The root cause of the crisis in Ukraine is to be found in the disastrous effects of the restoration of capitalism. The destruction of the planned economy was a tremendous setback not only from the point of view of the economy, but also from a social point of view.
From the ashes of the planned economy emerged a brutal capitalist regime, based on the large scale theft of state property by different gangs of crooks and Mafiosi, the oligarchs, which came to control the economy and as a result, the political system.
Mafia-style capitalism resulted in endemic instability with western imperialism taking advantage of the crisis in Russia to exert their influence over the Ukraine, unsettling the balance of power in the region for a whole period, thus creating the conditions for the present crisis.
Some of the oligarchs thought their interests were better served with an alliance with the West, others were aligned with Russia, but their overriding motivation was the maximisation of profit at any cost, through legal and, mostly, illegal means. On this basis it was impossible to establish even the semblance of a functioning bourgeois democracy. One corrupt and authoritarian bourgeois regime followed another.
At the end of 2013 the then president Yanukovich decided to suspend, at the last minute, the signing of an association agreement with the EU, and decided instead to sign a deal with Russia. Up until that point he had ruled in the interest of the oligarchs and followed an IMF inspired programme of further privatisation and austerity cuts, alienating popular support for his rule even in the South-East of Ukraine where most of his electoral base was.
The only reason he broke with the West was because he thought he could get a better deal from Russia. After the collapse of Stalinism, German capitalism followed a policy of expanding eastwards and was prepared to spend large sums of money to ensure its domination in the region. But in 2013, in the middle of the most severe crisis of capitalism in Europe, it was no longer so keen to spend the amount of money that would have been required to absorb into the EU Ukraine (which was facing a deep economic recession). Yanukovich tried to play the West against Russia and vice-versa in order to get the best deal.
His decision not to sign the treaty with the EU was the spark for the movement which became known as Euromaidan. The movement had a certain degree of mass support amongst those sections of the population (mainly the West and Centre of the country) which looked towards the West, with the illusion that somehow by linking up to the EU their living standards would rise or they would experience a repetition of the Polish “miracle”. This was a reactionary illusion, but one which was able to mobilise a section of society in protests against Yanukovich.
Although it reflected real discontent and had a mass character, especially at the beginning, the Euromaidan movement, under the guise of the struggle against corruption and repression, was, in the final analysis, a reactionary movement, from the point of view of its class composition, political aims and dominant political forces and leadership.
It was mainly composed of petty bourgeois liberal intelligentsia, lumpen elements, the ruined middle layers and was stronger in the rural regions in the West of the country. Its stated aim was the signing of an association treaty with the EU which necessarily had to come with strings attached in the form of an “austerity programme” which would mean that the working class would be made to pay for the crisis of capitalism. Finally, the opposition bourgeois liberal parties were dominant in the mobilisation and far right and neo-Nazi forces provided the shock troops.
The US played an important role in the outcome of the Euromaidan, in the same way that they were instrumental in the 2004 “Orange revolution”. John McCain spoke at rallies in Kiev and US Assistant Secretary of State admitted having spent 5 billion dollars since Ukraine went independent, to get their policies implemented in Ukraine.
When Yanukovich realised he could no longer hold on to power through repression and was unable to mobilise any significant forces to counter the Euromaidan movement, he decided to make a deal which involved him leaving the scene. This was too little too late. The forces which had been unleashed were no longer interested in a deal but wanted a clear break. At this point snipers were used to kill demonstrators and police officers. It is not clear who ordered the shooting, but the result was that Yanukovich fled the country and a new “acting” government was installed in Kiev. For those who like to talk about the legitimacy of this new government, it was voted in by the Rada (Parliament) which was surrounded and “guarded” by armed paramilitary neo-Nazi and fascist thugs.
We cannot in any way support the deposed Yanukovich government, but the new government installed was, if possible, even more reactionary. This was a government of the pro-Western bourgeois parties, which included ministers from the far-right Svoboda party (which also got the State Prosecutor position) and invited members of the neo-Nazi Right Sector to be part of it (though they refused).
