A socialist case for Ukraine

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On the anniversary of the fall of Ukrainian President Yanukovych, which marked the onset of the current conflict, Rob Ferguson and Tomas Tengely-Evans interview Volodymyr Ishchenko in Kiev.

RF: Volodymyr, there is currently a crisis over the ceasefire in the east and the retreat from Debaltseve. What is your judgement of the crisis in the east of Ukraine?
It depends how the Ukrainian state perceives the takeover of Debaltseve. We don’t know exactly what happened in Minsk and whether it was decided that Debaltseve would go to the separatists, or why the Ukrainian government did not agree to take its soldiers out of Debaltseve immediately. It was obvious the troops could not break the encirclement (finished by the date of the negotiations) and that if they were not supported with troops and supplies from Kiev, they would have to retreat.

Were they sacrificed for publicity purposes as in the case of Donetsk airport where Ukrainian forces defended this ruined building for months and this myth was created of so-called "cyborgs" defending the airport against crowds of Russian ogres. The cyborgs became the heroes of Ukraine but then it ended very unhappily with big losses for Ukrainian forces. Was this also the idea in Debaltseve? Now Kiev has asked for a peacekeeping force. This is a sign of weakness because it shows they are not able to defend the territory. It may also be because of US hesitancy in supporting Ukraine with lethal weapons.

However, the larger picture is clearer: the position is one of stalemate in which neither side can win decisively. The analogy of the First World War is far more relevant than the analogy of the Second World War. This is not a fight between fascism and anti-fascism and this is not a manoeuvre war. It is more akin to the battles of the First World War where armies fought each other for months, unable to win decisively either way. The war will rather end with economic attrition of one side. Despite the separatist victories in Donetsk airport and Debaltseve the situation has not changed seriously. Without serious Russian intervention the separatists cannot defeat the Ukrainian army while the Ukrainian army cannot defeat them.

However, the conflicting parties are also trying to economically undermine their opponents. So the Russians hope to benefit from the economic collapse of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government on its part cancelled the social benefit and pension payments to the separatist controlled territories, and imposed an economic boycott by closing the banking system. This was aimed at the Ukrainian citizens who live in the east, probably hoping for some internal revolt in those territories.

Meanwhile the West tries to use sanctions to undermine Russia and perhaps hoping to provoke a mass movement against Putin, tapping the grievances on the part of a population as a result of sanctions. For their part, the ‘patriotic’ parties of the right are suspicious of Putin. First, he annexes Crimea but then steps back. He makes a move in Donetsk but then again steps back, not fully supporting the separatists.

At the same time Russia has its own economic leverage against the West with the supply of natural gas; this combines with the economic crisis within the EU and the internal tensions arising from the election victory of Syriza. Meanwhile the Isis problem for the United States clearly illustrates they are not able to impose full world hegemony. The role of the "global gendarme" is not playing well any more. In this situation, the biggest question is at which point precisely the stalemate will be broken. Who will collapse first? Ukraine, the separatists, maybe Russia, or will a serious crisis erupt in the European Union and then things may change completely.

RF: The dominant pro-Western narrative in the West, epitomised by the recent work of Timothy Snyder and Andrew Wilson, is that Ukraine represents the innate drive towards Russian expansionism. What would be your response to this?
We have to analyse the whole situation as a result of the rivalry between competing imperialisms. Yes there is the fact of military intervention into Ukraine, the supply of weapons and in August (and also recently), sending in Russian troops, albeit in a limited way. But this is not the result of some extreme, evil nature of Russian imperialism but rather the result of the uneven distribution of opportunities and resources for each of the competing imperialisms in Ukraine. If the Ukrainian government has become completely loyal to Western hegemony and to the requirements of the IMF, what is the point of the US intervening militarily?

This argument by Andrew Wilson and others is a legitimisation of Western imperialism. So Putin is a new Hitler and we all have to unite, the left and the right (Snyder is pretending to be at least liberal left) to fight this absolute enemy. This is what is at stake now, Western European “civilised values”. This can develop into racist overtones. In the end it will become just a clear ideological legitimisation of the interests of the European and American ruling classes.

In the same way Russian imperialism is legitimised by the conservative, patriarchal defence of Russian dignity, sovereignty and their rightful place in the world, which they lost when the USSR collapsed.

The problem now is that values we would uphold as progressive — minority rights, gender equality, formal democracy — have been used as part of this imperialist rivalry. So to a significant extent they have become discredited and seen as unimportant. The left must work out how to maintain an independent position against this inter-imperialist rivalry; otherwise you just become left supporters of one rival or another.

TTE: What is the perception of the war among ordinary people in Ukraine?
I would say public opinion about the war is quite contradictory. According to the polls the majority want a “peaceful” solution. But many of those people would say they would support the “Anti-Terrorist Operation”. Yes we want peace, but on the basis of our victory.

