Take sides with people, not with Putin

Gabriel Levy with a piece critical of some Left wing stances on Russia's involvement in Ukraine. It initially featured in People and Nature on 28 March 2014.

Russia has annexed Crimea. Thousands of Russian troops are gathered near the Ukrainian border. While the two countries’ foreign ministers have met, and tension seems to have eased slightly this week, the threat of war remains.  Opposition to military adventures such as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s should be the ABC of socialism, in my view. And yet some socialists in the UK and Ireland are stringing together contorted arguments for taking Putin’s side. This article examines the issues.

On Crimean sovereignty, 'Russia has more right on its side than the West – which is the same thing as saying [...] that Putin and Russia are right', -  the Irish socialist journalist Eamonn McCann wrote in the Irish Times last week.

The Crimean population had voted to join Russia, McCann argued, and US president Barack Obama had told them their opinion didn’t count. 'If we have to take sides [...] Ireland should side with the Russians.'

McCann doesn’t seem that bothered that the referendum was carried out straight after Russian tanks rolled into Crimea. (I’ve written more about that issue here.) He sees the Russian annexation of Crimea as part of a geopolitical battle between the USA and Russia. Putin’s regime is “vicious” and cares no more about Ukrainian people’s interests than the USA does, writes McCann,  but: 'Putin is right that the main motivation of the US and Nato has been to encircle and enfeeble his country.'

I have always respected Eamonn McCann for his activism and for his journalism. But the view of the world he presents here – that socialists have to express support for, or side with, governments, however horrible, that are the target of geopolitical bullying by the USA – turns socialism into a mockery. It’s a view based on a misunderstanding of how power works.

Putin’s main targets are not NATO, or fascists, but the confused mosaic of popular movements that erupted in Ukraine against president Viktor Yanukovich, and the potential for such movements in Russia itself. For Putin’s fundamentally weak regime, heavily dependent on oil and gas dollars, flag-waving nationalism is a means of social control.

To support the two-dimensional geo-political view, McCann and other left-wing writers outside Ukraine have repeated, time and time again, two myths: (1) that Putin was provoked into action by fear that Ukraine would join NATO; and (2) that there are fascists in the post-Yanukovich government.

Myth no. 1: Putin fears Ukrainian accession to NATO

In November last year, Yanukovich had been poised to sign an association agreement that would have strengthened Ukrainian trade links with the EU – a move to which Russia was fiercely opposed. At the last minute, Yanukovich backed out of signing the deal. This led to the first demonstrations in Kyiv that later turned into the Maidan mass movement that overthrew him.

Eamonn McCann reckons that the EU deal 'included a condition that Kiev align its forces with Nato – a halfway house staging post on the road to full Nato membership. It was this provision that deeply alarmed the Putin regime.'

Wrong. The EU-Ukraine association agreement (or at least, the text posted on the EU web site) says that the two sides will 'promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy' (Article 8). The EU and Ukraine will 'explore the potential of military-technological cooperation' and that Ukraine and the European Defence Agency shall 'establish close contacts', etc (Article 10).

The Common Security and Defence Policy is obviously linked to NATO. But it makes a relatively small contribution to western military policing of the world, because of the deep disagreements between the European powers that limit cooperation.

But anyway, Ukraine doesn’t need any of this stuff in order to get closer to NATO. Ukraine has had a “special partnership” with NATO since 1997, enthusiastically promoted by all Ukrainian governments, both “pro western” and “pro Russian”, since then. There were 1700 Ukrainian troops in Iraq in 2003-05, the third largest national contingent after the US and UK, sent to participate in the NATO “training mission” there by the “pro Russian” president Leonid Kuchma (of whom Yanukovich was a protege). Small numbers of Ukrainian troops have also participated in western “peacekeeping” missions in Kosovo, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere.

Moscow demo
Demo in Moscow on 16 March

Yanukovich’s predecessor as president, Viktor Yushchenko, desperately wanted to take Ukraine into NATO. But the idea is extremely unpopular in Ukraine – opinion polls have never registered as much as one-fifth of Ukrainians supporting it, and often show less than one-tenth – and Yanukovich dropped it straight after being elected in 2010.

Nonetheless, Yanukovich approved an action plan for cooperation with NATO in 2010, and showed no signs of dropping it even after he decided against the EU deal in November last year. A week after the EU deal collapsed, the NATO-Ukraine Military Commission met in Brussels to talk about future cooperation (see a report on the Ukraine ministry of defence site here).

Putin and his military commanders are well aware that Yanukovich’s abandonment of the EU association agreement made no difference one way or another to Ukraine’s relationship with NATO. But they were also well aware, from November last year onwards, that Yanukovich was losing control, not because of NATO, but because of the mass movement provoked by his cruel, corrupt and idiotic style of government.

This was what scared Putin, and that was why he decided to intervene in Crimea. (I’ve written about that at greater length here and here.)

