Ukraine: bogus ‘anti-imperialism’ serves the Kremlin

September 28, 2022

I gave a talk at an on-line event on the war in Ukraine, arranged by the Future of the Left group on Monday. The meeting was shorter than planned, due to technical problems. Only two of the advertised speakers made it: Richard Sakwa, emeritus professor of Russian and European politics at Kent university, and me. Sakwa focused on the western powers’ failure to uphold principles of sovereign internationalism in the post-cold-war period, and concluded by opposing military aid to Ukraine. Against that, I put the case for supporting Ukrainian resistance as a matter of internationalist principle. I said that I think such discussions should continue. Here’s a recording of the session. Simon Pirani.

Here is a text, based on my talk. It is aimed mainly at the bogus “anti imperialism” widespread in the left, and among Future of the Left’s supporters, rather than at anything Sakwa said.

Thanks for inviting me to join the panel. It’s worth reflecting on what good panels like this, or gatherings like this, can possibly do. As a socialist, I believe that effective change is caused by the labour movement and social movements acting independently of the state. So I will say what I think the labour movement could or should do, and what people here could or should do, rather than declaiming principles with no reference to implementation. 

My main point is that we should build solidarity with Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. That is rejected by some people in the labour movement, and I think we have to find ways of discussing these differences on life and death issues.

Character of the Russian war  

Russia is a weakened empire desperately trying to restore its imperial status. It emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union as an economically subordinate power, supplying the world capitalist economy with raw materials and pumping oligarchs’ wealth into the world financial system. Under Putin, since 2000, it has sought to make up for economic weakness by military means.

In the second Chechen war, Russia pulverised Chechnya and its population, rather than allow aspirations for national autonomy or independence to take root. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and intervened in Syria in 2015, to support a dictator who drowned citizens in blood rather than allow them any democratic freedoms.

The strongest imperialist powers tolerated all of this. Despite all their denials, they essentially had Russia act as the gendarme of capital in its sphere of influence.

Russia’s pretensions to imperial status have been most evident in its interventions in Ukraine. Ukraine is one of Russia’s oldest colonies; denying Ukrainian national rights was always integral to Russian imperial thinking; and of course before the invasion in February Putin made a speech claiming that historically Ukraine is not a nation.

The imperialist character of Russia’s war on Ukraine is evident from the military methods used. This is an imperialist force seeking to subjugate an enemy population.

Putin said Russian soldiers would be greeted with flowers, and there is not a single recorded case of that. There are plenty of examples of Ukrainians trying to resist the Russian army with their bare hands.

There have been massacres of civilians; rape used as a weapon; torture; forcible conscription; forcible deportation – all methods perfected by the British empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. As was the method of forcing into the army men from the poorest regions, disproportionately from ethnic minorities.

The targeting of politicians, journalists and activists in occupied areas seems more like the US empire in the 20th century.

I recommend the two reports on violations of international human rights law by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (here and here). They spare no detail on alleged war crimes by Ukrainian soldiers, particularly against Ukrainians accused of collaborating with Russia. But they also conclude that the vast majority of war crimes have been committed by the Russian side. The vast majority.

An investigation team set up by the UN last week gave an initial report to the Human Rights Council that reached similar conclusions.

All this makes nonsense of the claims made by some people in the labour movement, that it is a war between two equal sides.

A rally on Friday in Snihurivka, which is occupied by Russian forces. See “About the photos” below

Why in February did Ukrainians, whatever their dissatisfaction with their own government – and I can assure you, there was plenty of that – volunteer in huge numbers? Why the contrast between that, and the situation in Russia, where last week’s mobilisation announcement is ripping at the social fabric?  

Ukrainians are resisting an imperialist assault, and so the labour movement should provide practical, material solidarity to the working class communities bearing the brunt of this invasion.

Trade unionists from the UK, from France and from Austria, have organised convoys of aid to workers in the front line areas. My question to people here is: do you support such initiatives?

Do you agree that Ukrainians have the right to defend themselves with arms? I do, in the same way as I believe that Palestinians faced with the apartheid Israeli occupation have that right. 

Role of NATO

Obviously, NATO has supplied Ukraine with substantial quantities of weapons in the last six months and this will surely continue. In their view, their gendarme has gone rogue and needs to be brought back under control.

But these arms supplies, like the applications by Sweden and Finland to join NATO, are more results of the invasion of Ukraine than causes.

To conclude from this that NATO expansion was the cause of the invasion is one-sided, false logic.

An honest assessment of Russia’s relationship with the NATO powers would show that NATO expansion into eastern Europe belongs to the 1990s. Russia was weak, and was being economically integrated into the world capitalist economy. The last big group of eastern European countries applied to join NATO in 1999 and actually joined in 2004. 

