the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Mar 6, 2015
The following article is a translation of the March 6, 2015, Cercle Léon Trotsky public meeting organized by the comrades of Lutte Ouvrière in France. We reprinted this here because this account of the war that started in 2014-15, provides needed context to understand the current (2022) war.
There are several phrases added, marked in brackets [thus] in order to make clear what time period is being written about. And several brief sections about the development of the oligarchy in both Russia and Ukraine, from a 2015 article appearing in the comrades Lutte de Classe journal, were also added to clarify a point for our readers.
For more than a year [in 2014–15], Ukraine was plunged into a civil war, which never totally disappeared [and whose results were still being felt in 2022]. By mid-2015, the war had caused the death of 6,000 people, the exodus of more than a million refugees and considerable destruction in the Donbass, the most industrialized region of the country.
Why are the peoples, Ukrainian and Russian—united by centuries of common history, who lived 25 years ago, in the same political, economic, and cultural entity, the Soviet Union—pitted against each other?
For Western leaders, the answer is simple: today’s war is all Putin’s fault. According to them, the pressure of democratic demonstrations in Maidan, the central plaza of Kyiv, helped put in place a pro-European government, in response to which, Putin annexed Crimea after a referendum they call illegal, before bringing about the secession of Donbass and supplying arms and troops to the separatists. For Westerners, the Poroshenko government, now in power in Kyiv, and its army are therefore fighting to defend democracy, the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its independence against the Russian aggressor.
Yes, Putin may own responsibility for the war in Ukraine, but this presentation of the Ukrainian crisis is propaganda worthy of the Cold War!
This fairy tale hides the role played by the West to support a Ukrainian government which does not represent the interests of the majority of the population any more than did the previous one. It hides the fact that the current government relies on reactionary political parties, several of which are openly on the far right. Above all, it serves to camouflage the wide maneuvers of the Western powers to bring the countries resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union under the control of Western industrial and financial groups.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the USSR, of which Ukraine was one of the largest and most developed republics after that of Russia—may have disappeared a quarter of a century ago, but the consequences, even remote, of this revolution which shook the world shaped the human, economic, political, and social reality of a whole part of Europe.
By taking power at the head of the Workers’ Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Soviets, the Bolshevik Party had raised the flag of social emancipation, not only in the former Russian Empire, but far beyond its borders. Millions of oppressed throughout the world, workers, peasants, small artisans, coolies, were to be swept away by the breath of the October Revolution and rise up against their exploiters.
In the former tsarist empire, the workers who had taken power immediately had to face a vast coalition of all the former privileged classes, supported and armed by the imperialist powers, which unleashed a terrible civil war. In this fight, the Bolsheviks knew how to unite all the oppressed, whatever their situation, their language, their nationality, their beliefs.
They relied on the peasants who shared the land, on the poor masses on the borders of the empire who refused the yoke of the colonial administration, or of the Tsarist officers or of the local secular and religious notables. To the poor masses of the various nationalities oppressed by Tsarism, the Bolsheviks offered freedom.
While the tsarist empire had earned the sinister nickname of “Prison of the Peoples”, most of these peoples chose, after four years of civil war, to continue to live within the same entity, the Soviet Union.
This tremendous success of the Bolsheviks contrasts with the divisions which reappear today in the heart of Europe! And this aspect of the Russian Revolution alone would be enough to demonstrate that when the proletariat has a revolutionary policy and a party to implement it, it opens up progressive perspectives for the whole of society.
The failure of the revolution in the developed capitalist countries, despite several heroic attempts by the proletariat, especially in Germany, left the young Soviet Union isolated, with a backward society and an economy ravaged by civil war. This isolation of the workers’ state led to the emergence at its head of a parasitic bureaucracy whose collective interests Stalin embodied through a ferocious dictatorship.
The Stalinist dictatorship oppressed workers at home and opposed workers’ revolutions all over the world. From this point of view, it contributed throughout its existence to the maintenance of the capitalist system, despite everything that contributed to shaking it. Yet the Soviet Union, with its planned economy that covered one-sixth of the globe, escaped the direct plunder of the imperialists. It remained a foreign body for the capitalist world. Its mere existence was proof that the economy can function without direct bosses and exploiters.
These two contradictory aspects—the counter-revolutionary character of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the survival of certain achievements of October—were to mark relations between the imperialist powers and the Soviet Union until it disappeared in December 1991.
The disappearance of the USSR signified the victory of the Western powers in the “cold war” which had pitted them against the USSR. Thus, the model—albeit in an increasingly distorted way—of a social organization other than that founded in the capitalist market also disappeared.
Almost immediately, the former Soviet republics were the object of economic, diplomatic, and military pressure—in particular through NATO—from the imperialist powers which sought, and still seek, to extend their zones of influence to the detriment of Russia.
Russia, which presented itself as the main heir to the defunct Soviet Union, was at first unable to oppose the maneuvers of the imperialists. But starting in 2000, Putin, once in power, put the Russian state apparatus back on its feet. And he sought to protect the interests of the privileged social strata gravitating around Russian power, interests that often clash with those of the Western powers.
The Ukrainian people, like the Russian people, have been victimized for 25 years by the economic chaos created by business bureaucrats and oligarchs looting the economy; at the same time victimized by capitalism’s world economic crisis, which severely affected the poor countries of Eastern Europe. Today , they are victimized by war ravaging the country.
From the tip of Siberia in the east to Poland in the west, the Tsarist empire, brought down in 1917, housed every stage of economic development, from hunting and gathering to advanced industrial capitalism, passing through various forms of more or less backward agriculture and petty commodity production.
In this vast country, millions of peasants barely out of serfdom, thirsty for land, were oppressed by landowners. In some industrial centers, a proletariat, a minority but politically awakened, concentrated in modern factories, had already become conscious of its collective strength.
According to an 1897 census, Tsarist Russia housed—or rather oppressed—56 million Russians, 22 million Ukrainians, 8 million Poles, 6 million Belarusians, 6 million Balts, 2.5 million Finns, 5 million Jews, various peoples in the Caucasus, and nearly 15 million Tartars in Central Asia. Beyond that, there were a multitude of nomadic peoples in the immensity of Siberia, who somewhat escaped oppression, because of their isolation.
The national sentiment of all these peoples was not expressed the same way everywhere. In Poland or in Finland, a real national bourgeoisie existed, aspiring for a long time to have a nation state. Elsewhere, the bourgeoisie, more German or Russian than Lithuanian or Ukrainian, had not had time to establish itself on the basis of a genuine national market. For the great mass of rural people, who spoke their own language, the Russians were oppressors: officers, judges, tax collectors, etc. These rural people felt their national oppression all the more so because, in many regions of the empire, the national question and the agrarian question overlapped. For the peasants, the landowners were “foreigners”, most often Russians.
In this heterogeneous whole of unequal development, the proletariat was the only class capable of offering a progressive perspective to all the oppressed. It grew stronger as capitalism was introduced, while the bourgeoisie, itself in development, remained subordinate to the imperialist bourgeoisie and subject to the political power of the Tsarist autocracy.
As Marx and Engels had already pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, as capitalism developed, it connected isolated peoples and unified local markets into a vast world market. Capitalism had linked the fate of the workers of the Tsarist empire to those of Europe and the world.
