Notes on Ukraine

Photograph Source: Defense of Ukraine – Public Domain

On 14th November, Ukrainian troops retook the city of Kherson, a city that had been held by Russia for several months as part of their ongoing invasion.  In the aftermath of the Russian army’s expulsion, the same depressing, harrowing accounts of atrocities are beginning to filter out of the shell-shocked city – the kidnappings, the beatings, the torture chambers.  And then there are the corpses of murdered civilians whose battered, ragged bodies speak their own stories.

For this, one cannot fail to appreciate the joy on the part of the Ukrainian inhabitants of that city, many of whom had been forced to live without running water, electricity and a good few basic food staples.  When the Russians withdrew, Ukrainian citizens took to the streets of Kherson in a spontaneous outbreak of joy; for someone like myself, who has known neither war, torture nor starvation, it is hard to imagine what the people in Kherson had gone through. Seeing those images in real-time of people weeping with happiness, however, it was easy to understand their relief at having secured some measure of freedom again.  Even if it is possible that such freedom will only be enjoyed for a preciously short period of time.

Most people, I think, share this sensibility.   They understand we are dealing with a vastly powerful country and a tyrannical dictator at its head, reigning down fire on a smaller country in a violent attempt to occupy and annex it.  In England, where I live, it is quite common to see images of the Ukrainian flag adorning cars or houses as an expression of solidarity.  I appreciate that some of this will inevitably be an expression of anti-Russian prejudice channelled through bellicose British patriotism.  There are deep seams of that to be mined here in a post-Brexit, post-empire UK, for sure.  Russia is a country that our politicians are forever urging us to revile while allowing the financial wares of its billionaire oligarchy and those connected with it to fill the coffers of the Conservative and Labour parties alike.  Not to mention the grip that Russian finance has on London and the elite property market there.

But at the same moment, I think most ordinary people feel a simple and sincere revulsion to the images from Ukraine that are unfolded on television; those images of people, not unlike ourselves, being bombed and killed – shell-shocked families setting off on enforced migrations, uprooted, grief-stricken, and desperately vulnerable.  I know I do.

In the sometimes strange and surreal ecosystem of the ‘organised’ left, however, such solidarity is wares rather thin.  Here a counter-narrative has emerged which replaces an account of people on the ground – i.e. the civilians who are being murdered in their thousands by the second most powerful military machine on the planet – with a different type of story, a story where the focus is on state actors in the abstract, separate from the populations they represent.   Here the US is personified as a great world bully, and Russia becomes that kid in the class who is finally brave enough to give the bully a taste of his own medicine by giving him a thwack on the nose.   The thwack on the nose is Ukraine.   ‘On its own’, such commentators aver, ‘clearly Ukraine does not represent much of a threat. But as part of an imperialist military bloc led by the United States, planted on Russia’s doorstep, it most certainly would.’

In this account, then, the poles become reversed; it is no longer the case that Russia is enacting a violent and bloody war of occupation – in fact it turns out that the more diminutive Ukraine is the real threat here, and it is the Russians who are acting in terms of self-defence.  The US and NATO, having progressively encircled Russian territory for years, are looking to infiltrate Ukraine, to ensure it becomes a member of NATO, and thus fortify the power levelled against Russia.  Many of these accounts argue that the Euromaidan protests of 2013 which eventually led to the overthrow of the then president Viktor Yanukovych were simply orchestrated by Washington in order to overthrow a democratically elected leader.  But this account has key limits.

It is hardly deniable that the US government and NATO are pressing their own interests.  And it is also true that US imperialism is surely the most wide-ranging and extensive strain at work in the modern world today, given the control of markets the US secures often through puppet dictatorships and the sheer number of bases it has accrued across the world, alongside the overwhelming military hardware that adorns these.

But, since the dissolution of the USSR, Russia itself has hardly been slack in terms of its own international and internal incursions.  Since 1991 it has invaded, occupied or attacked Moldova, Georgia, Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine.  Many of these assaults were about supressing independence movements; Moldova had proclaimed independence and, in response, Russia occupied Transnistria which was already home to a Russian military base. In Russia itself, the Chechen independence movement was furiously suppressed in two wars involving more than a decade’s worth of bloody violence.

In Syria, the Russians fortified the defunct, zombie dictatorship of Assad by bombing the Syrian population into smithereens, a population that had risen up in 2011 as part of the great wave of independence movements to come out of the Arab Spring.  As a result of its wholesale massacre of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, Russia was granted rights to use and expand a naval base at the port of Tartus, a significant gateway to trade and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is also worth noting that Tartus had also been a key military base under the control of the USSR at the height of its power.  In the case of Georgia, the invasion was launched under the pretext of ‘protecting the population’ – the initial attack was carried out from the separatist republics of North Ossetia and Abkhazia, before the Russian air force carried out scores of strikes on Georgian cities.

