World Politics

No to Russian Imperialist Aggression, No to US/NATO interference, for a Democratic, Socialist Ukraine, for the Right of Self Determination for all Oppressed Nationalities

Kunal Chattopadhyay and Achin Vanaik

Russian Imperialism is the Aggressor:

We unequivocally condemn the Russian aggression on Ukraine. Beyond all discussions about how rightwing the Ukrainian regime is, what relationships it has with neo-Nazis or with the NATO, there are certain basic truths. Ukraine had been an oppressed nation under Tsarist Russia, which denied the distinctiveness of Ukrainian language and culture. Even after the February Revolution the Ukrainian bourgeois democrats had found little support in Petrograd from the Russian Provisional government. It was the Bolshevik Party that inscribed the slogan of the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination. They accepted this for Finland, as well as for the Ukraine. Even at the discussions at Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik delegation from Soviet Russia acknowledged the right of Ukraine to self-determination, while insisting that puppet regimes put up by an imperialist power did not consist of genuine self-determination. In this sense, Vladimir Putin, who seeks to extend the power and authority of Russian imperialism, is absolutely correct in stressing that modern Ukraine was created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. That was however negated by the repressions of the Stalin era, the violence on the Crimean Tatars, the terrible famine, and general Stalinist assimilationist policies. As Putin put it clearly in his speech, "It is logical that the Red Terror and a rapid slide into Stalin’s dictatorship, the domination of the communist ideology and the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, nationalisation and the planned economy – all this transformed the formally declared but ineffective principles of government into a mere declaration. In reality, the union republics did not have any sovereign rights, none at all. The practical result was the creation of a tightly centralised and absolutely unitary state." He rued that nonetheless, “it is a great pity that the fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed [by Stalin] of the odious and utopian fantasies [of Lenin] inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.".

Putin does not see a conflict with the Ukraine as an international conflict. He wants to revive the imperial ambitions of Russia, and in that, Ukraine has a major place. As the second biggest of the Republics of the former USSR, it occupied a major space. Russian imperialism has been created out of the former Stalinist bureaucracy. Vladimir Putin, with his ex-KGB credentials, neatly summarises that transition. Russia has had a painful transition to  capitalism and therefore its emergence as a weaker imperialism than the US -but one nevertheless. The Former Soviet Union broke up, and while Moscow would like to assert its hegemony everywhere, it has been forced to take small steps, since other imperialist powers, as well as national ambitions of formerly dominated nations, pose hindrances. Nevertheless, Putin has been relentless in his march, both in domestic terms, and internationally. Within Russia, opposition voices have been stopped, the media is state controlled, and Putin and his minions have been holding the President’s post for ages. Internationally, in 2008, to prevent Georgia from joining NATO, Putin (then running the show from the prime minister’s desk behind Dmitry Medvedev) justified the invasion of its territory citing his support for the secession of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which he encouraged to claim independence. In 2014, apprehensive that if Ukraine joined NATO Russia would find itself hemmed in, he invaded and took over Crimea violating the 1994 Budapest Agreement wherein Ukraine gave up the third largest nuclear arsenal in return for Treaty written security assurances that its territorial integrity and sovereignty would be fully respected by foreign powers, specifically including Russia, i.e., no illegal military interventions.

Putin also intervened militarily in that same year in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine encouraging separatist groups there to declare independence. Unlike in Crimea where ethnic Russians are in a majority, in the Donbass eastern region the majority are Ukrainians who speak Russian while ethnic Russians constitute around 40% of the region's population. In both the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, Putin believed that the US was too weak to confront him. In 2008, the US was stuck in the Iraqi crisis of its own brutal making, and in 2014, after accepting failure in achieving all its goals, it pulled almost all its troops out of Iraq, finding itself with a partial revival of the post-Vietnam War military paralysis.

