11 June 2021
Earlier this year tensions flared up in the disputed territories of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR/LPR) declared independence in May 2014. The Ukrainian-chauvinist government in Kiev, supported by Western imperialism, stepped up its campaign to forcibly reintegrate the republics, which are in practice backed by Moscow. Russia responded by stationing supplementary military forces along its border with Ukraine and conducting unannounced “military exercises” in the Black Sea. This show of force was intended to send a clear message to the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that Russia will not be bullied in its near-abroad.
The standoff, which has now temporarily de-escalated, followed a number of failed ceasefires agreed to in the Minsk Protocols. These accords—negotiated by the leaders of Ukraine and the breakaway regions as well as Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—left the country territorially divided, with Kiev controlling only those parts of the Donbas outside the DPR and LPR. Washington backs this arrangement for now, but no doubt would prefer a framework in which it can more directly apply pressure and assert its interests against its Russian imperialist rival. The immediate prospect of a full-scale war between Moscow and the NATO-backed Kiev regime has been averted for the time being, but the threat of a regional and possibly broader European conflagration remains.
Although the current situation in Ukraine is heavily influenced by great power rivalry for control of the region, its complicated ethno-national dimension should be viewed against the history of the Soviet Union and the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed it.
The national question played a central role in Soviet politics from the beginning. The Tsarist empire of the early 20th century had been a semi-medieval “prison house of nations” in which ethnic Russians made up roughly 45 percent of the population, the rest comprising various conquered peoples. When the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, their approach both promoted, in Lenin’s words, the “complete equality of nations and languages” within the Soviet Union and ensured the right to self-determination (to secede and form an independent state). This flexible attitude toward the territorial configuration of workers’ rule allowed the Bolsheviks to win over, or at least neutralize, the vast majority of the ethnically diverse peoples governed by the fledgling Soviet regime, and it was decisive in the Red Army’s victory in the Russian Civil War.
When the Soviet Union was established in December 1922, it included four independent socialist republics within a unitary state—Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Transcaucasia. The union was later expanded to 15 separate republics, 20 lesser status autonomous republics and 18 autonomous regions and national areas. The differing levels of autonomy were designed to accommodate the numerous aspirations for self-rule among the over one hundred nationalities within the USSR, while simultaneously binding them together through the Soviet state and its commitment to a planned and collectivized economy. Although guaranteeing the right of the peoples of the Soviet Union to self-determination, the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky always considered this bourgeois-democratic right subordinate to preserving state property in the means of production. They opposed national independence movements within the USSR led by pro-capitalist elements seeking to establish independent bourgeois states and thereby reverse the gains of the 1917 revolution.
During the 1930s, when Ukrainian nationalism was gaining momentum, Trotsky sought to counter capitalist-restorationist calls for an “independent Ukraine” with the demand for an “independent Soviet Ukraine.” The slogan was designed to drive a class wedge into the national movement between those who stood for uniting Ukraine through capitalist restoration and those who were committed to Soviet power but opposed to the Kremlin’s bureaucratic centralism and chauvinist attempts to Russify Ukraine.
Despite the bureaucratic rule of the Stalinists, including Khrushchev’s arbitrary transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, Ukraine successfully managed to combine a number of different peoples living together in relative harmony, largely driven by the benefits of a collectivized and planned economy. But during the final years of the Soviet Union, the forces of capitalist restoration sought to exploit rather than minimize divisions. The disintegration of the USSR in 1991, and the establishment of Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics as independent capitalist states, laid the groundwork for a resurgence of ethno-national conflict.