The acting government of president Turchynov and Prime Minister Yatseniuk was completely aligned to the interests of Washington and committed to getting the country into NATO and the EU. Yatseniuk described it as a kamikaze government, committed to the quick implementation of a series of shock measures demanded by the IMF to then give way to a new elected government with some semblance of legitimacy. Amongst those measures was the lifting of subsidies on the price of gas for heating, mass layoffs of civil servants, freezing of wages and pensions, etc.
This complete twist in the alignment of Ukraine was a clear provocation for the Russian ruling clique, which was not going to allow another former Soviet Union country to join or associate itself to NATO, particularly not one which had a key strategic naval base of the Russian Fleet in Sevastopol, and a large Russian speaking minority.
Since the 2008 war in Georgia, Russia has been attempting to assert itself on the world arena. Though nowhere near as powerful as US imperialism, Russia is a capitalist state ruled by a parasitic and rapacious oligarchy, seeking control over natural resources and spheres of influence. Its foreign policy is entirely determined by the interest and cynical aims of the oligarchy and does not contain an atom of progressive content. Though it does not really have the economic or military strength to challenge the US in the world arena, it seeks to have its own independent foreign policy and wants to negotiate with the US from a position of strength.
The war against Georgia in South Ossetia represented a turning point, where Russia eventually managed to turn to its advantage the mistakes of the US imperialists in overstretching their forces and Russia's superior forces on the ground on a regional level. The Russian military and ruling class observed – with a sense of national humiliation – as one after another of the Eastern European countries and even some which had been part of the Soviet Union were brought into the West’s sphere of influence after the collapse of the USSR. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the bombing of Serbia also contributed to a feeling of the Russian military of being encircled and under siege.
The relative weakening of US imperialism, especially over the past decade, as their resources were drained by the Afghan and Iraqi adventures, was exposed fully by US impotence in the Georgian war of 2008. In Syria too, although Moscow was prepared to ditch Assad when it seemed he was going to be overthrown, Russia finally took a position which brought it into conflict with the US and played a key role in Obama’s fiasco over US threats to bomb Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons in August 2013. All this has been confirmed by the recent developments in Iraq, which expose once again the impotence of the US administration.
This was further exposed by the development of the crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, which showed the weakness of US imperialism in Ukraine. The US government huffed and puffed and talked about “red lines” which should not be crossed, the inviolable principle of national borders in Europe and other such hypocritical nonsense, but in the end it had to accept the fait accompli of the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation.
It is worth noting Putin’s speech in which he denounced the hypocrisy of US imperialism and denounced them for promoting the independence of Kosovo and backing it with the bombing of Serbia (Russia’s traditional ally) 15 years ago. The current conflict has pushed Russia towards a closer alliance with China and strained its relations with the US even further.
From the point of view of the Kremlin clique, the annexation of Crimea had nothing to do with the will of the people of Crimea, but rather with defending its own strategic interests. In any case, regardless of the conditions in which the referendum took place, the annexation did reflect the will of the majority of the people in Crimea which rejected the new authorities in Kiev and looked towards Russia with hope.
Since the beginning, the new Kiev Maidan government implemented a series of measures which could only be interpreted as a provocation by the Russian speaking Ukrainians in the South and the East of the country. The Rada voted to revoke a law introduced by Yanukovich which allowed for minority languages to have official status at a regional level (although, due the level of outrage this was never signed into law by Turchynov). Kiev appointed hated oligarchs as regional governors in Donetsk, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, etc. Workers in the industrial regions of the South and the East understood that any deal with the IMF and the EU and the breaking off of relations with Russia would be to their detriment.
