Ukraine got independence only in 1991. Ninety per cent of its people, west and east, voted to separate from Russia after the old bureaucratic command-economy regime collapsed.
They had been under foreign rule, Russian or Polish, for centuries. By 1991 they had been under especially vicious foreign rule — Stalinist terror, deliberately-sustained famine, then police-state bureaucratic “Russification” — for six decades (east) or five (west).
Russia’s creeping invasion of Ukraine is a drive to restore that foreign domination.
Probably Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin does not aim at the old direct rule from Moscow. Instead, he wants “semi-colonial” domination.
In addition to the economic influence which Russian capital is almost bound to have on a capitalist Ukraine, given geography, he wants political domination which ensures that Ukrainian governments are acceptable to Moscow and follow Moscow’s wishes on big issues.
As we write, an ultimatum from the Russian military to the Ukrainian armed-forces bases in Crimea (already surrounded by Russian troops) to surrender by Tuesday morning 4 March has passed without action. It is possible that Putin may settle for what he can get by threats.
It is at least equally possible, though, that the threats will slip over into open war and a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops.
Putin’s troops may even march on Kiev to overthrow the new Ukrainian government, chosen by Ukraine’s elected parliament after a mass popular revolt and the flight of the hated pro-Russian president Yanukovych, and to reinstall Yanukovych or impose a new government of reliably pro-Russian people.
Russian troops have already effectively seized Crimea. They may seize more slabs of Ukrainian territory, then either use them as bargaining counters to impose what Russia wants on the whole of Ukraine, or annex them, formally or informally, to Russia.
Against all those variants, socialists and labour movements should support Ukraine’s right to self determination. We should support its right to political independence and freedom from invasion.
There are many other dimensions to the conflict. They should not be ignored. Equally, they should not be used to blur support for Ukraine’s national rights.
The new Ukrainian government is right-wing. It includes outright fascist ministers. It is ready to impose on Ukraine’s working people the neo-liberal economic measures (cuts in subsidies, etc.) which the EU and the IMF demand as the price for bail-out loans.
It has, stupidly and undemocratically, rescinded laws which made Russian a second official language in Ukraine.
We must back the Ukrainian left, and such elements as exist of an independent Ukrainian labour movement, against this new government. But the Ukrainian left will not be helped by a Russian invasion. Just the contrary. A Russian invasion will not make Ukraine less dominated by thieving oligarchs, less illiberal, or less harshly unequal in economics. Just the contrary.
The Western governments which back the new Ukrainian regime are self-interested, predatory, and hypocritical.
It was a bad joke when US Secretary of State John Kerry used these words to condemn Russia: “You just don’t in the 21st century invade another country on a completely trumped up pretext”.
The US and British governments used dodgy and “sexed-up” dossiers about invented stocks of weapons of mass destruction as their pretext to invade Iraq in 2003.
The Western governments will seek, as their condition for bail-out loans, imposition of the same sort of economic measures which the EU authorities and the IMF have imposed on Greece. They will seek to subject Ukraine fully to the rules of the capitalist world markets.
We demand that those Western governments instead cancel Ukraine’s crippling foreign debt, and give Ukraine a chance to recover economically from the pillage by Yanukovych and his cronies.
We do not endorse Western economic sanctions on Russia (unlikely to be very strong, since, for example, Germany would be worse hit by a stoppage of its gas imports from Russia than Russia would be by a stoppage of its gas exports to Germany). We do not support Western troops being sent to Ukraine (again unlikely, given the USA’s desire to avoid another Iraq, but possible).
But there is not complete symmetry here. Both Russia and Western governments have predatory aims, as, in general, do all capitalist governments in the world economy; but Russia is the old colonial power in Ukraine, Russia has sent troops in, Russia is seeking outright political domination. Ukrainian political self-determination needs support against Russia.
Many Ukrainians, especially in the east, have Russian as their first language.
That is not surprising, since for decades the Russian language was actively imposed by Moscow. It does not mean that the Russian-speakers want to be ruled by Russia.
Most Russian-speakers in Ukraine identify as Ukrainians who happen to have Russian as their first language. Most people in Ukraine speak both languages (they are similar). Those who have studied language in Ukraine report that “often you hear two people having a conversation where one is speaking Russian and the other Ukrainian. They may not even realize that this is going on”; and “large segments of the population speak a mixture of the two languages that leans either towards Russian or Ukrainian”.
As you move east in Ukraine, the proportion of Russian-speakers, and the proportion of people who identify as Russian (much smaller, and always a clear minority) increases too. The most easterly parts of Ukraine were major centres of industry for the whole USSR in Stalinist times, had higher wages than elsewhere in the USSR, and attracted Russian workers. The more centre-east parts, more rural, have many Russian-speakers, but also still-live memories of the killing of millions of Ukrainian peasants in Stalin’s deliberately-sustained famine of 1932-3.
In short, the equation “east = pro-Russian” is a huge oversimplification. It does not contain enough truth to excuse Russian military pressure or invasion.
Crimea is different. It was not historically part of Ukraine, but was allocated to Ukraine in 1954 in an administrative reorganisation within the USSR. Its indigenous people are mainly Crimean Tatars, Muslim in religion.
Russian settlers started arriving in numbers during the 19th century. In 1944 Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population to remote regions of the USSR. They were banned from returning to their homeland until 1989, and are now a minority there, with about half the population Russian and a larger minority Ukrainian. On all accounts the Tatars prefer being part of Ukraine to being part of Russia.
Crimea voted 56% in 1991 for Ukrainian independence. In principle there is a case for separate self-determination for Crimea. But what is happening there now is not that. It is Russian military intervention to cut off Crimea from Ukraine or to use the threat of cutting it off as a lever to win Russia’s political demands on the whole of Ukraine.
A referendum held in Crimea under Russian military occupation cannot be reckoned as free and democratic self-determination by the people.
“Stop The War” says... don’t stop the war
The “Stop The War” coalition (run by the SWP splinter Counterfire with Communist Party of Britain member Andrew Murray) has put out a statement... deploring protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Those who demand anti-war activity here in Britain against Russia are ignoring the history and the present reality in Ukraine and Crimea”.
Western governments are bad, many Ukrainians speak Russian, the new Kiev government is right-wing — STW’s excuses are many. They do not justify condoning Russia’s invasion.
The sentence "It has, stupidly and undemocratically, rescinded laws which made Russian a second official language in Ukraine" is inaccurate.
The parliament voted to rescind the law on Russian language introduced by Yanukovych. But then the vote to repeal was vetoed by the president, and the proposal hasn't been raised again.
(Even if it had not been vetoed, Russian would have remained an official language in Crimea, which has an autonomous status within Ukraine).
It is still true that the parliamentary vote was stupid and undemocratic, and tells us much about the current parliamentary majority.
But it is not true that the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine have in fact been abridged.