Many people supported the army. This can be seen in the volunteer movement; people collecting and donating money for equipment for the soldiers, not least because the Ukrainian state cannot equip its own soldiers properly! But it does not seem as if the majority of Ukrainians are ready to fight or die in this war. Government reports have shown that many people have tried to evade the draft, to flee the country — and this was true even in western Ukraine, where nationalist feeling is historically stronger. There is also a strong perception that if it is an "anti-terrorist operation" [not a war] then it is the military and the police who should be fighting, not me.

The mobilisation has acquired a clear class character because it is easier to locate and draft villagers or workers than for example a freelance, middle class person, who is not so easy for the military commission to locate. They are more able to defend their rights, they have money to pay bribes, and it is easier for these people to go abroad and escape the draft. So the burden of this war falls more on the shoulders of the poor than on the middle class and especially the rich. Then as in all the imperialist wars we have seen, the poor fight for the interests of the rich. It is not surprising that in the end people are not ready to fight for this war. There have been a number of protests against the mobilisation, mostly driven by women and mothers who were afraid for their relatives. This is not an anti-war movement based on ideological hostility to the war, but at some point it may move to a higher level.

TTE: Do you think the ineffectiveness of the government in waging the war has an impact on draft evasion?
Yes, of course. The losses, the lack of equipment, the perception that the war is not going to be won, have an impact. But at the same time the majority in western and central Ukraine blame Russia, not the government. In the east and south they blame the government more.

TTE: The government has just signed an agreement with the IMF insisting on austerity measures. Are people starting to blame the government for this and for the currency collapse? Is there disillusionment with the government over austerity?
Dissatisfaction is growing though so far there is no national mass protest against it. This movement may begin from what is perceived to be an unimportant event, as in the case of Gezi Park in Turkey.

TTE: Do people blame the EU in any way for austerity?
No, definitely not at the moment, at least for economic failures. They do not connect the EU to the collapse of the economy. They would blame the Ukrainian government, of course, and the oligarchs, Russia and the war. There is also quite dangerous pressure to say that we should not protest while the war continues. Such actions would be unpatriotic; we have to wait. Now we need to unite against the foreign enemy.

RF: In the recent parliamentary elections the extreme and fascist right had a relatively low vote. At the same time the political rhetoric of the parties of power around President Poroshenko, and the prime minister, Yatseniuk, were extremely nationalist, divisive in terms of demonising Ukrainians in the east. Political commentators in the West have argued that the relatively low votes for the right in the elections show that the scare about their influence was misplaced; that they have been marginalised and have little influence.
I would say that they now have more opportunities. Parliament is not the only field of political struggle. The right now have armed groups under their control, such as the Azov battalion, the core of which was formed from the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly (SNA). These are real neo-Nazis; they are not just right wing populists.

Another dimension is their penetration into law enforcement structures. One of the leaders of the SNA was appointed as chief of police for the Kiev region. Also the Right Sector and Svoboda are the most active political organisations on the streets and in protests. That does not mean they are numerically dominant in the protests, but the penetration of their ideologically committed activists is high; they can challenge the platform and give a lead. This is dangerous.

Another dimension is that the whole political mainstream of the country has moved to the right. Hate speech against Ukrainians who oppose the Kiev government is common, calling them “Colorado Beetles”, for example. This comes from the minister of the interior.

RF: Is that terminology being used against people in the east generally or just the separatist fighters themselves?
Not just the fighters but even against peaceful opponents of the government. There is a discussion in left-liberal circles that Maidan was the point at which a new Ukrainian civic nation emerged, in which it is not now important whether you are Ukrainian or Russian or Jew, Armenian or Pole — if you support the Maidan you are part of a new Ukrainian civic nation. This sounds inclusive but at the same time it excludes all those who did not support Maidan or its outcome.

Now we have the important case of the journalist arrested and charged with state treason for calling to resist the draft, calling the war a fratricidal war. He could face up to 15 years. He has now been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty. [On 8 February Ruslan Kotsoba, a TV journalist from western Ukraine, was charged with state treason after he posted a video address to the president opposing conscription and claimed he would rather go to jail for refusing the draft than start killing his “fellow citizens who live in the east”.]

So in this situation you do not need the far-right in power to implement repression. In fact by appearing outside the power structures they can seize the opportunity to criticise the government for its failure to “defend the nation”. They can also use their position to criticise the government for the economic collapse. This creates a very dangerous convergence of nationalist and social grievances. This is precisely what we saw in the 1930s in Europe.

