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What is the clash in Ukraine about?
29 April 2014. A World to Win News Service. At bottom, what’s happening in Ukraine is a conflict between reactionaries on every level – a weak and fragmented monopoly capitalist ruling class in a country that has become a focal point of contention between unstable and shifting imperialist alliances. This is what makes the situation so sharp and gives it lethal potential.
The U.S.-Russian clash in Ukraine is not about Ukraine. It’s about empire. Western propagandists compare Russia’s actions in Ukraine to Nazi Germany’s 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia under the pretext of defending ethnic Germans, with the conclusion that Russian expansionism should be stopped before it’s too late. But Putin made the same argument from the opposite angle: the U.S. and its allies are following the path of Nazi Germany by trying to gobble up Eastern Europe and dismantle Russia for the sake of world domination. Despite major differences in the two epochs, including the role of Germany itself, both sides have a point.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union (decades after it ceased to be socialist and turned into a capitalist and imperialist country), the U.S. has been trying to ensure its position as the world’s sole superpower by “containing” Russia. Nato swallowed former Soviet bloc countries and USSR states until it extended to Russia’s borders on the Baltic Sea in the north. In 2008 the military alliance announced its intention to gobble up Ukraine and Georgia, moving to surround Russia. Russia responded by taking over border areas in Georgia. The West backed down without giving up.
In recent speeches justifying the Russian annexation of Crimea, Putin put the issue in terms of self-defence. Referring to U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato would not expand eastward if the Soviet leader agreed to accept German reunification, Putin said, “They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before accomplished fact. This happened with Nato’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructures at our borders [the positioning of U.S. missiles in Poland under the pretext of protecting Europe from Iran]. They keep telling us the same thing: ‘Well, this does not concern you.’ That’s easy to say.” (The New York Times, 26 March 2014) In his annual press question and answer session, he complained that the West was treating Russia as a defeated power, when that was not the case, and said, “Look at Yugoslavia. They cut it up and began to manipulate it. That’s what they want to do with us.” He concluded that Russia had no choice but to prevent Nato from ousting Russia from its naval stronghold in Crimea and taking over the Black Sea. (BBC, 17 April 2014)
Putin’s moves in Ukraine are not simply a matter of self-defence. While Russia has an intrinsic need for Ukraine that the U.S. does not, even more important is Ukraine’s place in a bigger, longer game: Ukraine’s industry (including its aerospace and other arms production) and strategic location (including the gas pipelines that criss-cross it) are essential to Russia’s ability to project its economic and military power on the world stage. Right now, Russia hopes to use control over Ukraine to further loosen U.S. constraints on Germany. Over time, this might transform the whole dynamic of threats to U.S. hegemony, with all that might imply for China, as well as countries like Iran and Syria, ushering in a different world situation.
The German media has connected the dots between two events in producing today’s political atmosphere: the crisis over Ukraine, where the U.S. wants to punish Russia at the expense of Germany’s trade relations with Moscow, and the revelation by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that the U.S. spies on all telecommunications and Internet traffic in Germany, right down to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal mobile. Instead of fading, the rancour is turning even more bitter as the U.S. refuses her government’s demand to turn over the records and transcripts. What ties the two events together is the public perception that the U.S. considers Germany to be posing some real problems.
In a widely noted essay in Der Speigel online, Christiane Hoffmann wrote, “Germans and Russians maintain a special relationship… The debate about Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis is more polarizing than any other issue in current German politics… It goes right to the core of the question of Germany’s identity. Where do we stand when it comes to Russia?… The louder the voices on one side condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the louder those become in arguing for a deeper understanding of a humbled, embattled Russia; as the voices pillorying Russia for violating international law in Crimea, so do those of Germans raising allegations against the West… It’s fair to say that when it comes to the question of its affiliation with the West, Germany is a divided land.” (Speigel.de, 9 April 2014)
The truth of Hoffmann’s assertion was vividly illustrated when ex-German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder chose to celebrate his birthday with Putin. In the resulting scandal, some leading German figures dismissed Schroeder’s current relevance. But Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a close ally of Chancellor Merkel at the centre of current German politics, has also expressed opposition to U.S. desires that Berlin break with Russia.
