Support the Donbass revolt, but not with Putin

With a democratic and social alliance against the Kiev regime and NATO
by Wilhelm Langthaler
Every international conflict also has a regional or local dimension – this is also true for Ukraine. Quickly, all too quickly geopolitics moves into the centre of attention. But without understanding and considering the socio-political underpinnings, a social revolutionary solution in the interest of the majority cannot be devised.

1. Starting point

The abandonment of the association treaty with the EU last autumn sparked the street protests. This alone bears witness of the social illusions into the EU and western capitalism in general on one hand and the political power of anti-Russian sentiments on the other hand. Both from an economic as well as from a political point of view, the treaty, which implied severing the close relations to Russia, would not have served the interests of the popular masses. In return the EU only has to offer austerity along the lines of the IMF adjustment programmes in southern Europe, further pushing Ukraine into poverty and periphery.

The intensity of the protests can, however, only be explained by taking into consideration the social aspects. The pro-Russian elites commanded a brachial capitalism similar to the Russian one but without its natural riches. Apart from its geo-political orientation, the difference to its orange-coloured predecessor is small. A good example is the gas princess Timoshenko herself, who made huge fortunes by dealing with Russia. People took to the streets against the social decay following the crisis of 2008 led by Yanukovych & Co. Even his Russophile clientele has shrunk considerably.

From the very start, rightist, nationalist and pro-fascist forces were part of the movement which gradually built influence and was able to assume the leading role. Reportedly they also enjoyed the support (including material support) of anti-Russian big capitalists. The national aspect overwhelmed the social aspect. It demonstrates the strength of Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Russian sentiments.

The left, which initially was present on the Maidan, was marginalised and chased away. We do not refer to the Communist Party, which is an appendix of the capitalist regime of Putin-Yanukovych, but to independent forces like Borotba, which soon left the Maidan.

2. Western anti-Russian stance

The EU and especially the US have been siding with the Maidan movement and the new regime. The West is motivated by a general anti-Russian stance and the hope to extend its sphere of influence eastwards. Only Germany and her closest allies, who have vested economic interests in Russia, displayed more caution, but without wanting to confront the US.

The nonchalance, by which the decisive role of the ultra-nationalist and rightist forces is being ignored, is revealing. One has just to look at how readily opposition movements against the global order are labelled “ultra-nationalist”, while the Ukrainian right is being handled with great care. This becomes even clearer with regard to the widespread anti-Semitism of the movement, which is overlooked. Not even Zionists seem eager to campaign, as they usually would after lesser incidents.

3. Russian reactions

Western corporate media and official policy focus on Russian involvement. They take it as a given that the Kremlin has been the driving force behind the events. Without doubt, political as well as (potential) military support offered by Russia does play an important role. But obviously there is also a popular sentiment, and a mass movement based on it, against the right-wing nationalist government in Kiev. Without that factor, Russian political action would not have been possible – although there is a decisive difference between Crimea and Donbass. The popular movement in eastern Ukraine is based on a democratic and also social momentum which is, however, mixed with Russian nationalism and used by the Kremlin for his own ends. Therefore the independent political articulation by the popular movement is limited.

Crimea was an easy game for Russia, as her armed forces were present anyway. They just had to declare their rule. They could be sure of the support by the Russian majority, as the result of the referendum showed. Defections of high-ranking Ukrainian officers are evidence of the fact that there was not only the military pressure at play.

4. Donbass

In Crimea the support for the Russian military coup was essentially passive. In contrast to that in eastern Ukraine an outright popular movement emerged – which does, however, not exclude Russian intelligence and even military involvement.

Big pro-Russian capital tries to reach a settlement with the new Kiev regime and the pro-western faction of big capitalists. They do not want secession and would probably accept a compromise including power sharing as well as a reversal of the militantly anti-Russian line. Ukraine as a market and sphere of influence remains important to them.

It has to be taken into account that Russians live among Ukrainians and are completely mixed up. There is no clear line of demarcation as many people use both languages. Russian influence and cultural hegemony reaches far beyond language use. It is not by accident that Yanukovych wielded influence not only among those considering themselves Russians.

A majority of the eastern Ukrainian population seems to prefer a far-reaching autonomy from Kiev, including the activist movement. But there are signs and reports indicating that this could change rapidly towards secession.

Much depends on the line being taken by the new Ukrainian government. If they maintain their hard nationalist stance further escalation up to secession is indeed possible. For the time being no substantial compromise offer towards the east has been recorded. Only some attempts to change the tune. Prime minister Yatsenyuk floated the proposal of a referendum on autonomy. He suggested that the entire Ukrainian population should vote on the status of the east. This is ridiculous, as the result would be already established from the very beginning – as if one would ask the entire population of Turkey to vote on rights of the Kurdish minority. To the contrary there are the ongoing military attempts to crack down on the Donbass revolt by military means. So from the side of the local population there is no reason to believe in the readiness of the rightist and nationalist Kiev government to at least partially cede to the popular demands.

5. Support the Donbass popular movement

The resistance of the eastern population against the reactionary pro-western government in Kiev has to be supported both from a democratic as well as an anti-imperialist point of view. Why should the people bow to neo-fascist right-wingers, pro-western nationalists as well as anti-Russian capitalists? It is incorrect to automatically suppose that the revolt would want to restore the rule of Yanukovych and its capitalist clique which are responsible for social misery also in the Donbass region.

