Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Will Russia Invade Ukraine?

Socialists have no interest in the rivalry of capitalist nations. Nations are in constant competitive struggle with other nations over markets, trade routes, oil and gas reserves, sources of key raw materials, and spheres of strategic interest. Under capitalism, all nation states prepare for war and war is a natural outcome of nationalist and commercial rivalry.

Socialists are drawn into analysing national conflict because governments rely on the working class for support and engagement. The working class are drenched in nationalist propaganda to support wars for 'democracy' and even to join up as members of the armed forces.

Workers have no class interest in these conflicts. And these conflicts materialise with boring frequency. A little while ago the conflict between China and the US and its allies was all the rage. Now it is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Here workers are being told by governments and a servile media to take sides. What workers are not told is the fact that the working class in Russia and Ukraine have identical class interests. They have no interest in war. And they have every interest in capitalism being replaced by socialism. Workers do not own the means of production and distribution. It is not their gas fields and oil deposits or gas pipelines that are being disputed - they never had any to start with. And whichever side wins a war, the workers are never the winners.

Socialists do not take sides in capitalism's wars. What we do say to workers is that they have no interest in supporting war or killing other workers in the interest of the capitalist class. Class solidarity and becoming socialists is what we say to the working class. Establishing socialism - a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society: that is the only sensible and possible way forward away from never-ending conflicts and wars.

War and Propaganda

Recently CNN news broadcast a report from the Ukraine. It was a very impressive front-line (plus political) report. Yet it was also clever propaganda. CNN's reporter just happened to visit the trenches, reminiscent of the First World War, as part of the Ukrainian President's visit to cheer up his troops, and boost morale.

By chance???

It would be interesting to see the correspondence between the governments of Ukraine, the US and CNN news editors to enable CNN journalists with their camera crew to embed themselves in the Presidential entourage.

Kiev and Washington both had a shared political purpose, an agenda. While Ukraine would like to join NATO and so be fully protected by the US and allies with their 'nuclear umbrella', till now it's been left outside the door. Ukraine wants to be considered a sovereign country but there are problems.

Putin is in a way correct in describing Ukraine not as a country but merely a territory - Russian media claim that Ukraine's borders have never been clearly defined and registered with the UN. With this ambiguous status, he claims that his invasion is not an invasion. (A legalistic quibble - of course, he once trained as a lawyer.) That would give him 'legal' cover for full-scale annexation, as he's already done in Crimea where elections have been held and passports issued under Russian control, and plans have been made to turn this Black Sea peninsula with its warm climate into a major casino resort.

His real wish is to re-establish Russian rule over the full extent of the post-1945 Soviet empire, as achieved by the late but not lamented Uncle Joe - Stalin, with the compliance of those famous lovers of democracy, Churchill and Roosevelt, all three being signatories to the Yalta Agreement. He already has in Belarus a compliant client state, still trying to operate as a one-party state - as a dictatorship.

Putin saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century regarding Russian interests and prestige. Rather than "communism" Putin wants an economic capitalist bloc encompassing all former Soviet countries. All very Orwellian - the world cast into three blocs - Russia, China and Europe/US. At least this political and economic rivalry is not referred to as "communism versus capitalism". It is a capitalist conflict just as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Washington under Trump was just what Putin wanted - at best, it's priority was to keep out of wars. At worst - its policy was dictated from Moscow. This has all changed with the Presidency of Joe Biden with its more hawkish world view towards Russia.

That would help explain why CNN - and other Western media channels - found themselves carrying these reports on the build-up of Russian forces from a not very active 'front-line'. This 'war' has been at a stalemate, stuck in the mud of those trenches, for several years, and nothing much has changed in that time. Why then would senior news executives at CNN have decided suddenly that this is an item of major news ?

After all, there were many other live stories they could have covered in detail - e.g. the effects of the long-running war in Yemen, the aftermath of Israel's election and Netanyahu's trial on corruption charges, the effects of Covid in Brazil and other 'Third World' countries, climate change, the power of pseudo-science and religion, and the politics of denialism, and so on.

So why Ukraine? Why now?

Possibly CNN is letting itself be used, not for the first time, as an unofficial channel to signal a change in Washington's policy. President Biden recently imposed further sanctions on Russia for cyber-attacks and interference in US politics, like the 2016 election (GUARDIAN 16 April 2021). These will cause a response, and tensions between Russia and the US will escalate. Already, in April, Russian naval forces and ships are reported to be active in the Black Sea, with over 100,000 troops doing 'exercises' on the East Ukraine border. No doubt the US is responding with naval 'assets' such as aircraft carriers.

What of Ukraine?

What of the Ukraine? Ukraine: its history and language are quite complicated.

A simplified version sees it as a country in two halves: Western Ukraine including Kiev is influenced by Europe and is mainly speaking Ukrainian but Eastern Ukraine, including the Donbas with its vast oilfields, plus coalmining and heavy industry, has especially in recent decades become mainly Russian speaking. This is partly due to natural migration - partly due to migration as an outcome of Putin's settlement policy in the area.