The rulers of the newly independent, newly capitalist country attempted to balance the competing interests of the largely Ukrainian-speaking west (mostly pro-European in orientation and anti-communist in outlook, with small minorities of Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles) and the largely Russian-speaking east (which tended toward nostalgia for a strong and unified Russia associated with the Soviet era). These differences, exacerbated by a plummet in living standards following capitalist counterrevolution, created fertile ground for the US-backed “Orange Revolution” of 2004, which blocked the election of Russia-friendly presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich for several years until he defeated the far-right and Western-supported candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko, in 2010. The two wings of the Ukrainian ruling class finally led the country into open civil war in February 2014, when Yanukovich, who had been trying to play both sides, rebuffed a European Union austerity bailout and pivoted back to Russia. True to form, the US intervened to sponsor the Maidan protests and oust Yanukovich. The right-wing Ukrainian nationalist regime that subsequently came to power enjoyed the open support of Svoboda and other fascist elements of the Maidan movement and even integrated neo-Nazi Right Sector militants into the state apparatus through the formation of the National Guard.
Russia’s response was to take back Crimea and support separatist rebels in setting up the DPR and LPR, giving Moscow direct or indirect control of some 7 percent of pre-2014 Ukrainian territory. The annexation of Crimea followed a referendum in which a large majority of the population voted in favor of that option. Opinion polls today show that most Crimeans prefer being under the control of Moscow, which has invested $20 billion in the territory (Washington Post, 18 March 2020), though neither Russia nor the Western powers are motivated by the wishes of the people who live on the peninsula. For the imperialists, Crimea’s significance lies in the position of Sevastopol as a naval base on the Black Sea. Marxists are not opposed to reconfigurations of borders under capitalism that do not infringe on the democratic rights of nations, but we refuse to support either side in inter-imperialist wrangles over strategic territories.
There is significant ethnic and linguistic mixing on both sides of the border. Approximately 65 percent of the population of the DPR and LPR are native Russian-speakers, yet only 12 percent self-identify as primarily ethnic Russian, while 21 percent describe themselves as mixed Ukrainian–Russian. In Kiev-controlled areas of Donbas, some 48 percent consider Russian to be their native language, yet only 7 percent self-describe primarily as ethnically Russian and only 29 percent as ethnically Ukrainian. Roughly one-third on either side of the line of contact separating Ukraine from the breakaway territories use both Russian and Ukrainian as their native language (ZOiS Report, August 2019). In Crimea, the picture is also one of significant linguistic and ethnic mixing—a quarter of the population is either ethnic Ukrainian or belongs to the Tatar minority. The complex dual character of Ukraine’s national identity is illustrated by the use throughout the country of Surzhyk, the blended Ukrainian-Russian language spoken by some 11-18 percent of the population.
Since 2014, the Kiev government has sought to suppress the political representation and rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east and impose a pro-west Ukrainian conception of national identity over the country as a whole. The ongoing conflict has led to 14,000 dead and the forced displacement of over 2 million to other parts of Ukraine or to Russia.
Volodymyr Zelensky, previously a TV celebrity with little political experience, was elected president in May 2019 with a 73 percent majority, partly based on promises to end hostilities in the Donbas through negotiations with Russia and concessions to the separatists under the Minsk II agreement. Since then, his approval ratings have collapsed and are hovering around 30 percent amid profound public anger at his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and resentment over the economic fallout. Ukraine has one of the world’s lowest Covid vaccination rates, yet Kiev refuses to purchase Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The economy contracted by over 4 percent in 2020, with one in ten officially unemployed, while over half of all Ukrainians now live below the poverty line. Faced with the prospect of political disaster and dissolution of his fragile governing alliance of westernizing liberal technocrats and ultra-nationalists (with support from far-right fascistic elements), Zelensky opted to channel discontent into Russophobia and reignite the simmering civil war.
While Kiev is still bristling over the loss of Crimea and the Donbas, it is keenly aware that without outside support its campaign to retake the eastern region is militarily unwinnable. Since the beginning of the civil war, the Kremlin has issued over 650,000 passports to those fleeing the conflict, enabling dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship. Even if Kiev were to somehow retake the breakaway republics, it would undoubtedly struggle to politically integrate the 4 million plus Russian speakers in the east who are largely opposed to the project of further European integration pursued by the ultra-nationalists in western Ukraine. Instead, Kiev has been seeking to provoke Moscow into a reaction that would prompt a hardline response from NATO powers. A Russian invasion or atrocities on the battlefield could be leveraged to demonize Moscow and further consolidate Kiev’s embrace of Western imperialism.
