Workers Vanguard No. 1041

7 March 2014


Ukraine Coup: Spearheaded by Fascists, Backed by U.S./EU Imperialists

Crimea Is Russian

MARCH 3—As Russian strongman Vladimir Putin deployed troops into Crimea, following a resolution in the Russian parliament, the Western propaganda machine went into hysterical overdrive. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Russia would pay “a huge price” for its incursion, threatening Russia’s removal from the imperialist Group of 8 and the freezing of Russian assets abroad. Without the slightest hint of irony, Kerry pontificated, “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc.—the list of countries threatened and invaded by the U.S. imperialists “in the 21st century” goes on and on. Indeed, events in Ukraine have the hands of the U.S. imperialists in particular, as well as those of the European Union (EU), all over them.

Russia’s intervention into Crimea is a direct response to the overthrow of the government in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. On February 22, the corrupt pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovich, was toppled by a right-wing coup spearheaded by fascists and supported by the U.S. and EU; Yanukovich subsequently fled to Russia. The thugs toting Molotov cocktails who have been at the head of the three-month mass mobilizations in the streets of Kiev, seizing government buildings and violently confronting the police, now have the upper hand. The fascists of the Svoboda party have a deputy prime minister and several ministers in the new government. Svoboda cofounder Andriy Parubiy is now head of the National Security and Defense Council, which supervises the armed forces. The new deputy prime minister for economic affairs is Oleksandr Sych of Svoboda, a member of parliament infamous for his attempts to ban all abortions, including in the event of rape. While Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Washington’s favorite and head of the Fatherland party, is now in charge as prime minister, the thugs of Maidan square continue to dictate policy.

The seizure of power by a right-wing Ukrainian nationalist coup deeply alarmed the populace in Russian-speaking areas of eastern and southeastern Ukraine in particular. Indeed, one of the first acts of the new regime was to abolish a 2012 law allowing the official use of Russian and other minority languages. This was rightly seen as an attack on non-Ukrainian minorities, prompting widespread protests, including even in Lviv, where the fascists have a sizable base. Thirteen out of Ukraine’s 27 regions, primarily in eastern Ukraine, had adopted Russian as a second official language, and two western regions adopted Romanian, Hungarian and Moldovan. In Crimea—where 58.5 percent of the population is ethnic Russian, 24.4 percent is Ukrainian and 12.1 percent are Tatars—Kiev’s new chauvinist law hit particularly hard, as some 97 percent of the region’s two million people use Russian as their main language, regardless of ethnic background.

The Russian military, with the aid of local “self-defense” forces, has established control over the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Reportedly, the majority of Ukrainian troops in Crimea have switched sides, with some resigning. Meanwhile, the head of the Ukrainian navy has defected to the Russian side, as well as the 800 personnel of a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea. Unrest has also spread to eastern Ukraine.

There are numerous Russian troops and naval personnel on the Crimean peninsula. By agreement with previous Ukrainian governments, the city of Sevastopol is the home base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The new pro-Russian government in Crimea has called a plebiscite for March 30 to decide the territory’s status: to remain part of Ukraine or to seek de facto independence and closer affiliation with Russia.

Predictably, the new Ukrainian government has denounced Putin’s intervention as a Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory, and bourgeois pundits have raised comparisons with the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The Russian military intervention into Crimea is not akin to that war, during which Russian forces moved into Georgian territory. In that war, Marxists had a revolutionary defeatist line, opposing both bourgeois military forces. (Georgia was backed by Western imperialism.)

Contrary to how it is often presented in the Western media, the Russian intervention into Crimea is not an intervention into a “foreign country,” notwithstanding Crimea’s formal status as part of Ukraine. Crimea has been Russian since the late 18th century, when it was wrested from the Ottoman Empire. It was only in 1954 that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ceded Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this took on significance, as the fate of the area was the subject of heated disputes between the now bourgeois states of Russia and Ukraine. In 1991, an attempt by local inhabitants to hold a referendum on Crimea’s independence was indefinitely banned by the Ukrainian authorities.

