By Thomas Riggins, London Progressive Journal, March 24, 2015 (Reviewing Richard Sakwa’s Dec. 2014 book, ‘Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the borderlands‘)
The crisis that struck Ukraine last year– the overthrow of the elected president, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rebellion in the Russian speaking eastern provinces— was the result of problems that had been festering, not only in Ukraine but all along the former frontiers of the USSR since the end of the cold war and the collapse of eastern European socialism over twenty some years previously.
There were many pressure points and areas of potential conflict along this defunct border. Over the years they became more and more exacerbated mainly as a result of the triumphalist attitude of the US and its allies over the end of the Cold War which they considered as a “victory” of their side over the Russians and their allies.
Meanwhile the Russians and their remaining close allies had considered the end of the Cold War as a cooperative undertaking in which, with western help, the leadership of the USSR would dismantle the Warsaw Pact and replace state socialism with a European style market economy thus eliminating the threat of nuclear war and allowing for the eventual flourishing of a united European civilization stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The “we won, you lost” attitude assumed by the US (and its NATO puppet) along with the EU has led to economic and political actions the Russians and their allies believe threaten their interests and rights. This is the theses of professor Richard Sakwa of Kent University (UK) in his new book Frontline Ukraine. This article will attempt to highlight the fateful steps that have led to the current crisis as professor Sakwa ennunciated them (any misinterpretations or errors are mine).
One of the major steps was the growth of NATO right up to borders of Russia after the Russians had been given assurances by the US that that would not happen. The US now argues that the growth of NATO was necessary due to the security problems along its borders. This overlooks the fact that it is the new borders that are the location of these problems. As Sakwa puts it, “NATO’s existence became justified by the needs to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.” This kind of mendacious logic is typical of the US ’s (and to a lesser extent the EU’s) dealings with Russia. Echoed by the corporate media in the US, it is one of the main reasons the American people are ignorant of the true causes of the Ukraine crisis and for their antipathy toward Russia.
The reason there are so many problems between the US (and its satellites) and Russia is because there are many systemic contradictions between them left over from the end of the Cold War and there has been little, if any, attempt by the West to seriously try to resolve them by good faith negotiations. When a problem boils over, as in the Ukraine (and earlier in Georgia), all the blame is put on Russia and the solution is framed as the need for the US and the West to make the Russians back down. This, Sakwa points out, only makes the contradictions between the interests of the Russians and the US side worse.
A major consideration with regard to the West’s relations with Russia is that after the collapse of the USSR, Russia was economically in turmoil and politically weak. The West could pretty much do as it wanted as Russia, as well as Ukraine, were dominated by corruption, oligarchs calling the shots, and the need to concentrate on internal problems not foreign affairs.
Russia was able to economically benefit during the early years of the 2000s, due to high profits of oil, and Putin was able, despite democratic short comings, to curtail the power of the oligarchs, reassert state ownership in many strategic areas of the economy, and reinvigorate the Russian economy and state. This allowed the Russians to reengage in foreign affairs and begin to reassert their perceived interests vis a vis those of the West once they realized it was not part of the West’s intentions to work in partnership with them to peacefully resolve contradictions to the mutual benefit of all concerned. If not a cold war the US was starting a “Cool War.” In contrast, Ukraine remained mired in corruption and the control of oligarchs despite a democratic facade.
Another important point made by Sakwa concerns the makeup of the Ukrainian nation. There are two contradictory views which he calls the monistic and pluralistic views. In short, the monistic view, held by the Ukrainian government and the ultra nationalist faction which dominates western Ukraine is that the country is a unique cultural whole bound together by its national language which has its own historical destiny to fulfill as part of the European continuum and is thus more closely bound to the EU than to Russia which is seen as an alien foreign influence.
The pluralistic view, which dominates in the eastern Russian speaking Ukraine, maintains that the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are related by a common cultural ancestry born of their participation in a common early state and religion (orthodox Christianity since 988 AD). The common state (Kievian Rus) was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in 1240, nevertheless the common cultural unity persists and the three peoples are more closely bound to one another than to the EU and its people. This is admittedly simplified and Sakwa will expand upon it later.
Surveys and polls show that as late as 2005 around 67% of eastern Russian speaking Ukrainians identified with Ukraine as their country and there was no great feeling to join with Russia or become independent. There were major problems, however, which included worries and complaints about the status and use of Russian, negative attitudes towards NATO and no desire to identify with Europe and the West at the expense of Russia.
