The crisis in Ukraine and the resulting extremely increased tensions between the US and Russian governments show that workers in the US cannot escape world events. That being so, it’s vital that we understand what is happening there so that we, as a working class, can have our own view and act as workers rather than just follow along behind what the capitalists say and do.
Further, much of the basis of the crisis there is part of what is happening around the world. That is the division of people – workers included – along the lines of race, national origin, religion, language, etc. These divisions partly stem from ancient history and are invariably encouraged and exploited by various capitalist forces, both foreign and domestic. Often the most reactionary aspects of religion are used. In the United States, for example, we have the exploitation by various capitalist forces of the division by race, gender, origin of birth (the “immigration” question) and others. A similar division is a huge part of the crisis in Ukraine.
For reasons of geography, Ukraine has been subject to one invasion and/or rule by different peoples and rulers after another. One result is that there are two main languages spoken there: Russian and Ukrainian. Two thirds of Ukrainians speak Ukrainian as their primary language and about 30% speak Russian. That does not seem to have created a huge division until recently. Nor were the Russian speakers an oppressed minority. In fact, it seems that they have been seen as the more educated and sophisticated of the two groups.
Despite this, a clear Ukrainian national consciousness did develop. One prominent event that seems burned into this consciousness was the “Holodomor” or starvation that Stalin’s policies inflicted on the Ukrainian people in 1932-3. It is estimated that 3.9 million people – 13% of the population – starved to death. One survivor described how people would just be walking along and then drop down dead, one after another. This national trauma is not forgotten to this day and it still plays a role in furthering Ukrainian national consciousness.
Collapse of Soviet Union
This played itself out in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989-91). The death grip of the former bureaucracy had resulted in a massive collapse in consciousness of the working class that was under the sway of that bureaucracy and its allies. “Freedom” came to be equated in the minds of the majority with a return to “free” markets, meaning capitalism, and it also was equated with becoming an independent nation – in other words a resurgence of nationalism.
This was seen in the fact that some 90% of Ukrainians who voted voted in favor of an independent Ukraine in the 1991 referendum. Clear majorities supported independence across all regions, including Crimea. Both Russian and Ukrainian speaking majorities supported independence. In other words, at that time there did not seem to be sharp divisions around the language issue. And originally Ukraine recognized both languages as official languages. Education could be conducted in either language, for example.
Role of US and Western European capitalist class
At the time of that collapse, the US capitalist class was the only one that really exerted world power. It was the only real world imperialist force. In Europe itself, some of the European capitalist classes, including German capitalism, did play a similar role, though. They combined to encourage a view that had already developed: that “freedom” meant two things: One was the “free” market, in other words capitalism. The other was national separation. So it was that in a 1991 referendum, 90% of Ukrainians voted to separate from Russia and form their own independent nation.
George Bush was president at that time. His position, which reflected the position of the dominant wings of the US capitalist class, was originally very reluctant to encourage that separation from Russia. They thought that since they were the sole global capitalist power – the sole real imperialist force – they could control the world, and it would be much more difficult to control what was happening in Eastern Europe if it divided up into a host of different nations. It would be something like the proverbial trying to herd cats. A specific issue was the fact that there were some 2,000 nuclear weapons from the old Soviet Union stored in Ukraine. Bush worked with the new government in Russia to get those weapons repatriated to Russia itself.
Also, US capitalism was seized by the conceit that it would remain forever the sole world capitalist power. History had come to an end, in the words of one well known US capitalist strategist. US imperialism not only played a definite role in the return of capitalism to Russia; they thought that Russia would be a subordinate and stable ally to themselves.
Rise of Imperialist Rivals
As we know, history did not play out that way. Two major rivals of US imperialism have arisen: Russian and Chinese imperialism. The case of Chinese imperialism is not really directly relevant to the issue of Ukraine, so we will set that to the side for the moment, but we must look more closely at the rise of Russian imperialism:
The return of capitalism to Russia was a wild and wooly affair, with different bands of former Soviet bureaucrats-turned-capitalists looting the state. Gangster or cowboy capitalism took hold. In some ways it was similar to the rise of the infamous “robber barons” of the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Jay Gould, Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc.) These robber barons had their own private armies which they used not only to attack the working class but also to battle each other. They also bought and sold politicians like day traders do to stocks on the stock market. A huge difference, though, was that that was at the time of the ascendency of capitalism, whereas when Russia returned to capitalism the system was already in its decline.
