Putin’s little helpers undermine solidarity • People and Nature • December 29, 2021
We know what solidarity in the face of war looks like. It looks like the Grupa Granica, set up to support those stranded on the Polish border by the government’s vicious anti-migrant policy and the Belarusian government’s cynical manipulation of refugees.
It looks like the thousands of Polish people who have demonstrated, demanding “stop the torture at the border”. And it looks like the solidarity networks set up further afield (including the Solidarity Without Borders appeal for cash to support groups on the spot).
To those supporting refugees – whether in Poland or Belarus, or in the English Channel, targeted by the UK government’s murderous crackdown – it makes no difference which war people are fleeing. It might be the US-UK-supported war in Iraq, or the bloodbath perpetrated in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Now, we face the possibility of renewed Russian military action in Ukraine. This carries the greatest threat of war in Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
The war in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15 has already caused 2 million or more people to flee their homes: more than 1 million now counted as “internally displaced” in Ukraine; at least as many have crossed the border to Russia. A new conflict would be both a human tragedy and a threat to social movements.
Solidarity is needed. An anti-war movement is needed.
Already, pro-Putin propaganda – that corrodes parts of the so-called “left”, as well as thriving on the extreme right – is being dialled up. It seeks to justify Russia’s military preparations. And it could endanger efforts to galvanise anti-war protest.
Putin’s little helpers on the “left” generally have a world view inherited from Stalinism: they believe that authoritarian regimes that spout anti-American rhetoric (Russia, China or both) are to be praised; the imperial character of these regimes’ actions is ignored; and these regimes, rather than popular movements, are seen as the means to resist western powers.
Fairytale no. 1: NATO started it
Andrew Murray, writing on the Stop the War website, claims that “if there is conflict over Ukraine, it is the west that bears most of the blame”. But it’s not “if”. There has been a conflict going on for more than six years, which has taken more than 14,000 lives.
The forces involved are the Ukrainian army, the vastly better-resourced Russian army, and separatists and mercenaries supported by, and to a large extent funded and armed by, the Russian state. The western powers have been noticeable by their absence.
Murray says the 100,000 Russian troops stationed on the Ukrainian border are “allegations” and “media speculation”. John Wojcik in the Morning Star says they are there “if corporate press outlets are to be believed”. In the real world where the rest of us live, the Russian forces actually exist (see satellite pictures here and here).
Murray claims that the NATO military alliance is “trying to seize Ukraine by means of moving NATO right up to Russia’s borders”, that the US is “arming Ukraine to the hilt to resist” and that “British troops are stationed in the Balkans”. The journalist and commentator Paul Mason has demolished these claims point by point. He writes:
There is, in short, no NATO plan to “seize” Ukraine; no possibility of Ukraine joining NATO; no “arming to the hilt”; no significant number of British troops in the Balkans; no major deployment of NATO troops “eastwards towards Poland”.
The danger of war is real. But to deny the central role of the Russian military is to deny reality.
Putin’s helpers have form on this. During the civil war in Syria, the Stop the War campaign and their friends had little or nothing to say about the murderous Assad regime and the Russian government that armed and militarily supported it – despite the fact that they were responsible for an estimated 90% of the killings.
While the regime preferred to butcher and torture its own citizens, rather than to grant them a measure of democratic rights, Putin’s helpers spoke up only about minor incursions by western forces … the “anti-imperialism of idiots”, as Syrian-British writer Leila al-Shami called it.
As for Ukraine, the Stop the War campaign did nothing to support the victims of the 2014-15 conflict, but nevertheless hurried to the defence of the Russian “leftist” Boris Kagarlitsky, who joined fascists and nationalists in supporting the Russian intervention.
Fairytale no. 2: Ukraine is fascist, really
There was a “fascist coup” in Ukraine in 2014, writes John Wojcik in the Morning Star (in an article republished from the US-based People’s World, of which Wojcik is editor). “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government shortly after it came to power.” He also claims that the new government “banned opposition political parties, including the widely supported Communist party”. And it “banned the use of the Russian language, the primary language of 40% or more of the Ukrainian people”. Let’s go through the bits of this fairytale one by one.