The main opposition from within Crimea to seceding from Ukraine comes from the Tatars, an overwhelmingly Muslim Turkic people. On February 26, fighting in the Crimean capital of Simferopol broke out between Tatars and pro-Russian demonstrators, leaving two dead and 30 injured. Distrust of Russian authorities among the Tatars dates back to the period of Joseph Stalin, who deported the Crimean Tatars en masse in 1944 from their historic homeland to Central Asia and other parts of the Soviet Union.

Since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state in 1991-92, we have emphasized the need for working people to join together in struggle against capitalist exploitation and all manifestations of oppression, national subjugation and anti-Jewish bigotry. In a 3 April 1995 statement by the International Communist League, issued at a time when we were banned from Ukraine as part of an anti-communist witchhunt, we stressed that “today, in our quest for the democratic rights of the working people and all nationalities to be asserted and defended, we believe that a plebiscite on national affiliation is in order in the Crimea and Chechnya” (WV No. 620, 7 April 1995).

The people of Crimea have every right to self-determination, including independence or incorporation into Russia. In the present juncture, exercising that right might well depend on the support of Russian forces. Indeed, it was the new Crimean government that requested Russian intervention.

It is principled for Marxists to support the Russian intervention into Crimea so long as Russia were to implement special rights for the Crimean Tatar minority, who are plenty oppressed under Ukrainian rule. That Crimea was ever transfered to Ukraine was a stupid administrative error of the Khrushchev regime, contrary to the history as well as the national and linguistic make-up of Crimea. Although it remains to be seen, the new authorities have at least verbally stated that they want to redress Tatar concerns. Crimea’s deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliev, has declared that the local government will offer the Crimean Tatars a place on Crimea’s Supreme Council and that funding for programs of resettlement and reintegration of those deported during the Stalin era will be plentiful (Russia Today, 2 March).

For the Right of All Nations to Self-Determination!

The right of self-determination and other national rights apply to the peoples of all nations, including those of great powers like Russia. As Marxists, we have always rejected the methodology that democratic rights apply only to certain “progressive” peoples, as opposed to those designated “reactionary.” For example, the Zionist state viciously oppresses the Palestinians, but we recognize the national rights of Israeli Jews as well as the Palestinians and oppose the view that the Jews should be driven into the sea. In Northern Ireland, the Catholic minority is oppressed by the (slim) Protestant majority and the British state. But we recognize that the Protestants are a distinct community and oppose their forcible reunification into an Irish Catholic state. We stand for an Irish workers republic as part of a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles.

Self-determination is a democratic right and not an absolute one. Its application is subject to the demands of the class struggle. For example, if Russian forces use the takeover of the Crimea to deepen the oppression of the Tatars, it would then be unprincipled to support the Russian intervention.

As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin underlined, the recognition of the right of self-determination is a way to get the national question off the agenda and to foster the fighting unity of the proletariat, thereby enabling the working people of different nations to see who their real enemies are—namely, their respective capitalist classes. We are implacable opponents of Russian nationalism, just as we oppose all forms of nationalism. Thus we supported the Chechen people in their military struggles for independence against their brutal Russian bourgeois oppressors, under both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

In intervening into Crimea, Putin is seeking to defend the interests of capitalist Russia against the Western imperialists, who are aiming to establish a client state on his border. At the same time, in the context of increasing hostilities against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Russia’s realpolitik military maneuvers intersect the very real national fears faced by Russians in Crimea.

Workers Must Sweep the Fascists Off the Streets!

Just as our attitude toward Russian intervention into Crimea does not entail the slightest political support to Putin’s capitalist regime, our opposition to the Ukraine coup does not entail any political support to Yanukovich and his cronies. What was necessary in the lead-up to the coup was for proletarian class unity to be asserted above the national and ethnic divisions that plague that country. It would have been in the interest of the international proletariat for the working class in Ukraine to mobilize to sweep the fascists off the streets of Kiev. Today, it would certainly be in the interest of the proletariat for multiethnic, non-sectarian workers militias to be formed to crush the fascists and repel any and all expressions of communal violence.

In our article “Ukraine Turmoil: Capitalist Powers in Tug of War” (WV No. 1038, 24 January), we pointed out the major role played by fascists in the anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine. But despite ample evidence that neo-Nazis have a strong hold on the opposition now in power, the New York Times and other mouthpieces of the American ruling class still will not call them by their right name. The Western media continues to sell the lie that this coup is the result of a “peaceful revolution” for democracy and against corruption.