Putin came to power as the head gangster of them all. Today he is considered to be the richest man in Russia and possibly in the world. He simply saw his position as a means of further enriching himself. Several events forced him to see things differently: One was the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe. Most important of these from Putin’s point of view was the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004. Another was the Arab Spring starting in 2011. Finally, there was a series of protests in Russia itself. As a result, Putin realized that he had to develop a true base in Russia itself.
The main element he leaned on and integrated into the
state was the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church. That church hierarchy plays on images of a glorious past, the time of the Russian Tzars and a Greater Russia. Similar to the Christian fundamentalists in the US, it encourages homophobia and male chauvinism. It is no accident that both of those are written into Russian laws, with LGBTQ people severely repressed and wife beating being completely legal (except if a woman is held in the hospital for 24 hours or more, in which case it’s a misdemeanor). Putin relied on these reactionary attitudes to gain domestic support for his intervention in Syria, propping up the mass criminal Assad.
Putin also encouraged ultra nationalist and even outright fascist forces, especially
throughout Europe. For this he established a link with Russian fascist Aleksander Dugin. Dugin had spent years traveling throughout Europe meeting with various fascists. He also linked up with David Duke, the former leader of the KKK here in the US. Putin had kept Dugin at arms length but he later came to establish close ties with him. Conferences were held in Russia to encourage “family values”. A signal event was a fascist conference in December of 2014. Many of the world’s fascist forces attended that conference including the League of the South, a fascist/racist group from the US. So did some “left” peace activists from the US, representatives of the International Action Center and the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC).
For a more in depth view of the rise of Putin, see Oaklandsocialist’s pamphlet “Putin, Assad and the Syrian Disaster”.
Rise of Ukrainian Capitalism
If Russian capitalism is based in part on corruption, they are mere pikers compared to Ukrainian capitalism. That is partly because Ukraine is the main country through which Russian gas and oil is transported to Western Europe. The Ukrainian oligarchs linked up with their counterparts in Russia to buy gas at below market prices and then sell them at inflated prices to Western Europeans. They pocketed the difference, part of which they shared with their Russian counterparts, including Putin. Since these oligarchs in the main lived off of sales of gas from Russia to them and then on to Western Europe, they were directly linked to Russian capitalism/imperialism, and Ukrainian people are aware of it. They are also aware of the higher standard of living in Western Europe as well as the fact that elections there are not overtly fixed as was the 2004 election in Ukraine.
The result is that at the present tine, it is Russian imperialism that is the dominant power in Ukraine. US (and also German) imperialism also play a role, as we will see, but Russian imperialism plays more of one. That was not true in 1991, but that was then; this is now. This is not an apology for US imperialism; like it or not, it is simply a statement of fact.
A prominent politician in Ukraine was Victor Yanukovich, head of the Russian aligned Party of Nations. In 2004 he fixed an election to remain in power, but the resulting “Orange Revolution” forced him to resign. He returned to power in 2010 in an election in which his campaign manager was none other that Paul Manafort, who later went on to become the campaign manager for Donald Trump in 2016.
Yanukovich himself was also corruption personified. “He became known for his opulent 345 acre presidential retreat which included a faux galleon, $2 million sauna and exotic animal zoo [and $100,00+ chandeliers] – along with sweetheart deals with a network of coal and gas billionaires tied to Russia’s Gazprom,” as one report (among many) explained.