Suffocating within the limits of their own national borders, looking for zones of influence where they could export capital and goods, Western capitalists had invested in Russia. Locked in a competition to carve out preserves for themselves in a world they had already divided up, the imperialist powers threw themselves against each other in August 1914 to try to modify the existing divisions.
World War I, in which Tsarist Russia was allied militarily with the French and British imperialists, sparked the simmering revolution. In February 1917, the multiple contradictions marking the Tsarist regime burst open. With the Tsar overthrown, in a few months the proletariat, allied with the peasants, many of whom had been mobilized and thus politicized in an accelerated fashion, found themselves in power, under the leadership of the Bolshevik party.
But the seizure of power by the workers in October 1917, in Petrograd and Moscow, was not an end. It was in fact the starting point of the social revolution, and of the problems that it would try to solve. All the social forces hostile to the revolution—from the landowners to the industrial bourgeoisie, passing through the nationalists of all shades—allied to unleash a terrible civil war against the workers’ power.
Overseeing these hostile forces, arming and manipulating them, sending expeditionary forces to support them, the imperialist powers threw all their weight into trying to crush the workers’ revolution and prevent it from spreading to the heart of their own countries.
For Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades, the October Revolution was the starting point of a gigantic struggle, on a European if not a world scale, between the proletariat and all the oppressed on one side and, on the other, the bourgeoisie, striving to take over the direction of society. It was the only way to get society out of the impasse into which capitalism had plunged it and to reorganize it on communist bases.
The Bolsheviks addressed themselves to the workers in the imperialist citadels, to the semi-slaves of their colonies as well as all those oppressed inside the Tsarist empire whose confidence and support they needed to gain.
On the very first day, the Soviet power issued two decrees: one, on peace, addressed the peoples of all Europe to demand a peace without annexation; the other, on land, declared that the property of the landowners, churches and monasteries was expropriated without compensation or redemption. Aimed at winning the support of the peasants, it legalized the division of land, often already carried out by the peasants themselves, and guaranteed their enjoyment of it.
The Bolsheviks also issued a decree on nationalities. This decree affirmed the equality and sovereignty of the different peoples; their right to self-determination, even separating from Soviet Russia to form independent states if they wanted; the abolition of all national and religious privileges the dominant nation, that is, Russian, had enjoyed; and the free development of all national minorities. In an “Appeal to the Muslim Workers of Russia and the East”, Lenin denounced the secret treaties which had provided, among other things, for the partition of Persia and the Ottoman Empire. He said to them: “All of you whose mosques have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled on by the Tsars, your customs, your national and cultural institutions are from now on free and inviolable. Organize freely, without hindrance, your national life. You must be the masters of your countries, your fate is in your own hands.”
Immediately after the October Revolution, independent governments sprang up around Russia. The same politicians who had not dared to formulate national demands under Tsarism suddenly became partisans of “independence”. The senate of Helsinki proclaimed the independence of Finland. In Kyiv, in November 1917, a Rada, or Central Council, representing little more than itself, proclaimed the “Ukrainian People’s Republic”.
The Bolsheviks immediately gave full recognition to these governments that they knew to be hostile. But they thus affirmed, in the eyes of everyone, that they would not, under any pretext, continue Tsarism’s policy of national oppression of tsarism.
Supported by the petty bourgeoisie—rich peasants, merchants, craftsmen, and a good part of the intellectuals—these nationalists hated the Bolsheviks. Less because they saw them as Russians than because of the enthusiasm the revolution aroused in their own territory. These “national” governments began by repressing their populations, crushing workers’ revolutions or popular uprisings in blood, as they did in Finland and Latvia, before supplying troops to the white armies in an attempt to crush Soviet power.
Throughout the civil war, the nationalists were the playthings and instruments of the imperialist powers.
The case of Ukraine is telling. Occupied alternately or simultaneously by German, Austro-Hungarian troops, French and British expeditionary forces, Greek, Polish and Romanian troops, as well as by the counter-revolutionary troops of Denikin and Wrangel and peasant bands of uncontrolled partisans, the Ukraine was the main arena of the Civil War. In three years, from 1917 to 1920, Ukraine changed government ten times. Kyiv was occupied fourteen times!
The power of the Ukrainian Soviet in 1917 was based on the mining region in the east, around Donetsk in the Don basin, the Donbass—at the heart of the current war—and on the proletariat of a few cities like Kharkov. The majority of the peasants and the inhabitants of the towns ended up rallying to the Bolsheviks after years of fighting and many vicissitudes because they noticed the difference in behavior between the red and white troops.
Even the former Prime Minister of the Ukrainian bourgeois government acknowledged, in 1918, “the Rada did not want to free the working masses from social oppression”. Former Tsarist officers deeply despised the poor, the Ukrainians, the Jews. Their troops raped, looted, executed without limit. As for the attitude of French troops under General Franchet d’Esperey, who occupied the Odessa region, supporting the whites and crushing the Hungarian Soviets in 1919, Trotsky compared it to the worst hours of France’s conquest of Algeria, due to the mass executions of civilians.
Conversely, the presence of the Red Army guaranteed the peasants the use of the land and the sharing out of large estates. The Bolsheviks even managed to rally to their side the majority of the Don Cossacks, these peasant-soldiers endowed with privileges in exchange for the role of policemen they played in the service of the Tsar!
Obviously, there were failures and policies developed by trial and error. During the years 1918–1919, faced with the need to feed the starving cities, the Bolshevik power requisitioned the production of wheat and other raw materials. In Ukraine, which had been the granary of the Tsarist empire, this began by encouraging the formation of peasant communes, a form of collectivization from below. But most of the peasant proprietors, even the small ones, rejected the peasant communes as requisitions, and they risked passing over to the camp of the enemies of the proletariat.
The only way to ensure the survival of Soviet power was to cement the alliance of the peasantry with the working class. Thus, despite the famine, the Bolsheviks reduced the requisitions. In January 1920, they guaranteed to the Ukrainian masses “the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor and the wealth of Ukraine”.
In a “Letter to the Workers and Peasants of Ukraine”, Lenin wrote: “We want a freely agreed to alliance, an alliance which does not tolerate any violence of one nation against another.... Only the workers and peasants of Ukraine will decide whether Ukraine should merge with Russia or form an autonomous, independent republic and what federative bond will unite it with Russia.”
This alliance was realized. On the military field, the agreements between Ukraine and Soviet Russia provided for “the creation of cadres for red Ukrainian regiments where the command would be in Ukrainian and the creation of a school of Ukrainian officers.”
The use of the Ukrainian language was encouraged within Soviet institutions. And in all these regions which had once constituted the “Pale of Settlement” [zone of residence] imposed on the Jews, the Bolshevik power promoted the use of Yiddish and Jewish culture in all its forms. Everywhere schools were opened, teachers trained, books and newspapers published in all the national languages.
The alliance between the poor masses of different nationalities was formalized in 1922 by the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which brought together, in a single entity, the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, those of the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) and, a little later, those of Central Asia.
By taking the lead in the social revolution, drawing all the oppressed behind it, the proletariat had defended their common interests and opened up a progressive perspective for the whole of society. By the end of the Civil War, the influence of the nationalist parties over the poor masses of Ukraine had largely receded.