Svoboda is a fascist anti-Jewish party whose leader Oleg Tyagnibok claims that a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” controls Ukraine. This party derives from the Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, who militarily collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and carried out mass murders of Jews, Communists, Soviet soldiers and Poles. The party was initially named Social-National Party of Ukraine, an intentional reference to the German Nazi (National Socialist) party. In January, Svoboda led a 15,000-strong torch-lit march in Kiev and another in its stronghold of Lviv, in western Ukraine, in memory of their hero Bandera.

Even more extreme groups such as the Right Sector, which considers Svoboda too “liberal” and “conformist,” went on to outflank Svoboda in the protests. Introducing paramilitary gangs, they turned the tide of the protests in Kiev to attacks on police, with the aim of overthrowing the government. Following the coup, Right Sector supporters in Stryi, in the Lviv region, destroyed a national monument to the Red Army soldiers who died liberating Ukraine from Nazi Germany. (Dozens of statues of Lenin have also been dismantled in the past couple of months.) Aleksandr Muzychko, leader of the West Ukrainian section of the group, has pledged to fight against “Jews, communists and Russian scum until I die.” Asserting the Right Sector’s authority over the situation, Muzychko declared that now that the government has been overthrown, “there will be order and discipline” or “Right Sector squads will shoot the bastards on the spot.”

To the extent that a government exists now in post-coup Ukraine, its laws are largely dictated by these neo-Nazi, Russophobic, anti-Jewish, ultra-nationalist outfits. In addition to stripping the official status of minority languages, the new regime also banned in the western regions of Ukraine the “Communist” Party of Ukraine (CP), which openly collaborated with the bourgeois Yanukovich regime, as well as Yanukovich’s Party of Regions. The CP, which claims 115,000 members and more than two million voters, reports that its supporters have been harassed and beaten and that the CP leader’s house was burned down. Meanwhile, citing “constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions,” a Kiev rabbi called on the Jewish population to leave the city and even the country if possible. Indeed, on February 24 a Jewish synagogue was firebombed in Zaporozhye in southeastern Ukraine. A March 3 statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry noted, “The West’s allies now are outright neo-Nazis who wreck Orthodox churches and synagogues.”

The present crisis in Ukraine was precipitated by Yanukovich’s decision to reject a “partnership” with the EU. That deal was tied to an IMF loan that would have put the Ukrainian working class on starvation rations, as happened to the Greeks and others. U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland, EU representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton, U.S. Senator John McCain and numerous other American and European politicians rushed to Maidan square in Kiev to encourage the protesters and show their support. On December 17, Russian president Putin offered the cash-strapped Yanukovich a $15 billion loan and a reduction in gas prices. While far from enough to lift the country out of poverty, this would have been a temporary reprieve for Ukraine, which is about to default. Putin’s loan was immediately denounced by the U.S. Senate as “Russian economic coercion.”

At every level, what is going on in Ukraine is the product of the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state and ravaged the economies and peoples of the former Soviet republics. The Ukrainian economy, which had been integrated into an all-Union economic division of labor, was dealt a severe blow. Living standards plummeted throughout the former USSR. In Ukraine, real wages in 2000 were at best only one-third of 1991 levels, while industrial employment fell 50 percent between 1991 and 2001.

As a former Soviet Republic, Ukraine is still economically very dependent on Russia. The bulk of industry—the production of steel, metals, railway cars and nuclear equipment—is located in the heavily Russified and Orthodox eastern Ukraine, not in the more rural and Uniate Catholic west. These industries, crucial for Russia, are of no use to the Western imperialists, who are intent on liquidating them.

Ukraine’s population of 46 million is deeply divided, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the EU while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. The country was also polarized between corrupt gangs of capitalist tycoons who were earlier scratching each other’s backs while gorging themselves on the theft of the industrial wealth built up over decades by the multinational Soviet working class. Some of these oligarchs, with an appetite for more European investment, orient to the West. Meanwhile, Yanukovich’s support derived from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which trade with Russia.