The European Union and Yanukovich
In those years, Western Europe was attractive to Ukrainians because of the higher standard of living and the more “democratic” norms – less overt corruption. Assuredly, Western European capitalist propaganda encouraged this view, but the result was that there was popular pressure on Yanukovich to bring Ukraine into the EU. Initially he moved towards this, but in 2014 he reversed course. This resulted in a second revolution that forced him out. (There were fascist elements also involved in these protests. Whether or not they were the dominant element is a matter of dispute and, in any case, it is beyond the scope of this article)
The general attitude regarding joining the EU was mixed and shifting throughout Ukraine, especially in the east. However, by 2013 one poll showed that 63% of residents in Donbas (in the east) did not support being purely economically – which means also politically – aligned with Russia. That inevitably must mean that they did not support being incorporated into Russia itself. Another poll showed that in 2014, 65% of the residents of the city of Donetsk (in the east) preferred to remain as part of Ukraine. In other words, there was no mass support for breaking away from Ukraine in the east.
However, The Party of the Regions and Yanukovich himself had their base mainly in Eastern Ukraine, and that party’s supporters there did not take kindly to his removal from office. They organized protests in this region. This rebellion was in protest against the removal of the extremely corrupt Yanukovich! There is little evidence that these protests represented a mass movement. A few thousand participated at most. On May 11 of 2014 a “referendum” was held in the region in which they claim 96.2% of the voters allegedly voted in favor of an independent republic. It is impossible that such a majority could have democratically been gained. Nevertheless, this was used to justify the creation of two new “independent” republics: The Luhansk Peoples Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). We can refer to them collectively as the L/DPRs.
The nature of the leadership of these two “republics” really shows what happened. Overall, they were corrupt gangsters and thugs, most of whom were direct agents of Russian imperialism. For example, in Luhansk Valery Bolotov became governor. He was a former soldier in the Russian army and a small time capitalist. In a subsequent power struggle he had to flee and move to Moscow where he was apparently poisoned to death in 2017. In the DPR, Pavel Gubarev was declared the “people’s governor”. Gubarev was a pro-Russian activist and a former member of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity paramilitary group. Aleksander Borodai was appointed Prime Minister. According to Russian media, he was deputy director of Russian FSB State Security (something he denies). Following one of several power struggles, Borodai fled to Moscow, where he is presently working at a major investment fund. Often, political disagreements between leaders in the “republics” were “resolved” by political assassination.
In other words, the creation of these two “republics” was and is the work of Russian imperialism aligned with gangsters, thugs and even fascists. Their role can be summarized by this statement of the left wing europe-solidaire: “The heads of the “DPR” and “LPR” are integrated into the ranks of the ruling elite of the Russian Federation and have become the mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s most aggressive predatory sentiments. In the “republics” themselves, any opposition political activity, even the most loyal to the Russian government, is suppressed.” This is confirmed by reports by both a UN commission and Amnesty International which report extensively on human rights violations in the two “republics”.
L/DPR Cannot Unite
The fact that the two “republics” are unable to unite as one is significant. If they really represented an independent movement from below, that would have been the natural course of things and, in fact, there have been some advocates for that. However, every leader in each of the two “republics” is simply in it for himself (and they are all men as far as I can see) and who knows who would be replaced by whom if the two “republics” became one?
The regimes there are also anti-worker. In the summer of 2020 a strike movement broke out among coal minders in the Donbas region. Research into that strike reveals that the separatist movement had an effect on the mining and steel industries there similar to that of the passage of NAFTA on the Mexican economy. The entire coal industry was taken over by one particular Russian oligarch, Sergey Kurchenko, who is close to Putin. The already under-invested coal mines in Donbas were further neglected, resulting in dangers of explosions and flooding among other things. Wages went unpaid and the LPR had threatened to close down several mines. That’s what the strikes were about. Strikers were arrested by LPR authorities and the strikes were in general repressed. Readers are invited to do a Google search “Donbas coal miners strike 2020”.
US capitalism/imperialism has propped up the present Zelensky government. That government has been absolutely unable to resolve the issue of corruption. Even the capitalist Brookings Institute explained that it is an “iron triangle of oligarchic rule, corruption, and financial instability”.