Myth no. 2: there are fascists in the Ukrainian government

The claim that there are fascists in the new Ukrainian government has been made so many times that it’s becoming accepted as common knowledge by some people. Eamonn McCann says the government is 'a mixum-gatherum of groups, including anti-semitic neo-fascists'. The Stop the War Coalition said in a statement on 3 March that the government includes “far right and fascist elements”. And Seumas Milne in the Guardian writes: “Neo-Nazis in office is a first for post-war Europe.”

Wrong. There are two significant ultra-right groups in Ukraine. The first is Svoboda, a populist parliamentary party, with unpleasant anti-semites in the leadership, that received 12% of the votes at the last election. It has three ministerial portfolios and a deputy prime ministership in the new government. A couple of other ministers in the government – an unstable coalition headed by the neo-liberal economist Arseniy Yatseniuk – have had affiliations with extreme right groups in the past. But if the label “fascist” is to be applied to Svoboda, it should be applied to the large number of right-wing populist parties in other European countries, several of which have served in governments. In which case this is not a first, as Milne suggests.

The second group, the Right Sector, is a really dangerous collection of neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists, formed in the course of battles with Yanukovich’s police force. It has combat units, some armed, all over Ukraine. But the assertion, repeated by Seumas Milne and many other western journalists, that their leader Dmitry Yarosh is deputy head of the national security council, is wrong. He was offered the job, and turned it down.[1]

How the relationship between the new government and the Right Sector will go is anyone’s guess. On 25 March one of the Right Sector’s leaders, Oleksandr Muzychko, was shot dead in a gun battle that broke out when police tried to arrest him. There could be further conflict. Or there could be attempts by this, or future, governments to try to co-opt bits of the Right Sector.

So why are all these European leftists repeating that there are “fascists” in the Ukrainian government? If they are applying that term to Svoboda, then it’s a loose term of abuse that could as well be applied to right-wing populist parties in quite a few European countries. If they are using the term “fascist” in the more usual sense – to describe organisations that overtly aim, by a combination of violent and political means, to re-found the state on nationalist and racist principles – then that applies to the Right Sector. And then they are wrong on the facts: the Right Sector is outside government.

I think some European leftists enjoy calling the Ukrainian government “fascist” for the stupid and shameful reason that it taps into their half-century-old prejudices about a world divided between Soviet/ Russian/ “red”/ internationalist good guys and Ukrainian/ “brown”/ nationalist bad guys. Those are exactly the notes Putin tried to hit, when he laughably claimed that his invasion of Crimea was designed to defend its citizens from “fascist” attack.

And here’s a question to those European leftists: what about the fascists and ultra-nationalists in Russia who support Putin’s invasion? Why do they never get a mention? For example:

■ Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament, who on 20 March proposed that Ukraine be dismembered and divided between Poland, Romania, Hungary and Russia. Referring to the unification of Ukraine inside the Soviet Union after the second world war, he said: 'It’s never too late to correct historical errors.' Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia received 12.5% of the vote in the last parliamentary elections. Like the Svoboda leaders, Zhirinovsky is an ultra-right-wing demagogue rather than a fascist as such. Unlike them, he has a powerful position in the political establishment, built up over many years of wheeling and dealing with the Putin administration and the country’s most powerful business interests.

■ Aleksandr Dugin, the “Eurasian” fascist ideologue whose rantings are followed closely by people in Putin’s administration, and who declared in a recent interview: 'We aren’t going to limit ourselves by annexing Crimea. That’s for sure. [...] The struggle for Ukraine is a struggle for reunification of slavic peoples.' For readers of the American neo-Nazi web site, the Daily Stormer, he spelled out what this meant: 'There will be no dialogue between Russia and Western Ukrainians. Each time they [western Ukrainians] crawl out, they will strictly and deservingly get "kicked in the teeth".'

■ Ramzan Kadyrov, the thuggish murderer who rules Chechnya on Putin’s behalf, who has offered to send Chechen armed units to Crimea. The offer was reminiscent of the way that another pro-Russian Chechen armed gang leader, Sulim Yamadayev, led one of the interior ministry battalions in the South Ossetia conflict in 2008.

It’s hardly accidental that these charming people support Putin’s action in Crimea. But their rantings are a bit inconvenient to western leftists, who want to delude themselves that the Russian state’s assault is aimed primarily not against Russian and Ukrainian people, but at a NATO-fascist conspiracy.

“Choosing sides” and a crisis of socialism

For socialists, the priority surely is the reconstitution of powerful social and labour movements that can challenge capitalism in its 21st century form. Putin’s militarism is terribly damaging for such movements in Russia and Ukraine, just as US-led military actions have been damaging in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the Middle East.

The idea that socialists could justifiably support or sympathise with such militarism relies on a completely skewed view of power, according to which the USA rules the world with brute military force, and capitalist governments that resist deserve working people’s support. I think it is more accurate to interpret capitalism’s domination as being undertaken by a network of governments and state structures, of which the USA’s remain the most powerful, that are interlocking, but between which there are also tensions and contradictions. Such governments rule their territories and discipline their populations in a way that enables capital accumulation and exploitation of workers to continue.

The Russian government fulfils this role very effectively, presiding over an economy that is integrated into the world system mostly as an exporter of raw materials. That is why, throughout the Ukraine crisis, the western powers have desperately tried to avoid any measures that might disrupt their economic relationship with Russia.