Thus an anti-Maidan movement for national, democratic and social rights in the East and South started. There is no doubt that elements from the Party of Regions, and probably Russian agents, played a part in fomenting it for their own purposes. However, the movement had deep social roots and reflected the widespread opposition of the working class against the Kiev “acting government” which was rightly seen as a government of the oligarchs which was trampling upon their national, democratic and social rights.
For weeks there were anti-government demonstrations in Kharkov, Odessa, Luhansk, Donetsk, etc. This movement involved different elements. There was an element of Russian nationalism and Russian flags were waved at the protests. Even this should not be interpreted only from a national point of view. An opinion poll showed that the thing which attracted people in these regions to Russia was the fact that industrial workers had higher wages.
There was also an element of Soviet nostalgia, the looking back to a time where there was full employment, education and health care for all, and when the situation was not one where millions are forced to emigrate in search of a livelihood and there is an epidemic of drug addiction, alcohol abuse and despair.
Anti-fascism played an important role as well. Millions of Ukrainians were part of the Red Army in the struggle against Nazi Germany and were rightly repelled by the right-wing reactionary Ukrainian nationalists claiming the legacy of WWII Nazi collaborators and anti-communist fighters like Stephan Bandera, the SS Galitzia division, etc.
Here too, the national question plays an important role. Stalinist purges, forced collectivisation, mass deportations, etc. ended up associating a strand of Ukrainian nationalism with rabid anti-Communism and reactionary ideas, particularly in the West of the country.
Finally, there were also reactionary pro-Russian and pro-Russian monarchist elements in the anti-Maidan movement as well. In those places where left-wing organisations were stronger, reactionary elements became weaker and left-wing ideas and symbols more dominant (like in Odessa and Kharkov).
Above all, however, the movement had deep social and economic roots in the working class in the South and the East and could not be explained as the work of Russian agents, agitators and paid mercenaries.
After a while, as the movement did not have a clear perspective, a section looked for what seemed like a shortcut: the armed occupation of public buildings, the proclamation of republics and the appeal for Russian intervention. To a certain extent this was a copy of the methods of the Euromaidan movement, which seemed to have worked. On the other hand, wasn’t this what had happened in Crimea?
However, from the point of view of Putin, Crimea was a strategic position, while Donetsk and Luhansk were not. The occupation and annexation of these regions would have been met with resistance from the Ukrainian army, would have put Russia in a difficult position internationally, and damaged its trade links with the EU and all for what? Russian annexation of these industrial regions would have forced the Kremlin to foot the bill for the “restructuring” of its industries, necessary from a capitalist point of view, as well as incorporating a restless population which could be difficult to manage.
The aim of the Russian oligarchy in Ukraine was never to occupy these two regions, but rather to use its power (mainly through the supply of gas) to force any government in Kiev to reach a modus vivendi with both Russia and the EU (as opposed to unilateral alignment with NATO). Had there been, however, a massacre of the civilian population in the Donbas, Putin might have been forced to intervene, in spite of the consequences. He combined the gas supply blackmail with a display of Russian military might on the border with Ukraine to get what he wanted.
In this, the interests of the Kremlin coincide with the interests of German capitalism. German companies have important investments and interests in Russia and above all Germany depends on the supply of Russian gas which goes through Ukraine. Any idea of sanctions against Russia would be damaging for German capitalism. In this the interests of Washington and Berlin differ. The White House knows that US trade with Russia is negligible and throughout the conflict it has been pushing to reassert its interests in Eastern Europe and to provoke the Kremlin.
The election of Poroshenko, a cunning oligarch who has supported all the governments and at the same time all the opposition movements in Ukraine since the restoration of capitalism, reflected precisely the interests of Moscow and Berlin for a mutually agreeable negotiated settlement.