Zelensky also responded to the L/DPRs’ Russian chauvinism with Ukrainian chauvinism. Previously, both the Russian and the Ukrainian languages were official state languages. In the “republics”, Russian became the sole state language, thereby effectively depriving Ukrainian speaking children of a real education. Zelensky has done the same in reverse, making Ukrainian the sole official language in the rest of Ukraine. Whereas in the Russia-aligned “republics” the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church holds sway, Zelensky is now relying on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has broken away from its mother
Russian counterpart. Also, as far as class relations, the Zelensky government has forced the All-Ukrainian trade union federation out onto the streets to protest the government’s anti-union legislation.
As we know, Crimea was incorporated into Russia as a result of the 2014 revolution. Will the same happen with the L/DPR’s? Putin seems to vacillate for the moment. However, his view on Ukraine in general is clear: In a statement he made in July of 2021 he made clear that Ukraine as a whole is and should be part of Greater Russia. In that statement he sounded all the themes of Russian chauvinism, ultra nationalism and fascism. In large measure he relied on the base of the reactionary Russian Orthodox Church for justification.
Putin’s intervention into eastern Ukraine includes the use of the fascist mercenaries of the Wagner Group. This is the same group that has been active in the fighting in Syria on behalf of the fascistic Assad.
US and Western European Capitalism/Imperialism
While Ukraine’s gas oligarchs are mainly linked with their Russian counterparts, Western capitalists have also tried to get in on the looting. The Atlantic Council reports: “A boutique Kiev geological consultancy group, SPKGeoService, allegedly received interests in shale gas projects led by Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron worth hundreds of millions of dollars.” Trump’s former secretary of state Rex Tillerson also scented the opportunity for drinking the blood when he was CEO of Exxon.
When the old Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the US helped build up the utterly reactionary al Qaeda to combat that invasion. The US is playing a similar role in Ukraine today. Among other things, they are arming and training the overtly fascist Azov group to combat Russian imperialism.
Overall, however, the role of Chevron and Exxon compared to the rule of Russia’s Gazprom is representative of the overall relative powers. Gazprom is far, far more dominant in the Ukrainian economy and therefore its politics than are the former. (In the L/DPR’s Russian capitalism has more or less completely taken over the economies.) The same is true for the relative role of Russian vs. US imperialism: Russia is the more powerful force in Ukraine. The fact that that is not true globally does not negate that fact in Ukraine. There is a reason, for example, that nobody is talking about the US sending troops into Ukraine.
A Working Class and Socialist Position
As far as NATO and US missiles surrounding much of Russia: Of course the US and the world’s working class should oppose this, just as we should oppose NATO itself. The same goes for any UN “peacekeeping” force entering Ukraine. As we have shown, US capitalism/imperialism has nothing positive to offer the working class, neither at home nor abroad. But in no way should that hinder socialists or the working class in general from also denouncing Russian capitalism/imperialism and their representatives. The governments of both Kyiv and the L/DPR’s can never be independent of one imperialist power or another, and both governments are rotten to their core (although it does seem that the latter have less “democratic” norms than do the former).
The US and the world’s working class must figure out how to link up with the working class of all of Ukraine (including the L/DPR’s) to start down the road of helping unite the working class so that it can assert its own needs. That is impossible if it takes the side of one or the other imperialist power and its representatives. Instead, a working class program should include:
- Build a united working class movement to fight for basic economic demands (minimum wage, social safety net, environmental controls, etc.) and oppose the nationalist far right. Build direct international links between workers.
- Link that up with the call for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops and the end of foreign military training of troops in Ukraine. Oppose NATO as well as the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization.
- For a socialist federation of Europe and Eurasia and a socialist world.
In the US, an independent working class movement, opposed to both capitalist parties and leading to a mass working class party, is necessary to even start down that road.
Overall, these proposals may sound like pie-in-the sky dreaming. But when we are faced with a huge disaster, with a situation that is rocketing out of control, nothing less will do.
Update: Since this article was published, the media is reporting on the US raid in Syria which killed the alleged leader of ISIS. It also killed about a dozen “civilians”, including women and children. This is absolutely typical of how US forces intervene in other countries. Anand Gopal explained this exact same thing in relation to Afghanistan. Of course, this will be no different if Russian troops move in. (Whether they will or not is certainly open to question.)