(a) A “fascist coup”. The overthrow of the government headed by president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 was, by any measure, a mass popular action. A crowd of more than half a million people occupied the centre of Kyiv for more than two weeks, in the face of assaults ranging from baton charges to sniper fire, making it impossible for the government to continue. There were mass actions on a similar scale in dozens of other towns and cities. The politics of this “Maidan” protest were complex. Participants ranged from fascists, who played a key part in the violent confrontations with the old regime’s armed forces, to socialists and anarchists. But the word “coup” is meaningless to describe it. As for the new government, while its record on defending democratic rights was mixed to put it mildly, it was no more “fascist” than the governments of e.g. Poland or Hungary. And, in terms of the rights to assembly, free speech and workplace organisation, less repressive than the governments of e.g. Turkey or Russia.
(b) “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government.” This is false – shockingly so. No such murders took place. No such murders have been recorded on the web sites of Ukraine’s two trade union federations. None have been mentioned in the detailed reports of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights on attacks on civil rights in Ukraine. Demonstrators were killed in clashes with the security forces, but this was mostly before Yanukovych was overthrown. Activists and journalists have been attacked, and some killed, apparently by non-state actors, albeit sometimes with covert support from elements in the state. In 2014, prior to the military conflict, there were other deaths and injuries resulting from civil conflict. The most serious incident, by far, was the deaths of demonstrators opposed to the new government who, confronted by its supporters, took refuge in a trade union building in Odessa that was then set on fire. Ukrainian law enforcement did little to investigate. Tragic as these deaths were, they were not murders of trade union leaders or activists by the government.
(c) The government “banned opposition political parties”, including the Communist party. It didn’t. The electoral commission banned the Communist party from participation in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, under the 2015 “decommunisation” law. This law, which forbids the promotion of “totalitarian regimes”, defined as Nazi and Communist, and their symbols, has been and is being used to attack democratic rights. Together with similar laws in other eastern European countries, it deserves to be denounced and resisted. But note, too, that the Communist party continues to operate legally; that it has mounted legal challenges to the ban; that no other party has been banned from electoral participation under the law; and that the government and the electoral rights group OPORA are currently in dispute over the extent of proportional representation – an election procedure that in the UK, for example, remains an unattainable dream.
(d) The government “banned the use of the Russian language”. It didn’t – and it’s irresponsible and inflammatory to sit in an editorial office in the US claiming it did. A law making Ukrainian the single state language was adopted in 2019 – the culmination of three decades of argument, shaped both by by aspirations to revive Ukrainian culture that has suffered historically from Russian imperial domination, and by hard-line Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian socialists opposed the measure (and I sympathise with them). Remember, though, that the law requires that Ukrainian be used in public spaces, and not exclusively; that it does not apply to private or religious life; that it will be applied in the education system, and to TV, over an extended period; and that breaching the law is essentially a civil, not criminal offence. (See reports by Russia’s state owned TASS news agency here, and Russia’s opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta here.)
Another of Putin’s helpers’ favourite tricks is to portray Ukraine as protective of the memory of wartime Nazi collaborators. With no reference to the real, complex battles over memory (see e.g. here and here), they point to Ukraine’s opposition to a Russian resolution on the holocaust at the UN, in a ridiculous diplomatic ritual repeated annually since 2005 (see here and here). This is a facile attitude to a serious subject. Putin’s helpers seem blind to the reality that it is the security forces in Russia, not Ukraine, that have recently tortured and jailed a group of young anti-fascists.
Fairytale no. 3: Ukraine is part of Russia, really
Putin’s helpers insist that Ukraine is not really a country with a history. The Stop the War site says that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 “turned what had been internal borders, arbitrarily drawn with no great significance, into inter-state boundaries”; Ukraine has “failed to develop anything like a common democratic culture”; therefore what is now “decisive” is the “international aspect” and the actions of the western powers; and what mattered about 2014 was that the government established in Kyiv was “anti-Russian”.