All of these issues could have been dealt with democratically within Ukraine by means of parliamentary processes and constitutional guarantees. What has led to the present crisis in Ukraine was the perception by the Russian speaking east that the undemocratic overthrow of the elected government in February 2014 brought to power ultra-nationalist forces that were seeking to force their views on the east and that eastern concerns, beliefs, and rights were being ignored and even abrogated.
This eastern crisis is a separate issue from the Crimea. The Russians in the Crimea were never happy about being separated from Russia due to the fact that in 1954 the USSR transferred the area to Ukrainian administration for purposes of cost efficiency. No one then even dreamed of the possibility that the Crimea would be cut off from Russia in an independent Ukraine. Sakwa points out that the Crimea, after all, “is the heartland of Russian nationhood.”
The annexation of the peninsula by Russia was welcomed by the majority of people living there and while its return to its motherland set off the storm that has now descended upon US and European relations with Russia (totally provoked by the West and its backing of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Ukraine) it is unlikely to be reversed. The issues in the eastern provinces of Ukraine have to be settled independently of those of the Crimea which is now a part of Russia and likely to remain so.
* * *
Part two of two, April 4, 2015: Part two picks up where Part one left off and explains in more detail the two conceptions of Ukrainian statehood discussed by Richard Sakwa in his new book Frontline Ukraine.
First the ‘monist’ conception of Ukraine. In this view Ukrainian culture and statehood had been held back for the past several hundred years. In fact, ever since the Treaty of Pereyaslavl of 1654. This was a treaty between the ruler of much of what is now Ukraine and Russia in which Russian suzerainty became established. A program of Russification had been undertaken in the 1800s. Basing themselves on the primacy of the Ukrainian language as the official national language, the monists seek to undo the Russification they think has been imposed on them in the past. This will entail their imposing monist values in turn on those segments of the population not sufficiently infused with their version of Ukrainian nationalism– especially those who speak Russian as their first and preferred language.
One of the major influences on this outlook was Dmytro Dontsov (1883-1973). Dontsov had been a Marxist in his youth but morphed into an ultra-right Ukrainian nationalist after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He became a Russophobe who wanted Ukraine to become a major nation on the European model. Sakwa quotes him as follows: we want, “unity with Europe, under all circumstances and at any price — that is the categorical imperative of our foreign policy.”
The most important monist organization was (and is) the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) a home spun fascist group which has integrated the teaching of Dontsov into their ideology. Dontsov was never a member but he wrote for them and provided a fascist outlook of his own creation distilled from the Italian and German (NAZI) models he had studied.
The OUN’s ideology is based on something called “integral nationalism.” This ideology views the nation as an organic whole— the state is supreme and superior to the individual. There is a supreme leader, a totalitarian one party state, and hostility to all forms of socialism (especially communism) as well as to bourgeois democracy. The Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine describes it as follows: “The nationalists insisted on the primacy of will over reason, action over thought, and practice over theory. Their doctrine of nationalism was infused with aspects of the irrational, voluntaristic, and vitalistic theories popularized in Western Europe by such philosophers as Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustave Le Bon, Georges Sorel, and Oswald Spengler. In the place of objective scientific discovery the nationalists propagated myths and favored an ideologically ‘correct’ image of the Ukrainian past.”
The same source describes their political program as follows: “The political order of the future Ukrainian state was to consist of a one-party system and would be based on a principle of supreme leadership (vozhdyzm). There would be only one political organization, which would consist of a supraclass of ‘better people.’ The state [i.e., the OUN] structure would be formed from a hierarchy of leaders under the supreme leader (vozhd), who would function both as leader of the movement and head of state. Propaganda and educational materials for young cadres would consistently underline the role and authority of the leader.”
In the late 1930s Stepan Bandera became the leader of the OUN. During World War II the OUN alternated between working with the German occupation and participating in the massacre of Jews, Poles, and Russians, and fighting against it, depending on its perceptions as to whether or not the Germans would go along with an independent OUN run Ukraine or not. In 1943 Bandera’s followers massacred 70,000 Poles the majority of whom were unarmed men, women, and children (the future Ukrainian state was for Ukrainians). This mass killing took place in Volyn in the Western Ukraine. Also, Sakwa says, by 1945 the OUN had, in Eastern Galicia, killed 130,000. Many people had their eyes gouged out (including women and children) and were then hacked to death. This was the fate of suspected “informers” and their families.
