Two wrong sides don’t make one of them right

March 12, 2014

The new government in Ukraine is infested with far-right nationalists and backed by the U.S.--but the left can't build an alternative by defending Russia's intervention.

IN THE Ukraine capital of Kiev, the government that came to power after the downfall of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych is led by political parties ranging from conservative nationalists to fascist ultra-nationalists.

The far-right Svoboda party, which proudly claims to stand in the tradition of Ukraine nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, is well represented in the new leadership, including the National Security and Defense Council, which oversees the police and military. As for the "moderates," Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says anyone who serves in the new regime will be committing "political suicide"--such is the scale of austerity measures that the government expects to undertake, on the advice of its champions in the U.S. and European Union (EU).

Meanwhile, in Crimea, the southernmost region of Ukraine, Russian military forces, in alliance with local political leaders, have taken charge and are pressing ahead with a referendum this weekend on secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia.

Two wrong sides don't make one of them right

Riot police from the Yanukovych regime who just weeks ago were murdering demonstrators in Kiev have reportedly regrouped in Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin--the butcher of Chechnya, persecutor of LGBT people and jailer of political dissidents--now claims to be concerned about democratic rights in Ukraine. His real concern is to re-establish Russian dominance over a country that has suffered under Russian rule for most of the last three centuries.

In this conflict, both sides stand for exploitation, oppression and war. The only hope for a way forward--however distant it may appear today--lies with the emergence of a united struggle of working people in Ukraine and beyond, waged independently of local ruling class factions and of the imperial powers in Washington and Moscow.

In the U.S., many liberal voices will follow the Obama administration's lead in championing the new Ukraine government--but this means glossing over the frightening prominence of the far right in Kiev, and ignoring entirely the stinking hypocrisy of the U.S. government lecturing anyone about respect for national sovereignty and international law.

Some on the left in the U.S. and Europe are tilting the other way on the grounds that the "main enemy," imperialism, is "at home"--but this means renouncing the mass uprising that overthrew the Yanukovych regime, and accepting the lying justifications of Russian imperialists for trying to maintain power in their "backyard."

Not only is it morally and politically repugnant to support either Washington or Moscow as the lesser oppressor--doing so only compounds the problem.

Right now, each injustice and atrocity committed by one side in Ukraine strengthens the hand of the other. Russia's military takeover of Crimea was a godsend to the nationalists in charge in Kiev, who cloak their vicious politics in the mantle of resistance to foreign domination. By the same token, the Kiev government's reactionary measures to assert its authority give Putin all the evidence he needs to claim that people in Ukraine fearful of the fascists need the military and economic might of Russia to protect them.

This downward spiral of competing nationalisms and rival imperialisms will obstruct the development of an independent left-wing alternative. As Zoltán Grossman wrote in an article for Portside:

[T]he enemy of your enemy is not always your friend. In a contest between [Ukraine] and Russian ultra-nationalists, we do not need to pick sides. We can defend peace and the democratic rights of civilians, and all minorities on both sides of the divide, without contributing to the polarization and strengthening the rise of fascism. Two wrongs don't make a right.

FEW PEOPLE reading are likely to be moved by U.S. officials' lectures about Russia's "incredible act of aggression," to quote Secretary of State John Kerry. "You just don't," Kerry continued with a straight face, "in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext."

No, certainly not--unless you command the most powerful military in the history of the world and decide you want to control Iraq's oil. Or unless you can accomplish your aims by backing a right-wing coup, as the U.S. government did in Haiti and Honduras within the past decade--and has been trying in Venezuela, fortunately to no avail.

The government in Kiev that the U.S. supports came to power because of the mass protest movement that occupied the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev for three months starting in November, despite bitter cold and waves of deadly crackdowns.

The inspiring determination of the Maidan protesters was hardened by hatred for Yanukovych's corrupt regime and the super-rich oligarchs, both in Ukraine and Russia, that it served. Every move to overcome the resistance, whether through co-optation or repression, failed. Ultimately, like other tyrants before him, Yanukovych fled the capital in the dead of night.

But despite the social and economic grievances that underlay the rebellion, conservative political figures were able to claim leadership over the movement throughout, and far-right organizations played a leading role, especially in defending the Maidan against attacks by the riot police.

These are the forces that have taken power today, and they are pressing ahead with a right-wing agenda that has nothing whatsoever to do with guaranteeing democratic rights--especially for national/ethnic minorities--or reducing poverty or confronting the corruption that has been endemic to the political system, no matter which party is in charge.

The leaders of the current government are opportunists. They were prepared, on the eve of Yanukovych's ouster, to accept a power-sharing agreement that would have kept the former president in power for the rest of the year. Now, with Yanukovych out of the way, the new regime is ready to make a deal with the International Monetary Fund, at the cost of further drastic austerity measures.

For their part, the U.S. and EU hope to gain, politically and economically, at Russia's expense by gaining influence in Ukraine. They also want to speed up the project of extending the reach of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance to the borders of Russia--though in truth, Yanukovych cooperated with NATO, too.

NO ONE on the left can welcome this disappointing outcome of the Maidan movement's victory in toppling Yanukovych. But neither should the left mourn the overthrow of a tyrant--or view Russia's intervention in Crimea as a genuine challenge to the far right or anything else.

Unfortunately, some left groups are doing just this. According to the newspaper of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Yanukovych was the victim of "a parliamentary coup," and "Russian troops in the Crimea and other moves are essentially defensive" against U.S. and European imperialism. The Russian military, the PSL concludes, is "obstructing the EU-NATO-fascist takeover of all of Ukraine."

