Take sides with people, not with Putin

Russia has annexed Crimea. Thousands of Russian troops are gathered near the Ukrainian border. While the two countries’ foreign ministers have met, and tension seems to have eased slightly this week, the threat of war remains.  Opposition to military adventures such as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s should be the ABC of socialism, in my view. And yet some socialists in the UK and Ireland are stringing together contorted arguments for taking Putin’s side. This article examines the issues.

On Crimean sovereignty, “Russia has more right on its side than the West – which is the same thing as saying [...] that Putin and Russia are right”, the Irish socialist journalist Eamonn McCann wrote in the Irish Times last week.

The Crimean population had voted to join Russia, McCann argued, and US president Barack Obama had told them their opinion didn’t count. “If we have to take sides [...] Ireland should side with the Russians.”

McCann doesn’t seem that bothered that the referendum was carried out straight after Russian tanks rolled into Crimea. (I’ve written more about that issue here.) He sees the Russian annexation of Crimea as part of a geopolitical battle between the USA and Russia. Putin’s regime is “vicious” and cares no more about Ukrainian people’s interests than the USA does, writes McCann,  but: “Putin is right that the main motivation of the US and Nato has been to encircle and enfeeble his country.”

I have always respected Eamonn McCann for his activism and for his journalism. But the view of the world he presents here – that socialists have to express support for, or side with, governments, however horrible, that are the target of geopolitical bullying by the USA – turns socialism into a mockery. It’s a view based on a misunderstanding of how power works.

Putin’s main targets are not NATO, or fascists, but the confused mosaic of popular movements that erupted in Ukraine against president Viktor Yanukovich, and the potential for such movements in Russia itself. For Putin’s fundamentally weak regime, heavily dependent on oil and gas dollars, flag-waving nationalism is a means of social control.

To support the two-dimensional geo-political view, McCann and other left-wing writers outside Ukraine have repeated, time and time again, two myths: (1) that Putin was provoked into action by fear that Ukraine would join NATO; and (2) that there are fascists in the post-Yanukovich government.

Myth no. 1: Putin fears Ukrainian accession to NATO

In November last year, Yanukovich had been poised to sign an association agreement that would have strengthened Ukrainian trade links with the EU – a move to which Russia was fiercely opposed. At the last minute, Yanukovich backed out of signing the deal. This led to the first demonstrations in Kyiv that later turned into the Maidan mass movement that overthrew him.

Eamonn McCann reckons that the EU deal “included a condition that Kiev align its forces with Nato – a halfway house staging post on the road to full Nato membership. It was this provision that deeply alarmed the Putin regime.”

Wrong. The EU-Ukraine association agreement (or at least, the text posted on the EU web site) says that the two sides will “promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy” (Article 8). The EU and Ukraine will “explore the potential of military-technological cooperation” and that Ukraine and the European Defence Agency shall “establish close contacts”, etc (Article 10).

The Common Security and Defence Policy is obviously linked to NATO. But it makes a relatively small contribution to western military policing of the world, because of the deep disagreements between the European powers that limit cooperation.

But anyway, Ukraine doesn’t need any of this stuff in order to get closer to NATO. Ukraine has had a “special partnership” with NATO since 1997, enthusiastically promoted by all Ukrainian governments, both “pro western” and “pro Russian”, since then. There were 1700 Ukrainian troops in Iraq in 2003-05, the third largest national contingent after the US and

Moscow demo

Demo in Moscow on 16 March

UK, sent to participate in the NATO “training mission” there by the “pro Russian” president Leonid Kuchma (of whom Yanukovich was a protege). Small numbers of Ukrainian troops have also participated in western “peacekeeping” missions in Kosovo, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere.

Yanukovich’s predecessor as president, Viktor Yushchenko, desperately wanted to take Ukraine into NATO. But the idea is extremely unpopular in Ukraine – opinion polls have never registered as much as one-fifth of Ukrainians supporting it, and often show less than one-tenth – and Yanukovich dropped it straight after being elected in 2010.