The declaration of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics was probably precipitated by the illusion that Russia would quickly recognise them. The original declaration of sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic contained a series of very progressive elements which showed the class character of the movement. It talked about the primacy of collective ownership over private property; it attacked the exploitation of man by man, and stood for a multinational, multi-ethnic republic. Red flags were prominently displayed, together with Soviet Union emblems, pictures of Lenin (and Stalin!), references to the 1918 Soviet Republic of the South-East, anti-fascism, etc. It was a movement which contained progressive anti-oligarchic and left-wing elements, as well as reflecting the necessarily confused ideas which prevailed in the absence of a clear leadership and after 25 years of the ideological counter-offensive which followed the restoration of capitalism.
Kiev responded to the armed takeover of administrative buildings and the defection en masse of sections of the police and the security services to the rebellious population, by launching an “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO). However, three successive waves of the ATO were stopped as Ukrainian troops refused to fire against unarmed civilians who surrounded them in Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, etc and even fraternised with them. This is a demonstration that the movement in the Donbas was not just a question of “Russian agents and separatist mercenaries”, but had the active or passive support of a majority of the population in these regions (as was also shown in the referenda).
Not only was there fraternisation by the troops but also mutinies and protests of relatives of conscript and reserve soldiers which in some cases physically prevented the troops from being sent to the front. We should remember that these soldiers who were being sent to die by the Kiev “acting government” were in most cases not properly equipped (40% had no body armour), fed nor paid.
Kiev responded by re-establishing the National Guard and various Battalions of the Ministry of Interior made up of “patriotic volunteers” from fascist and neo-Nazi organisations (Patriots of Ukraine, Brotherhood, Svoboda, Maidan Self-Defence, etc), many of them part of the Right Sector. The incorporation of these paramilitary thugs into the ATO served two purposes: it provided the government with fanatical troops prepared to carry legal and illegal actions against the “Russian terrorists”, and it also channelled them away from opposing the government (let’s not forget that the police had killed one of the leaders of the Right Sector, which in turn threatened to overthrow it by force).
Waging a war against its own people on national lines also jolted the government further to the right, as anyone who was against it now became an agent of a foreign power and a separatist. As well as fascist attacks on left-wing organisations and the closing down of the offices of the Communist Party in Kiev and other cities, we saw moves to ban the party, raids on Borotba offices in several towns which finally forced it underground, a wave of arrests, a clamp down on social media and a general assault on democratic rights.
It would be inaccurate to describe the Kiev authorities as a "fascist junta". It is a government of the oligarchs implementing brutal austerity cuts. These are the same people that were in power before the Euromaidan movement. Nevertheless, the ruling class has shifted sharply to the right. It is not just using far-right elements as shock troops. Slogans that were previously limited to far-right Banderists are now used in the press and media, including by politicians like Poroshenko. May Day marches, trade union conferences and other events are being attacked by far-right elements, including those that form part of the state apparatus. Leading oligarchs like Tymoshenko publicly thanked the perpetrators of the Odessa massacre. At the same, the media ignores the fact that the Right Sector admitted to burning the building.
The ATO operation, unable to win any major battles (perhaps with the exception of Mariupol) in direct hand to hand combat, has relied increasingly on artillery fire, aerial bombardment and other indiscriminate methods of war. This has only served to toughen up opposition to the government and strengthened the armed resistance. To this we have to add the impact of the Odessa massacre by fascist thugs on May 2nd, the same day the ATO was launched.
At the same time, as the movement in the Donbas has become dominated by the military element, reactionary forces have become more dominant. Any military conflict serves as a magnet for adventurers, criminal elements, and the like. An example of this is the head of the armed resistance in Sloviansk, Strelkov, a Russian monarchist who fought as a mercenary volunteer in Chechnya and Serbia.
The Constitution of the Donetsk Republic (DPR) which has been published, without discussion, represents a reactionary step back from the declaration of sovereignty. It talks about the “Orthodox faith” as being the guiding principle for the Republic, equates public and private property, etc.
This is only one side of the equation. As it has become increasingly clear that Russia was not going to support these republics and that workers were becoming more involved and militant, the oligarchs in the Donbas, which at the beginning tacitly or tactically supported the protests, have now openly sided with Kiev. The country’s wealthiest man, Rinat Akhmetov, whose companies employ nearly 300,000 people in the region, went as far as to try to organise workers he employs against the DPR, but failed miserably.