It is not a matter of “if we have to take sides”, as Eamonn McCann argues. We do not have to take sides between one capitalist government and another. We have to take sides with working people, and take sides with those who are making efforts to find new ways to organise working people to remake society.
In eastern Ukraine, such efforts have potentially been set back by many years as a result of Putin’s military aggression. In Russia, too, the war frenzy carries with it the danger of renewed repression against those who dare to challenge government: only last month several participants in the anti-Putin demonstrations of 2012 were jailed.

As for the European left, delusions that we have to side with Putin are a symptom of its own malaise. To change the world effectively we need ideas that supercede such two-dimensional stereotypes. Paying attention to what actually happens, in Russia, Ukraine or anywhere else – instead of recycling myths and prejudices – would be a good start. GL, 28 March 2014.

[1] I have checked dozens of stories about Yarosh from Russian and Ukrainian news outlets. They report e.g. his plan to run for president, to turn the Right Sector into a political party, etc, but do not describe him as a member of the government. I have checked with sources in Kyiv who confirm that he never was. When the new government was formed at the beginning of March, it was widely reported that Yarosh was offered a post. That information seems to have been picked up by western journalists who assumed he had accepted, but didn’t check.


  1. Really insightful. I have commented before that I think Republicans/socialists/progressives make an enormous mistakes by automatically siding with any government that annoys the United States, no matter how repulsive they may be.

  2. Chap Taylor , i have said the same myself many times. To me the left observe the cock crowing, and assume it then follows that this causes the sun to rise. Their processes appear to explain these world great events, satisfactorily to themselves at least, they ignore the fact that over time they are on the wrong side of all of it. So it is automatic to take the side of Americas opponents, without even evaluating the opponents, and call it anti-imperialism. Its easier than thinking i guess.

  3. Therein lies the problem for socialism or indeed republicanism-they are expected to play honest and fair allthewhile its enemies play dirty. Perhaps if they had played dirty they may have achieved a lot more for their ideology? The sooner we realise Putin is as bad as obama,cameron etc when it comes to stifling opponents be it home or abroad the better. Personnally for a country that sacrificed more than any country in the world during the world wars i can understand their suspicion of the west...we should be honouring them every year for defeating hitler but judging by our history books you could be forgiven for believing the russians played only a small part.

  4. I find it amazing that several esteemed leftish scholars like Stephen F. Cohen focus more on Western skulduggery in the Ukraine crisis than Putin's neo-imperial agression. To my mind, Putin bears the most guilt for exacerbating this dispute.

    As much as I loathe Viktor Yanukovych, I felt uneasy about him being ousted in part by violent protest which involved hard-right nationalist groups. This is because his election in 2010 was relatively free and fair. However, the more I read about this crisis, the more apparent it became that Yanukovych's corruption and repressive authoritarianism made his position as president untenable.

    The EU and the US certainly don't have clean hands in this crisis. The deal with Russia seemed to be more lucrative than the one offered by the EU. However, Yanukovych's authoritarian, illiberal and repressive reaction to what were initially peaceful opposition protests left him with no legitimacy at all in my view. No Western country would tolerate such behaviour from their own government, so we should not condemn Ukrainians for ousting a president who has grossly abused his power. Just becaue we are critical of Western foreign policy does not mean we should make excuses for murderous brutes like Bashar Al-Assad and repressive demagogues like Vladamir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych.

    And Yanukovych was not ousted by a coup d'├ętat. The Ukrainian parliament voted him out, with many members of his own party voting against him.

    Having said that thoug, it is funny watching the British government waxing indignant about Putin's imperial ambitions when their predecessors got up to much worse. Indeed, here is Malcolm Rifkind's argument against the annexation of Crimea by Russia (starts at 2:10):

    "We keep being told that Crimea is ... a Russian majority territory. It is a Russian majority territory, but almost 40 percent of the people in Crimea aren't Russians. They're Ukrainians or Crimean Tartars or [from] other countries. So Crimea is as ethnically divided as parts of Ukraine itself are. The Russians have no claim to that territory or any undue influence on it."

    If you change the words "Crimea" to "the Six Counties", "Ukrainians" to "Irish", and "Russians" to "British", you would have the argument that Irish people have been making for over a century against the creation of Northern Ireland.

    But I guess the British are just as expert in hypocrisy as they are in torture. :D

  5. I've got to disagree with everybody that's commented here. I don't think what happened in Ukraine is anything other than n.a.t.o imperialism. If you point this out your what? a Putin supporter?
    For what it's worth i,ve no time for Putin however on this issue how else was he supposed to react? Putin might be a tyrant but no more so than western leaders and on this issue he was always going to protect Russian interests, just the same as any other major leader would have.
    Alfie how is it not a coup if violence took precedent over parliamentary protocol. Once again the global elite has managed to divide us with this left/right paradigm. It's bollocks. It's powerful men manipulating people to their own end, as always.
    as for Putin well he's an arsehole but as an elitist arsehole he was always going to react just as the western financiers knew he would. It's just a game to these bastards.