A military conflict between Russia and Ukraine is beginning. While supporting the working class and internationalists in Ukraine against the Ukrainian government and right, Workers' Liberty sides with Ukraine against Russia.
Because Russia threatens Ukraine with national oppression.
Is Ukraine oppressed?
Since 1991, Ukraine has been independent. But for the majority of their history the Ukrainian people were occupied, controlled and savagely repressed by neighbouring bigger powers, and mostly by Russia. Russians, mostly Russian-born, dominated Ukraine and there was a policy of Russification, discriminating against the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. This was true for hundreds of years under Czarism, and it was true under Stalinism, which in the 1930s deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death to break the Ukrainian national movement. The decade after the Russian Revolution and the years since 1991 have been relatively brief interludes of national freedom.
The recent Ukrainian revolt was determined in large part by a desire to avoid renewed Russian domination. And now Russia has seized control of Crimea and is conducting operations in the Eastern areas of Ukraine. It may soon invade on a larger scale.
Surely Ukraine is more of a regional power, like Iran or Iraq pre-2003, than an oppressed nation?
Even Iraq's status as a small, regional imperialist power did not stop us focusing on our opposition to US hyper-imperialism in the 1990-1991 and 2003 wars (while also opposing Iraq's imperialism). The same would be true if the US invaded Iran.
But Ukraine is different. All capitalist states have imperialist tendencies, or the potential to become imperialist, but despite its large size Ukraine does not play that role in its region. It is a poor country, poorer than its neighbours, with no possibility at present of dominating them. Since, in the mid-1950s, Iraq escaped its previous semi-colonial domination by Britain, the Iraqi state has ruled over a large national minority (Kurds), invaded neighbouring states in search of aggrandisement (Iran 1980, Kuwait 1990), and been a regional power (with more or less clout at different times). Even when temporarily occupied, Iraq was not at risk of long-term political control by Britain again. Ukraine is not a regional power, and is at risk of being dominated by Russia (its historical and recent oppressor), like Chechnya, Belarus, etc.
Against all that we support the national rights of Ukraine.
Why talk about nations in this way? Aren't socialists internationalists?
Socialists oppose nationalism as an anti-working class ideology and force, but we also oppose national oppression – both because we are against oppression generally, and because it prevents the free development of the class struggle. We support the right of every nation to determine its own future free of foreign control, in so far as this does not conflict with the rights of another nation (or the higher goal of working-class liberation). In this case: Russia is an imperialist country attempting to negate Ukraine's self-determination and subordinate it.
We support the Ukrainians' strivings for national freedom just as we support strivings for freedom by other oppressed or potentially oppressed nations.
Shouldn't we side with Ukrainian and Russian workers against both ruling classes, not with one nation against the other?
Socialists should always side with workers against capitalists, whether “their” domestic capitalists or foreign ones. Naturally we stand with the workers, socialists, anarchists, etc of Ukraine against the Ukrainian ruling class, and with the workers, etc of Russia against the Russian ruling class. That does not answer the issue of our attitude to the clash between Russia and Ukraine.
When we talk about the “Third Camp” that means always trying to develop movements of organised workers and oppressed people as a force independent of every ruling class, but it does not mean neutrality in every clash between capitalist forces. If there is a genuine democratic issue involved, we take sides, while trying to remain independent. National self-determination is one such issue.
An important element of solidarity with the left in Russia is support for the Russian anti-war protesters calling for the withdrawal of Putin's forces and an end to the threats against Ukraine.
Hasn't there been a right-wing coup in Kiev? The Ukrainian government is far right, nationalistic and chauvinist.
The Ukrainian government is indeed right-wing (neo-liberal, nationalist), and there are fascistic organisations active in Ukraine. But the far right is a small minority – 5 or 6 percent according to opinion polls. Despite the alarming role of these forces, the movement which overthrew the government of Viktor Yanukovych – also right-wing and neo-liberal, but more tied to Russia – had elements both of a revolt for greater democracy and a revolt against the threat of Russian domination.