For all of this, one can discern the same fundamental pattern; the consistent struggle to repress and crush independence movements within Russian borders; the endeavour to weaken local states by exacerbating separatist difference in order to use this as a justification for full scale invasions; the drive to bolster dictatorships on an international scale so as to secure military pre-eminence in a given region.  All of these represent classical imperialist stratagems – in as much as the common thread which runs between them involves the crushing of self-determination on the part of various groups and peoples in order to achieve an expansion in territory and the political and economic gains that go along with it.

In the case of Ukraine, Russia employed a further strategy.  It argued that Ukraine had been the victim of an illegal coup, and that the invasion it mounted in 2014 when it annexed Crimea was simply the means by which some level of democratic integrity might be restored.  The coup in question related to a vote on the part of the Ukrainian parliament to remove the pro-Russian leader President Yanukovych.  The decision to remove the latter, however, came at a point where Yanukovych himself had subverted the democratic process.  In 2013 the parliament voted overwhelmingly for the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, something that would involve a much greater level of economic and political integration with Europe.   At the last moment, the pro-Russian premier declined to sign the agreement, a treaty that Russia themselves had put considerable pressure on Ukraine to reject.  What was effectively one man’s veto of a treaty that had considerable popular support aroused mass protest and agitation – protestors took to the streets in their thousands, occupying Independence Square for months on end and even storming the citadels of political power in cities across the board.

According to a poll taken at the time, a majority of Ukrainian citizens supported the protests, around 50% were in favour of them opposed to 40% who were against.   Along with the feeling that the Ukrainian parliament was in some way being strong-armed by Russia, the casual and blaze way with which the President had simply ignored the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement also spoke to the arbitrary and corrupt nature of an elite political power that was largely indifferent to due process and the sensibilities of the people on the ground.

The protests grew into a more general and universal malaise that expressed the dissatisfaction toward the political system on the part of vast numbers.  These feelings were no doubts bolstered by the signing into law by Yanukovych of the ‘Ukrainian anti-protest laws’, a set of draconian legislative measures brought in rather hastily in order to crush the massive wave of popular power, the ‘Euromaidan’ protests, which had swept across the country.   The endeavour proved to be a futile one, however, and eventually Yanukovych was forced to flee the country having been removed from office by parliamentary decree.

Undoubtedly this set of events can only be read as favourable to Western powers. The European Union – a highly predatory organisation of European-centred financial capital often devoted to loan ‘restructuring’ agreements that suck the blood from smaller economies – has a great deal to gain by bringing Ukraine into its economic remit.

In addition, the US seeking to maintain its own position of global dominance is antsy about the possibility of Russian expansion and a Ukraine detached from the Russian sphere could only be a good thing in its books.  In fact, this was formalized when the late senator John McCain offered the US’s unequivocal support to the pro-European administration that succeeded the ousted president Yanukovych.  Even more telling is the fact that the Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Newland revealed in 2013 that the US had provided Ukraine with $5 billion of investment.

Russian propagandists seized upon this information averring that ‘President Barak Obama spent $5 billion paying Ukrainians to riot and dismantle their democratically elected government’.  But the problem with this is – once the cash was examined in any detail it quickly showed up that it had been put to use in a series of projects such as anti-aids and anti-malaria campaigns along with business investment and investment in the police and the military.  Was the US hoping to buy favour, power and influence in the country?  Certainly.   But could the mass protests that we saw unfolding for months on end in scores of cities and towns have somehow been prearranged and choreographed by US investment in advance?  Was that money focused on students, workers or even militias, the groups that constituted the mainstay of the protests?  The answer is clearly not.

Perhaps more tellingly, this investment was provided over twenty years in the period from 1991-2013.  The US had exported similar sums to various other Eastern European nations where there were neither revolutions nor coups in that same time-frame.  And there was no ‘Bay of Pigs’-like cloak of invisibility surrounding the investment the US provided, Victoria Newland stated it quite matter-of-factly for the public record in a highly visible forum.  Needless to say, this is not the style in which US orchestrated coups are usually enacted.

