Ukraine, as it always has been, is caught between rival imperial powers who will allow no true self-determination, argues Chris Bambery
Mulling over events in Ukraine I found myself readingTrotsky, writing in the final months before World War II, on the right of Ukraine to self determination. I am struck that he was polemicising in the main against Stalin and co., who denied that right, but also against bourgeois nationalists who were prepared to ally with Hitler. His call was for an independent Socialist Ukraine as the only solution.
Trotsky was aware that a pact between Hitler and Stalin was brewing – it was signed in August 1939 – which would sacrifice the rights of various peoples. Ukraine was already partitioned, Western Ukraine being part of Poland and Eastern Ukraine belonging of the Soviet Union. The idea that the USSR was a federation of peoples who were free to stay or leave and whose rights should be respected and protected by all had long been sacrificed on the altar of Stalinist dictatorship.
Any historical comparison is dangerous and I will not draw a direct one between 1939 and 2014, unlike Hilary Clinton who compares Vladimir Putin to Hitler, and assorted neoliberal warmongers who slay “appeasement” with their pens while conveniently ignoring the fact that appeasement enjoyed majority support in pre-war ruling circles in London, Paris and Washington. The point is Ukraine has always been caught in a vice between the great powers on its western and eastern borders: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia, Imperial and Hitler’s Germany on the one hand, and; the Russian Empires of the Czar and Stalin on the other. Genuine independence could not be achieved in alliance with any of those.
What does self-determination for Ukraine mean in 2014? True independence means not simply opposing Russian ambitions but also those of the European Union, the USA and Nato. The EU’s offer of “association” – free trade and very limited financial aid – comes with demands for the implementation of the same economic and social programme unleashed on Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus. Full membership of the EU is not on the table; something neither Brussels nor the Ukrainian government has been honest about. The danger to the living standards, welfare services and pensions of the vast majority of the people of Ukraine is obvious.
Russia under Putin wants to reassert itself on the world stage – Putin wrong-footed the US over Syrian chemical weapons last summer and seems comfortable that the West will not intervene so strongly as to jeopardise his grab for Crimea. Yet Russia is only a great power because of its natural resource wealth and its nuclear weapons. Strip oil and gas away and its economy is weak. In the two decades and more since the collapse of the USSR it has been Russia which has been on the back foot as Nato gathered in the former Soviet satellites, the US positioned bases all around its borders and the EU expanded into Eastern Europe. This had been the defence bulwark granted Stalin for winning World War Two. Moscow was lied to about Nato intervention in Kosovo and more recently Libya and ignored by Washington as it unleashed war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile the United States is deploying war planes to Lithuania citing Russian threats to the Baltic States and is talking of reviving plans to place a nuclear missile “shield” in Poland and the Czech Republic that is obviously aimed at Russia.
For all those in the West opposed to war our priority must be to oppose the actions of our ruling class. The hypocrisy here is incredible. Take US Secretary of State John Kerry’s declaration that “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text”. Iraq, Afghanistan…and that’s without going back into the Twentieth Century.
The national question is important and we should support Ukraine’s right to self determination, yet this issue is prefigured by broader class and imperial dynamics. We have seen in the past how the intervention of imperialism changes the left’s attitude to the national question. In the immediate wake of World War One the left, reformist and revolutionary, stood for the unity of Germany and the rump state of Austria which had just come into being. The victorious Western powers would not stomach that. But in 1938 we would not have supported Hitler’s annexation of Austria or subsequently his championing of the national rights of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia.
Up until 1998 socialists would have supported the right to self-determination of Kosovo, and opposed Serbian repression. When a bloody US led Nato intervention got underway what mattered was opposing our ruler’s decision to launch another “humanitarian war.”
Meanwhile we must speak up about disturbing developments in Ukraine, particularly the presence of Nazis in the new government. The argument made by some is that given Ukraine is not the first post-1945 European government to include fascists, we needn’t raise a hue and cry over the Nazi presence in the new Kiev administration. This laughable position refers of course to the participation of Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance in the first, and subsequent, coalition government of Silvio Berlusconi back in 1994. But I remember the Anti-Nazi League protesting then outside the Italian embassy in London and when Fini came to Britain. Twenty years on are we supposed to shrug our shoulders and reason that because these Italian administrations did not lead to Auschwitz and world war, we needn’t worry now if fascists take governmental office? The answer must be a resounding no.
Writing from Prague on the Ukraine and the EU, Adam Blandenconcludes:
“If a truly democratic politics is to exist in a united Europe, it must be possible to challenge both nationalism and its flipside: the high European chauvinism which demands an excruciating toll from its peripheries in order to sustain and reproduce an increasingly oligarchic system of power relations at the core.”
Putin stands in the shadow of Stalin and the Czars, but he exerts a shadow of the power they had. Washington has had its nose bloodied in its recent conflicts but it continues to champion military expansion by itself and Nato in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses, while the EU wants to exploit Eastern Europe for its own advantage. Here in the West we should concentrate our fire on them.
Chris Bambery is a member of the ISG based in London. His forthcoming book 'The Second World War: A Marxist History' will be published by Pluto Press in May.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.