Nonetheless, Yanukovich approved an action plan for cooperation with NATO in 2010, and showed no signs of dropping it even after he decided against the EU deal in November last year. A week after the EU deal collapsed, the NATO-Ukraine Military Commission met in Brussels to talk about future cooperation (see a report on the Ukraine ministry of defence site here).

Putin and his military commanders are well aware that Yanukovich’s abandonment of the EU association agreement made no difference one way or another to Ukraine’s relationship with NATO. But they were also well aware, from November last year onwards, that Yanukovich was losing control, not because of NATO, but because of the mass movement provoked by his cruel, corrupt and idiotic style of government.

This was what scared Putin, and that was why he decided to intervene in Crimea. (I’ve written about that at greater length here and here.)

Myth no. 2: there are fascists in the Ukrainian government

The claim that there are fascists in the new Ukrainian government has been made so many times that it’s becoming accepted as common knowledge by some people. Eamonn McCann says the government is “a mixum-gatherum of groups, including anti-semitic neo-fascists”. The Stop the War Coalition said in a statement on 3 March that the government includes “far right and fascist elements”. And Seumas Milne in the Guardian writes: “Neo-Nazis in office is a first for post-war Europe.”

Wrong. There are two significant ultra-right groups in Ukraine. The first is Svoboda, a populist parliamentary party, with unpleasant anti-semites in the leadership, that received 12% of the votes at the last election. It has three ministerial portfolios and a deputy prime ministership in the new government. A couple of other ministers in the government – an unstable coalition headed by the neo-liberal economist Arseniy Yatseniuk – have had affiliations with extreme right groups in the past. But if the label “fascist” is to be applied to Svoboda, it should be applied to the large number of right-wing populist parties in other European countries, several of which have served in governments. In which case this is not a first, as Milne suggests.

The second group, the Right Sector, is a really dangerous collection of neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists, formed in the course of battles with Yanukovich’s police force. It has combat units, some armed, all over Ukraine. But the assertion, repeated by Seumas Milne and many other western journalists, that their leader Dmitry Yarosh is deputy head of the national security council, is wrong. He was offered the job, and turned it down.[1]

How the relationship between the new government and the Right Sector will go is anyone’s guess. On 25 March one of the Right Sector’s leaders, Oleksandr Muzychko, was shot dead in a gun battle that broke out when police tried to arrest him. There could be further conflict. Or there could be attempts by this, or future, governments to try to co-opt bits of the Right Sector.

So why are all these European leftists repeating that there are “fascists” in the Ukrainian government? If they are applying that term to Svoboda, then it’s a loose term of abuse that could as well be applied to right-wing populist parties in quite a few European countries. If they are using the term “fascist” in the more usual sense – to describe organisations that overtly aim, by a combination of violent and political means, to re-found the state on nationalist and racist principles – then that applies to the Right Sector. And then they are wrong on the facts: the Right Sector is outside government.

I think some European leftists enjoy calling the Ukrainian government “fascist” for the stupid and shameful reason that it taps into their half-century-old prejudices about a world divided between Soviet/ Russian/ “red”/ internationalist good guys and Ukrainian/ “brown”/ nationalist bad guys. Those are exactly the notes Putin tried to hit, when he laughably claimed that his invasion of Crimea was designed to defend its citizens from “fascist” attack.

And here’s a question to those European leftists: what about the fascists and ultra-nationalists in Russia who support Putin’s invasion? Why do they never get a mention? For example:

■ Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament, who on 20 March proposed that Ukraine be dismembered and divided between Poland, Romania, Hungary and Russia. Referring to the unification of Ukraine inside the Soviet Union after the second world war, he said: “It’s never too late to correct historical errors.” Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia received 12.5% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections. Like the Svoboda leaders, Zhirinovsky is an ultra-right-wing demagogue rather than a fascist as such. Unlike them, he has a powerful position in the political establishment, built up over many years of wheeling and dealing with the Putin administration and the country’s most powerful business interests.

