Crimea: a Divisive, Dangerous Assault

Struggles over social issues could be the starting-point for countering the poisonous effect of pro-Russian separatism on one side and extreme Ukrainian nationalism on the other. But radical socialists in Kyiv and in eastern Ukrainian cities emphasise that, in the immediate future, launching such struggles will not be easy.

Putin’s war

Putin is absolutely right on one point: the western powers’ protests at the Russian action in Crimea are completely hypocritical. Putin said at his March 4 press conference that, when western leaders told him the action was “illegitimate”, “I have to recall the action of the USA in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.”

Some on the European left, who view the world primarily as a geopolitical conflict between the US-UK led alliance and the rest – rather than in terms of social and class dynamics – focus on this comparison, and suggest that the removal of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich is largely the work of right-wing actors supported by the USA.

Such a view ignores the complex character of the movement that felled Yanukovich (see an earlier article on that here). It ignores Putin’s real motives. And it exaggerates the role of western powers – who are divided, with the USA putting the emphasis on containing Russia’s military ambitions, but Germany and others keener to preserve economic relationships with Russia.

The conflict between Russia and these powers could deepen, if they feel that Russia’s military aggression threatens their hegemony. That would raise a whole host of new problems – but it wouldn’t alter the fact that Putin’s war in Crimea is unilaterally bad for Ukrainians and Russians trying to make their lives better and the society they live in better.

Putin sees war as a way of boosting his support among Russians, mobilising the Russian nationalist right (most of whom fervently support the attack on Ukraine), and forestalling social protest in Russia itself, which reached a peak in 2011-12 prior to his return to the presidency, and has since subsided.

Putin’s claim that he ordered a “humanitarian mission” in Crimea is laughable. There is no threat to Russian speakers or Russian citizens that could possibly justify it. True, the Ukrainian parliament on 2 March idiotically proposed the repeal of a law allowing local governments to use Russian as an official language where appropriate – although acting president Olexander Turchinov has so far desisted from approving the repeal.

But the aggressive actions of an estimated 20 000 Russian troops in Crimea have done 100 times more than the Ukrainian parliament to stoke tension between Russians and Ukrainians who have historically lived together peacefully in eastern Ukraine.

Warmongering is central to power in Russia, no less than in the USA. It was the murderous onslaught on Chechnya – which for sheer brutality and criminality, if not scale, surely rivaled the Iraq war – that defined and consolidated Putin’s presidency.

It would be interesting to know how people in Chechnya view Putin’s action in Crimea. Putin is supporting today’s referendum on secession in Crimea, having dealt with Chechen aspirations to secession by drowning Chechnya in blood. His claim to be a hero of democracy and oppressed minorities must sound really weird there.

A key turning point in Chechnya’s post-Soviet history was the declaration of independence by Djokar Dudaev, the former Soviet general who was elected national president, in November 1991. The declaration, born out of two centuries or more of rebellions against Russian colonialism, was certainly supported by the vast majority of Chechens.

The response by Russia, first under Boris Yeltsin and then under Putin, was a series of frightful military assaults. Thousands of civilians were killed, raped and tortured. Yeltsin’s onslaught, culminating in the blitzkreig of December 1994, failed. Putin sent the Russian military back to Chechnya in 1999, first bombing the towns into submission, and then striking fear into villages with hundreds of “disappearances” of young men.

The hypocrites in the western governments were busy perpetrating war crimes of their own in Iraq, and never took action over Russian war crimes in Chechnya. In 2001, the British Labour politician turned NATO secretary general, George Robertson, notoriously excused these crimes, saying that Russia’s war on Chechen nationalists “looked different” in the light of the west’s own “war on terror”.

Putin installed a pro-Russian puppet regime in Chechnya. Its current president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been one of the most vocal supporters of Putin’s assault on Crimea.

On March 2, the day the Crimea action began, about 300 protesters were arrested in Moscow, protesting against the war; on March 15 there was an anti-war demonstration of about 50 000 people in the Russian capital. Social and labour movements in Europe should support such actions.

The new Ukrainian government

The new government in Kyiv is neo-liberal, but not fascist, as some European leftists claim. Ukraine’s economy is in crisis, its state finances are in trouble, and the new prime minister, neo-liberal economist Arseniy Yatseniuk, is set to negotiate a loan package with the IMF.

An earlier package, arranged in 2008, had conditions attached – slashing the public sector wage bill, reforming the pension system and raising tariffs for gas, electricity and municipal services – that all previous governments failed to meet. Yatseniuk has said he will implement whatever the Fund demands, although such an attempt could easily bring down his weak coalition. Government assaults on living standards, and on welfare, education and social provision carried over from Soviet times, will present a challenge to social and labour movements.

Batkivshchina (Fatherland), the party led by Yatseniuk and former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, is partnered in the coalition by Svoboda, the right-wing nationalist, populist party, whose leadership is full of antisemites. Svoboda has a deputy prime ministership, three ministries and control of the general prosecutor’s office. Some other ministers are former radical rightists now in the parliamentary right.

The Right Sector coalition – which during the Maidan demonstrations brought together groups to the right of Svoboda, including fascists and neo-Nazis – has stayed out of the government. Its leader Dmitry Yarosh was offered the post of deputy head of the national security council but declined.

The immediate danger from the right wing and fascists consists primarily not in Svoboda’s government positions, but in the widespread presence of self-defence units, some armed, some of which are controlled by Svoboda and the Right Sector, and some of which have been operating joint patrols with the police. Svoboda deputies have proposed a law legalising these units, and leftists fear that they will have access to information on labour activists collected by the police. The European left should work in solidarity with our Ukrainian friends against such dangers.

Voices of the Ukrainian left

“Putin’s war is directed first of all at the Russian population. It is designed to bolster Putin’s popularity and to weaken the Russian opposition”, Volodymyr Ishchenko of the Commons journal, based in Kyiv, said in an interview. “What other conceivable reason can there be for attacking Crimea?”

Ishchenko said: “My impression is that, while in western and central Ukraine, the Russian invasion confirmed in people’s minds what they always suspected about Russia’s imperialist intentions, in the south and east the population is really polarised.

“The ‘pro-Russian’ rallies are not demanding that Yanukovich returns. He is politically dead. Some of the demonstrations are separatist; some simply want more autonomy for the regions. My hope is that actions around social issues can gain support from both sides, but this will not happen easily or soon.”

Activists in eastern Ukraine who I contacted by email underlined the complexity of local people’s attitudes. Hostility to the new government in Kyiv does not automatically translate into support for Putin’s invasion, K., a university researcher from Zaporozhia, wrote.

“If war starts in Ukraine, the limited contingent of Russian armed forces will come up against paradoxes that can hardly have been considered in Putin’s strategy of getting ready to fight ‘Banderites’. [A catch-all term for Ukrainian nationalists commonly used in Russia. Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist leader whose armed forces fought the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War.]

“Let me explain about my own case”, K wrote. “I am not a nationalist, I speak Russian [not Ukrainian], I served in the Soviet and Russian armed forces, I do not see Bandera as a Ukrainian hero, I did not support Maidan, I have a negative view of a whole lot of decisions taken by the Ukrainian parliament [since the ousting of Yanukovich], and I have many friends in Russia. But, all the same, I am a citizen of Ukraine, and I will defend Ukraine’s independence in a struggle with the whip-cracking Putinites and defend all the nationalities in my country.”

This article was originally published on People and Nature.

Some socialists’ sites with English-language pages

Commons journal, Ukraine

Autonomous Workers Union, Ukraine

Left Opposition, Ukraine

LeftEast (Romania, reports on all of central and eastern Europe)