It was a tremendous victory of Bolshevik policy. Today so many countries are breaking up, and so many national minorities are encouraged to separate. The Bolsheviks had managed a tour de force: a large majority of the peoples, yesterday oppressed by Russia, chose to continue to live under one common roof. The Bolsheviks achieved this not by coercion, but by the driving force of their policy. They found the way to unite all the oppressed in a common struggle that took them beyond their nationalities.
This policy made a lasting impression and exerted a powerful force of attraction on all the oppressed peoples of central Europe.
To grasp what this force of attraction was, one must compare it with the politics of the great powers at the same time. They organized a huge dismemberment after World War I of the ruins of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Russian and Ottoman empires. Two principles presided over this dismemberment: to weaken Soviet Russia by supporting all forces hostile to Bolshevism, creating a military belt around its borders; and to weaken the Central European empires, especially Germany, by amputating various parts of its territory.
During the Treaty of Versailles and its annexes signed in 1919, the fate of millions of Eastern Europeans was settled without their being either represented or consulted. New frontiers were drawn. Peoples, cities, and regions were arbitrarily detached from or attached to this or that State.
Slovakia, which had depended on Austria-Hungary—and where, in 1919, an ephemeral Soviet republic had been established within the framework of the workers’ revolution in Hungary—was detached from Hungary, setting it up with Bohemia-Moravia to form Czechoslovakia. As a bonus, Czechoslovakia received the Sub-Carpathian Ukraine.
Bukovina, a former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose population is partly Ukrainian, was given to Romania. Romania, under French military supervision, also received Transylvania.
Poland finally had a recognized national state, after centuries in which its powerful Russian, German and Austrian neighbors had repeatedly dismembered it. Its leaders having chosen the winning side in the war, the latter “offered” Poland a slice of Germany, along with Galicia and Volhynia, Ukrainian regions. In the course of the war against the Red Army, Poland occupied Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, thus absorbing a piece of this Baltic country as well as a portion of territory taken from Soviet Belarus.
The “Polish question” had been a major political issue throughout the 19th century: the progressive parties of Europe had supported Poland’s right to an independent and reunited national existence. But when Poland finally became a state in its own right, it was openly a mercenary in the service of the victorious imperialists, with a dictatorial regime, advised by French officers, including Charles de Gaulle. The Polish example showed that it is not enough for an oppressed people to obtain a State to enjoy freedom, especially when this State is under the tutelage of one or another of the imperialists.
Thus, you have a brief overview of the “peace policies” implemented by the imperialist powers in the name of the “law of nationalities”. Each of these border changes meant displacements of populations, exactions against peoples who had suddenly become a minority in a new oppressive state. Peoples, like the Ukrainians, were torn between three or four countries.
The Communist International denounced these “peace policies”, under which the new states were condemned “to be chained to each other by mutual hatred and general weakness.” The “Peace of Versailles” would fuel nationalist resentment, xenophobia, and provide fuel for all the extreme-right demagogues. In the mid-1930s, almost all the states of Central and Eastern Europe were presided over by ferociously anti-working class dictatorships, supported by the army or by more or less fascistic parties.
The tragedy of this period is that the Soviet Union had ceased to offer the oppressed a progressive alternative. Indeed, from the mid-1920s on, the proletariat and the revolutionary communists would lose power in the USSR to the bureaucracy. And Stalin would progressively impose himself as the representative of the interests of this privileged stratum of chiefs, big and small, of the party and of the state apparatus.
How did this happen?
The failures of the workers’ revolution, particularly in Germany, had left the Soviet Union isolated and battered. The working class, exhausted, intervened less and less in political life. Thousands of bureaucrats, aspiring only to profit from their position and its associated privileges, threw aside everyone who threatened their positions, and first of all the Bolsheviks. By the end of a struggle that lasted fifteen years, Stalin had eliminated the Left Opposition which, with Trotsky, continued to defend the interests of the working class and of the world revolution. The bureaucracy had replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat with its own dictatorship, and finally with the personal dictatorship of Stalin.
At the same time, this bureaucracy had to confront pressure inside the USSR from an urban and rural bourgeoisie which regained strength and threatened to regain power and restore private property. Faced with this threat, the bureaucracy deemed it safer to maintain collective ownership of the means of production and state control over foreign trade.
But if the bureaucracy stopped trying to liquidate all the acquisitions of October, it did not stop expanding its privileges and its levies on the wealth produced by the exploitation of all the workers.
Thanks to industrialization, which was carried out from above, with the State concentrating the limited means available, on the scale of a continental country and according to a plan, a new society was built, with undeniable success. Despite the isolation of the country and its backwardness, despite the parasitism of the bureaucrats, despite the enormous waste and the unprecedented brutality of its implementation, this planning was in spite of everything more effective than the “invisible hand of the market”.
In a few years, it gave rise to an industrial power on bases other than capitalism. As Trotsky wrote in 1936, the very existence of the USSR meant that “socialism had demonstrated its right to victory, not in the pages of Capital, but in an economic arena which covers one-sixth of the globe in the language of iron, cement, and electricity.”
The Soviet Union escaped the direct plunder of imperialism and its political and military tutelage. But it had become a dictatorship that opposed workers’ revolutions and no longer aimed to overthrow the bourgeoisie anywhere in the world. Trotsky summed up these two contradictory aspects in his characterization of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state.
In the field of nationalities, the policy of Stalin and his clique was as brutal and contrary to the interests of the masses as in all other fields. In the USSR, national minorities were subjected to Kremlin henchmen who denounced any challenge to their arbitrariness as bourgeois nationalism. Internationally, the peoples became a bargaining chip in Stalin’s foreign policy.
Discussing in April 1939 the “Ukrainian question”, Trotsky noted the damage of the politics of the bureaucracy in the political consciousness of the oppressed. He wrote: “Nowhere so much as in the Ukraine did restrictions, purges, repression and, in general, all forms of bureaucratic banditry assume such a murderous character of violence.”
This was particularly the case of the forced collectivization of the land with the brutal expropriation of the kulaks and their physical elimination which caused a terrible famine in 1932–1933. This collectivization, which Trotsky would say cost “as dearly as a foreign invasion”, caused millions of victims throughout the Soviet Union. Because of its breadbasket role, Ukraine paid a heavy price in this tragedy.
This crime of Stalinism is used today by Ukrainian nationalists, who are rewriting history by presenting this tragic episode as an attempt at genocide by Russia. They call it Holodomor in Ukrainian, which means “extermination by starvation”.
Yes, Stalin’s policy was criminal!
But the victims were the starving masses of the countryside, the over exploited and starved workers in the cities, of all nationalities and throughout the Soviet Union. In the eyes of the Russian, Ukrainian, Polish masses, and well beyond the USSR, these crimes discredited the flag of communism, which the bureaucrats unduly claimed.
In “The Ukrainian Question”, Trotsky wrote: “Nothing remains of the former confidence and sympathy of the masses of Western Ukraine for the Kremlin.... The worker and peasant masses of Galicia, Bukovina, Sub-Carpathian Ukraine, are in complete confusion. Where to turn? What to claim? And because of this situation, the leadership is slipping into the hands of the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques who express their “nationalism” by seeking to sell the Ukrainian people to one or another of the imperialisms in exchange for a promise of fictitious independence.”
Trotsky sought to offer the proletariat an independent policy between the barbarism of Stalin on the one hand and that of imperialism, embodied by Hitler, on the other. He put forward the slogan of a “Soviet Ukraine, workers and peasants, united, free and independent.”