The Ukrainian working class, which had shown militancy in the early 1990s in the eastern industrial Donetsk region, has so far remained silent as a class. No doubt the workers feel little sympathy for mafia chief Yanukovich. But the pro-imperialist coup in Ukraine, ushered in by fascists, offers up the working class for even more savage exploitation by the imperialists.

Great-Power Rivalries

Siding with ultra-reactionaries and fascists has never bothered the “democratic” U.S. imperialists. In fact, the Banderaites are old friends of Washington. After World War II, Western intelligence protected Bandera’s units and turned them into a guerrilla force against the Soviets, also making them a mainstay of Radio Free Europe. Today, in need of even harsher austerity to keep profits flowing, the Ukrainian ruling class and its imperialist godfathers may find the fascists handy to divert the focus of social discontent from the oligarchs and foreign capitalists to minorities like Jews and immigrants, or to crush militant workers and leftists.

When Barack Obama first came to power, he talked of attempting a “reset” of relations with Russia. However, the U.S. attitude toward Russia today resembles something from the days of the Dulles brothers during the 1950s Cold War era, with the vilification of Russia a theme constantly reiterated by both U.S. media and politicians. But the U.S. imperialists’ hostility to Russia is no longer about overthrowing the collectivized property relations that were established by the 1917 October Revolution. Rather, it is an expression of “great power” politics.

Seven decades of a planned economy transformed Soviet Russia from a largely peasant country to a mainly urbanized one, with rough military parity with the U.S., a skilled workforce and a very substantial number of highly trained scientific and technical personnel. Thanks in great part to the high price of oil and gas in recent years, the Russian economy has recovered from the catastrophe of “shock therapy” that came with capitalist counterrevolution. Russia is the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas, and it still has a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal. It also has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the power to at times be a thorn in the side of the U.S., as when Obama threatened to attack Syria last year.

In its constant drive for world hegemony, the U.S. has been trying to curtail Russia’s strength as a regional power, continuously expanding NATO into East Europe and attempting to install pliant regimes through a series of color “revolutions” in former Soviet republics. The U.S. has also established bases across Central Asia and elsewhere on Russia’s periphery. This military extension is aimed at the encirclement not only of capitalist Russia but also of China, the largest and most powerful of the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states. For its part, Russia has numerous times gone along with American imperialism. For example, since 2009 Russia has allowed the U.S. to transport troops and weapons to Afghanistan through its airspace, having previously limited transport through its territory to “nonlethal” supplies.

With breathtaking hypocrisy, the U.S. and EU—with their media mouthpieces in tow—condemn Russia for “interference” into Ukraine’s affairs. It is, in fact, the imperialists who have their dirty hands all over Ukraine. When a telephone conversation was leaked last month between Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, all the focus in the media revolved around her statement, “Fuck the EU.” Disappeared was the fact that this was a dispute over who should take power after Yanukovich, with Nuland outright rejecting the prospect of former boxer Vitali Klitschko, who was being promoted by German imperialism (Klitschko actually pays taxes in Germany). As professor Stephen Cohen aptly described the phone call in a February 20 Democracy Now! interview, “The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine.”

In the recent coup, the EU—with Germany, France and Poland taking the lead—has played a prominent role as a battering ram for IMF austerity. The EU is an imperialist trade bloc dominated by Germany, and its “offer” of partnership would spell even deeper poverty for the Ukrainian working class. The IMF loan tied to the EU agreement stipulates that Ukraine cannot accept any financial support from Russia. It requires the slashing of gas and oil subsidies for Ukrainians, making it impossible for many to heat their homes in the frigid winter, and demands further and far more drastic privatizations of public services and industries. In short, it would ensure massive economic privation for Ukraine’s working people, east and west.

Ironically, Yanukovich, who had been more than willing to work with the EU, probably turned down the loan agreement because he feared he would not politically survive the social consequences of the austerity package accompanying it. Ukraine needs some $35 billion just to meet its debt obligations over the next two years. But not much is actually on offer from the EU and U.S. imperialists.

State Department Socialists

While the Western bourgeois media is working overtime to pass off the reactionary demonstrations in Kiev as a “fight for democracy,” the International Socialist Organization (ISO) chimes in with its own version of this tune. A February 24 article acknowledges that fascists like Right Sector were “increasingly at the forefront of the clashes with government forces” and notes, “The menace of the far right in Ukraine cannot be understated.” Nonetheless, the article continues, “it would be wrong to dismiss the protest movement wholesale because [of] its presence,” describing the protests in Kiev as an “action from below.” So were the rampages of Nazi stormtroopers!

The ISO goes further and calls for “a grassroots effort involving independent workers’ organizations, trade unions and a strengthened left establishing an atmosphere of solidarity within the Maidan, in which the toxic message of hate will wither and die” [our emphasis]. To be clear, here the ISO is calling on workers to join and help a movement that is controlled by fascists and far-right forces. Any worker militant unfortunate enough to be influenced by the ISO would have found himself participating in a fascist-led coup.

Naïve left-wing groups, trade unionists and gay activists who tried to join the protests were expelled from the square by force of arms and beaten. The ISO is used to the company of arch-reactionaries. From its inception in the 1950s, the ISO’s international tendency—including its erstwhile partners in the British Socialist Workers Party—has always sided with “democratic” imperialism. At the outbreak of the Korean War, it abandoned Trotskyism by refusing to defend the Soviet Union, China and North Korea, going on to support any and all forces arrayed against the Soviet workers state in the name of “anti-Stalinism.” This included prettifying General Andrey Vlasov, the leader of the Russian fascists who fought on the side of Hitler’s Nazis during the Second World War.

The Russian Revolution and the National Question

The Bolshevik Party that led the October Revolution of 1917 steadfastly stood for the equality of all nations, peoples and languages. The Bolsheviks opposed any form of national inequality or privilege. This enabled them to rally the working people—Russians, Jews, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, etc.—to overthrow the rule of the capitalists and landlords.

For the first several years after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks assiduously defended the rights of the various peoples and nationalities in the country. For example, the Crimean Autonomous Republic was established in 1921 within the Russian Federation; about a fifth of its population were Crimean Tatars. In the first years of Soviet power there was a marked development of Crimean Tatar national culture: the Tatars founded national research centers, museums, libraries and theaters. However, with the triumph and consolidation of a Stalinist bureaucracy beginning in 1923-24, Great Russian chauvinism began to flourish. Within years, teaching of the Crimean Tatar language and literature was ended, and all publications in the language were banned.

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, a section of the Tatars welcomed them as liberators. But many other Tatars fought in the Soviet Army against Germany. Stalin then vindictively visited collective punishment on the Crimean Tatar population. In 1944, some 180,000 Tatars were deported to Central Asia and other parts of the USSR. The Chechens and Volga Germans received similar treatment. Almost one-half of the Tatars died on the way to exile. It was not until 1967 that Soviet authorities began the “rehabilitation” of the Tatars. Only two decades later were they allowed to begin returning to Crimea, creating great bitterness among the Tatars.

However, it would be a mistake to view national relations in the Soviet degenerated workers state as a simple continuation of the tsarist prison house of peoples. The policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy had a contradictory impact. The existence of a socialized economy with central planning provided the material basis for developing more backward areas of the USSR, such as Soviet Central Asia. Ukraine underwent substantial industrialization and development. The achievement of full employment, medical care for all and other gains undercut the most virulent forms of bourgeois nationalism and anti-Semitism that are fueled by the discontents of capitalist society. The Red Army smashed the Nazi invaders during World War II, liberating Ukraine from the fascist scum.

With the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union, all the “old crap” returned, leading to a sharp intensification of communalism and a proliferation of national hatreds pitting working people against each other in a dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. As we have noted in the past, the breakup of the Soviet Union revealed a situation of considerable interpenetration of peoples and of economic production units that were inherited from and geared to a bureaucratically centralized planned economy. That is the situation with Ukraine, particularly in the eastern regions.

The future under capitalism is bleak. Further economic immiseration could well lead to increased bitterness and strife among differing ethnic groups, with a bloody “resolution” of the national question. As we noted in concluding our article on Ukraine three issues ago: “The crucial task is to forge Leninist-Trotskyist parties that will wage a thoroughgoing struggle against all manifestations of nationalism and great-power chauvinism as part of patient but persistent propaganda aimed at winning the proletariat to the program of international socialist revolution.”