The character of the Ukrainian government and the threat from the right and far right in Ukraine is all the more reason to support organised workers and the left in their resistance to them. It is no reason at all to defend or ignore Russian imperialism's drive to dominate Ukraine.
In addition, the fascists in Ukraine are not all on one side: Putin seems to be promoting pro-Russian far right groups in Eastern Ukraine and building links with various sectors of the European far right.
Don't Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have the right to break away from Ukraine if they want?
In 1991, despite a majority of Crimeans being ethnic Russian, 56 percent voted to join Ukraine, as against 42 percent to stay in Russia. Shortly before the recent conflict, an opinion poll suggested only 41 percent would opt to join Russia. A huge majority of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars (the historic people of Crimea deported en masse by Stalin and only allowed to return in the late 80s) strongly oppose joining Russia, and they account for at least 35 percent of the population. In any case, while we support Crimea's right to secede from Ukraine, we do not support its “right” to be occupied by Russia and annexed in a stitched-up referendum.
In the Eastern Ukrainian province of Donetsk, where Russia is fomenting a series of coups, the picture is even clearer: 57 percent are ethnic Ukrainian, against 38 percent Russian, and in 1991 83 percent voted for Ukrainian independence from Russia. The fact that Russia has some popular support does not change those basic considerations. Again, in principle, if ethnic Russian-majority areas adjoining Russia wish to secede, they have a right to do so - but what is taking place now is not a democratic movement, but an adjunct to Russian imperialism.
Note the difference between Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians. While not all ethnic Russians in Ukraine will be pro-Russia, many Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians strongly support Ukrainian independence. Kiev, the centre of the recent protests, has a Russian-speaking majority.
Doesn't Ukrainian chauvinism pose a threat to the ethnic Russian minority?
It may do. But its strength has been exaggerated by pro-Russians on the international left. And in any case, this real problem does not invalidate the Ukrainian people's right to self-determination.
Solidarity says you support Ukrainian resistance to Russia, including by the Ukrainian army. What if the Ukrainian army represses ethnic Russian people living in Ukraine?
If there was a workers' militia in Eastern Ukraine we would advocate it maintained strict independence but cooperated – in so far as possible – with the Ukrainian army and other bourgeois Ukrainian forces against Russia. Reasons for its independence would include opposing any Ukrainian chauvinist attacks on ethnic Russians and attempting to draw ethnic Russians into the resistance to Russia.
It may not always be easy to draw a clear line between the resistance of Ukrainian forces against Russia and its local supporters, and chauvinist attacks against ethnic Russians because they are Russian. Nonetheless, that is the distinction it is necessary to attempt to draw. Again, this problem does not invalidate Ukraine's right to determine its own future, and to defend that right against Russian imperialism.
What about Western imperialism?
We are also against US, British, etc imperialism. We do not endorse the trade deal which the EU has got Ukraine to sign. We demand that the Western governments give Ukraine real aid by cancelling its crippling debt to Western banks. But there is not symmetry. The immediate threat to Ukraine's political self-determination comes from Russia – invading Crimea, massing troops on Ukraine's border, fomenting small coups in cities in Eastern Ukraine, and demanding Ukraine fits its constitution to Russian wishes.
Many or most people in Ukraine may be naïve about the reality of Western capitalism and the EU. They are not at all naïve about the reality of the threat from Russian imperialism.
It is possible to imagine the clash between Russia and Ukraine merging into a broader conflict between Russia and the Western powers, with a fundamentally inter-imperialist character and the national rights element submerged. But, despite the role of the West, that is not what is happening now.
All this is why we demand the withdrawal of Russian forces and an end to Russian interference in Ukraine – and support Ukraine against Russia. The Ukrainian people must determine their own future. At the same time we support the class struggle of workers and the left in Ukraine, against the Ukrainian government and nationalists – just as we support working-class and left struggles against Putin's regime, including the Russian anti-war movement.