In this formulation, every word counts. Trotsky defended the idea of a free and independent Ukraine, that is to say freed from the Stalinist dictatorship. But a Ukraine that is Soviet, therefore under the control of workers and peasants. This slogan only made sense within the framework of a conscious intervention by the workers to change the course of events, in other words a revolution. Trotsky defended independence neither under the aegis of the bureaucrats of the Soviet part of Ukraine, nor under that of the bourgeoisie of Western Ukraine, itself dominated by the imperialist powers. He defended independence from both sides.
Above all, he insisted on the international character of the Ukrainian situation: the future of Ukraine, divided between several States, was linked to the evolution of the situation throughout Europe where the march to the Second World War had begun.
A few months later, in September 1939, within the framework of the German-Soviet pact, Stalin and Hitler divided up Poland, with the USSR recovering the Baltic countries and annexing Ukrainian Galicia. This boundless cynicism of Stalin with regard to the people opened, in Ukraine, a boulevard to the nationalist extreme right and to its exactions.
The fascistic nationalists, present in the part of Ukraine attached to Poland, led by Stepan Bandera, offered to serve Hitler. Two years later, Galicia provided the cadres and troops of a Ukrainian SS division fighting against the Soviet army and partisans. In Volhynia, from 1942, the armed gangs of the UPA [the Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army], nationalist and fascist, massacred Jews, Communists and Poles.
Seventy years later, as we have seen with the groups that occupied the Maidan last winter, certain currents openly claim to belong to the UPA, Bandera and the Ukrainian fascists. This allegiance goes beyond the extreme right: in 2010, pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko elevated Bandera to the rank of “hero of Ukraine”.
Since the end of the 1930s when Trotsky was discussing the future of Ukraine, the international situation and the balance of power between the various imperialists have changed. But the way in which he posed the problems remains highly current. Today  like yesterday, for lack of an independent intervention of the proletariat, the “most reactionary of the Ukrainian cliques” are selling the Ukrainian people to imperialism in exchange for a fictitious independence. We will come back to this.
After the barbarism of the Second World War—with its 60 to 80 million deaths, including 20 to 25 million Soviets, all nationalities combined, its massacres and its genocides—the end of the war saw an alliance sealed between the imperialist powers and the Stalinist bureaucracy. They shared the work of restoring order throughout the part of Europe which had been occupied by Germany, each taking care of the countries or regions which its armies occupied. This was the subject of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements in 1945.
In central Europe, the two agreements endorsed new border changes. Once again, the flesh of the people was carved up. Poland was moved 200 kilometers to the west. The three Baltic countries were integrated into the Soviet Union, while Galicia and Ruthenia joined Soviet Ukraine. The USSR also recovered Moldavia and a piece of Finland.
This led to violent population displacements, of which the Germans were the main victims. Thirteen to fourteen million Germans were forcibly expelled from where they had lived. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were driven out of Belarus and Ukraine. In return, Ukrainians and Belarusians had to leave Poland.
This sinister policy of “ethnic cleansing” was carried out with the complicity of the West. The Yalta and Potsdam agreements explicitly provided for these “transfers” of populations. This was part of the deal Roosevelt and Churchill made with Stalin, whose army, political police, or local emulators were to re-establish state apparatuses in order to muzzle and oppress the working classes in what would become the Popular Democracies.
In the areas they had assigned themselves, the imperialist rulers did the same. In Greece, they crushed communist resistance in blood, and, in the following years, they oppressed multiple revolts in the colonial or semi-colonial countries. This division of tasks gave carte blanche to the bureaucracy to maintain order in “its” area of influence. And that included crushing in blood revolts or workers’ revolutions, as in East Berlin in 1953, and in Budapest in 1956, or even a peaceful national movement in Prague in 1968.
This lets us judge all the current speeches of world leaders about the inalienable rights of peoples, respect for national minorities and their denunciations of war crimes. Yesterday, like today, the claims of the imperialists to respect the “right of peoples” are as cynical as those of the leaders of the Kremlin.
The agreements drawn up at Yalta and Potsdam were generally respected until the disappearance of the Soviet Union in December 1991. However, during all these years, the imperialists never ceased to exert military, diplomatic and economic pressure on a USSR that still escaped their grasp. And, while they counted on the Soviet Union to help maintain the world order, they did not hesitate to weaken it as soon as they could, which created multiple sources of tension during the Cold War.
In 1985, as the generation that had ruled the USSR since the 1960s died out, Gorbachev rose to the post of General Secretary of the CPSU, the Communist Party of the USSR. He was on top of an apparatus of several million bureaucrats who derived their power and their privileges from their position at the head of the great economic ministries, the administration of industrial cities, large regions, or Soviet republics.
To consolidate his power at the head of a fractured apparatus, Gorbachev launched, under the name of perestroika and glasnost, a series of reforms. By letting broad layers of bureaucrats voice their grievances against the upper tiers, Gorbachev loosened the iron grip of central power. But it was the only cement that had held a deeply cracked building upright.
Gorbachev was “outdemagogued” by Yeltsin, another member of the party’s governing body, who had been elected head of the Russian Federation, thanks to support by the petty bourgeoisie. He promised that the “market” would give them freedom to travel and access to shops well stocked with Western products. To the high bureaucracy, of which he was a pure product, Yeltsin offered “freedom” to privatize the pieces of industry they already controlled. And he advised the bureaucrats in the non-Russian republics to take “as much power as you can”.
The centrifugal forces thus released would paralyze and then shatter the Soviet Union. Yeltsin joined with his Ukrainian and Belarusian cronies to proclaim the dissolution of the USSR, thus getting rid of the tutelage of Gorbachev who was still at the head of the Soviet Union.
Putin, Yeltsin’s successor, today says that “the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century”. But let us note that at the time, there was practically no one among the high bureaucrats, within the army or the KGB, who tried to prevent this disappearance, or could have done so.
By struggling among themselves for power and control of wealth, the highest-ranking bureaucrats—those of the party and state leadership, those of the big ministries, the KGB, and the army—sped up the breakup of the USSR.
Russia, which inherited most of the Soviet state apparatus, its army, its fleet, its nuclear arsenal, its position on the U.N. Security Council, was the largest and most powerful of the fifteen Soviet republics. But that did not prevent it from suffering a real economic, social, and human cataclysm.
Between 1990 and 1998, Russia experienced one of the most violent recessions in economic history: its gross domestic product fell by 45%, investments by 65%. In all of recent history, no country, especially of this size, has suffered such a catastrophe.
An economy designed to operate collectively across a vast continent was dismantled, as the result of systematic looting by mafioso bureaucrats. Everything that could be sold for foreign currency—raw materials, agricultural resources, industrial production, etc.—was sold.
During this same period, 20 billion dollars left Russia each year, deposited in Swiss banks or other tax havens. It was a scramble for spoils.
A myriad of bureaucrats, starting with the most senior, devised legal schemes to take control of the companies they ran and set up front companies to transfer their earnings overseas.
Stealing and looting, then transferring the money to accounts abroad, was the common behavior of all the bureaucrats become businessmen. The legalization of the capitalist “market” and the privatization of companies in the early 1990s were the official guise of this plunder.