And yet, echoing the Russian propaganda to a tee, many on the Marxist left in particular performed the same sleight of hand; the US has orchestrated coups and facilitated dictatorships across the world, the US is also invested heavily in Ukraine – ergo the US itself was behind the Euromaidan protests.   Writing for the Marxist orientated magazine Socialist Viewpoint, for instance, Mike Whitney described how ‘Obama and Co. have ousted Ukraine’s democratically-elected president, Viktor Yanukovych’ whereas ‘Moscow is keenly aware of Washington’s divide and conquer strategy, but has downplayed the issue in order to avoid a confrontation’.  Of course, he means that Russia was keen to avoid confrontation until the point (so the rationale goes) where the US forced its hand, giving it ‘no choice’ but to invade.

Not only does this absolve Russia for its responsibility for the invasion in 2014, it also ignores the fact that Russia had been exerting political and economic pressure on the Ukrainian government in relation to its own interests long before it resorted to an all-out military assault. In this sense we might say that the US and Russia were playing a similar game, both vying with one another to secure economic and political influence in Ukraine as part of competing imperial projects – but the significant difference here is that the US has not been the one to invade.  Not on this occasion, at least.

One might observe how, when the historical process is described primarily in accordance to the activities of super-states, framing the US and Russia as moral antipodes – the US representing capitalist imperialism, Russia representing its antithesis by way of some form of resistance; if these are the terms by which the balance of progress and reaction is to be measured on a global scale – then the activities of the masses of people who live below the radar of such great state actors inevitably become diminished.  The thousands upon thousands of Ukrainian protesters in 2013-14 taking to the streets, week after week, month after month, risking censor, violence and death at the hands of snipers, braving draconian laws in order to make their voices heard – and why?   Because, says our radical ‘anti-imperialist’ interlocutor with a knowing and supercilious smile, they have all been manipulated by the US government.  They are the dupes of the CIA.   They are all in thrall to western propaganda!

Those of us on the left – a growing minority I would like to think – ardent to see the Russian military expelled from Ukraine – not because we hold any truck with the anti-worker, union busting Zelensky – but because we recognise the desperate struggle of a people fighting for their very survival; those of us who support unconditionally the right of those people to be free from Russian oppression and occupation – we are exposed to the atavistic logic of the ‘anti-imperialist’ section of the left on a daily basis.

The logic is once again simple and crude in its outline; the US wants the Russians out of Ukraine in terms of their own imperial interests, you want the Russians out of Ukraine; ergo, you must be in favour of US imperialism.  I’ve lost count of times that I have been told that I’m a supporter of US government or in the pay of the CIA (like they would have me), or that I have swallowed wholesale the lies of the ‘globalists’.  This last one, by the way, comes up more and more frequently, and it is perhaps no great coincidence.  Naturally, if the only binaries are those that open up between great state actors, and if the majority of people on the ground are mere dupes – then it becomes that much easier for the ‘anti-imperialist’ position to coalesce into the conspiratorial one, for the conspiracy theory works to condense and merge the array of state actors from above into a single transcendental power – the globalists, the New World Order and so on.  In the same moment, the power of the majority of ordinary people is reduced to nowt, in as much as they become the mere empty-headed playthings of the entity behind the curtain, the one pulling the strings.

Another riff on the same theme is to suggest that mind-set of the Ukrainian masses as they rise up against the Russian invaders is dominated by a fascist impulse.   Again the autonomy of the population is subverted by the ‘fact’ that they are really acting in the interests of someone else, and again Russia is provided with a moral incentive for invasion – after all, aren’t they just overseeing the ‘de-nazification’ of Ukraine?

That there is a not insignificant neo-Nazi component in the Ukrainian political scene shouldn’t be denied. Nor can it be refused this was given large and visible expression in proportion to its size, mobilizing against the Russians in 2014 and again in 2022.  The notorious Azov regiment, formed in 2014 (Azov battalion) in order to battle pro-Russian forces in the Donbass War, is a group that has flaunted neo-Nazi symbolism through the use of swastikas and other fascist imagery. And from within a much broader set of popular protests, one might well expect an ultra-nationalist, ultra-right wing tendency to flare up, especially in the context of a foreign invasion that is certain to provoke a great swell of patriotic sentiment.   At the same time, however, one should remember that the Azov regiment is estimated to have from 900-2500 members.  The Ukrainian military as a whole, including soldiers, border guards and the National Guard numbers over 300,000.  The Azov regiment, therefore, constitutes a remarkably small percentage in the overall balance of forces.

Nevertheless, it became a key locus for Russian propaganda, allowing Putin to justify his invasion in terms of the need to ‘denazify’ Ukraine.   Certain high-profile public commentators such as Roger Walters have paid lip service to such a narrative, arguing that, in the last few years, Ukraine has been ‘ruled’ by the forces of ‘extreme nationalism’ and the far-right. But such a statement of hyperbole corresponds to his feelings rather than the facts.