The US has a string of military bases that stretches from former Soviet Central Asia through Afghanistan to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. NATO’s “eastern flank,” which spans from the Baltics to the Black Sea and includes former Soviet bloc countries and USSR republics, is being prepared for armed confrontation with Moscow. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have thousands of NATO combat troops, battle tanks, heavy artillery, drones, attack helicopters and warplanes stationed within striking distance of Russia. Since 2014, NATO’s Response Force has tripled in size, with a dedicated 5,000-strong spearhead unit developed and deployed throughout Europe. The Ukrainian civil war is only the latest battlefield in which NATO/Russian rivalries are playing out for imperialist control and influence in Europe.
Ukraine holds yearly joint military exercises with NATO allies and is one of 26 countries participating in NATO’s Defender-Europe 2021, the US Army-led military operations that bring together some 28,000 multinational troops “to build readiness and interoperability between U.S., NATO and partner militaries” across Europe (“Defender-Europe 21 Fact Sheet”). Meanwhile, Washington has increased development and security aid to Ukraine from $200 million in 2014 to $600 million in 2020, and “the U.S. military has provided Ukrainian forces with training and equipment, including sniper rifles, grenade launchers, night-vision gear, radars, and Javelin anti-tank missiles” (Council on Foreign Relations, 5 February 2020).
In June 2020, Ukraine became a NATO “enhanced opportunity partner,” deepening cooperation with the military alliance. Kiev has taken steps to upgrade its military assets and equipment to meet NATO membership criteria, allocating over 5 percent of GDP to national security and defense expenditures. In April, Zelensky pushed for fast-tracking full membership in NATO, claiming: “We are committed to reforming our army and defense sector, but reforms alone will not stop Russia. NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas” (president.gov.ua, 6 April 2021).
Despite condemnation of Moscow’s military build-up and verbal assurances that “NATO’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering” (NATO press release, 13 April 2021), the top leadership of the alliance, along with the majority of its members, are probably not too eager to “end the war in Donbas” through direct military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia. Although the US initially responded to the most recent military escalation in Ukraine by threatening to send warships to the Black Sea, President Joe Biden didn’t follow through. Despite the “reset” in US/Russia relations promised for the upcoming 16 June summit between the two countries, Biden has left the door wide open to future conflict by taunting that Vladimir Putin is a “killer” and “the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions … are over” (White House briefing, 4 February 2021).
Although clearly acting from a defensive military posture in response to provocations from the stronger Western powers, Russian imperialism has managed to gain some advantage from the seven-year status quo of a low-intensity civil war. As long as that conflict exists, it prevents Ukraine from joining NATO, and by not officially recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, Moscow gains influence in Ukrainian national politics under the “special status” (regional autonomy) specified by Minsk II. By consolidating its key naval base in Crimea, which allows ships direct access to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa, Russia continues to project military power to protect its investments, oil pipelines and other infrastructure in these regions.
Russia is Ukraine’s number one trading partner, though the relationship has been strained since Maidan. Russian capitalists have invested in Ukrainian ventures, despite the overall decline in foreign direct investment (FDI) since the civil war began. By the end of 2014, Russia had approximately $10 billion in FDI stock in Ukraine, either directly from Russia or via “trans-shipping” investment hubs like Cyprus (voxukraine.org, 2 February 2017).
Until the outbreak of civil war, Russian imperialism had sought to deepen its control of Ukraine’s economy and pull Kiev into Moscow’s orbit. The country’s membership in the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the integrated single market, was considered key to the project’s overall success, as Ukraine has the second largest economy of any of the 15 former republics that made up the Soviet Union. It was lucrative loans and energy subsidies from Russia that enticed Yanukovich to apply for observer status in the EAEU instead of association with the European Union (EU), triggering the Maidan events and his political downfall.
Russia is the largest exporter of fossil fuels to the European Union, accounting for approximately 30 and 40 percent respectively of the EU’s oil and gas imports. Lying at the crossroads between Europe and Russia, Ukraine plays a crucial role in the Eurasian energy grid by acting as one of the main supply routes for transporting Russian natural gas to clients in central and eastern Europe—roughly one-third of that natural gas still crosses through Ukraine, although the figure has steadily declined from a high of 90 percent in the early 1990s.
Russia is seeking to minimize the impact of Ukraine’s pro-West pivot with state-owned Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2, a network of pipelines which crosses the Baltic Sea and is expected to come online this year, transporting natural gas directly from Russia to exit points in Germany and, from there, to the rest of the European market. Nord Stream 2 will bypass the Soviet-era land-based pipelines that currently run through Ukraine and thereby remove Kiev’s ability to cut off gas to Europe and dictate terms to Moscow. It will also deprive Ukraine’s national oil and gas company Naftogaz of an estimated $3 billion a year in transit fees currently being paid by Russia and Germany for use of the existing networks.
American imperialism is opposed to Nord Stream 2 and sees Ukraine as vital in preventing a deepening German-Russian energy alliance. In March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken threatened to impose additional sanctions on companies participating in Nord Stream 2, warning Germany that “the pipeline is a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the United States, ultimately it is in contradiction to the EU’s own security goals” (Euractiv, 24 March 2021). Washington and its allies in the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan have already imposed sanctions on hundreds of Russian individuals and sectors of the Russian economy, including defense, energy and finance.
Imperialist saber-rattling over Ukraine highlights the potentially volatile character of local and regional conflicts in the imperialist epoch as the great powers compete for “spheres of influence.” Marxists should take no side in the Ukrainian civil war or in the imperialist squabbles between NATO and Russia over control of Ukraine. We oppose the presence of all imperialist forces in Ukraine—whether they are Russian or Western. In any armed conflict between Washington/Berlin/Paris (an alliance beset with its own tensions) and Moscow, revolutionaries should take a position of dual defeatism, actively favoring the defeat of both sides. Although Russia is a weaker and economically more backward rival to the US-led alliance, its triumph is not preferable to a Western imperialist victory.
Applying a Leninist framework to the national question in Ukraine is key to providing a coherent perspective to resolving the conflict in a historically progressive manner. Revolutionaries advocate equal rights for all ethnic, national and linguistic groups in the region, in particular Russian and Ukrainian, but also minorities such as the Tatars in Crimea. This includes the right of return for those displaced by the conflict. The Ukrainian and Russian-speaking peoples of the region both have the right to defend themselves against violence from the state or nationalist extremists, as well as the right to national self-determination. In the context of complex national identities and interpenetrated (mixed) populations in many parts of Ukraine, however, this right cannot be equitably exercised by division into separate capitalist states. Championing the national rights of one or the other side in the civil war will not contribute to a solution to the crisis—it would only play into the hands of nationalist extremists and their imperialist patrons in further tearing Ukraine apart.
A historically progressive solution to the bitter national dispute and imperialist intrigues lies in joint working-class struggle across national lines. A revolutionary policy must prioritize the class issues that unite ethnic Ukrainian and Russian workers against the Kiev government and imperialism from both east and west. Marxists advocate a common struggle for workers’ power and a new Soviet Ukraine, which would negotiate the various possible borders of the region within the context of a voluntary socialist federation of workers’ states.
Three decades of capitalist counterrevolution have left the peoples of the former Soviet Union divided and poisoned by nationalism. The road forward to new Red Octobers lies in resurrecting the revolutionary internationalist traditions of the early Soviet state and the Communist International during the time of Lenin and Trotsky.
Imperialist Rivalries Tear Ukraine Apart (1917 No.41)
Imperialist Rivalries Escalate: Russia, Capital Export & Global Power (1917 No.41)
Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia (1917 No.37)