Myths About the Russo – Ukraine Crisis

Dale Street breaks down myths surrounding the current tensions around Ukraine.


This article was originally posted on the Ukraine Solidarity website and can be located here.

Are the breakaway ”People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk an expression of the democratic rights of the local Russian population?

No. The supposed “popular anti-fascist uprisings” in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 are a political myth. The creation of the “People’s Republics” was part of Putin’s response to the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovich by the mass protests of early 2014.

The two “People’s Republics” could not have been created, and could not have survived, without Russian political, financial and military support, including Russian troops on the ground.

Putin’s aim was to weaken and destabilise Ukraine, in order to draw it back into Russia’s sphere of influence. As the Ukrainian socialist organisation “Social Movement” explains in a recent statement:

“Contrary to the myth, which is popular among some Western leftists, the regimes in the ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ are not the result of popular will. 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.”

Was the referendum held in the Crimea in March of 2014, which led to its absorption by Russia, an expression of the democratic rights of the peninsula’s Russian population?

No. Although some — but certainly not all — opinion polling indicated majority support for accession to Russia at the time, the referendum was neither free nor fair.

The referendum was held at just ten days notice, after Russian troops had occupied the peninsula, seized the Crimean Parliament building, dissolved the regional government and appointed a new one which obediently agreed to call a referendum. In the run-up to the referendum Ukrainian television channels were blocked and replaced by Russian channels, only pro-Russian-accession campaigning took place, the Ukrainian government was consistently portrayed as Nazis, and the referendum voting paper did not even contain an option for maintenance of the status quo.

The referendum provided no more than a pseudo-democratic veneer for a decision already taken in Moscow: annexation of Crimea, to ensure Russian control of the naval base in Sevastopol.

Haven’t Ukrainian governments since the Maidan protests of 2014 been right-wing nationalistic, and neo-liberal?

Yes. But that does not distinguish them from most other governments in the world. And Putin’s rule in Russia is arguably far worse: authoritarian, autocratic, corrupt, imperialist, and an ally and financier of far-right parties throughout Europe.

But, just as the Maidan protests were not a “fascist coup”, so too none of the post-Maidan governments have been a “fascist junta”. “Right-wing” is not the same as ‘fascist”.

The narrative of “fascism in power in Ukraine” was concocted by Moscow in 2014 as a way of galvanising and justifying (in the name of “anti-fascism”) the separatist movements which it created as a cloak for pursuing its own political agenda.

In any case, in a debate about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine the question is irrelevant. No-one on the left argues, for example, that Palestinians are not entitled to national self-determination until they end the reactionary and corrupt rule of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas.

How strong is the far right in Ukraine?

Numerically, the far right is an insignificant political force. In post-2014 elections it has never secured more than 2.5% of the popular vote.

In the 2014 presidential elections the candidates of Svoboda and the Right Sector — the two far-right organisations which, although not numerically significant, had been prominent in the Maidan protests — won 1.16% and 0.7% of the votes respectively.

In the last parliamentary elections (2019) a “united front” of the National Corps (the political wing of the Azov Battalion), the Right Sector, the Governmental Initiative of Yarosh (created by former Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh) and Svoboda won just 2.15% of the vote. The strength, and negative impact, of the far right lies in a different direction.

In December 2013, before the Maidan protests had really “kicked off”, the academic Andreas Umland warned in an article in the Kyiv Post of the real danger which it posed:

“Svoboda and the minor ethno-nationalist parties present on the Maidan have already done a lasting disservice to the Ukrainian nation by impregnating the protest movement with their peculiarly Banderite slogans, ideas and symbols unpopular in southern and eastern Ukraine.

“A particularly sad outcome is that the ethno-nationalists have poisoned Ukrainian civil society with formulas that will disturb the formation of a unified Ukrainian civic community. One day historians may conclude that Putin and Tiahnybok (Svoboda leader) did jointly succeed in tearing the young Ukrainian state apart.”

In an article published in 2018 Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko likewise wrote of the way in which “they (the far right) mainstreamed nationalist symbols and slogans among the (Maidan) protestors, in this way pushing the sceptical majorities in south-eastern regions further away from supporting Maidan.”

In the four years since the Maidan, Ishchenko continued, issues once “the hobbyhorse of the far right” had become state policy. The far-right “nationalist historical narrative” had become increasingly mainstream, although it was not shared by “majorities in Ukraine’s south-eastern regions.”

Overall, the far right was “contributing to a self-destructive nationalist radicalisation dynamic.”

That destructive dynamic was not the exclusive property of the far right. In 2014 former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, for example, had described the Crimea and the Donbass as regions “where our language practically does not exist, where our memory is non-existent, where our church is absent, where our culture is absent, utterly foreign lands.”

Since 2014, due to the influence exercised by the far right on such issues (out of all proportion to its level of support), a historically based Ukrainian identity has been promoted and increasingly mainstreamed which is not “broad” enough to be endorsed by all the country’s national minorities, especially by sections of the ethnic-Russian or Russian-speaking minority.

And this, as Umland noted, apart from being wrong in itself, simply played into Putin’s hands.

Isn’t Russia within its rights to take action in response to the threat posed by NATO expansion?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union NATO and the European Union have expanded eastwards. Former Warsaw Pact countries, and former countries of the USSR itself, have joined both NATO and the EU.

But Russia is not acting with its “rights” if it invades Ukraine. It is acting in pursuit of its own imperialist interests. Since Putin came to power he has pursued an imperialist policy of bringing former states of the USSR back into Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia too has pursued an expansionist foreign policy.

Despite its nuclear arsenal Russia is not the world superpower that the USSR was. But socialists are not advocates of equal opportunities for imperialist power blocs, nor advocates of affirmative action for currently lesser imperialist powers.

The socialist programme is for the abolition of imperialist power blocs — not for a levelling-up and equality between them.

Russia may or may not invade Ukraine. But surely our focus must be on opposing our own ruling class? As the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht put it: The enemy is at home.

Liebknecht wrote, in a leaflet published in 1915: “The main enemy of the German people is in the home camp.” Liebknecht was not arguing that the only enemy of the German working class was its own ruling class.

Socialists should always oppose the ruling class of our own country. But that cannot be counterposed to opposition to Russian imperialism, especially in the event of an invasion of Ukraine.

As an article from Oakland Socialist puts it:

“Some on the left in the West (west of Ukraine) call for simply ‘opposing our own imperialism’. Stopping there means ignoring the reactionary role of Russian imperialism. There is no way to unite the working class on that basis.

“What would those people say to socialists in Ukraine or Russia then? How could such politics possibly unite any sector of workers throughout the region? This call is hardly different from the left which ignores the role of Russian imperialism in shoring up and adding to the immense crimes of Assad in Syria.”

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