Post-Soviet Ukraine: An Oligarchic Rule

The 2014-15, war over the Donbass led to the deaths of thousands. Over 150,000 were ousted from their homes. In late 2014 there began the Maidan protests. To understand them we need to go back to the foundations of independent Ukraine and the rise of the oligarchy. The 1996 constitution, approved under President Kuchma, gave the president more powers than parliament, but not to the same extent as in Russia: it was a presidential–parliamentary republic, rather than a purely presidential one. This was also a very important factor in the evolution of the political system: presidential elections were not winner-takes-all contests to the same extent as in many other former ex-Soviet countries.  With the state’s assistance, figures like Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoyskyi and Viktor Pinchuk and Victor Yanukovych acquired old Soviet industries at fire-sale prices, and then made huge fortunes not so much by investing or upgrading as by using them to make quick money, shifting their capital to Cyprus or other offshore havens. For many years, Leonid Kuchma and his prime minister, Victor Yanukovych were also able to balance on the question of whether to integrate into Europe’s economic sphere or Russia’s, moving decisively neither to the West nor the East. This shielded Ukraine’s oligarchs, preventing them from being swallowed by stronger Russian or European competitors. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the oligarchs were able to play a different role in the political system from their Russian counterparts: here the state was unable to dominate them and exclude them from participation as Putin did.

The end result of the 2004 large-scale public protests labelled the "Orange Revolution" saw no structural change, only a mere change of oligarchic elites. The unrest erupted because of illegal manipulation, corruption and electoral fraud (to which the Central Election Commission was a party) in favour of Yanukoych against the other main candidate, Viktor Yushchenko in the presidential run-off's of that year. The Ukraine Supreme Court ruled in favour of a re-vote which was won by Yushchenko, a former prime minister between 1999 and 2001. The then President Kuchma could not legally run again beyond the two terms of office he had already served and whose own reputation and credibilty had been fatally scarred by a major earlier scandal when irrefutable evidence was revealed that he had ordered the kidnapping of a journalist. Since in 2004 end constitutional amendments were passed by parliament to make the system more of a parliamentary-presidency one, Kuchma agreed to stop backing Yanukovych for the Presidency since the post now meant less. 

Yushchenko's pushing of a nationalist anti-communism discourse could not prevent his popularity from tumbling as the economic decline continued. [Even today the per capita income of Ukraine is less than it was in 1991 while its population has fallen from 50 million from then to 41 million at present.] Elected as President in 2010, Yanukovich tried to revert to the 1996 constitution. This also meant half the MPs in the Rada (parliament) would be elected in first-past-the-post constituencies again, and half from party lists. As well as attempting to monopolize political power, Yanukovych tried to concentrate financial and economic power around his own team, especially his family. The result was a tremendous amount of personalized corruption as well as alienation from a host of other oligarchs. Yanukovych’s announcement on 21 November 2013 that he would be suspending negotiations on the EU Association Agreement was the initial trigger for the protests that eventually led to his downfall. Ukraine was quite evenly split about this. 40 per cent were in favour of signing the Association Agreement and 40 per cent supported an agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. So when the protests began it was definitely not a nationwide people’s revolt. Why would this matter so much, either for the EU or for Russia? This can be explained when we look at the Ukrainian economy. 

It is the second-largest country by area in Europe by area and has a population of over 40 million - more than Poland.

Ukraine ranks:

1st in Europe in proven recoverable reserves of uranium ores;

2nd place in Europe and 10th place in the world in terms of titanium ore reserves;

2nd place in the world in terms of explored reserves of manganese ores (2.3 billion tons, or 12% of the world's reserves);

2nd largest iron ore reserves in the world (30 billion tons);

2nd place in Europe in terms of mercury ore reserves;

3rd place in Europe (13th place in the world) in shale gas reserves (22 trillion cubic meters)

4th in the world by the total value of natural resources;

7th place in the world in coal reserves (33.9 billion tons)

Ukraine is an important agricultural country:

1st in Europe in terms of arable land area;

3rd place in the world by the area of black soil (25% of world's volume);

1st place in the world in exports of sunflower and sunflower oil;

2nd place in the world in barley production and 4th place in barley exports;

3rd largest producer and 4th largest exporter of corn in the world;

4th largest producer of potatoes in the world;

5th largest rye producer in the world;

5th place in the world in bee production (75,000 tons);

8th place in the world in wheat exports;

9th place in the world in the production of chicken eggs;

16th place in the world in cheese exports.

Ukraine can meet the food needs of 600 million people.

