elections in the LDPR on terms governed by the secessionists. In this case, Russia has been making similar demands regarding Minsk, while also demanding a legal guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO. Zelenskyi couldn't deliver on these demands even if he wanted to. And indeed, he has been threatening to hold a referendum on Crimea and Donbass, both of which would circumvent Minsk, though it's unclear how that would be organised. Russia clearly has the upper hand, and doesn't have to worry about a military response from NATO. Biden is clear that, while he may send troops to NATO states in Eastern Europe, he's not going to intervene directly in Ukraine. The UK is equally downplaying any talk of military intervention. Germany opposes any intervention, including sanctions. So, even if Russia pulls back from an invasion now, it would remain a permanent possibility.

And a Russian invasion would be disastrous. It would precipitate a brutal, Chechnya-style civil war, destroying whatever slim chances may exist for a more pluralistic and democratic solution to Ukraine's national question. It would also reinforce right-wing nationalism in Russia itself, supercharging the imperialist sentiments that will be used to crush any incipient democratic opposition. Should the US and its allies arm the Ukrainian authorities, sufficient to give them a comprehensive victory – which isn't likely at this stage – that wouldn't be any better. As we've seen, the Ukrainian elites will be happy to use far-right paramilitaries to bloodily destroy Donbass, continue to mainstream the most violent and retrograde elements of Ukrainian nationalism, and further cleanse the body politics with more authoritarian crackdowns. Again, the remaining leftist and democratic forces would be crushed.

What should the Left outside Ukraine say about this? What can we do, if anything, by way of solidarity? The Stop the War Coalition has issued a statement, which concentrates its fire on NATO expansionism, neo-Cold War rhetoric by Western politicians, and the proposed deployment of UK troops to Russia's border. It calls for the UK to support "serious diplomatic proposals" which recognise both Ukrainian integrity and Russian security concerns. To this extent, it focuses on what the Left in the UK can actually affect. And if it avoids saying a single critical word about what Russia is doing, I would infer that's largely because it doesn't want to expend a single cent of political capital on giving comfort to the West's warmongers. After all, there is a history of leftists collapsing, through shades and degrees of intellectual dereliction, into liberal imperialism. I get it. And, up to a point, I accept its priorities for mobilisation.

However, while it's up to Stop the War how they calculate their interventions, it would be a serious mistake for the Left to be uncritical, or mealy-mouthed, about what Russia is doing. Russia shouldn't be demonised, but it is not a victim here. It may not be the global threat to peace that NATO is, but is a major source of peril in this situation. It may have 'security concerns' like any other state, but it also a continental imperialist power and a great deal of bloody mayhem has been justified by those 'concerns'. The Left didn't hesitate to oppose the murder in Chechnya, and I think we have to be on our guard that it could happen again, even if it's averted in the short-term. What if we find ourselves protesting, 'Hands off Ukraine', having not clearly explained beforehand that we opposed what Russia was doing?

In general, I take the view, which not everyone supports, that the US is a declining power. This means I think we have to grapple with the challenges posed by rising regional powers, like Russia and China. We have to think critically about the kinds of economic, political and cultural reach they have beyond military intervention, and how that relates to their different conceptions of political order. Russia's alliance with the European far-right, for example, is a problem that is congruent with its domestic political priorities and its approach to global order. Which means that Russian chauvinism 'over there' is also a problem 'over here'. If we don't engage with that, then obviously we leave our own side intellectually disarmed, and we leave the job of formulating important political realities to our opponents. We cede the monopoly over certain truths to those who want to weaponise them. There's a real danger in that.

*Those who remember the conflict in Georgia, and the behaviour of Georgia's bumptious president Mikhail Saakashvili, may be interested to learn that he has since played a leading role in Ukrainian politics as mayor of Odessa and anti-government protest leader.