This was massive ethnic cleansing. Russians and Jews were also targeted. One can perhaps understand why many Russian speakers in the eastern Ukraine took up arms in 2014 when they saw the flags of the OUN proudly displayed in Kiev after the overthrow of the elected government.
After WWII the OUN kept fighting against the forces of the USSR and People’s Poland until 1949. Bandera had been imprisoned by the Germans during the war when he was no longer useful and had started to fight against them when he saw they would not support an OUN run independent Ukraine but had been released towards the end of the war to fight against the USSR. He stayed on in West Germany and was eventually hunted down and assassinated by the KGB in 1959.
When Ukraine became independent in 1991, liberal-democratic forms of government and a market economy began to replace the Soviet forms that preceded them, but they have not really taken root. It turned out that all the old animosities and contradictions from the past had not been overcome but had only lain dormant.
After 2007 statues in honor of Bandera started cropping up in cities in the western Ukraine. The home grown fascism and ethnic hatred of the OUN was on the march again. The Maidan demonstrations in early 2014, which led to the overthrow of the legally elected Ukrainian government, even witnessed 15,000 people marching in celebration of Bandera’s 105th birthday. The Svoboda Party, a neo-fascist mass party tinged with anti-semitism along with the Fatherland Party of Yulia Tymoshenko (a right-wing anti-Russian pro NATO nationalist mass party) both supported this commemoration of the former Nazi ally and war criminal.
The Russian speakers in the eastern Ukraine who saw the Soviet era in a positive light were shocked. They were the core of the original Soviet Ukraine to which much of the western Ukraine was added as new territory after WWII and which had been been ruled until then as parts of other European states (Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland). These new areas are part of the heartland of the OUN and are permeated with fascist ideology left over from their pre Soviet experiences. It is in these troubled waters that US imperialism and its NATO puppets are currently fishing.
Sakwa sees the core of the problem between the Donbas area rebellion (eastern Ukraine) and the western Ukrainian integral nationalists as primarily ideological. The Kiev government and rebels represent opposite world views. Basically, Kievian monism has an idealized conception of a pure Ukrainian nationalism that must be imposed on the country. It denies the reality on the ground of a pluralistic national population and seeks to make reality conform to its vision rather than adapt its political outlook to reality. (Sakwa points out this is also going on in the Baltic states).
So what does the pluralist view entail? Due to all the changes in the boundaries of Ukraine over the last hundred years or so— territories switching back and forth due to wars and then to governmental policies– the borders of the Ukraine today are very different than they were before WWII.
There are other peoples, nationalities and languages in Ukraine besides the Ukrainians (even though they are the vast majority). About 78% of the people are Ukrainian, 17% Russian and 5% are others (about seventeen different ethnic groups). About 7 million Russians live in the country and they want their language and customs respected— as do the other ethnic groups as well. [The 2.4 million people in the Crimea are included in the above breakdown].
The official national language is Ukrainian with 18 regional or territorial languages also recognized. The pluralists want Russian also recognized as a national language while also agreeing that Ukrainian has pride of place— i.e., should be taught to all.
As Sakwa puts it, “The pluralist model argues that all the people making up contemporary Ukraine have an equal stake in the development of the country, and thus opposes the nationalizing strain, although without repudiating some of its concerns.”
The reason there is a rebellion going on in parts of the eastern Ukraine is that the extreme nationalists who are in the western Ukraine (although monists and pluralists are to be found everywhere they do predominate in some regions) feel that since they are the majority they can force their views on all the other people in Ukraine (the others are not “true” Ukrainians).
As V. Goldstein writes (pointed out by Sakwa) in Forbes magazine (5/19/14) “the culture, language and political thinking of western Ukraine have been imposed upon the rest of Ukraine.” Dr. Goldstein (who teaches Slavic studies at Brown University) also explains why this imposition was attempted (rebellion was the backlash): “the objective has been to humiliate and put down Ukraine’s Russian speaking population. The radical nationalists of western Ukraine, for whom the rejection of Russia and its culture is an article of faith, intend to force the rest of the country to fit their narrow vision.”
It is this vision, with its roots in irrationalism, fascism and the anti-Semitism and ethnic massacres of WWII, that President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and NATO along with the leaders of the EU, as well our domestic right wing jingoists and puppet mass media are defending as “democracy, freedom, and national sovereignty.”