Ukraine is an important industrialized country:

1st in Europe in ammonia production;

Europe's 2nd’s and the world’s 4th largest natural gas pipeline system;

3rd largest in Europe and 8th largest in the world in terms of installed capacity of nuclear power plants;

3rd place in Europe and 11th in the world in terms of rail network length (21,700 km);

3rd place in the world (after the U.S. and France) in production of locators and locating equipment;

3rd largest iron exporter in the world

4th largest exporter of turbines for nuclear power plants in the world;

4th world's largest manufacturer of rocket launchers;

4th place in the world in clay exports

4th place in the world in titanium exports

8th place in the world in exports of ores and concentrates;

9th place in the world in exports of defense industry products;

10th largest steel producer in the world (32.4 million tons).

It should now be clear why both imperialist blocs wanted Ukraine. And the EU with its ‘merely’ economic offer was dangerous for Russia. 

The Euromaidan and After:

In the beginning, the Euromaidan movement of Nov. 2013- Feb. 2014 mostly consisted of middle-class Kyivans and students, who were mainly driven by a European ideology. There was also a strong anti-Russian, nationalist component. In fact, any idea of a Ukraine built on a nationalist rather than democratic foundation would have to incorporate a degree of anti-Russianism. From the beginning, the Maidan protests posed the choice between the EU Association Agreement and the Russian led Customs Union in very stark, almost civilizational terms: is Ukraine with Europe or with Russia? Is it going to line up with Putin, Lukashenko (Belarus) and Nazarbaev(Kazakhstan) or have nothing to do with them?

However, regardless of that, the Maidan protests were from the beginning large movements. The very first protests saw 50,000 or more people in Kyiv. On 30 November there was a crackdown on the movement. The TV channels, owned by the oligarchs, who had been supporting Yanukovych, suddenly showed the crackdown in a bad light. The protest held in Kyiv on 1 December was enormous, with anything up to 200,000 people present. The movement also spread geographically: there were Maidans in almost every city. There was a considerable far right presence, which included neo-fascists but which was not only the neo-fascists. In reality, only a tiny minority of the protesters at the rallies were from the far right. However, they acted in a united way and managed to mainstream their slogans. 

From mid-January onwards, the protests seemed to enter a third phase, with negotiations between the government and opposition continuing even as violence was escalating, right up to Yanukovych’s ouster on 22 February. Perhaps the major turning point was the shooting of protesters in the centre of Kiev by snipers on 18, 19 and 20 February.  There was another important development on 18 February in the west of Ukraine, where protesters started to attack police stations and raid their arsenals, getting hold of guns in large quantities. This happened in Lviv, in Ternopil, in Ivano-Frankivsk, in many areas. It changed the situation drastically: the riot police were ready to disperse protesters when the latter were armed with sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails, but they were not ready to die for Yanukovych. After 18 February, the western parts of Ukraine were under the control of the protesters, who occupied the administrative buildings, police and security service headquarters. In some places the police shot at protesters, but in many areas they left without offering much resistance. 

The Yanukovych government fell in late February. Putin, and a section of the left that sees in Putin its dream of continued resistance to ‘imperialism’ (identified with the USA or the West alone), have repeatedly asserted that what happened was a fascist coup. A ‘coup’ suggests a planned, organised conspiracy to take power. Moreover, the far right were one component of the government that came in. Finally, the assumption that the far right was a tool of US imperialism ignores the internal dynamics, and treats all national conflicts in a left version of geostrategic theories that focus chiefly on great power rivalries. 

The Russian annexation of Crimea gave enormous advantages to the new government, since it gained a lot of legitimacy, and could push social issues into the background, highlighting ‘national unity’ against foreign aggression. 

Fearing a Russian social and political movement like Maidan, Putin described the post-Yanoukovych regime in Kiev as dominated by anti-Russian fascists, distorting reality in order to legitimate his annexation of Crimea and the so-called need to “protect” Russophone populations. While “Ukrainians” were often identified with “fascists”, the “hybrid war” instrumentalized by Moscow in Eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country’s turn toward western institutions, transformed political life in Ukraine : increasing hate and hysterical rhetoric of vengeance has been used by the ruling elites all over the country as excuse for their anti-social politics.