What has happened since then? The Russian state, buoyed by the oil boom of the 2000s, has sought to control its sphere of influence with little interference by the NATO powers.

Just look at their limited reaction to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014. There were economic sanctions, which were very painful for Russian businesses. But these were linked only to the annexation of Crimea, not to Russian support for the separatists in the Donbas.

Clearly Germany and France, which both had substantial investments in, and trade with, Russia, were anxious to find a compromise. NATO continued after 2014, as it had before, to refuse to start a membership action plan for Ukraine. Germany only changed its Russia policy in February, a day before the invasion, with the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Analytically, I would define Putin’s Russia as a creature of those powers, a creature of world capitalism, not an opposite to them.

“Proxy war”

The false claim that NATO expansion caused Russia to invade Ukraine is linked to the false political proposition that Ukrainians are fighting a “proxy war” for NATO, and that the labour movement can not therefore support Ukrainian resistance.

The Future of the Left web site says: “Putin is no friend of the working class – but neither are Zelensky or NATO. […] Although the direct fighting in Ukraine is between the Russian and Ukrainian states, [no mention here of Ukrainian people, only the state, SP …] many see this war, in effect, as a proxy war between Putin and the US.”

This false logic could be applied to any number of situations.

Spain in 1936. Here’s how the argument looks: “Franco is no friend of the working class – but neither are the Republican government or the Allied powers. […] Although the direct fighting is between nationalists and Republicans, many see this war as one between the Axis and the Allies.” No room for the International Brigades there.

Vietnam in 1972. Here’s how the argument looks: “The US is no friend of the working class – but neither are the Soviet and Chinese leaders. […] Although the direct fighting is by the Vietnamese people, many see this as a proxy war between Moscow and Washington.” Not much room there for supporting Vietnamese resistance. (Both quotes are invented by me, to make my point.)

In my view, many wars – all these included – have combined elements of resistance to imperialism or fascism, and clashes between imperialist powers. The only difference in Ukraine in 2022 is that we are dealing with Russian imperialism, not German, American or British imperialism.

And in the labour movement we now see a bogus, western-centred form of “anti imperialism”: people who believe, crudely, that the main enemy is US imperialism and my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

This thinking just serves the Kremlin. It is ruinous to international solidarity, just as ruinous as the support given by elements in the labour movement to Tony Blair’s imperialist adventure in Iraq.

The so-called “republics” in the Donbass  

A key claim of Kremlin propaganda is that the invasion in February was motivated by a desire to defend Russian-speaking Ukrainians from Ukrainian nationalism.

Just how sincere the Kremlin is about this can be judged by the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who the Russian army have killed, raped and driven from their homes.

Nevertheless, the claim is still made, and we hear echoes of it in the labour movement.

We need to look back at least to 2014. The Maidan uprising, a truly mass movement, was politically confused and complex but was directed above all against the government of Viktor Yanukovich, and the Party of Regions that represented eastern Ukrainian capital – the owners of mines, steelworks and other industries.

That party spared no effort to sow division between Ukrainians on the basis of language.

An anti-mobilisation rally in Yakutia, Russia. See “about the photos”, below

In response to the Maidan uprising, that party encouraged the anti-Maidan movement that sought autonomy for eastern regions, and that had support from substantial numbers of working class people. Note that at that time, when sociologists could still make reasonable guesses about what people in Donbas wanted, it was autonomy, not separation, that was supported by a significant minority.

Right-wing Ukrainian nationalism stoked up these divisions from the other side.

But these tensions were turned into military conflict by the Russian army, fighting alongside extreme Russian nationalist and fascist volunteers. They put in place the two “republics”, under which the economy of those areas was trashed and half the population left. Tinpot dictatorships were established without the most elementary observance of civil, democratic or labour rights.

To select from this complexity the fact that working-class people supported the anti-Maidan movement, and offer this as a reason to deny Ukrainians the right to resist aggression, is beyond absurd.

There is an analogy with Ireland. Working-class Protestants long formed the support base not only for Orange political parties but for armed loyalist paramilitaries. Traditionally, socialists understood that the power underpinning all this was British imperialism. We did not parrot calls for a Unionist six-county state, or pretend that working-class attitudes to that state weakened the case for a united Ireland. We called for the withdrawal of British troops.

Conclusion

As things stand, in the labour movement, bogus “anti imperialism” is undermining the internationalist principles on which the Chartists supported Irish liberation in the 1840s and which many of us here supported Vietnamese liberation in the 1970s. These principles should guide our actions now with regard to Ukraine.

More about Ukraine

The Ukraine Information Group, set up by a small group of labour movement activists in the UK (including me), is now distributing a weekly email bulletin, with links to sources of reliable information and informed comment on Ukraine in English. Please subscribe!

The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, which coordinated trade union efforts for a motion at the Labour party conference

What’s the future of Russia’s Ukraine war – Volodya Artiukh on OpenDemocracy

Positions of the global left over the abyss of imperialist escalation – Vitold Vasiletskyi on Commons.com.ua

Taras Bilous, Ukrainian socialist, commented on twitter last week about the causes of the Russian invasion in February

On the fantastic tale that the Ukrainian army killed 14,000 Russians in Donbas – Michael Karadjis on Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis

Putin’s little helpers undermine solidarity – People & Nature, 29 December 2021

About the photos

The first photo is of a rally at the weekend in Snihurivka, Mykolaiv region, that was occupied by Russian forces in March. A declaration was read out condemning the occupation. It stated that those present would not take part in the fake “referendum”, did not want to accede to the Russian Federation, and considered themselves Ukrainians. This is a still from a short film broadcast on the Telegram channel of Denis Kazansky, a journalist based in the area. He commented: “That’s the real position of residents of the occupied areas of Ukraine. Just compare that video with the disgraceful methods used by the occupiers to try to get people to vote.”

The second photo is of a demonstration in Yakutia, in Siberia, against the Kremlin’s mobilisation order. Women performed a traditional round dance, the Osuohai, surrounding a group of policemen and shouting “no to genocide!” and “no to war”. The police were repeatedly obstructed but in the end left and made several arrests. The Public Chamber of Yakutia, in a 1984-style revision of reality, stated that there had been no anti-war protest, only a “blessing by mothers for the return of their husbands and sons alive”. This is a still from a film shared by Feminist Antiwar Resistance.


War and climate justice: a discussion

July 22, 2022

OpenDemocracy yesterday hosted a useful, and sobering, discussion about the war in Ukraine and the fight for climate justice, with Oleh Savitsky (Stand with Ukraine and Ukraine Climate Network), Angelina Davydova (a prominent commentator on Russian climate policy) and me.  

To open, I made three points about the policy response by the governments of rich western countries that consume most of those fossil fuels.

1. Political leaders are focusing on replacing Russian oil and gas with supplies from elsewhere. This undermines all the promises made at the international climate talks.

So the UK government, just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, gave the go-ahead for a new oil field, Jackdaw, operated by Shell – when we know that tackling climate change means there can be no new oil fields in rich countries.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ukraine: the ‘Russian world’ is militarising children

July 12, 2022

Thousands of children, some as young as eight, are being recruited to “military-patriotic clubs” in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, a report published this month shows.

“The Kremlin intends to bring up a generation hostile to Ukraine and its people, making it always possible to provoke social-political conflicts, that can grown over into military ones”, concludes the report by the Eastern Human Rights Group.

Children at Yunarmia oath ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, 25 October 2019. Photo from sevzakon.ru

The report, “Militarisation of Children in Occupied Donbass”,[1] details the clubs’ activity in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, in the year leading up to Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

The Young Guard Youth Army (Molodaya gvardiya Yunarmiya) is the largest such club, with 5000 members in Luhansk. The Donetsk Youth Army claims a membership of 2500, between the ages of 8 and 35, grouped in more than 100 local organisations.

The Youth Army’s activities include: survival training in extreme conditions; field exercises including orienteering; physical training; arms training; and military tactics.

In both Donetsk and Luhansk, the Youth Army and other clubs were set up on the authorities’ initiative. In Luhansk, they are supplemented by cadet classes and corps in schools, in which more than 1600 children were registered as of December last year. Their curriculum includes physical and military training.

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Ukrainians face forcible deportation and conscription by Russian forces

June 27, 2022

Ukrainian activists in the Eastern Human Rights Group are using social media to build up a register of people forcibly deported from Russian-occupied areas.

A bot has been launched on Telegram (see @come_back_to_ukraine_bot) to contact citizens removed to Russia.

Men awaiting mobilisation by the Donbass “republics”. Photo from Eastern Human Rights Group

Deporting people against their will is a war crime. International and local human rights organisations, and the Ukrainian government, say there is mounting evidence that Russia is doing so on a large scale.

The Russian defence ministry said on 18 June that more than 1.9 million people, including 307,000 children, had been evacuated from Ukraine to Russia since the full-scale invasion on 24 February. Ukrainian activists deny Russian claims that all evacuees have left Ukraine voluntarily.

“If we don’t find how to help them, Russia will erase the Ukrainian identity of these children”, Oleksandra Matviichuk of the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties responded.

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group in April protested against a scheme to resettle residents of Mariupol in the most inhospitable and distant areas of Russia.

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Why is Ukrainian resistance invisible to you?

June 27, 2022

An appeal to supporters of the Stop the War Coalition

Here are notes I made for a talk at an on-line meeting of the Stop the War Coalition’s Brent (north-west London) branch tomorrow (28 June). I was due to speak alongside Lindsey German, national convenor of the STWC. But last week it turned out that she had an unavoidable clash, no-one else was available, and the event was cancelled.

Ambulance workers who rescued civilians from Mariupol. See “About the photo”, below

I wrote to Brent STWC to say that I thought the cancellation was “a shame, politically speaking”, because there have been “precious few meaningful exchanges of views between those in the UK labour movement who have a broadly ‘plague-on-both-your-houses’ view, such as Lindsey German, and those who believe support should be given to the Ukrainian resistance, such as myself”.

An opportunity for discussion has been missed – while the biggest war in Europe since the middle of the last century rages.

I sent these notes to Brent STWC last week (as a pdf, downloadable here), and suggested discussion in spoken or written form. Obviously I don’t care if that’s in Brent or elsewhere. Please, engage with the arguments. Simon Pirani.

=

Hello, thank you for inviting me.

I will start with a confession. When approached about this meeting, I was asked, as someone who has been travelling to both Russia and Ukraine for a long time, whether I could put Brent Stop the War in touch with a suitable Ukrainian speaker. I said I could not think of anyone, but that I could do it. In fact, I would have felt embarassed, even ashamed, to ask a Ukrainian friend to speak here.

I imagined Ukrainian friends, who daily witness the most horrendous violence against their country, looking at the coalition’s web site. I thought that they would feel that here was an organisation utterly removed from Ukrainian reality. An organisation that – unlike some significant Russian anti-war organisations – is interested neither in Ukrainian communities’ suffering, nor in those communities’ response to that suffering. An organisation that seems uncritically to accept, and even repeat, Russian government propaganda.  

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Ukraine: ‘We are surviving, but not living’ under Russian occupation

June 13, 2022

Women in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine demonstrated last month against the forced conscription of men into the armed forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”.

A banner, stating “We are surviving, but not living” was pictured by the Eastern Human Rights Group – which has supported workers’ movements and civil society organisations in the “republics” since they were founded in 2014 – on its facebook page.

“We are surviving, but not living”. From the Eastern Human Rights Group facebook page

The chaotic situation in the Russian-controlled areas, including a reshuffle of the puppet government of the “Donetsk people’s republic”, is described by Ukrainian activists in this series of facebook posts, reproduced with permission.

Forcible conscription provokes protests

By Vera Yastrebova, 18 May

On Monday and Tuesday, 16-17 May, women protested near local military recruitment offices in Debaltseve (Donetsk), Krasnoe Luch and Perevalsk (Luhansk). Women demanded to be given information about the whereabouts of their men who had been forcibly mobilized by the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). In Anthracite and Rovenky (Luhansk), women organised a collective march to address the heads of the occupation administrations of these cities and to demand information.

Women also wrote numerous letters of protest to the authorities of the Russian Federation, demanding an end to the forced mobilisation of men and students in the DPR and LPR. However, in almost all cases, their grievances were dismissed, or they were recommended to approach the Luhansk and Donetsk administrations.

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‘The Russian empire is failing in its own way’

June 1, 2022

A conversation between Simon Pirani and Anthony McIntyre about the Russian war on Ukraine. Reposted, with thanks, from The Pensive Quill

Anthony McIntyre: You have a long-time immersion in Left politics. We know each other almost forty years. On my first trip to London in 1995 you and I visited the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. I have always held to the descriptive potency of Marxism while finding it prescriptively impotent. I distrust the doctrinaire. Whatever about any differences that may exist in our respective outlooks, we continue to view the world broadly through a Marxian lens, which should help anchor the following exchange in Leftist ground. 

Kharkiv, after the Russian assault. Photo from Ukrainska Pravda

You have been writing and commenting a lot about Russia’s war on Ukraine. TPQ runs two or three pieces weekly from People And Nature in the hope of informing the debate and I suppose to some extent shaping it. We would both agree that the Russian offensive war is the supreme international crime. Yet, we have some on the Left – we expect it from the Right – claiming neutrality, adopting the Kissingerian posture during the Iran-Iraq war that it is a pity both sides can’t lose. I suspect in many cases that is a form of cover for their real sympathies probably lying with the Kremlin. They tend to be old tankies who subscribed to the Brezhnev Doctrine and for whatever convoluted reason think this is the same doctrine served up in a modern dish.