There are also minorities such as the Don Cossacks, who are now encouraged by Putin to reassert their ancient culture and form military units - as in the Tsarist regime. Also the Crimean Tartars - deported en masse by Stalin but allowed to return decades later by Khrushchev - but now again being discriminated against by Putin, e.g. by not being allowed Russian citizenship and passports, etc.

The Soviet Union tried to wipe out the Ukrainian language, and in the late 20th C Ukrainian dissidents used the language issue as a basis for their nationalism. Many thousands of Ukrainians had sided with Hitler when he invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and what was once a celebration of the great victory of fascism in Kiev is now a Sunday outing both in praise of Ukrainian nationalism and a reminder of the Holodomor - the Starvation-Death, the genocidal Great Famine Stalin inflicted on the population in 1932 - 1933.

Language and Nationalism

This part of the history - the language and culture issue - is common to other former colonies, e.g. Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Also East Pakistan when West Pakistan imposed Urdu and banned Bengali as an official language provoking the students' revolt and a war, leading to the founding of Bangladesh.

The Tsarist term for Ukraine was 'Little Russia'. And many writers originally from the Ukraine wrote in Russian - e.g. the playwright-novelists Gogol and Bulgakov, both usually only thought of as Russians.

What of the supposed common language between Russia and parts of Ukraine? If you arrive by plane in Kiev, the road signs pointing to the city say "misto", cf in Moscow "gorod" - in Russian the word mesto means a place. A Russian would struggle to read any document or piece of literature in Ukrainian, and many Ukrainian speakers might struggle with Russian.

But the two languages are very closely related: along with Belarusian, they form the group known as East Slavonic- cf. West Slavonic (Polish, Czech, Slovak...) and South Slavonic (Bulgarian, Serbo-Croat, Slovenian...). These groupings are not just geographical - they are based on real philological differences.

Economic Interests and War

Whatever may be the case with this 'frozen conflict' and armed forces massing, relations between Russia and Ukraine remain a case largely of business as usual. In fact the Ukrainian government, despite on-going conflict with Russia, was reported in 2014 to be seeking approval to join the regional economic union between itself, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and a group of other ex-Soviet countries. The Eurasian Economic Union has an integrated single market of 180 million people and a gross domestic product of over international $5 trillion. The EEU has been set up to challenge the EU and with Russia, at its centre, is seen by Putin as the means to reconstruct the borders of the old Soviet Union, with its integrated economy.

Of course it is right to believe Putin has designs on Ukraine's natural gas pipelines. Russia already supplies gas to Europe. Gas from Russia accounts for about a third of the region's imports, about half of which flows through Ukrainian pipes.

Politically, Russia is determined to keep Ukraine out of NATO and the EU. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev referred to Ukraine as a sphere of "privileged interests" (NEW YORK TIMES, 31 August 2008). Ukraine's reliance on Russian gas gave Putin the chance to cut this off, in midwinter, some years back, as a crude form of bullying - claiming money was owed him by Kiev.

His puppet Yanukovych was extremely corrupt and got thrown out of power- but lives on in Russia, in hopes of returning. He left behind a vast estate - and a private zoo!

With the problems associated with coal mining and climate change, it is uncertain now if Russia would be very interested in the coal mines of Donbas but in the past this would have been a significant factor in deciding Russian policy.

Another important Ukrainian asset is corn: this region used to be Russia's breadbasket But with its vast wealth from Siberia's oil and gas exports, Russia is now able to afford to import and, with modernised supermarkets, should not now face famines.

It seems the West is reluctant to allow Ukraine to join NATO because of the fact of Russia's nuclear weaponry. The NATO treaty includes an important principle - an attack on any member state will be seen and defended against as an attack on all. That is both a strength and a weakness. If Ukraine was invaded by Putin, this could - and possibly would - be the trigger for all-out World War III.

Both sides know this so any war over Ukraine has to be fought only with 'conventional' weapons - hence those trenches, the images on CNN of Russia tanks being taken by train to the border and a 'war' best known as a "frozen conflict" - a stalemate with no victories, no defeats, quite a lot of casualties but no end in sight.

For the working class, to use a flag to identify your nationality is dangerous. This supposed nationality is used to enlist you into armies, into obeying orders, into waging war against others just like yourself, the only difference being the superficial one of the colour of the uniforms and flags.

They tell you to fight for your country and defend the 'fatherland/motherland', and equip you with expensive weaponry. But state taxes are not paid to pay for the defence of your flat, your modest semi, or even your garden or allotment. So much for the claim that a war is fought to defend your country - there’s precious little property owned by workers and their families, as under capitalism the vast majority of land and wealth is owned by a tiny majority of plutocrats and kleptocrats. Workers have no interests at stake in any wars. As a class, the workers of the world need to remember Marx’s slogan: "UNITE! - you have nothing to lose but your chains!"

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