For during the period Walters describes (2019 onward) elections were held at a time when Ukraine’s far-right parties had seized the opportunity to form a bloc – as Chris Orlet notes, writing for this publication, ‘National Corps, Svoboda, Governmental Initiative of Yarosh, and the Right Sector – formed a nationwide united party for the 2019 elections’.  And yet, they still only managed to secure ‘2.15 percent of the popular vote, meaning they received no representation in the Ukrainian parliament.  Zero.’  On top of this, the person who was eventually elected in a landslide victory – for all his faults – is a Jewish man who had lost many of his relatives in the Holocaust.

Significantly, it is also worth noting that few countries are free of far right movements.  In Italy, a neo-fascist has become the premier with the election of Meloni, and France was perilously close to the same, with the odious Marie Le Pen making it to the final round of the contest. Should these countries also be invaded on the double?  Not to mention Russia itself, and its august dictator who has become a potent symbol of heroism and power for far-right figures and groups across the world.  The organisation Fact Check summed up the situation in the following terms:

‘Neo-Nazi, far right and xenophobic groups do exist in Ukraine, like in pretty much any other country, including Russia. They are vocal and can be prone to violence but they are numerically small, marginal and their political influence at the state level is non-existent … I would consider the KKK in the US and skinheads and neo-Nazi groups in Russia a much bigger problem and threat than the Ukrainian far right.’

But Russia has form here, when it comes to using these kinds of ideological strategies.  Its invasion of Syria was premised on similar lines; the wholescale bombing of civilian populations, the reduction of entire cities to rubble, was justified by the ‘fact’ that those civilians had been thoroughly permeated by ISIS terrorists or the like.   When news of another war crime came through, another bombed hospital, it was often because – according to Russian propaganda – the hospital had been infiltrated by Islamic extremists.  A bombed maternity hospital in Ukraine is explained away by the same means, only instead of Islamic terrorists, it is the neo-Nazis in the form of the Azov regiment who are said to have occupied it.  Amazing, don’t you think?  How neo-Nazis and Islamist death squads seem to spend so much of their spare time hanging out in hospitals?

It is, one feels, a minor tragedy that many on the left seemed determined to accept this kind of rational.  Not simply because so much of it is false.  But also because the same stratagems are deployed by the US and the West almost verbatim in terms of their own imperial projects.   ‘The Great March of Return’ of 2018-19, a series of demonstrations demanding the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the lands they had been forcibly displaced from – was met, in the words of Amnesty International, by ‘Israeli soldiers … using high-velocity military weapons designed to cause maximum harm to Palestinian protesters who do not pose an imminent threat to them.’

Furthermore, such murderous conduct constituted, according to that same human rights organisation, both ‘a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime’.  The Israeli state, on the other hand, held to a different viewpoint, with the IDF describing the protests as a ‘Hamas March’ and many media outlets carrying a similar narrative; i.e. that thousands of protesters were in fact nothing more than the cover for terrorist extremists who had ‘mobilized Palestinian civilians as human shields to hide systematic efforts to dismantle the border fence and stage a mass infiltration of Israel’.

Thankfully, the majority of people on the radical left have a great depth of compassion for the Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied territories, recognising the predations of the Israeli state as the murderous activities of an imperial power, and quite rightly so.

And yet, many of those same ‘anti-imperialists’ are unable to extend to the Ukrainian people the same level of sympathy and dignity.  To reject out of hand any suggestion that, in bombing and colonising them, the Russians have some level of legitimacy.  Of course, ‘anti-imperialist’ is not the correct diction with which to describe such types, they are quite clearly pro-imperialist; it is simply that they find themselves on the side of the weaker strain of imperialism rather than the stronger one.  In a choice between a tiger and the wolf, they have chosen the wolf.  But a wolf’s teeth can be every bit as sharp as a tiger’s; likewise Israeli bombs and Russian bombs have exactly the same type of effect on the bodies of the civilian lives they shred, be they Palestinian or Ukrainian.

And the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is best located in the context of imperial history more broadly.  Kievan Rus, the basis for which was established by Viking marauders as they pacified local Slavic populations, was perhaps the first cohesive state to be established in the region and predated the Grand Principality of Moscow (the kingdom which would eventually evolve into the Tsardom of Russia) by several centuries.  Kievan Rus itself was eventually overrun by Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde in the 13th century, and the following centuries brought little relief as it was occupied by the kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, before later being invaded by Austria until finally it was swallowed up by Tsarist Russia in the 17th century.