■ Aleksandr Dugin, the “Eurasian” fascist ideologue whose rantings are followed closely by people in Putin’s administration, and who declared in a recent interview: “We aren’t going to limit ourselves by annexing Crimea. That’s for sure. [...] The struggle for Ukraine is a struggle for reunification of slavic peoples.” For readers of the American neo-Nazi web site, the Daily Stormer, he spelled out what this meant: “There will be no dialogue between Russia and Western Ukrainians. Each time they [western Ukrainians] crawl out, they will strictly and deservingly get ‘kicked in the teeth’.”

■ Ramzan Kadyrov, the thuggish murderer who rules Chechnya on Putin’s behalf, who has offered to send Chechen armed units to Crimea. The offer was reminiscent of the way that another pro-Russian Chechen armed gang leader, Sulim Yamadayev, led one of the interior ministry battalions in the South Ossetia conflict in 2008.

It’s hardly accidental that these charming people support Putin’s action in Crimea. But their rantings are a bit inconvenient to western leftists, who want to delude themselves that the Russian state’s assault is aimed primarily not against Russian and Ukrainian people, but at a NATO-fascist conspiracy.

“Choosing sides” and a crisis of socialism

For socialists, the priority surely is the reconstitution of powerful social and labour movements that can challenge capitalism in its 21st century form. Putin’s militarism is terribly damaging for such movements in Russia and Ukraine, just as US-led military actions have been damaging in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the Middle East.

The idea that socialists could justifiably support or sympathise with such militarism relies on a completely skewed view of power, according to which the USA rules the world with brute military force, and capitalist governments that resist deserve working people’s support. I think it is more accurate to interpret capitalism’s domination as being undertaken by a network of governments and state structures, of which the USA’s remain the most powerful, that are interlocking, but between which there are also tensions and contradictions. Such governments rule their territories and discipline their populations in a way that enables capital accumulation and exploitation of workers to continue.

The Russian government fulfils this role very effectively, presiding over an economy that is integrated into the world system mostly as an exporter of raw materials. That is why, throughout the Ukraine crisis, the western powers have desperately tried to avoid any measures that might disrupt their economic relationship with Russia.

It is not a matter of “if we have to take sides”, as Eamonn McCann argues. We do not have to take sides between one capitalist government and another. We have to take sides with working people, and take sides with those who are making efforts to find new ways to organise working people to remake society.

In eastern Ukraine, such efforts have potentially been set back by many years as a result of Putin’s military aggression. In Russia, too, the war frenzy carries with it the danger of renewed repression against those who dare to challenge government: only last month several participants in the anti-Putin demonstrations of 2012 were jailed.

As for the European left, delusions that we have to side with Putin are a symptom of its own malaise. To change the world effectively we need ideas that supercede such two-dimensional stereotypes. Paying attention to what actually happens, in Russia, Ukraine or anywhere else – instead of recycling myths and prejudices – would be a good start. GL, 28 March 2014.

■ UPDATE, 7 April. My article published today by Red Pepper makes some similar points, and some other points … just as the situation in eastern Ukraine gets further inflamed by “pro-Russian separatists”.

[1] I have checked dozens of stories about Yarosh from Russian and Ukrainian news outlets. They report e.g. his plan to run for president, to turn the Right Sector into a political party, etc, but do not describe him as a member of the government. I have checked with sources in Kyiv who confirm that he never was. When the new government was formed at the beginning of March, it was widely reported that Yarosh was offered a post. That information seems to have been picked up by western journalists who assumed he had accepted, but didn’t check.

9 Responses to Take sides with people, not with Putin

  1. James Robb says:

    “Putin’s main targets are not NATO, or fascists, but the confused mosaic of popular movements that erupted in Ukraine against president Viktor Yanukovich, and the potential for such movements in Russia itself. For Putin’s fundamentally weak regime, heavily dependent on oil and gas dollars, flag-waving nationalism is a means of social control.”
    Spot on! Thanks for the detail about Ukraine’s “special partnership” with NATO – nothing like a few facts to puncture a myth.

  2. Gabriel—Another great contribution! I agree with mostly everything. One thing I think is underestimated in this particular piece, is the influence of the far right within what some now call the ‘maidan cabinet’ and in present day situation in Ukraine. I know you have written on this in the other blog entries and I realise that your target here is mainly the naiveté of the European left. Nevertheless… Notwithstanding the Russian propaganda and the use of the bogeyman of ‘Ukrainian fascism’, it doesn’t seem to be an insignificant force politically. The people in the maidan cabinet are feeble and have little control over the country, its institutions and power structures, while the militarised units of the far right are exploiting this weakness to wreak havoc on legality. Above all, their target is any whiff of left wing or progressive politics on the national agenda. Note the political exclusion of even the mainstream socialist and communist parties from Verkhovna Rada today, not to speak of the intimidation of known left wing activists in Kiev and other large cities. So, they are dangerous not for being able to spread antisemitism or anti-Russian feelings (the majority of Ukrainians in a multicultural Ukraine will simply not buy it), but because they 1) are armed and intimidating to anybody who opposes them (or they suspect of opposing them); 2) give Putin the perfect pretext to do what he is doing (in Ukraine, partly, but mainly at home, which Levy is absolutely right about); and 3) keep Ukrainian politics on an extreme neoliberal path (e.g. today, listening to Ukrainian radio, the government there has just announced that they have to cut the budget deficit, half of which will come from completely obliterating welfare and social protection). In an important sense the far right are acting in a typical way in which fascists have always acted: being a gendarme for global capital. In this case, since they’re not in power directly, they are facilitating the US (who else?!) leading this global gendarmerie for capital in using Ukrainian land as a battleground in its war against Russia as it wants to contain the possibility of Russia presenting any kind of even potential derailment of that policing. I am convinced war is exactly what is already going on: It may not look like a conventional war, but it is a war the Russian government has drawn itself into, evidence of this is both the annexation of Crimea and the amassing of Russian troops on the borders (if Russia has no intentions of war, as it claims, it would simply have gone home). I’m not saying these fascists, even if they were in power directly, would do what Nazi Germany did on the world stage, because of Ukraine’s peripheral status. They are simply the stick with which to maintain the local elites compliant with the US, to help the so-called carrot of IMF loans (if they can be called that). The people of Ukraine are presented with the stark choice: either global capital á la USA, which entails in the first instance fascist intimidation and ultimately accepting draconian austerity and economic servitude, or global capital á la Russia, which entails either the likes of idiot Yanukovitch or the tanks in addition to continuing economic decline and another form of economic servitude. The problem is, the Russia government does not, cannot, and will not be trusted to act as the gendarme-manager for global capital. Not even Russia’s own capitalists trust it, which is why they keep their money and strategic investments in the West. Putin has illusions that Russia will be seen to be able to take on this role, and global capital will choose him as their protector and guarantor. Or maybe he doesn’t have any illusions? Maybe he and his team are simply buying some time while clearing out their accounts or converting their capital into more liquid forms, for which they need a bit of popular euphoria and chauvinist nationalism at home. But, this, in any case, is all temporary. The euphoria will die down the deeper the Russian economy sinks into crisis as it tries to prop up the rouble in the face of speculation or dwindling investment, or both. Those Russians currently singing Putin’s praises will soon be in despair because an even bigger share of their money will end up in the pockets of the oligarchs and civil servants whose economic interests are tied up with the military industry or who will use the excuse of war to hold down wages, trample on any remaining labour laws and disregard any remaining human rights and standards of dignity. More of the money will also be diverting to supporting the economies of various enclaves like Crimea which cannot survive without wholesale financial support from Russia. Even fewer of the ordinary Russians who today drench in the sweat of nationalist fervour will have social protections left and every one of them will have to pay more (50-100% more) for energy and food (the two biggest layouts of the working people in Russia). Not to mention the possibility that Russia stands the chance of itself being drawn into a hot war—it has been the US’s explicit policy to provide weapons, training and other support to armies which will carry out its goals in various regions—as Ukraine’s army is increasingly equipped. So, more of Russia’s already declining population will be killed; more of the working class kids will be drafted into the army to die on battlefields near Belgorod and Kharkov, Donetsk, Lugansk, Mariupol and Rosto-on-Don. For what, exactly? What is the idea? They won’t support this for long and, by that time, Putin and his team have to run. Where are they going to run? Syria? Iran? China, maybe? Or, maybe China, seeing this potential scenario, waits for the Russian government to become weaker the more it is sunk in this quagmire, and begins to buffer its own territory in the west of the country by taking chunks of Russia (saying it’s protecting the rights of its ethnic brothers, of whom there are hundreds of thousands in the Far East of Russia). Let’s give it another 5 years (maybe 5 years seems too long, given how quickly things have been proceeding recently).