We find the same behavior in Ukraine. Yulia Tymoshenko, figurehead of the opposition in 2004, then Prime Minister, presented as a “martyr of democracy” because of her stays in prison, is first and foremost a billionaire. She grew rich in the gas trade, a source of unlimited trafficking in Ukraine, a transit country for Russian gas to Europe.
In Russia as in Ukraine, to be able to benefit from privatization, you had to be close to power. This is one of the major characteristics of these new “capitalists”: their right to property is guaranteed only if they are protected by power. When power changes or when a wheeler-dealer loses his protection in the Kremlin, multiple legal troubles soon force him to “sell” his shares at a friendly price. And he must still consider himself lucky if he does not lose his freedom, even his life, in the process. This is part of the genetic heritage of the bureaucracy which developed as a parasite on a state-controlled economy.
Although it was accompanied by more or less profound popular movements in various parts of the country, the break-up of the USSR was above all the product of struggles at the heights of the bureaucracy. These struggles were aimed at preserving the regional or sectoral strongholds from which the bureaucracy derived its power and revenue.
However, the feeling of belonging to a vast common entity, unified economically and culturally, was very real. In the USSR, citizenship—Soviet—was distinguished from nationality—Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian, Georgian, etc. This nationality, declared by the parents when registering their child, could be changed upon adulthood. In addition, more than 40 million Soviets, or one in seven, lived in a republic other than that corresponding to their nationality. In 1989, nearly seven million Ukrainians lived outside their republic.
For these millions of Soviet citizens like that, the break-up of the USSR was all the more painful in that it transformed them into foreigners in their own country.
This does not mean that a national feeling, and even of national oppression, did not exist. The Soviet Union had long since had nothing to do with the fraternity between peoples it had known at its birth. When Gorbachev lifted the censorship even a little, a multitude of national demands immediately found expression. But they were largely manipulated by bureaucrats. Appearing as champions of one or another nationalism, local bureaucrats thus evaded control by the Kremlin.
In Kazakhstan, in 1986, when the first secretary of the party, a Kazakh, was replaced by a Russian, this provoked riots. No doubt the Kazakh workers must have felt the eviction of a Kazakh, even a corrupt one, in favor of a Russian as a humiliation. But this legitimate feeling was used by the Kazakh bureaucrats to force Moscow to recognize their right to remain masters of “their own” population.
In Georgia, between 1987 and 1990, opposition parties emerged around dissidents—nationalists and/or religious—who contended with each other, the Georgians on the one hand, the Abkhazians then the Ossetians on the other, who had their own autonomous republic within Georgia. As soon as independence was proclaimed, these tensions turned into real wars which are still going on! The territory of Little Georgia broke up, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia becoming de facto protectorates of Russia.
It is significant that the regional heads of the bureaucracy kept or retook power in the newly independent states: Kravchuk in Ukraine, Aliev in Azerbaijan, Shevarnadze in Georgia, etc.
After independence, competing politicians exacerbated national or ethnic rivalries to consolidate their power. Minorities like the Armenians in Azerbaijan, the Uzbeks in Tajikistan, but also the Russians, especially when they were poor, paid the price. If millions of Russians, formerly settled in the peripheral republics, particularly in Asia and the Caucasus, have returned to live in Russia, it is primarily to find something to live on. But it is also, often, because they were subject to discrimination and harassment.
Ukraine, with the exception of its westernmost part, had multiple and very old ties with Russia. Not only are the two languages very similar, but in 1991, a third of the inhabitants of Ukraine declared that they spoke exclusively Russian. Like Gorbachev, there are many ex-Soviets who have a Russian grandmother and a Ukrainian one.
In the time of the USSR, the border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, as between all republics, was purely administrative, with no practical consequences for the population. At the same time, all the suffering in the Stalinist era helped to maintain national sentiment.
By December 1991, when the USSR existed only in virtual form, Ukrainian leaders of the bureaucracy organized a referendum in which 80% of the voters voted for independence. Among them there were Russian speakers and also Russians living in this republic. In this failing Soviet Union, voting for independence of the republic in which one lived meant voting against the paralysis of the economy, the political chaos, the shortages affecting even the most essential products, etc.
To disentangle these various feelings and to allow the working class to defend its own interests in the whirlwind of political events in Ukraine, as in the rest of the Soviet Union, there needed to be militants who addressed it as a class capable of taking over the management of society. Militants were needed who gave themselves the objective of helping the workers to oppose the dismantling and the privatization of their workplaces, the demolition of all the planning levers; the objective of themselves taking control of the factories, the mines, of all the means of production, so that those would have served to satisfy above all the needs of the population.
But no one then campaigned in Ukraine on this political basis. Most intellectuals hailed independence, maintaining the illusion that by breaking away from the USSR, Ukraine would move closer to the West and thus the shops would fill up and the standard of living increase.
Except for a minority of bureaucrats and mafioso businessmen, independence could not bring about this miracle. On the contrary, the severance of economic ties with Russia precipitated the majority of the population into destitution and misery!
In Ukraine as in Russia, a few dozen “oligarchs” have carved up the economy. But, even more than in Russia, immense fortunes have been built and then redistributed around local bureaucratic clans.
The most powerful oligarchs have their stronghold in the huge Southeast region, including the Donbass where the largest industrial complexes—steel, metallurgy, coal, iron, or uranium mines—are concentrated.
But just because these oligarchs have their bases in the Russian-speaking part of the country doesn’t mean they are pro-Russian. It’s much more complicated. The Ukrainian productive apparatus having been entirely conceived as a component of a Soviet economic fabric, a large part of the exchanges continues to be with Russia. But the well-to-do Ukrainians compete there with the industrial and financial groups of the more powerful Russian oligarchs.
Regardless of whether they have pro-Russian or pro-Western sentiments, which are versatile in terms of changing relationships of power, these super-rich are characterized by competing for the power to plunder the country. They are often government ministers because ministerial posts make their business easier.
Until last year, with nuances according to who occupied the Ukrainian presidency, the Ukrainian power tried to maintain a balance between Russia and the European Union.
At the very beginning of the collapse, Western leaders were very circumspect in their reactions. The disappearance of the Soviet Union may have marked the victory of imperialism in the cold war. But it disrupted the distribution of police roles in Europe and created a new and therefore worrying situation for the upholders of world order.
But since 1991, the imperialist powers have never stopped probing the remnants of the USSR to bring the ex-Soviet republics, including Ukraine, into the bosom of NATO and place them under their economic and political tutelage.
In 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO, which installed rockets on the western border of the former USSR. In 2004, it was the turn of the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These countries thus placed themselves under American military protection. For NATO, it was a way of gaining ground without firing a shot against Russia.
Taking advantage of the attacks of September 11 and the second war in Afghanistan, launched with the approval of Russia, the United States set up military bases in ex-Soviet Central Asia. Part of the major American maneuvers in Central Asia are aimed at gaining access to the gas and oil this region abounds in.
Europeans also compete in the former Soviet Union to buy its raw materials, sell equipment, or build infrastructure there. Bouygues is one of Turkmenistan’s leading suppliers. In 2013, Kazakhstan carried out 40% of its trade with Europe. This reflects the weakening of Russia in the post-Soviet space and its inability to compete with imperialism.
NATO, born in 1949 as a military alliance directed against the Soviet Union, survived the end of the USSR. But it remains what it has always been: a military instrument intended to ensure the imperialist world order at the same time as American preeminence. Since 1991, its forces have been deployed whenever Russia or China vetoed an intervention under the aegis of the U.N. This was the case when Russia supported Serbia in 1999 or Iraq in 2003. The possible integration of Ukraine into NATO can therefore only be perceived as a direct threat by Putin’s Russia.