Steinmeier began a recent interview by saying, “I don’t even want to think about military escalation between the West and the East… Because we would pay the price for it in Europe, all of us, without exception.” (Spiegel.de, 28 April 2014) That in itself signals some differences with Obama and his representatives. After a phone conversation with Merkel, Obama began claiming that military options are “not on the table in Ukraine.” (Washington Examiner, 17 April 2014) But his government has made increasingly aggressive military moves before and after. The U.S. commander of Nato, who has the power to act without consulting other Nato members, sent AWACs command and control aircraft and jet fighters to fly over Poland and Romania, more warships into exercises in the Baltic Sea and 600 U.S. ground troops into Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia until further notice. Invoking Nato and not diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned, “I can guarantee this: the United States and our allies will stand up for Ukraine.” (Reuters, 29 April 2014)
The U.S. may very well feel that it has no good – potentially successful – military options, but such military manoeuvres can only be understood as a threat of violent retaliation. This does not mean a return to the conditions of the 1980s, when world war was explicitly on the table for both sides (remember U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1984 “joke”, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”). But today’s situation is extremely dangerous because there is so much at stake and neither side can afford defeat.
In addition to not repeating Washington’s (and London’s) military threats to Russia, in his interview Steinmeier also does not threaten Putin with any economic punishment. This is also important, for while not depending on German arms, U.S.’s hopes for the success of non-military pressure against Russia rest most squarely on the threat of cutting off German economic ties with Russia. Otherwise, what Obama refers to as “the consequences” if Russia moves ahead don’t amount to much.
Instead, Steinmeier emphasises the potentially positive outcome of a Russian-European agreement: “the investments that Russia so urgently needs from outside the country for its modernization.” The modernization of Russian industry in collaboration with Germany, and the fusion of Russian energy resources with German capital, causes the U.S. real concern.
While not underplaying the seriousness of the situation (“the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War”) and warning that “Russia is playing a dangerous game”, Steinmeier says nothing about any need to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Instead, he refers to Ukraine’s “difficult legacy… with a plethora of unresolved ethnic, religious, social and economic conflicts”, indicating that the main problem in Ukraine is splits among Ukrainians. Worse for the U.S., the German Foreign Minister calls the collapse of that 21 February agreement the root of today’s problems, as does Putin. That agreement signed by President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition, brokered by Germany, France and Poland, foresaw a negotiated settlement for the political crisis with the formation of a unity government, the withdrawal of both sides from the streets and the disarmament of civilians, and new presidential elections.
The U.S. wanted to prevent that kind of agreement – “Fuck the EU”, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland cursed in her infamous leaked phone call to the American ambassador to Ukraine. Although the circumstances of Yanukovych’s post-agreement sudden flight are murky, Putin correctly points out that the U.S. has done its best to foil Russian attempts to revive the deal by supporting the most avowedly die-hard anti-Russia elements.
In the question and answer session, Putin criticized Yanukovych for ignoring his advice to use force to ensure the realisation of that agreement instead of letting himself be run out by “fascists”. This brings us to the question of what’s happening within Ukraine itself. While it is ultimately determined by this international context, it has to be analysed as a process in itself within this context, especially in terms of classes.
The regime backed by Washington is held together by its opposition to Russia. The prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is the U.S.’s man, named in Nuland’s phone call. The acting president is Olexander Turchynov. These two men, whose future depends on the U.S., are members of the Fatherland party led by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. To say that it is a party of the Ukrainian “oligarchs” is to state the indisputable. But this is an complicated question, because the Ukrainian monopoly capitalists, as they should more accurately be called, are not united, certainly not in any stable way.
Nowhere is this volatility more obvious than in the figure of Tymoshenko herself. One of the country’s most powerful newly-arisen monopoly capitalists, like many of them she rose to riches overnight by doing business with Russia, in this case going from video store owner to head of an energy giant dealing in Russian gas. She is certainly the country’s most popular politician and may be the only traditional politician with national reach. Raised as a Russian speaker, she says she became a Ukrainian nationalist out of conviction. She is known for her anti-Russian rants, even suggesting that Obama should threaten to unleash nuclear war to keep Crimea Ukrainian. (“Talk to Al Jazeera” interview, 8 March 2014) But she was also considered Putin’s personal choice in the 2010 Ukrainian presidential elections – and was supported by Merkel. In late April she went to Donetsk to “listen to the complaints of the [pro-Russian] demonstrators” – putting herself forward as uniquely able to bring about a negotiated settlement. A world-class shape-shifter, she embodies the desperation and mercurial quality of the Ukrainian ruling class.