The sectors of the left that see in Maidan simply US/NATO conspiracy are thus effectively tagging all Ukrainians as fascists and the Russian speakers as progressives. As a matter of fact, what happened since 2015 is very different. Volodymyr Zelensky is no radical.  But the electoral triumph of this television comedian represented a moment when Ukrainians were trying to reject the oligarchy. With 73% of the votes, he won a landslide victory. Maidan had removed Yanukovych in the name of removing corruption. In fact there was a reconfiguration of the oligarchs. While Zelensky did not have a positive programme, the votes for him were anti-oligarchy. Poroshenko, the predecessor of Zelensky as president after the fall of Yanukovych, pushed up nationalist rhetoric. Re-establishing the status of Ukrainian culture and language are an inevitable part of the national sovereignty and identity project due to historic and current geopolitical reasons. In a way, Russia’s aggression and frequent Kremlin’s remarks on Ukraine being a non-country and non-culture  has also helped to promote a dangerous  binary of supposedly inescapable opposition between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian nationalism in a country where near everyone can read and understand Russian, where 70% of the population including huge numbers of Ukrainians can also speak it, and where Ukrainian is the language of state while Russian dominates the market for cultural goods and products.  Their complete separation is impossible due to intimate historic intertwining and the future of the Ukrainian language and related culture needs to be built on its own terms, embracing the nation’s multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism.   

Re-establishing a language and a culture that has been historically repressed are important and necessary but it also  calls for a balancing act vis-a-vis Russian and related expressions of culture. But Poroshenko wanted to go beyond that pushing a more aggressive anti-Russian line. The reverse also holds true. Those who therefore want to blame the Ukrainians for Putin’s invasion need to remind themselves again of his own stance, both in his recent speech, and repeatedly before that. As he said in his speech: "I would like to emphasise again that Ukraine is not just a neighbouring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space." 

And also, 

[T]oday the “grateful progeny” [i.e. independent part of Ukraine] has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. They call it decommunization.

"You want decommunization? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real decommunizations would mean for Ukraine [i.e. complete erasure of Ukraine's separate identity that was the doing of the Communist regime]."


We also need to consider that the Donetsk National Republic and the Luhanskh National Republic, the Russian backed regimes, have shown a clear hostility to any multiculturalism. One of the first acts of the Russians in Crimea and the Donbass was to replace multilingual signs with Russian only. Ukraine has a system where the minority language has to be officially supported in a municipality if the number of speakers is over a certain level (10%) and there are other languages  like Hungarian, Rumanian, Polish, Tatar. There is a lot of complexity in the former Soviet Union, because of Russification, whereby Russian speakers were often brought in from other areas. Those on the left putting up the language factor to justify the Russian invasion conveniently forget this. 

The US, the EU and NATO: Inter-Imperialist Rivalry:

There is no doubt that the US is the biggest and most powerful imperialist globally with the worst global record in supporting  brutal dictatorships abroad, in carrying out unacceptable military interventions in other countries and holding the record for being directly and indirectly responsible for killing civilians, an overall tally since WWII which easily surpasses several millions. But this does not excuse the behaviour of other countries big, medium or small, seeking to establish and  expand their regional or global hegemony and dominance. These other powers include several West European allies of the US and bodies like NATO but also the likes of Israel, Turkey, India, Pakistan and of course Russia and China; and no doubt there are and can be other entrants into this broad club of imperialist and aspiring imperialist powers. The justifications made for such expansionism is invariably to cite the demands of 'national security' and the need to 'react' against other named culprits. The international Left must be careful not to fall into the politics of defending the presumed ' lesser evil'  or even  denying or diminishing its evilness, when we should be opposing evil full stop. In the case of Russia there should be no reason for confusion.