RF: In the West and indeed in Ukraine the opposition to Maidan and the post-Maidan government among ordinary people in east Ukraine is portrayed as due to their readiness to believe Russian propaganda. It is argued that they had patriarchial, regional loyalties to the oligarchs and the former president’s Party of Regions in the east. Is this a satisfactory explanation?
There are quite obvious double standards here. How would you perceive the people who took to the streets to support the European Agreements and saw the EU as some kind of paradise that would solve all the problems of Ukraine? Were they duped by the West and all this talk of “European values”? Or was this a just revolt against a corrupt government? Actually, it was both.

There was an obvious dissatisfaction with Yanukovych [the ousted president] and his government, and with elements of his own neoliberal policies such as pension reform and taxes on small business but leaving big business untouched. Both the Maidan and anti-Maidan movements combined some progressive and reactionary elements. In the end the reactionary elements won in both cases. But both movements contained an element of genuine revolt by dissatisfied people against a government they did not like and we have to defend this right.

RF: Why do you think so many in the east opposed Maidan?
Here too it was a combination of factors. Of course there was an element of irrationality but they did have quite rational reasons not to support the European Association Agreement. If you live in western Ukraine and your relatives work in the EU, of course you may very well be in favour of integration with the EU. It might be easier to get visas and travel across borders and get work, especially for the middle class and young people.

On the other hand, if you are working in some state enterprise in industry in eastern Ukraine, primarily for the Russian market, wouldn’t you be interested in good, stable relations with Russia, fewer tariff barriers and so on? I am not saying that workers’ interests were antagonistic between those in the east and those in the west, but the competing nationalisms and the competing imperialisms made them seem to be mutually exclusive. That was the problem.

But it is really important to understand that people had rational reasons to protest. Yes, there was an irrational fear, an over-estimation of the Right Sector. The Russian media did work a lot on that, creating this "fascist junta" image and so on. But at the same time people had entirely just reasons to revolt against the new neoliberal, nationalist government.

TTE: A year on from the downfall of Yanukovych, do you think the combination of austerity and the war has the potential to lead to an explosion or some protest movement?
The patriotic hysteria will not last for ever. The First World War would be the most obvious example of this. In the Russian Empire there was strong support for that war against Germany but soon ordinary Russians began to understand that they would not be able to beat the German army. They suffered enormous losses of territory. Support for the war is related to the chances of victory. The longer and more exhaustive it becomes the less people will support it or be ready to sacrifice themselves.

Now the economic situation is deteriorating very quickly. The currency rate is the most obvious thing; many workers’ wages are frozen. The minimum wage remains the same, 1,218 hryvnia, less than a third of its former value in real terms. Now the IMF memorandum places a requirement on Ukraine to raise consumption prices for natural gas and impose cuts of public employees. This will produce protest but the most important question is, who will lead these protests? Will it be the far-right and the populists who will exploit nationalism and social discontent or will some left wing alternative emerge? At the moment the left is weak.

RF: What is your assessment of the impact of the crisis on the left and of the challenges the left face?
That is a big question. The majority of the left has dissolved into supporters of this or that camp. In the final instance it is a consequence of the weakness of the working class, and of the left’s class analysis as well. Actually one can trace these problems as far back as the 1960s. We have the influence of the postmodern liberal left who support the Maidan on the basis of “European values” and what one might call movementism. The “anti-imperialist” left will mostly support anti-Maidan and even support Russia as a competitor to the US.

Both these positions represent a move away from independent socialist politics. What we lack is an independent, anti-capitalist socialist position in this war and that is what we have to create. There are now some initiatives, for example the one I am participating in, which is trying to create a new left party; this will not take a strong position on the Maidan or anti-Maidan but will try to speak to the common interests of workers in the east and the west of Ukraine. It includes left radical networks in Kiev, Odessa and other cities but also the independent labour unions, such as in Kryvyi Rih, which is a big industrial centre in central Ukraine.

We will see whether we will be able to create some strong left political force which will be able to play an independent role in the coming protests.

TTE: In trying to form an independent left group that bridges the gap between east and west, are there signs that it would start to take up the question of the Kiev government’s role in the war or just look to social and economic demands?
That is actually a very good question for us because I think the national question is important and on the Ukrainian left our mistake was to fetishise the so-called social-economic issues and forget about the issues that played a part in driving people to protest. We did not have a clear position on the national question or the language question, or the question of Nato, the EU or Russia. The majority view was that these were pseudo questions and that we had to concentrate on socio-economic questions. There are probably some who still hold to that view, but I am not sure it is a good thing.

We cannot be silent about these problems. And it is also simply stupid when the whole country is going to hell, to only fight for very local demands. This was what Lenin called “economism”, the typical economism of the trade union approach. We have the problem of the war. This is the most important question in our country and we must have a position on it. And, of course, this position should not be divisive for the workers; it needs to be a position that unites the class.

Volodymyr Ishchenko is deputy director of the Center for Social and Labor Research and a member of the editorial board of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and LeftEast web-magazine. He will be speaking at Marxism 2015 in July.