Both Stop the War and the Morning Star quote Putin’s article On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, published in July. It heightened fears in Ukraine of imminent invasion, with insanely exaggerated warnings of a path towards “an ethnically pure Ukrainian state”, that would be comparable to “the use of weapons of mass destruction against us”. (Putin followed up earlier this month, with a deranged claim that “current developments in Donbass” are “very reminiscent of genocide”.)
In his article, Putin explains the tsarist empire’s anti-Ukrainian legislation of the 1870s on the grounds that the Polish nationalist revolt was in progress; argues that Ukrainian nationhood was an invention of the Poles and/or Austro-Hungarians; and describes the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, by which Poland and the Baltic states were divided between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, with the words “the USSR regained the lands earlier seized by Poland”. He never once refers to Russian imperialism and colonialism, and the role they have played in shaping, and trying to deny, Ukrainian national identity.
That Putin justifies his imperial aspirations with reference to Russia’s imperialist past is not surprising. For western “leftists” to endorse this logic suggests that the “left” has sunk to a new low.
Fairytale no. 4: Putin is protecting Russia’s riches from imperialist looters
“Possible western aggression against Russia” is caused, in part, by “the desire of the fossil fuel monopolies to control the world energy market”, the Morning Star claims. These western interests seek to “turn Ukraine into a base”, in order to “achieve economic control of Russia”. This is unbelievably upside-down and back-to-front.
The Russian economy was subordinated to world markets, as a supplier of raw materials such as oil, gas and minerals, in a process that took two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the first decade of Putin’s presidency, especially, large chunks of the wealth earned from these exports found its way into private hands and was shipped to offshore locations, at the rate of tens of billions of dollars per year.
Although Putin insisted that the private owners of oil and metals companies pay more taxes than they did in the 1990s, and some oil assets have been renationalised (the state owns an estimated 50% of the oil industry now), investigations by journalists and the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny have shown conclusively that his governing team put far, far more effort into diverting many billions in to their own accounts. Russian oil companies remain open to foreign investment; the largest of them, Rosneft, is 22% owned by BP.
So Russia’s economy has been integrated into the world capitalist economy in a way that serves its elite, not its people. Material inequalities have widened substantially under Putin.
Since 2014, a giant contradiction has opened up for the Russian government. The elite’s economic interests would be best served by developing these good relations with foreign capital. But its political interests required it to stoke up nationalism, to seek to reinforce its diplomatic and military control over its near neighbours that have slipped from its imperial grasp, Ukraine first among them. The war fought by Russia in Ukraine in 2014-15 was driven by these politics, not by economic interests. It, and western sanctions that resulted, damaged those interests.
The western powers already have most of what they want from the Russian economy. The idea that they are plotting military action to control it is, frankly, daft. There’s no doubt that the US hopes to constrain Russia’s geopolitical and military reach in central Europe – although the western alliance is split, and Germany is generally readier to compromise with Russia. But there is another factor here: the popular movement that removed Yanukovich and drastically weakened Russia’s political control over Ukraine, rooted in a history of colonialism. Putin is not only trying to reassert Russian influence against a divided NATO, but is also reacting to those changes in Ukrainian society. And it is Ukrainians who are being killed, and Ukrainian communities divided and devastated, by war.
The arguments put by Putin’s helpers are so absurd that I find it hard to explain them to Russian and Ukrainian friends. In 2015, a Ukrainian friend living in the UK asked: “What is it with these people? Are they being paid by the Russian embassy?” I answered that I was sure they are not. They justify Putin’s actions on account of their messed-up ideology, which on some level they must believe. That’s why, although it’s a bit like explaining why the earth isn’t flat, I offer readers these thoughts. SP, 29 December 2021.
Thanks to Simon Pirani for permission to reprint his essay here. ||| TRR