By the 19th century, a strong and vibrant nationalist movement had developed, rich in thought and culture, at yet the region remained under the dominion of imperial Russia who plundered its resources and used it as a captive market for its own manufactured products.  In Lenin’s words, ‘What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return.’  With the impetus provided to it by the October Revolution, the national liberation movement succeeded in making Ukraine an independent republic in the early 1920s, but as the Bolshevik Party was gradually mutated into a Stalinist dictatorship, Ukraine found itself under the Russian yoke once more.  In an excellent article, Rohini Hensman records the processes of oppression in chilling detail:

‘First the intelligentsia was destroyed by deporting, jailing or killing teachers, writers, artists, thinkers and political leaders; at the same time, the Ukrainian churches were destroyed with hundreds of priests and lay-people killed and thousands sent off to forced labor camps, deliberately separating families and sending children to Russian homes to be “educated.” Finally, in 1932–1933, as Stalin escalated his repression in Russia itself, around 5,000,000 Ukrainian peasants – men, women and children – were starved to death.’

What became known as the ‘Holodomor’ – the deportations and the millions of deaths from mass starvation – worked as a form of ethnic cleansing whereby the numbers of the perished were replaced by non-Ukrainians, and the powers of national resistance were forcibly terminated.   In the deportations of the Tartars from Crimea, it is estimated that half the population did along the way, a crime against humanity on a genocidal scale.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that in a referendum of 1991, 84% of the population took to the polls and a massive number of those – over 92% – voted for independence from the Soviet Union.  Even in ‘each of the majority-Russian-speaking Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, over 83% voted in favor’.  Of course, that won’t mean much to our ‘anti-imperialist’ who will tell you that it was all the work of the CIA with that same demented gleam in his or her eye.  In fact, however, the then president George H. W. Bush was against Ukrainian independence at the time.

But perhaps the most relevant testimony issues from Putin himself.  A secretive ex-KGB agent, who has gone on to amass a fortune from his grip on the Russian state, Putin seems animated by rancour at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, seeing in himself a force of nemesis by which Russia can retrieve its lost territory and status as a preeminent superpower.  On the question of modern Ukraine, Putin argues that it was always an artificial creation, ‘entirely the product of the Soviet era. We know and remember well that it was shaped – for a significant part – on the lands of historical Russia.’

For Putin, the attempt to justify the independence of what is essentially an artificial aberration – is the attempt to ‘to mythologize and rewrite history’, and to present Soviet power over Ukraine as ‘an occupation’ when, according to him, Ukraine was part of the Russian empire as an organic whole and it had no set of interests separate from those of the empire.

In this sense, it becomes quite clear that the ideology Putin is mobilizing is a revival of Great Russian chauvinism drawing on an imperial history whereby the national identity and self-determination of the Ukrainian people has been repeatedly repressed by the most bloodthirsty measures.   And in this way, he and the ‘anti-imperialists’ on the left who either actively support him or tacitly indorse the invasion have a very similar mind-set; both are prepared to deny the principle of self-determination to a whole people.   But how is it possible that a large proportion of a left which should place freedom from below at the very heart of its analysis has come to tacitly endorse a billionaire autocrat in a violent ultra-nationalist project of expansion?

I think this a large part to do with the incredible level of defeats we have incurred, going back to Chile in ‘73 and the beginnings of the neoliberal experiment. The working class in the US has remained largely quiescent, and we are living with the terrible effects of the defeat of the miners to this day over here in the UK.  In academia, the sense that the working class itself does not have the capacity or capabilities to challenge and transform the capitalist social order has been expressed by the transfiguration of revolutionary Marxism into the type of fashionable neo-Kantianism whereby class is replaced by some transcendental and ahistorical category, see Althusser, Zizek via Lacan, Mouffe, Laclau etc.

In politics more broadly, we see the type of Stalinism – that should have shrivelled and died its unholy death in ‘56 or ‘68 – once again revivify as a result of a more general and perhaps even unconscious sense of despair. If one feels instinctively that the working class is incapable of affecting a genuinely revolutionary transformation, if it seems that capitalism is triumphant across the board – most explicitly and visibly in the form of a global US imperialism – then the only way to snatch some kind of justice out of the fire is to replace class struggle from below with the spectre of nemesis from above reposed in this or that great power.

Thus, grizzly, murdering dictators like Putin or Assad are reimagined as the only ones with the means and the gumshoe to challenge US imperialism and in this colossal tug of war, the real and active, conscious and ongoing lives of vast swathes of humanity begin to dim and turn to shadow.  For such imbecile ‘anti-imperialist’ commentators, Putin is a plucky and canny operator who is ‘saving’ Ukraine from the predations of US capitalism, even as the bodies of Ukrainian men, women and children bleed out in their thousands onto the hot steel of his multi-billion dollar war machine.

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony