The Russian seizure of Crimea has sharply divided opinion on the British left writes Liam Mac Uaid. On one side No2EU is saying:
“The European Commission will officially hand over €1.1 billion this week to far right coup leaders in Kiev that removed the elected government with street violence.
US secretary of state John Kerry also said on a visit to Kiev this week that Washington will add $1 billion into the pot to shore up fascist rule.”
A less shrill echo of this view is offered by the Stop The War Coalition which prominently features an article by Eamonn McCann in which he sets out their stall. “In the game of Great Power politics, if we have to pick a side over Crimea, let it be Russia.” Counterfire have republished the same article along with one by Chris Nineham which argues that the strategic issue is that “Nato and EU expansion in the last two decades has dismantled Russia’s traditional buffer zone.” From this he also concludes that we have to back Russia.
We can speculate that some around No2EU see Putin’s Russia as being, in some distorted way, the heir to socialist bulwark that the Soviet Union once was in their eyes. For people from the SWP tradition this isn’t the case and their rationale is that as socialists in the European Union and (EU) their main responsibility is to oppose NATO and the EU.
Self evidently if the EU or NATO were to start making claims on Russian territory we would oppose that. It is also obvious that the land seizures so far have all been initiated by Russia, which stage managed a flagrantly ridiculous referendum and used the result to seize Crimea. Russia was the aggressor. It violated Ukraine’s national sovereignty.
The movement that brought down the Yanukovich regime was contradictory. It could hardly have been otherwise in a society run by gangster capitalists who atomised mass consciousness and ran political parties as means of sharing the spoils between competing groups of oligarchs. An issue of serious concern has been the presence of the far right both in the mass movement and the newly formed government. We’ll set aside for a moment the widespread presence of the far right in Putin’s Russia. Ukraine has a specific history which has left a legacy of a deep antipathy to everything tainted by the Soviet Union. The famine Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in 1932-3 (which was covered up by many socialists at the time) is estimated to have killed 7.5 million people. Many Ukrainians interpret it as a deliberate act of genocide by the Moscow regime. It is inevitable that a national trauma on that scale will affect the way people view history. It goes some way to explaining why anti-Soviet rhetoric has such an appeal and the far right has successfully exploited the memory of that Stalinist crime.
However, socialist participants in the events, such as Ilya Boudraïtksis of “Vpered” (“Forward”), Russian section of the Fourth International saw the mass movement as containing the germs of a revolutionary process:
“…each element of which breathes an authentic revolutionary consciousness, painted in some strange, unusual colour – a kaleidoscope of propaganda from every possible ultra-right-wing party and sect, with countless “Celtic” symbols and runes on the walls. The incredibly sickening dissonance between the revolutionary content of the process and its reactionary form represents circumstances demanding not squeamish ethical evaluations, but action aimed at changing such an ugly equation.”
This ideological confusion is the fruit of a society in which independent working class consciousness was suppressed for decades by a bureaucracy which claimed to rule in the name of that class. The thieving oligarchy, which apologists like George Galloway refer to as the overthrown government, viewed the state as a treasury to be plundered. As a result mass consciousness has been evolving rapidly from a primordial swamp of old prejudices, half remembered ideas and glimpses of the outside world.
For many Ukrainians all that is good about the outside world is represented by the European Union. From their point of view, and that’s what matters here, joining the EU means that they might have a chance to get a job in England, Germany or Belgium. In a country in which virtually every transaction between a citizen and the state means paying a bribe, the EU can seem like a corruption free paradise. Singing a song which mocks the government doesn’t get you thrown in jail. The Sex Pistols weren’t sent to a labour camp outside Birmingham for singing God Save the Queen. Contrast that with Putin’s treatment of Pussy Riot. Who wouldn’t choose to live in a society like Denmark when the option on offer is living in a client of Putin’s Russia?
Putin’s strategy is to gouge out chunks of Ukrainian territory. He started with Crimea. That is roughly analogous to the north of Ireland. The British state has used the presence of a Protestant population which is opposed to a united Ireland to claim sovereignty over Irish territory. Another analogy is the Israeli state. There, a settler population displaced the original inhabitants and denied them the right to a Palestinian state. Stalin’s tactics in Crimea were not too different from those of the Israeli state’s founders. He deported almost 200 000 Crimean Tatars and filled the gap with ethnic Russians. Putin is planning to use the presence of Russian speakers in other parts of Ukrainian territory to annex them. This has even worried Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. According to The Moscow Times he criticised Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea as setting a “bad precedent.” Even Putin’s friends in the region are twitchy now.
Current polls say that the chief Russian kleptocrat is enjoying a burst of popularity as a consequence of his aggression against Ukraine. The same thing happened when he invaded Chechnya and flattened Grozny, turning the country into what the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya called “a small corner of hell”. Putin and his cronies must have been terrified when they saw the people take to the streets against Yanukovich. If it could happen in Kiev it could happen in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. His aggression on Ukraine served the double purpose of intimidating the mass movement there and showing any Russians inclined to imitate it what they might expect. It was a real source of optimism that 50 000 people took to the streets of Moscow to protest against their own state’s aggression, an event that went unremarked by the British Stop the War Coalition.
Saying that we are against the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory does not for one moment imply that we defend the new government in Kiev. Like the old one, it is largely comprised of robber oligarchs and now includes a significant far right presence. That does not make it a fascist government. We are on the side of the Russian anti-war protestors and the multi-ethnic thousands who took to the streets of Ukraine’s cities demanding an end to corruption, the plundering of state assets and cops who were indistinguishable from criminals. A defeat for Russian imperialism in Ukraine is both a victory for that mass movement and the Russian working class. Socialists in imperialist countries should see their primary responsibility as establishing links and building support for those groups in Ukrainian and Russian society which are opposing the oligarchs and organising a real movement against them. That is rather different from helping Putin hold on to power by annexing his own imperialist “buffer zone”