Admired to some extent before the Ukraine crisis for the way he restored a crumbling state apparatus, Putin since 2015 has been considered not fit to associate with.
Putin is without a doubt head of an authoritarian, police regime. He restored state authority in Russia with cudgels.
Putin was also part of the inner circle around Yeltsin. He participated in the looting of public property and was chosen among a few suitors to succeed him.
At the end of 1999, even before taking the presidency, Putin relaunched the war in Chechnya. His formula: “I’ll go kill the terrorists in the toilet”, showed the KGB soldier hidden under the Prime Minister’s suit. Relying, in Grozny, on the militias of Kadyrov, an Islamist dictator, as mafia-like as he is bloodthirsty, Putin “pacified” Chechnya—at the price of the lives of thousands of civilians and young soldiers.
With cynicism, he played on the claim to be fighting against terrorism. But it was intended to prove to the population that under him, order would return. Attacks were used to divert the attention of the working classes, victims of bureaucracy and oligarchs, toward Caucasian scapegoats. Fueling racism, referring to eternal Russia, promising to restore the power of the dignitaries of the Orthodox Church, he reinforced the most reactionary ideas and currents in Russia.
Putin created seven super-regions, each headed by a super-prefect directly appointed by himself. He thus regained control of the regional authorities which for ten years had flouted the decisions of the Kremlin.
This policy was not to the liking of the oligarchs who had contributed to Putin’s election and who enriched themselves fabulously in the looting of state property. In a few months, Putin gained control of the media belonging to overly critical oligarchs and some were imprisoned before being driven into exile. Putin’s message to them was clear: “Don’t get involved in politics, either publicly or behind the scenes. Keep getting rich all you want but pay your taxes and let me run the country.”
One of them, Khodorkovsky, didn’t want to understand. He wanted to open his oil companies to investment by American companies. In politics, he posed as a champion of democracy and liberalism. In October 2003, he was arrested for fraud and tax evasion. He received eight years of detention in Siberia. His company Yukos was dismembered, then allocated in pieces to those close to the Kremlin. In 2010, a new judgment for oil theft and money laundering added five years in prison. Finally released just before the Olympics in Sochi, Khodorkovsky hastened to leave Russia.
Like all his predecessors, Putin placed those close to him in the state apparatus or at the head of the country’s main companies, throwing aside anyone who did not bow to his authority or simply interfered with the affairs of his proteges.
He relied particularly on the siloviki—the Russian name for bureaucrats linked to the army or the political police (FSB), from which he himself came. They undoubtedly shared with Putin, in addition to muscular methods, the same “patriotism”, that is to say the conviction that it was necessary to restore the weight of the State after years of collapse under Yeltsin. The siloviki thus took their revenge because they felt wronged by the privatizations of the 1990s.
Putin’s policy is primarily aimed at defending the collective interests of Russia’s bureaucrats and privileged people. To continue the looting of wealth, raw materials, hydrocarbons, it is necessary to have the capacity to impose itself against the large competing Western groups. It’s also necessary to prevent a Khodorkovsky from being able, for his own profit, to freely sell the gems of the energy sector to this or that Western group. This requires a sufficiently powerful, feared, and respected state apparatus.
Gazprom, of which the state is the majority shareholder, is much more than a giant company that generates profits. It is a powerful political weapon of the Russian state in negotiations with Western countries that buy gas, and with the former Soviet republics, whether they are producers like in Central Asia or customers like Ukraine or Belarus.
It was the high level of oil and gas prices that enabled the Russian economy to emerge from the financial crash of 1998 and to delay the effects of the global crisis of 2008. If the army and the FSB were able to be re-equipped and the salaries of their agents paid, it is thanks to the income from hydrocarbons. This is also what allowed, until the current crisis, certain layers of the Russian population, the petty bourgeoisie in the broad sense, to see their lot improved a little. Millions of members of the state apparatus have seen their incomes rise sharply and their social situation strengthen with the foreign exchange earnings provided to Russia by the sale of raw materials.
This defense of the collective interests of the privileged people who control the Russian economy has earned Putin’s policy the qualification of imperialist. Coming from Western leaders, it looks like a bad joke. In fact, it is part of the propaganda to justify the sanctions against Russia and to prepare the minds for a possible even more direct military support to the Ukrainian government.
For Marxists, the notion of imperialism has a very precise meaning. This term does not characterize simply a policy of territorial extension. In an economy dominated by the bourgeoisie, imperialism has been, for more than a century, the policy of expansion throughout the planet and domination of the most powerful capitalist groups, in search of outlets for their capital and their goods and protected sources of raw materials, while seeking to consolidate their markets. The entire foreign and diplomatic policy of Western governments—of which military interventions are an extension—is aimed at defending the interests, particular and general, of their industrial and financial groups.
These characteristics are hard to apply to present-day Russia. A first difference between Russia and the West is, to simplify things, that in the West it is the capitalists who dictate their demands to the state, while in Russia, until now, it is the reverse.
And when Russian capital is exported en masse from the country, it is not because there could not be profitable productive investments in Russia itself. The Russian production system is also cruelly lacking in investment. In fact, when the Russian oligarchs export their money, it is to place it in Swiss banks or tax havens. When they “invest” abroad, it is above all to create a “relief aerodrome”, in other words a host country which can give them asylum and a passport in the event of a conflict between them and the power in the Kremlin.
None of this justifies Moscow’s aggressive policy in Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia or elsewhere. Nor the oppression of the working classes in Russia. But understanding this helps to explain the current relations between the imperialist powers and Russia, which seeks to resist the maneuvers and pressures of the former.
The European Union has nothing but blood and tears to offer Ukraine.
Since the overthrow of Ukraine’s fourth president, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014, the European Union has been posing as the protector of Ukraine. But ever since the independence of Ukraine in 1991, while all the Ukrainian governments have asked to join Europe, it has regularly slammed the door on their fingers.
In 2009, almost twenty years after the break-up of the USSR, European leaders offered an “association contract” to Ukraine and five other ex-Soviet republics. It was a free trade agreement that would allow Western firms to sell their products tax-free and unhindered, but without any economic support for Ukraine.
It was an even more unequal agreement than the ones offered to the old People’s Democracies, then to the Baltic countries, which joined the European Union in a subordinate position in 2004.
The popular classes of those countries got little from the capitalist market except the raid by Western groups on their businesses, the systematic dismantling of their economy and the rise in unemployment. Admittedly, the population of these countries was finally able to move freely in Europe—to seek work. But even this is not offered to Ukrainians.
The example of visas is enlightening. While European nationals do not need one to go to Ukraine, Ukrainians must provide a long list of documents to obtain a visa which allows them to enter a country of the European Union. And the enlargement of the Schengen area to Poland has complicated the procedures for millions of Ukrainian or Belarusian border workers, who go there to earn their living.
The free trade agreement proposed by the EU, and signed by the new power in Kyiv, is a declaration of trade war against Russia. It obliges Ukraine and the other countries to choose between two partnerships: that with the European Union or with the Eurasian Economic Union that Putin proposed to them.
