Ukraine has been the victim of oppression by great powers throughout its modern history and the current crisis there is framed by its continued exploitation and domination by imperialist states.
Ukraine’s most direct oppressor is Russia. Though it is hardly the superpower rival to the United States that the Stalinist USSR was in the years following the Second World War, Russia remains an imperialist power in the global capitalist system: it profits from and enforces the subjugation and super-exploitation of the world’s oppressed countries, especially in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where its military predominance backs up vast economic interests. In the case of Ukraine, Russian capital exploits the country’s natural gas and oil pipelines as well as the country’s industrial sector which is concentrated in the country’s Eastern regions.
Rivaling Russia is the U.S.-led NATO military alliance of states and the European Union in which Germany is predominant. The ruling classes of these imperialist states are eager to limit Russia’s potential to expand its military and economic power and hope to use Ukraine for that purpose. And they aim to deepen Ukraine’s indebtedness to their banks, not only so they can continue to extract debt-servicing profits but also to leverage Ukraine’s rulers to open the country’s large and already super-exploited working class to more direct exploitation by Western capital.
The February overthrow of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government followed massive protests against it that drew on widespread grievances against repression and economic misery, but the cabal of pro-Western and other right-wing forces that seized power can offer the Ukrainian masses only more repression and austerity at the behest of Western imperialism. Meanwhile, Russian imperialism’s response of invading Crimea in the name of defending the self-determination of its people now threatens Ukraine with being torn apart.
An alternative social force does exist in Ukraine with an interest in defending the country from the imperialist and capitalist jackals: the working class. This statement aims to present some basic principles which we believe can help guide revolutionary socialists in offering leadership to the working class and all oppressed people in this crisis.
Since the collapse of Stalinist statified capitalism and the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine has enjoyed formal independence after long years as a virtual colony of Russia. The experience of this relative freedom has confirmed that Ukraine has not overcome its legacy as an oppressed and exploited country. However, a succession of capitalist governments there have alternately sought support from the West or Russia in return for opening the country’s markets of cheap labor and resources to their exploitation.
The latest turn in this cycle came after mostly Western-oriented capitalist parties and oligarchs, with the help of far-right parties and fascist gangs, took advantage of massive protests against the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych and seized power in February. The initial “Euro-Maidan” protests in the central square of the national capital Kiev were organized by supporters of Ukraine entering into the European Union and opposed Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement associating Ukraine with the EU. Of course, entry into the EU would only mean superceding Russian by Western domination.
The hundreds of thousands of people who ultimately joined the protests in Kiev and beyond did not necessarily do so in support of the Maidan protest leaders’ aims, however. The Yanukovych government had become deeply unpopular for overseeing a continued fall in the masses’ living standards, just as the previous pro-Western government of Viktor Yuschenko had lost support before it. As a range of socialist and anarchist participants in the protests have described, while a significant minority were committed right-wingers, most protesters mobilized because they held the illusion that membership in the EU would offer greater economic opportunities, not to mention greater democratic freedoms compared to life under Russian domination. Indeed many were motivated to join the protests out of opposition to the vicious repression with which the Yanukovych government had targeted earlier protests.
There was nothing progressive to defend in the Yanukovych regime, which was enforcing capitalist exploitation with harsh repression; the mass protests against it were necessary to defend, however, in order to advance the masses’ democratic rights and convince them of the need for a perspective of internationalist working-class struggle. Without supporting the Maidan protest’s demands and leaders, it was necessary for revolutionaries to attend the protests in order to resist the pro-EU, pro-capitalist and chauvinist political messages with which the reactionary leaders were trying to mislead masses of people who had legitimate grievances.
Revolutionary socialists champion the rights and struggles of oppressed peoples because we recognize that the working class will only be able to unite across lines of national, ethnic and racial oppression if they stand for an uncompromising struggle for the liberation of the oppressed and for the defeat of imperialism. Such a struggle is the only means by which internationalist revolutionaries can win the trust of the oppressed and help the workers of oppressor nations overthrow their bonds of loyalty to their rulers.
Russia’s takeover of Crimea under the guise of protecting the self-determination of its people is in reality an act of colonialist imperialist annexation. The slogan raised by some on the international left, “Self-determination for Crimea” (that is, for Crimea as a whole with its Russian-speaking majority), is in effect an endorsement of a Russian takeover disguised as an application of the democratic right to national self-determination. Its proponents overlook that Leninists defend the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples, not oppressors; it is not meant to cover imperialist seizures of territory. It can only encourage the bonds of loyalty between the Russian-speaking masses of Ukraine’s East and Russia’s imperialist rulers. The right wing in Ukraine cannot be allowed to pose as the only defenders of the country against the only imperialist military force currently attacking it – Russia. We therefore oppose the secession of Crimea from Ukraine.
The government in Kiev may be pro-Western but it is not, as of yet at least, a puppet of those imperialists and a proxy for aggression against Russia. We therefore stand for the defense of oppressed Ukraine and for the defeat of Russia’s imperialist invasion.
At the same time, revolutionaries must oppose the moves by reactionaries in the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev to discriminate against Russian-speakers by removing their equal language rights and must oppose all other chauvinist attacks. Within Ukraine as a whole, we support equal language rights for Russian-speakers and other linguistic minorities. This must include funding for education in the preferred language of each group. We oppose any notion of one “official” language in the country.
The most oppressed group in Crimea is the Crimean Tatars. Their democratic rights must be defended, as well as their wish not to be governed by Russia, under whose rulers (both Tsars and Stalin) they suffered near-genocidal oppression. At the present moment it seems that their main goal is that Crimea remain part of Ukraine as a defense against persecution by Russian imperialism.
It is the deepening crisis of global profit-making that is driving the increasingly vicious competition over scarce resources between imperialist powers and local capitalist forces aligned with them. Only the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of socialist societies of freedom and abundance can offer a real solution.
In Ukraine, the oppressive experience of Stalinism’s pseudo-communist statified capitalism has discredited Marxism in the eyes of millions and confined left-wing and pro-working class politics to a marginal place in society. The task of winning masses of people to the perspective of socialist revolution faces extraordinary challenges as a result, but this is the only real hope for the masses.
This perspective can only be advanced if revolutionaries take as their starting point the need for the masses to defend themselves against all their capitalist and imperialist enemies. That means a struggle to defend Ukraine against its most immediate and direct oppressor – imperialist Russia and its invading forces in Crimea. And it means a struggle against the new pro-Western capitalist government in Kiev and its far-right and fascist supporters, against its chauvinist and anti-democratic attacks on the oppressed and its austerity attacks on the working-class and other poor people.