    In short, I agree with this very good assessment. And, I also don’t think the picture I’m painting above is down completely to the fascists in Ukraine (clearly not). But it is important to keep them in the bigger picture: they are the lynchpin, or at least the special ingredient, that accelerates this process.

  3. […] international of the growing far-right parties in Europe involving themselves with the EU, this post covering these myths of overt fascists residing in government positions appear to be false. The author’s section on this myth […]

  4. Keith says:

    Gabriel, you whitewash the Svoboda Party ( formally the National Socialist Party of Ukraine ) as a populist parliamentary party (as if a name change makes then not Nazis). We all know the tactic of such parties in Europe to disguise themselves as parliamentary parties ( so was Hitler’s Nazi party you might remember ). You also add things that are not technically true to emphasise your argument; Russian tanks rolled into Crimea. As you well know if there were any tanks they were already there, under the Ukraine/Russian agreement on Russian bases in Crimea that allowed up to 25,000. If they rolled in, across what land bridge? At last there are signs that the working class is coming in to action, with Donbas miners striking against Kiev imposed wage cuts. While you argue about Putin being portrayed ( by a few old hack lefties ) as the lesser evil, are you and other contributors not guilty of doing the same, portraying the minority Nationalist Kiev would-be dictatorship regime as ‘the lesser evil’?

  5. Gabriel Levy says:

    Oh come on Keith. Read what I wrote, e.g.: “It is not a matter of “if we have to take sides”, as Eamonn McCann argues. We do not have to take sides between one capitalist government and another.”

  6. Keith says:

    That is not an absolute matter of rule, I think. Ireland v Britain?, Bangladesh Desh v Pakistan?, Bosnia v Serbia and Croatia? Kosovo v Serbia.

  7. James Robb says:

    Keith, to describe Svoboda as a populist parliamentary party is not to whitewash anything. As you point out, many ultra-right and fascist organisations have one foot in bourgeois parliaments and one foot in the street gangs, and they lean now on one foot, now on the other, according to the needs of the moment. It’s not a sneaky disguise, as you imply – this is just the way they operate, and they have to be combated in both of these fields of activity.
    The real issue here is the fact that many on the left have fallen for Putin’s lying claim that the Maidan movement represented some kind of fascist coup, and are consequently disarmed when it comes to opposing Putin’s military aggression. It’s not just ‘a few old hack lefties’ that have been politically disarmed by Putin’s claim.
    The fact that the heterogeneous Maidan movement included far-right and fascist currents does not make it a fascist movement, any more than the fact that the heterogeneous Occupy Wall Street movement also included far-right and fascist currents made Occupy a fascist movement.

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