Given the PSL's record claiming that anti-imperialists must defend tyrannies such as North Korea, Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad's Syria, its upside-down view of Yanukovych's ouster and the progressive mission of the Russian Army commanded by Vladimir Putin is par for the course.

More unexpected is the position taken by the Stop the War Coalition in Britain, led by socialists in the group Counterfire. Stop the War convenor Lindsey German's "10 things to remember about the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea" portrays Putin's Russia as mainly responding to U.S. and European aggression in Ukraine--and it criticizes "[t]hose who demand antiwar activity here in Britain against Russia."

German reminds us: "The job of any antiwar movement is to oppose its own government's role in these wars, and to explain what that government and its allies are up to." That's certainly one job of antiwar activists--but why isn't it also our job to speak out against Russian imperialism?

German's overwhelming focus on U.S. and EU machinations--and the PSL's explicit conclusion that Russia is acting "defensively"--require ignoring both the long history of Russia's domination of Ukraine and Putin's urgent here-and-now reasons for maintaining some measure of power and influence in the largest country on its western border.

Ukraine was first conquered by the Russian empire in the 17th century. The Tsarist grip was broken by the Russian Revolution, but when the counterrevolution of Stalinism reversed the gains of 1917, oppressed nations of the old empire were subjugated once again--this time, obscenely, in the name of socialism. Likewise, when the USSR broke apart in 1991, Ukraine won its independence, but Russia was able to use its economic and military power to keep much of its former empire from straying too far.

Putin and the Russian ruling class have many reasons beyond the threat of NATO expansion for wanting to bring Ukraine to heel. For one, more than half of Russia's natural gas exports to Western Europe, its primary market, flow through the pipelines that run across Ukraine. For another, Russia's huge military base on the Black Sea in Crimea gives its navy access to the Mediterranean Sea, an important factor in projecting the Putin regime as a world military power.

Any left-wing or antiwar organization that ignores these imperialist motives is not only presenting a distorted picture, but setting itself up to lose credibility. As British socialist Mike Marqusee, a one-time leading member of the Stop the War Coalition himself, wrote in a comment at the Red Pepper website:

Those who want the antiwar movement in Britain to condemn Russia's actions have been reminded that "the main enemy is at home." The assumption seems to be that condemning Russia's crime will undermine opposition to war. But what will undermine us far more are unreal descriptions of events [and] evasive positions...If people are led to believe by our own behavior that we are not really an antiwar movement, but Russian apologists, "the main enemy" will be strengthened.

As for the suggestion--made explicitly by PSL--that the primary reason for Yanukovych's downfall was U.S. and EU intervention in Ukraine, Marqusee likewise has it right:

The Maidan movement cannot be reduced to an imperialist plot. There were more than enough good reasons for people to be angry at the Yanukovych government; it didn't need "outside agitators" of any kind...[T]he demand of the Maidan for an end to corrupt oligarchic government was just and necessary. That claim is not vitiated by the fact that, at the moment, a particular branch of the ruling class (as venal as those they have replaced) has reaped the spoils.

WHY IS it so important for the left to acknowledge and oppose Russian imperialism at the same time as it challenges its own governments?

Even if you set aside the repression and violence that the Putin regime is prepared to inflict on Ukraine in pursuit of its political and economic interests, a left alternative to the right-wing nationalists in Ukraine won't develop unless it rejects Russian intervention.

The Maidan movement was originally sparked by Yanukovych's decision, under pressure from Putin, to spurn a closer trade and political association with the European Union and join an economic bloc led by Russia that requires its members to adhere to same neoliberal dogmas as the EU. From the start, the protests--which not only spread west from Kiev, but also east to industrial cities regarded by the media to be pro-Russian--were galvanized not only by anger at Yanukovych's corrupt regime, but bitterness with Russia, Ukraine's past and present imperial overlord.

In an interview before Yanukovych's downfall, Ilya Budraitskis of the Russian Socialist Movement singled out the treacherous role of the pro-Russian Communist Party of Ukraine in bolstering the Yanukovych regime. CP members of parliament, for example, provided the margin of victory for draconian anti-protest laws rammed through in January, which further radicalized the Maidan movement. The CP's criticism of far-right nationalism rang hollow, Budraitskis said, because "they counterpose Russian chauvinism! It's despicable."

Now that Putin and Russia have moved on from economic bribery and political extortion to military threats, the right-wing nationalists are in an even stronger position against any opposition from their left--the government they lead "has been legitimized by the threat of foreign intervention," as Ukraine's Left Opposition wrote in a statement.

The right can exploit legitimate hostility to Russian imperialism--which exists both west and east, despite the simplified portrayals of the media--as the justification for driving through its agenda, at the expense of Jews, LGBT people and all ethnic/linguistic minorities, not just Russians. Likewise, the wing of oligarchs that backs the government in Kiev has been handed a perfect justification for inflicting the austerity measures demanded by the IMF--after all, the government has no choice but to find a way out of the financial mess Russia left behind.

Building a left alternative in the conditions of Ukraine today, confronted by escalating threats of war and polarized national divisions, will be difficult. The political questions raised in Ukraine are complex and deserve discussion on the left. But we can say this much: The tasks ahead will be impossible if left organizations defend, however critically, Russian intervention and the corrupt Ukraine politicians and super-rich oligarchs who side with Putin.

During the Cold War between the ex-USSR and the U.S., Socialist Worker had a slogan that encapsulated our rejection of both superpower camps. That slogan is relevant again today: Neither Washington nor Moscow, neither Kiev nor Simferopol, but international socialism.

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