These qualities give special significance to the inclusion in the new Kiev government of Svoboda (Freedom), a party formerly called the Social-Nationalists with a swastika-like symbol, and the Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), a coalition of more or less avowedly fascist paramilitary formations. Fighters from these two groups triggered Yanukovych’s hasty departure and the bringing in of the new regime. Beatings and threats from Svoboda members on the floor of parliament – as well as the need to face a new political situation – forced MPs from the former president’s Party of Regions to approve the new government after his flight. (Svoboda parliamentarians also videoed themselves beating up the head of a state broadcasting station to force his resignation, and posted it on YouTube.) Although a small party rooted mainly in Ukraine’s far west, Svoboda now holds key positions, including deputy prime minister (Oleksandr Sych, an anti-abortion crusader known for his homophobic views and declarations that rape is caused by women’s lifestyle), the deputy speaker of parliament (the words “parliamentary whip” apply literally), general prosecutor and national security. The head of the Right Sector is the national security deputy.
The power of these men extends beyond their governmental offices. It could be said to some extent that they were given their posts because of their power, their control of armed bands, although that’s not the whole story. One factor that makes them so important is that the police, security services and armed forces are split between pro- and anti-Russia sentiments and allegiances from top to bottom. A reporter described the situation like this: “Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, the State Security Agency, known as SBU, is so riddled with Russian informers that when CIA director John O. Brennan arrived in Kiev recently on a supposedly secret trip, state-run Russian media swiftly revealed his visit and declared it as evidence that Washington was calling the shots in Ukraine.
“The SBU has repeatedly boasted of catching alleged Russian operatives in the east, but it has not made public any solid evidence to support Kiev’s assertions that the mayhem in the east is orchestrated and financed by Moscow, a failure that has compromised Ukraine’s efforts to compete, at least in eastern Ukraine, with Moscow’s own narrative of Western meddling.
“Alfa [the special forces], by contrast, does appear to function, but its ardour to serve has been sapped by the fact that it is being investigated for its previous service to Ukraine’s former president, Mr Yanukovych.” (NYT, 14 April 2014)
Even if other political forces may not agree with the politics of the fascist fighters, and may not trust them (just as Svoboda and Right Sector especially hate Tymoshenko and other members of the political establishment), these men can be relied on to deal ruthlessly with anyone perceived as pro-Russia no matter what their status, high or low.
The ability of a relatively few pro-Russia armed men to occupy Ukrainian government offices in eastern Ukraine in the face of the police and armed forces has been puzzling. Whether they are civilians or really Russian soldiers doesn’t change that question, and interviews with them and othersindicate at least most are local volunteers. (Le Monde, Tim Judah writing in The New York Review of Books and BBC.co.uk, all 29 April 2014) Clearly, as of this moment, there has been a lack of will to fight them, not only among the police, who often step aside, but also the army and even special forces. Many Ukrainian conscripts serve in their home regions, and their lack of heart to fight other eastern Ukrainians has been noted by reporters, who have also noted that this passivity seems to extend up through the command level. The sacking and counter-sacking of armed forces chiefs could also be related to splits at the top. Svoboda and Right Sector fighters have been sent in to give backbone to what the Kiev authorities ominously call “anti-terrorist operations”.
The sight of civilians, including many not young or fit, lining up to join the national armed forces in western Ukraine is also puzzling. Why call up self-selected volunteers instead of trained and organized reserves? It has been widely reported that the fascist militias are being integrated into the armed forces, and that could be to help lead them and whip them into shape politically.