This has only served to fuel the anti-oligarch sentiment. First the DPR announced that as Akhmetov refused to pay taxes to it, its properties would be expropriated. Then, a different spokesperson said that expropriations would not affect Akhmetov as he was a man one could negotiate with. Later a statement of the Luhansk Republic talked of expropriating the illegally privatised properties which ended in the hands of the oligarchs. This clearly reflects a split on this question amongst different DPR leaders. The people’s mayor of Sloviansk also announced the nationalisation of all businesses in the city.
What is significant is the movement of the Donetsk miners, now uniting public and private sector companies, against the ATO and demanding the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops. The workers are also critical of the vacillation and timid stance of the DPR authorities regarding social and economic issues. At their last demo there was not a single Russian flag in sight, which is significant. There are also talks and meetings taking place to re-establish a Communist Party in Donetsk, involving not only the CPU but also other elements from outside, including Borotba.
From the point of view of the conflict between Kiev and the republics, a statement by Strelkov made a military assessment of the situation which was quite accurate. “The Ukrainian army has us surrounded and has sealed the border,” he said, “Faced with superior fire power and forces we can only resist but not counter-attack. It is a question of weeks or perhaps months, but without Russian help we cannot survive,” he explained. He then went on to say that Russian help was not forthcoming, which he considered a betrayal and forecast that the movement would only be able to rise again “after a Maidan in Moscow”.
From his narrow Russian nationalist and purely military point of view he is right of course. However, a civil war is never primarily a military matter, but rather a political one. If the DPR was to move decisively to expropriate the oligarchs and on that basis made an appeal to the rest of the working people of Ukraine, including in the Centre and Western regions, that would have a powerful echo.
Meanwhile, Poroshenko, Putin and Merkel have effectively asphyxiated the Donbas and put the rebels in an impossible situation. It is still not ruled out that the whole situation might unravel, but these three powerful players have a clear aim: to reach a negotiated settlement which leaves the rebels out. Kiev needs to recover military control over the whole territory (excluding Crimea on which it has already given up), Russia wants concessions which guarantee it a say in Ukrainian politics as well as the maintenance of its businesses with the EU and finally Germany wants to ensure the defence of its business interests in Russia and the supply of gas.
This is the meaning of Poroshenko’s “peace plan” and “cease fire”, which includes respect for the language rights of the Russian speaking population, direct election of governors and federalisation. As for the rebels, they are offered a limited amnesty and safe passage to Russia if they so wish, but they have to give up on any ideas of having their own republics. From the point of view of the Donbas this is a sell-out, and furthermore one which Russia seems to be backing. However, they have very few options remaining.
There are of course elements which are beyond the control of the big players. The fascists in the Battalions and the National Guard reject any idea of a compromise or even talks with the “terrorists”. The Donbas Republics feel betrayed by Moscow and do not want to give up. In the last instance it is likely that the interests of Moscow, Kiev and Berlin will prevail.
The government in Kiev is not strong. Not only does it face a growing movement within the armed forces and the soldiers' relatives against ATO, but in the medium term the measures it needs to take from a capitalist point of view (privatisations, mass layoffs, wage and pension freeze, lifting of heating gas subsidies, devaluation, etc) will have an impact on the population all over the country. These social and economic issues at some point will cut across the fog of nationalist hysteria also in the West and Centre of the country. The widespread nature of the movement of the soldiers’ relatives is just an indication of the real mood below the surface.
The fact that in the fraudulent presidential elections a majority of the people voted for the candidate who was outside of the government coalition and appeared to be the least nationalistic and said he wanted to bring the ATO to a quick end is also significant. In that election the openly neo-Nazi Right Sector and the far right Svoboda barely got 2% of the vote between them (though Lyashko’s Radical Party which is now working closely together with the Right Sector SNUA and spent the presidential campaign dressed in black military fatigues in the ATO frontlines got over 8%).