Eric Draitser describes much of this as the “fraudulent narratives of the Kremlin disinformation army on the Left.” How do you feel upon observing people on the Left opting out of supporting Ukrainian society in its struggle to essentially survive in face of a military onslaught from a right-wing capitalist authoritarian state?

Simon Pirani: I used to think that the western political establishment blamed the “Kremlin disinformation army” for things that were really its own fault. For example, it blamed Russian cyberwarfare for Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 US election to a quasi-fascist clown – whereas that was largely the result of decades of class warfare by the Democratic Party against working-class people, and blacks in particular, in the US, which eroded what electoral support it had from them. The war in Ukraine has made me rethink this, partly because this “disinformation army” is much closer at hand for me.

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Russia: a new wave of anti-war protest

May 20, 2022

Three months into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, PAVEL LISYANSKY reports that anti-war protesters, pushed back in March by a fierce legal clampdown, are finding ways to make their voices heard

While the Russian media claims wholesale popular approval of the Kremlin’s military aggression, Russians are being arrested for protesting peacefully in the country’s urban centres.

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has now entered its third month. The level of protest among the local population in Russian regions is increasing, due to several factors.

Leyla Sayfutdinova mounted a one-person picket against the war with her mouth sewn shut. See also “About the photo”, below

Because of the sanctions policy, global brands are leaving Russia and, at the same time, large employers are closing production facilities, thereby reducing jobs in the regions and draining tax revenues to regional budgets.

The regions of Russia have already received Cargo 200 [military code for the transportation of soldiers’ dead bodies] from Ukraine, which increases local people’s urge to protest. But the main political point is that these events sharpen the confrontation between regional elites and the federal centre of the Russian Federation. [Note. The Russian Federation is made up of 85 administrative units (regions, republics and autonomous territories), which are constantly in battle with the central government over shares of budgets, degree of local autonomy, etc.]

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‘The deeper we go into war, the more Putin stands to lose’

April 27, 2022

An Open Letter to my Brazilian friends and colleagues about the invasion of Ukraine, by FRANÇOIS CHESNAIS 

Download this letter as a PDF

In this letter I would like to explain to Brazilian friends and colleagues my position on the war in Ukraine, namely that it is a unilateral aggression by Russia. I received a message from a friend in which I detected the idea that the war can be understood as a legitimate response to a situation created by NATO. This “campist” position is encouraged by the fact that four Latin American countries that are at the forefront of the fight against the United States – Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and El Salvador – abstained in the vote in the UN General Assembly resolution condemning “aggression against Ukraine”. A dozen formerly colonial African countries did the same. The pro-Russia stance taken by the Monthly Review may also encourage the “anti-imperialist/anti-US camp” position.

Members of the independent miners union at the front, 12 April. Photo from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions

A deep hostility towards US imperialism (nurtured by more than a century of history dating back to the invasion of Cuba under President McKinley in 1898), which is shared with many militants of the South American left, risks making some of my friends and colleagues agnostic about, or even tolerant of, the invasion; unclear about its aims; and indifferent to the methods of warfare directed against civilian populations that are employed by the Russian military. Named a “special operation” by Vladimir Putin and his ministers, it is an aggression on the part of Russia with the aim of ousting the Volodymyr Zelensky government from power; perpetuating the separation of the Donbas regions in the east of the country; vassalising the central and western part of the country; and bringing the whole population to heel.

I recognise that my position is shaped by the fact that Russia falls within my geopolitical framework of thought as a European. The Stalinisation of the Comintern at the turn of the 1930s, and the international influence of Stalinism through the vassalisation of the countries of Eastern Europe, meant that revolutionaries in France, as in Italy and Spain, had to deal with powerful Communist Parties bound by the foreign policy of the USSR.

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Solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance. Six questions

April 19, 2022

People & Nature today publishes a discussion article about the Ukrainian resistance and international solidarity with it, here. It is structured around these six questions. Please read and share.

1. What does the “national question” mean, if anything, in the 21st century, and specifically with respect to the “Maidan revolution”?

2. What is the character of Russian imperialism, and of the Russian political elite around Putin?

3. What has been the character of the Russian wars of the 21st century, and of the forces against which Russia has fought? What is the character of Ukraine’s defensive war now?

4. What is the place of this war in the crisis of capital internationally?

5. How do we understand the danger of a wider war, arising e.g. from the western powers’ involvement in the conflict?

6. What to do?

To read more, go here.

London, 26 February. Photo by Steve Eason

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