 Let us explore this issue of its relationship with the US and NATO since the Soviet break-up. The NATO has, in our eyes, never had any justification whatsoever, so we oppose its existence ever. However, even by the logic of the Cold War it had advanced, it should have been wound up once the Warsaw Pact ended. In fact, of course, the US-led NATO not only did not wind up, it broke promises not to expand further but has deliberately  done so to extend its reach to come as close as it can to the borders of Russia. Of course we oppose and condemn this because it means undermining the global search for greater peace and justice, subordinates smaller and weaker countries, and deepens ruling class alliances and enables greater exploitation of the ordinary working masses of their own and other countries.  Nor should we be at all surprised  that the members of this  imperialist club everywhere will resort to bullying their neighbours and seeking to expand their hard power and dominance as much as possible even beyond this. Russia from Yeltsin to Putin has constantly talked of its 'legitimate security needs'. 'Needs' is always a more effective word to use than 'ambitions',  which would not go so well with the term 'legitimate'.  Russia after the Soviet break-up is militarily and nuclearly the second power in the world. Does anybody in their right mind think the US or NATO will or want to risk actually invading it territorially? But like all imperialists and aspiring ones, Russia too wants to establish and consolidate  its own 'sphere of influence', a euphemism to disguise the actual project, namely the determination  to externally dominate as much as possible that designated region whose borders are always open to expansion. 

The US and NATO keep seeking to do this but to think that Russia's actions in its 'near abroad' or further afield, are seriously motivated  by the fear of its 'security being deeply imperilled' and that these actions are a 'reaction', is absurd.  Indeed, the most likely outcome of what Russia has done will be the strengthening of the commitment to NATO and possible (some would now say likely) expansion of NATO membership in Europe as well as a stronger stimulus to countries in the Asia-Pacific region to align and come closer to the US and its alliance structures.

We must categorically oppose all imperialisms. While apportioning global and historical blame for imperialism's iniquities the biggest share obviously falls on the US and its allies. But this truth must not be used to rationalise away the iniquities and behaviour of other imperialists. Putin did not just send troops under Russian dominated Central Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to Kazakhstan recently as  a 'reaction' to the West or as a 'compulsion' flowing out its 'legitimate security needs'  but to stabilise a pro-Russian brutal authoritarian regime repressing its own people.

Two further brief comments need to be made here. We have seen hypocrisy at an unprecedented level, both regarding Ukrainian resistance, and regarding the refugees, by the EU and by the Western media. These are countries and media that have always condemned Palestinian resistance as terrorism, but they are today all for civilian resistance to the Russians. We take their ‘support’ to the Ukrainians as fakery, linked to the interests of the ruling classes of the Western powers, and not in the least motivated by genuine concern for democratic rights. The same goes for the media and state hypocrisy about accepting Ukrainian refugees, from countries that have been brutal towards refugees from North Africa in the recent past. Twitter, which has blocked accounts for crowd funding for Cuba (on non-military issues) is allowing crowd funding for military help to Ukrainians. This shows the clear links between apparently independent agencies and Western imperialist powers. 

Indian Reactions – the Regime and the Big Parliamentary Left:

What has been the response to the invasion of Ukraine in India? Shamefully but expectedly the Hindutva Modi government expresses concern but no condemnation even as it has a de-facto strategic relationship with the US. It wants to keep Russia happy  because of  its supposed diplomatic and military requirements. Greater security for India does not mean for right-wing Indian regimes reducing military spending to help reduce poverty, resolving the border dispute with China through give-and-take, or promoting peace in South Asia but getting more military power not merely to protect borders but to power project in South Asia and beyond as any aspiring regional hegemon should be doing.  New Delhi claims that its priority now is to evacuate Indian citizens from Ukraine. We fully support this. But the government's refusal to condemn the invasion makes getting the vital moral-political support from both the people and the government of Ukraine makes it more difficult to quickly carry this out and further endangers the lives of Indian citizens. The bourgeois opposition parties are either silent or in the case of the Congress party, its official stand is no different from the government's. No surprises here. 

As for the major parties of the Left, the CPM does not go beyond calling the Russian action 'unfortunate' and along with the CPI plays the tune of the real culprit being the US and NATO to which Russia has reacted.  There is not a shred of class analysis in statements by these parties which claim to be Marxist. But then neither of these parties has yet publicly declared that Russia (or China) are capitalist countries let alone that they are imperialist powers even as Putin, the ruling class there and the Russian public have no illusions that theirs is anything else but a capitalist country, one that is pretty messed up economically and politically. How long will the parties of the mainstream Indian left keep burying  their heads in the sand?