Clearly the U.S. values these groups’ services. Leading U.S Senator John McCain met with the Svoboda leader last December, and Secretary of State Kerry publicly appeared on a Svoboda platform in March. But there may also be seeds of potential conflict, as perhaps glimpsed in the gunning down of a prominent Right Sector leader in March in a case that the government has seemed in no hurry to clear up. These forces are more basically Ukrainian nationalist and anti-Russia than pro-US., and in at least some cases not pro-U.S. at all. The rise of the governing Fidesz party and the Jobbic party in Hungry demonstrates that in Eastern Europe being extremely nationalist, religious and anti-Semitic doesn’t necessarily preclude being pro-Russia, not only in foreign affairs but even in professed sympathy for what Putin calls his “Eurasian doctrine” in seeking to give Russia’s defiance of the West an ideological cast.
When Putin calls these men a bunch of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, he has history on his side. Today’s Ukrainian nationalists, including in Svoboda and the Right Sector, consider themselves heirs to the Ukrainian nationalists who joined the German and Romanian fascist invaders in fighting the Soviet Union during World War 2. Ukrainian nationalism is irredeemably intertwined with clerical obscurantism and anti-Jewish and anti-Polish bigotry and pogroms.
But what is happening in Ukraine is not driven by ethnic and religious conflict, even though often expressing itself along such faultlines. Opposition to the Russian state is not exactly the same as being against ethnic Russians, although the two are inevitably related in some people’s eyes. It is not obvious that one side is more anti-Semitic than the other, although both the U.S. and Russia have tried to portray that as a motivating issue. Ideology plays an extremely important role – the rival Orthodox Church patriarchs based in Kiev and Moscow each called on god to smite the others’ followers in Easter proclamations that would seem like self-parody if so many human lives were not at stake – but neither Ukrainian nationalism nor Russian nationalism is better than the other as an ideology or political program, and all the more so under current circumstances. There are also powerful appeals to narrow, cynical self-interest. Ukrainian per capita GDP, living standards as measured by the Human Development Index, birth rate, life expectancy and population have all declined since Soviet times. Only immigration has increased. Many people, especially among the educated middle classes, dream of western European life styles, while others are hopeful that Russia will come to their rescue.
Further, a focus on fascism has led some leftist or “civil society” forces to support politicians like Tymoshenko with the hope that they will keep down the far right. Ironically, this same prism has led other forces to support Russia. This is not an accurate conceptualisation of what’s happening – the main conflict is not between proponents of an openly terrorist or of a bourgeois-democratic form of rule.
More basically, the problem is capitalism itself. Today that system has produced an explosive combination of a desperate population that is not only deeply dissatisfied with their lot in life but resentful and feeling cheated, and a divided capitalist ruling class desperate not only to survive as capitalists in the face of Western and Russian capital but to somehow break free of their domination and expand themselves.
The pervasive corruption among the Ukrainian ruling class may be a crime of opportunity, but it also reveals the lack of the kind of business opportunities that have brought far more fabulous wealth in more successful capitalist countries. A look at Ukraine’s economy explains some factors behind the weakness and fractures of its capitalist class.
For historical reasons, the economy is structurally connected with that of Russia in two ways. Its steel, concrete, shipbuilding and aerospace enterprises are engineered to fit Russian demands and specifications, and this heavy industry in turn cannot be profitable without cheap – Russian – energy. The country’s modern, export-oriented agriculture is also energy dependent, and equally dependent on eastern markets at this time. It may be possible for Ukraine’s economy to be thoroughly restructured, but it is not clear how that could be done in the short run or under the conditions of today’s strained global imperialist economy. Right now, Ukraine makes Greece look prosperous and financially and fiscally sound. While the West and Russia have been brandishing their mighty treasuries, and certainly both would rather lose many billions than lose Ukraine, it is not clear what they could really do in any basic way.
What’s going on in Ukraine is not about economics in the narrowly understood sense of immediate profit and loss. Both Russia and the West are fighting to take over a bankrupt country. In the longer term, they intend to loot it, and the booty could be very rich, but this isn’t their immediate concern. No individual capitalist, still less any imperialist power, can play defensive. They all face the compulsion to expand or die at the hands of the market, and on a world scale rival nationally-based imperialist capital formations are barriers to each others’ expansion.
In that sense, Ukraine can be considered a sign of what capitalism offers in today’s world.
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