The tasks of Marxists in this complicated situation are clear. First of all we stand against the Kiev government, a reactionary government, including far right elements, which is relying on fascist thugs in the state apparatus and wages an assault on democratic rights, and we stand in solidarity with those labour movement and left forces fighting against it and which are suffering all kinds of repression, pogroms, murders, the ATO attacks and other savagery. This does not mean that we are obliged to give any support to the reactionary, Russian nationalist and confused elements which happen to be in the leadership of the Donbas republics. On the contrary, it is our duty to point out that only a class based internationalist policy, firmly based on the expropriation of the oligarchs could guarantee their victory against Kiev.
Secondly, we have warned against any illusions that Putin stands for the democratic, national or social demands of the working people of the South East of Ukraine. On this we have already been vindicated in practice.
Thirdly, we oppose our own Western governments which are fully behind the reactionary government in Ukraine waging war against its own people.
Our comrades in Russia have the difficult task of building solidarity with the anti-fascist resistance in Ukraine while waging an implacable struggle against their own voracious, hypocritical and reactionary bourgeois government, a position they have maintained consistently throughout the conflict.
The idea that the main reason for the conflict is the aggression of Russian imperialism against semi-colonial Ukraine is standing reality on its head and leads directly to support for Kiev, its murderous ATO and the fascist gangs fighting in it, its assault on democratic rights and its reactionary nationalism. For that position to be defended by so-called “socialists” in Ukraine or even worse in London and Washington is doubly treacherous.
It is ironical that these same “left” groups, who are always screaming hysterically about fascism whenever any right-wing reactionary populist groups register an increase in their electoral support are incapable of acknowledging the existence of real Nazi and fascist gangs that are every day killing left-wing militants, assaulting their offices and being recruited by a reactionary government as auxiliary forces in the war against its own people.
We must fight against fascism. But the struggle against fascism can only succeed if it is linked to the struggle against capitalism, which provides fertile ground on which the poisonous seeds of fascism can germinate and flourish.
Socialism is internationalist or it is nothing. Above all in Ukraine, no solution can be found on a nationalist basis. The so-called Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev, who represent the most rabid kind of chauvinism that act as a cloak for fascism, have brought the country to the brink of a terrible abyss that has already led to civil war and may end up in the total destruction of Ukraine as a nation.
The disintegration of Ukraine into its component parts would be a reactionary development. It would enormously exacerbate national antagonisms and hatreds. It could only be accomplished through ethnic cleansing, pogroms and bloodshed on a vast scale. It would strengthen the grip of fascist and extreme chauvinist tendencies on both sides, leading to revanchist moods and bloody terrorist acts. What happened in Yugoslavia is a terrible warning to the working class of Ukraine.
What is needed is a policy that can unite the Ukrainian working class to overthrow the oligarchy The only real solution to the Ukrainian question is the overthrow of the oligarchs – both Ukrainian and Russian – and the introduction of a democratic socialist plan of production that will put an end to the cancer of unemployment and forced emigration and mobilize the whole population to realise the immense potential of Ukrainian industry and agriculture.
Historically, the peoples of Ukraine and Russia have always been connected by the closest ties. The Ukrainian people are not anti-Russian but they do not want to be dominated by Moscow. A socialist revolution in Ukraine would quickly lead to the overthrow of Putin and the Russian oligarchs. This would prepare the way for a genuine socialist federation of Russia and Ukraine on the basis of strict equality, democracy and fraternity. That is the only way forward for the peoples of these two great countries.
Against fascism! Down with the oligarchy! For a united independent socialist Ukraine as the first step to a democratic socialist federation of Russia and the Ukraine with full autonomy for Crimea and other regions who desire it. Long live international socialism! Workers of the world, unite!
3 July 2014
[The above draft theses are to be discussed and voted on by the IMT world conference at the end of July]