As for Westerners’ declarations of love for Ukraine, they are accompanied by very few concrete gestures. From February 2014 to mid-January 2015, the IMF promised 17 billion dollars but paid Ukraine only 4.6. And to lend this money to Ukraine, at rates as high as those offered to Greece or Portugal, the IMF demands the implementation of an austerity policy: increase in the retirement age; doubling or tripling the price of gas and electricity for the population; massive reductions in salaries, pensions, social allowances, civil service personnel.
Post-Soviet Ukraine, despite its resources and its steel industry, is a country that has become vulnerable to the ups and downs of the world economy. In addition to the plundering of the economy by bureaucrats and oligarchs, there are the consequences of the 2008 crisis of capitalism, which dried up many outlets for its steel and coal and worsened unemployment.
In the less industrialized western Ukraine, official unemployment exceeds 30%. When the collective farms were liquidated in the 1990s, tens of thousands of kolkhozians, the agricultural workers, were left without an income. Many emigrated to Poland or Western Europe, even Russia. The desperation of these populations contributed to leading them toward the opponents who seemed to them the most radical, the ultra-nationalist extreme right.
The situation in the east is hardly any better. Successive privatizations and resales have caused the closure of factories and mines and layoffs. The number of full-time jobs in industry has been reduced by almost half in twenty-five years. And on January 1, 2014, the average salary in Ukraine was 318 euros against 926 euros in Russia. With the war and the crisis, wages have collapsed, as did those of the metalworkers of the giant Azovstal factory in Mariupol who earn less than 150 euros per month.
The Donbass miners had partially retained, until the outbreak of the war, their salaries and social security—at least in those mines that remained in operation. But the thousands who lost their jobs often had no other resources than to go to work in Russia or, on the spot, in the kopanki, clandestine mines, dangerous because not maintained. Not only are the miners victims of dilapidation, lack of maintenance and the owners’ rapacity, but for the past year they have also been victims of the bombardments that are pounding the region and power cuts that stop pumps and elevators. The Ukrainian government and the separatist leaders both play with the lives of injured miners by passing on the responsibility for blocking relief!
So yesterday as today, whether they express it in Russian or in Ukrainian, whether they live in the east, in the west or in the center of the country, the workers had a thousand reasons to revolt.
But one of the dramas of the Ukrainian crisis is that the workers were never in a position to make themselves heard there as a class, even in a minority way.
From the start, the demonstrations in the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, were presented as “the expression of the Ukrainian people affirming their attachment to European democratic values”. As barricades and then clashes with the police appeared, they were described as a “revolutionary insurrection”.
This was not an expression of “democracy”. It simply showed that a mass movement always finds a leadership. Sometimes it is the worst—as it was in Kyiv where reactionary politicians, advised and supported by Western powers, kept the political initiative from start to finish.
To make their political interests heard, their own demands, their own reasons for opposing the regime, the workers needed to have a party of their own. A party that allowed them to challenge reactionary politicians to lead the movement to bring it onto class ground.
They did not have that. The majority of demonstrators in the winter of 2013–2014 on the Maidan, at least at the beginning, were petty bourgeois: students who would like to travel and study abroad, in particular in the European Union, petty bosses who were victims the racketeering of the oligarchs as well as the corruption of the state. There were also declassed people from the western provinces, reputed to be the cradle of Ukrainian nationalism, unemployed people who often found themselves following extreme-right groups.
To lead this movement, we found, those like Tymoshenko and some of the actors of the “orange revolution” of 2004. This so-called revolution was already a mobilization of the pro-Western petty bourgeoisie, through associations and parties largely supported by American NGOs. But like all remakes, the actors are renewed. Last year, we found the boxer Vitali Klitschko, with his party financed by the oligarch of chemical industry, and supported by the party of the German right, the CDU. Still on the right was the current Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. This young technocrat, trained in the United States and openly supported by them, never hid his anti-worker hatred of the miners of Donbass whom he repeatedly called “assisted persons”.
Right out in front, lining up on the Maidan, were representatives of the Western powers like Victoria Nuland, assistant to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. These envoys from the United States, but also from Germany and incidentally from France, each had their own horse in the race and rival interests to promote. Nuland, speaking to her ambassador in Kyiv, privately she believed, summed up that interest bluntly by saying: “Fuck the EU!”
There were also openly extreme-right parties. Svoboda (Freedom), which honors the World War II Ukrainian fascist Stepan Bandera, and which had four ministers in the provisional government in March 2014, calling the previous regime a “Judeo-Moscow mafia”. Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), an openly neo-Nazi party, tries to be even more radical. These violently anti-Russian, anti-Semitic and anti-worker currents, with their armed groups, set the tone for the mobilization. Afterward, they were a component in the new power.
In this ultra-nationalist atmosphere, the most reactionary believed they could do anything. A majority of members of the Rada, elected under Yanukovych, repealed a law which recognized Russian as a regional language. The height of irony, this law had been adopted by the previous president in order to comply with the charter for minority languages, promulgated by Europe! The impact of such a decision, and not only in the east of the country, led the new government to backtrack. But the damage was done, and the political signal was obvious.
For their part, the Party of Regions, of Yanukovych, and the Communist Party of Ukraine, which supported him to the end, presented the demonstrators of the Maidan as hordes of fascists ready to assassinate all Russian speakers. And the anti-Russian statements of Kyiv politicians could only fuel the fears of the Russian-speaking population.
A murderous spiral was therefore underway, with each camp escalating to mobilize “its” population.
With the organization in March of a referendum in Crimea on its attachment to the Russian Federation, followed by Western economic sanctions against Russia, the Ukrainian crisis became internationalized.
The West may have indignantly cried that Russia was taking Crimea, which Khrushchev had administratively attached to Ukraine in 1954, but the population of Crimea feels Russian for the most part. And they expressed it during the referendum.
But Putin did not act to accommodate the pro-Russian sentiments of Crimeans. He wanted to keep control of the Sevastopol naval base and appear for his own population as the champion of Russian nationalism. Thus, he bears direct responsibility for the aggravation of the crisis. Worse, by supporting, if not organizing the secession of Donbass himself, Putin contributed to transforming the political crisis into a civil war.
The nationalist declarations and acts of the new power in Kyiv allowed the separatists to play on the fears of the Russian-speaking population of Donbass. This explains why the separatists won the May 2014 elections proclaiming the sovereignty of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
But these two regions quickly saw an influx of thousands of paramilitaries and Russian soldiers supervised by agents of the Russian special services. These nationalists claiming to restore New Russia—a Tsarist-era term—have the same contempt for the people of Donbass as do the Ukrainian nationalists.
Caught in the spiral of war, the six million inhabitants of Donbass were therefore condemned to flee the fighting or to take part in it against their immediate neighbors or those of other regions. The majority of the more than 6,000 dead to date are civilians killed by bombing or murdered by armed gangs on one side or another. Over a million eastern Ukrainians have become refugees, either in Russia or in other parts of Ukraine. They often lost everything. Destruction in Donbass is considerable: 80% of its economic potential has been destroyed; hundreds of factories demolished; thousands more paralyzed; tens of thousands of buildings destroyed, including schools, hospitals, nurseries.
The continuation of the fighting turns the region into a field of ruins and into hell for the population of the besieged cities.