At the same time one should be aware that the line between the legitimate Russian right to self-determination and Russian imperial claims as well as greater Russian chauvinism is thin, given Moscow’s involvement.

6. Ambiguous Kremlin

We do support the attempts to hinder western and especially NATO’s expansive drive towards Russia’s borders.

By now even Washington has understood that a line too aggressive could eventually backfire helping Russia to expand. Launching the idea of Ukrainian neutrality could be read as an attempt to maintain what has been achieved without further provoking Russia. In this sense Moscow’s political and military action and threat has been effective.

But the Russian policy must be judged within a larger context. Yanukovych is a product of Russian-European capitalist co-operation. His regime reflects Russian authoritarian capitalism as a part of the global system. In this sense the Kremlin does bear its share for the protest movement against Yanukovych and offered a fertile soil to Ukrainian nationalism.

In terms of international law, Russia’s hint to Kosovo in order to justify the annexation of Crimea is appropriate, while western reference to “genocide” remains ridiculous. However it is not only the west that uses double standards, but also Russia. Why are the Chechens not entitled to the very same right of self-determination? The answer is obvious: It is neither about law nor democracy but all about geo-politics, both for the White House and for the Kremlin.

7. Russia’s chauvinist tradition

Russia looks back to centuries of a colonial and imperial past not less anti-democratic than the west’s. Even the Soviet Union – with the short interruption by Lenin’s democratic national policy, which was a pre-condition for the Russian revolution – did continue this chauvinist tradition. Russian nationalism acquired democratic anti-fascist and anti-imperialist credentials by defeating Nazi Germany (the “Great Patriotic War”). During the Cold War that followed, the Kremlin kept dominant US imperialism in check though also being criticised to follow an imperial momentum as well. Chauvinism has been always of part of Russian nationalism. Putin is drawing on these traditions with the crucial difference that today’s Russia is an integral part of the world capitalist system while the USSR was not.

It is legitimate and to be supported when Russia is stopping the west and thus helps to pave the way towards a more multi-polar world. At the same time it should not be ignored that Russian geo-political ambitions violate the rights of smaller nations and nationalities sometimes by bloody means. By doing so they are pushing them politically into the arms of the west (was well as radical Islamism in some cases). Rightist Ukrainian nationalism is also – but not only – a reaction to a history of Russian imperial claims.

Furthermore it is not to be neglected that Putin by cultivating Russian nationalism tries to cover the social wounds being inflicted on Russian society by his extreme capitalism. Democratic and social demands are maligned as western decadence and opposed to Russian popular sentiment. Actually Russia is moving towards a new form of Czarism.

From a democratic, social revolutionary and in the long run also anti-imperialist perspective it is key to return to a policy which was crucial for Lenin’s revolutionary success: to unconditionally grant freedom to the oppressed nations and nationalities (even if momentarily and temporarily reactionary forces would gain leadership) in order convince the popular masses to ally with the forces of social revolution und build a union on voluntary base. This has nothing to do with Yeltsinism which, in a situation of extreme weakness, tried to sell off Russia to the capitalist predators.

8. Scenarios

The outcome of the contemporary conflict over Ukraine is not a given. Even the most extreme variant, the very split of the country, is possible.

If the Kiev regime with its radical rightist component insists on its hard line and the west continues its support, a larger military attack on the Donbass revolt could prompt a bold military reaction by the Kremlin. And there cannot by any doubt that, if Moscow wants to win, it will win. Even the US cannot chance this unless they intervene militarily – something highly improbable. But certainly the US would drive the global spiral of escalation moving closer towards something reminiscent of the Cold War.

But it is also possible that Washington yields somewhat and brings Kiev back to reason. The oligarchs and the orange-coloured daughter products would follow suit but would have to get rid of the radical right. This would be a challenge they are not up to and which they do not want to face. Possibly a kind of second coup d’état would be required as Svoboda and the militias of the Right Sector took control of parts of the state apparatus and can draw on the credit of the Maidan movement. Maybe a coalition of the large capitalists of both sides is possible? If western pressure on their allies is strong enough that cannot be excluded. In the last instance the US and Russia, let alone Germany and several other EU countries, have economic and geopolitical interests to limit the confrontation to a certain level – as otherwise it could endanger the entire global system.

9. Autonomy

Also from our point of view a larger military conflict splitting the country is not desirable, as the social conflict would be buried under the clash between rightist Ukrainian and imperial Russian nationalism. Substantial autonomy instead would help the eastern parts of the country to gain democratic rights against the Kiev rulers but would not destroy the bridge to Ukrainian lower classes. Calling for autonomy does not bring the movement into a situation of dependency on Putin’s military machine totally unacceptable for the Ukrainian lower classes.

This could be combined to a status of neutrality in foreign relations allowing more margin of manoeuvre. Close relations to Russia could be re-established on more equal base.

10. People’s government

Strategic aim is to bring down the Kiev regime allied with the west without coalescing with the pro-Russian capitalist elite (the Putin-Yanukovych system). Given the acute social crisis it is not impossible to decompose the hegemony of the bloc between the radical rightist nationalists and the big oligarchs. A social revolutionary answer could become plausible as the new regime will soon prove to be unable to address the deep troubles of the country. But popular democratic and social demands can only be moved against the Kiev regime if the social revolutionary forces cannot be taken as an appendix of the Kremlin.