On the other hand, Poroshenko, elected to the presidency in May 2014 and whose party won the legislative elections in October, is posing as a champion of Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”. He appears like a warlord who has set out to reconquer rebel regions. His government is directly under the tutelage of the imperialist powers. [As is the government of his successor, the Ukrainian comedian, Zelenskyy, who was elected in 2019.]
Symbolizing the Ukraine government’s ties with the United States, its 2015 Minister of Finance, Natalie Jaresko, is an American of Ukrainian origin. She may have been given Ukrainian citizenship with an “emergency” naturalization, but she started her career at the U.S. State Department!
With her and other ministers having cut their teeth in the West, Ukraine’s government is now presenting the bill to the population.
Added to the consequences of the global economic crisis are the cost of the war (4 to 5 million euros per day), the destruction and disorganization of the economy (the Donbass provided 15% of the Ukrainian domestic product), the fall of Ukrainian currency, and inflation which reached 20% in 2014.
Almost all the former ministers, deputies and oligarchs who once served under the supposedly “pro-Russian” government of Yanukovych, have now rallied to Poroshenko. [The change of government did not prevent them from pursuing their career close to the centers of power, as they did before, and for the same reasons. Proximity to power remains in Ukraine, as in Russia, the best way to enrich oneself. The oligarchs—that is, those business magnates who, with the complicity of the state based themselves on the previously state-owned enterprises—often jostle among themselves to get closer to the center of power.] The population continues to suffer under their corruption and embezzlement. These oligarchs, as mayors of large cities or governors of regions, often provide their own militias to support their interests in a Ukraine increasingly carved up into private fiefdoms. This paves the way for further potential secessions, as each of the oligarchs plays his own card regardless of which side they have joined. They are simply waiting to see which way the wind will turn.
Marking Poroshenko’s cynicism, he appointed ex-president of Georgia Saakashvili his special adviser in charge of supervising anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine! It is true that Saakashvili is an expert in the matter, he was ousted from power by the Georgians after his army was so plagued by corruption that it scampered off without a fight when, in 2008, Saakashvili thought he could attack Russia!
Then there is the war itself. Every young Ukrainian can be mobilized. Some conscripts may be proud to participate in the anti-terrorist operation, Kyiv calls it; others may join because they are unemployed and without prospects. But more and more of them flee the mobilization. In a sign of young people’s refusal to die for a war which is obviously not theirs, the government is in its fourth conscription campaign in less than a year. And Ukraine is now forced to draft men of 40 or 50 to fill the army’s needs.
Despite the dispatch of military advisers and Western armaments, this army is under-equipped, under-armed, victim of general corruption. It is backing down on all fronts and soldiers are forced to collect donations on the street to finance their basic equipment.
The absence of a functioning Ukrainian army has opened the door to the involvement of militias linked to extreme-right parties. The oligarchs also created their own private battalions which they sent to fight against what they call “the bandits of Donbass”. Making this “patriotic gesture”, they thus make themselves indispensable to the central power. At the same time, they add to the steady development of all these organized extreme-right forces that are available to be used against the population.
Even if this war ends quickly, the popular classes all over Ukraine have already lost a lot. It is to them that the cliques in power and their Western sponsors present increasingly heavy bills. Worse, a ditch of blood has already been dug between populations who have lived side by side for decades if not centuries, even within families whose members choose different sides. This hatred, exacerbated by nationalists on both sides, organizing violence against the other side, can tip other cities in Ukraine into bloody chaos. The latest murderous attack in Kharkov, the country’s second city, tragically illustrates this.
For all these reasons, this 2014–15 war in the east/southeast of Ukraine is a tragedy. The leaders of the powers who, behind each camp, use Ukraine as a battleground, are criminals.
The responsibility of Putin, representing the interests of men at the top of the Russian state apparatus and businessmen close to power in Russia, is obvious.
So is the responsibility of Western leaders. To tip Ukraine definitively into the Western orbit, they did not hesitate to support the most reactionary Ukrainian cliques, to use Trotsky’s expression. Oh, they may not have wanted civil war, nor the chaos and destabilization it engenders, but they set in motion the gears that produced it!
As always, the interests of the imperialist powers are contradictory. In Ukraine, the United States set the tone, followed willy-nilly by the second-class imperialists who do not want to lose out in the division of spoils. Merkel and Hollande’s joint efforts in early February to secure an agreement in Minsk indicate that European leaders would like to put out the Ukrainian fire as soon as possible. They want to be able to resume the normal course of business with Russia and not take the risk of a war spreading up to the gates of the European Union. In the United States, while Obama shows caution, some Republican Party officials are calling for a more massive commitment. In other words, they are ready to wage war on Putin through Ukraine.
No more on the Ukrainian question than on the Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Malian or other questions, the workers, no matter where they are, must not support the policy of their leaders.
Here, we must not line up behind the warmongering propaganda hammered out by all those who prepare minds for war. Under the pretext “that the balance of military forces must be restored before a political solution favorable to Ukraine can be unblocked”—as the January 31 issue of Liberation claimed—they are campaigning to supply arms to the Poroshenko government. After that, who knows, they may call for direct Western military intervention.
In Ukraine workers are drafted into the national army, coerced and impoverished to pay for the war, while in the Donbass they are bombed and turned into refugees. Both are subjected to nationalist and warlike propaganda. All are called upon to choose a camp. If any of them count on the diplomatic or military intervention of imperialism to get them out of this quagmire and put an end to this war, they are kidding themselves. The great powers have nothing but blood and tears to offer the Ukrainians. Just as the Kremlin.
The Russian workers would lose a lot by supporting Putin’s warrior nationalism. Because the bureaucrats, oligarchs, and other Russian wheeler-dealers have been waging a war against the working classes for years, well before the Ukrainian conflict.
The Russian workers have not finished undergoing this social war. They are already paying for it through the economic consequences of Western sanctions, which are added to those of the fall in oil and gas prices. They will pay all the more if they let the power use the pretext of war to stifle social demands and muzzle those who refuse to submit. They will pay for it again if they allow the most reactionary Russian nationalist forces to strengthen themselves on this occasion and erect a wall of blood between the nationalities which once made up the Soviet Union. A people who oppresses another cannot be a free people, no more in Eastern Europe than in Asia, the Middle East or anywhere else.
What the Ukrainian workers are going through—economic and social disaster, rise of the extreme right, national divisions, partition, and civil war—concerns us directly. This may be the future that the capitalists have in store for us if we don’t take the levers of power away from them.
This is not a forecast, but one of the possible options. There is another: that the workers, in Europe and elsewhere, raise their heads, regain consciousness of their common interests, and engage in the fight to expropriate the capitalists who are plunging the world economy into crisis and society into barbarism.
On several occasions since the break-up of the USSR, there have been political and social crises in Ukraine. During each of them, the workers could have played an autonomous political role, to defend the interests of their class. This does not happen. But, because of the Soviet heritage, this working class is numerous and concentrated. It is also directly linked, by language, history, economic structures inherited from this common past, to the Russian proletariat, itself even more numerous and confronted with a similar situation. The proletariat of Ukraine also has a multitude of human, historical links with that of Poland, Hungary, Romania. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have emigrated, still further west, to Germany and even to the United States. All of this could be, should be a force, a lever.
For this perspective to materialize, activists and organizations are needed, in Ukraine, in Russia as in each country, and more generally an international, which place themselves on the ground of communism to formalize and express this policy, here and there. In a word, we must reconnect with Bolshevism.