By Antoine Dolcerocca & Gokhan Terzioglu, published in Potempkin Review, winter (March) 2015
In a larger context, the crisis in Ukraine can be seen as the last round of a longstanding geopolitical conflict. Eastward expansion of NATO towards Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland started in 1999 under the Clinton administration, and continued in 2004 with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Plans to admit Georgia and Ukraine announced in April 2008 prompted a conflict between Russia and Georgia by the summer. Of course the West’s desire to install a pro-Western regime in Ukraine was also demonstrated during the Orange Revolution in 2004. After the 2014 parliamentary elections, the new government in Kiev again announced a referendum on joining NATO, while Russia made it clear that it would not tolerate a NATO-member Ukraine at its border. What is the rationale behind the West’s insistence on expanding towards Ukraine, knowing it would lead to a standoff with Russia? Is it the result of a US strategy fearing a rapprochement between Europe and Russia?
Geopolitical conflict produced by NATO expansion is a product of an economic and social process taking place in Europe. In fact, it is the logic of the neoliberal model that stimulates NATO expansionism. This is very similar to what we saw in the late nineteenth century with the new wave of colonialism produced by the so-called “Late Victorian Depression.” To stabilize the system without changing it, to deal with the falling rate of profit without transforming production and distribution, you have to create new markets, marketize sectors that are not yet put under the market rules, and break into the already existing markets to reshape them according to the needs of more extreme exploitation. This is what David Harvey called “spatial fix.” NATO’s Eastern European expansion and the current Ukrainian crisis represent the same logic, but the difference is that in the 1990s, Western expansion was not desperate– it represented the strength of European and American capitalism. This time, the policy to take over and colonize Ukraine is provoked by the extreme gravity of the economic crisis: it is an act of despair. And unlike Central Europe, which faced losses during the integration process but also stood to gain some benefits in the process, in the case of Ukraine there is nothing the West can offer except symbolic satisfaction and military support for the oligarchic elite.
On the other hand, Russian and some segments of Ukrainian industrial capital have to protect their own sphere of interest. This is why they supported the popular rebellion in Novorossia. But they did so very reluctantly because forces on the ground are quite radical and try to overcome the oligarchic system and neoliberalism as such. This is why the struggle in Novorossia takes place on two fronts simultaneously, and the role of official Russia is quite contradictory. Russia both supports the rebellion, and is trying to suppress it as a social movement. So far, Moscow leaders managed to put their men in the head of Novorossian republics, but they have failed to control the situation on the ground where leftist and radical groups are armed and influence the ideology of the fighters.
What about Russia’s longstanding influence and interest in Ukraine, i.e. what is sometimes called Russian imperialism?
The dream of Russian elites is to have good relations with the West. The elite’s money is in the West, their children are at Oxford and Harvard, their property is in Switzerland and England. They are ready to make almost any concession that will not destabilize Russia itself. But the West is not accepting these offers. Ruling circles in the EU prefer to speak of a Russian threat instead of cooperation with Russia. This is partly because they think that they can still get more out of this situation, partly because they are hostages of their own propaganda, and partly because they really don’t understand what is happening in Russian society. The situation with Crimea is a perfect example: no Russian government will surrender the region because the moment it does so, it will fall.
As for the thesis of “Russian imperialism,” one has to be very clear: Russia is the dominant force in the region and is trying to keep itself in this position. This is similar to the situation of Brazil in Latin America or India in South Asia. Additionally, one must note that Russia is today a capitalist country with a ruling class that has its own interests. But does this make Russia imperialist? No, at least not in the Marxist sense. We do not speak about Brazilian or Indian imperialism in similar circumstances. As for China, it is open to question whether we can now look for Chinese imperialism in Africa. In the context of Ukraine it is very clear that Russia is defending its positions. The paradox is that many Russian corporations are opposed to the active defense of Russia’s strategic positions in Ukraine because they are more interested in good relations with the West. But on this issue Russia’s ruling class is totally disunited.
The official reasons given for Yanukovich’s postponement of the EU Association Agreement– the event that triggered the conflict– range from his refusal to accept the release of Tymoshenko as a precondition, to the tough terms of the IMF agreement that demanded increases in household gas prices and spending cuts. However, several pieces in Western media outlets claimed that it was a secret meeting between Putin and Yanukovich that led to the postponement of the deal just a few weeks before the planned signature. The EU had been fast advancing to replace Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner, which it has now surpassed. Having watched the situation for a long time, why did Russia decide to threaten Yanukovich with economic pressure only a few weeks before the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, after negotiations had been going on for years, and make a counteroffer that finally aims to incorporate Ukraine into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union? What is the role of the Donetsk business interests that Yanukovich represented?
The economic articles of the association agreement involve the demand to change technological and other standards of Ukrainian industry. This spelled immediate death for the Ukrainian economy and the sudden loss of all its traditional markets. That was exactly the meaning of the agreement: destroying Ukrainian economy and turning the local population into guest workers in the EU, cheap labor for “foreign direct investment,” and consumers for foreign products. This is why not only Yanukovich, but also the subsequent government were reluctant to sign the agreement. And even now it is not yet implemented, in the condition of an already going civil war that could lead to the collapse of the Kiev government. Perhaps in Berlin they are now having second thoughts, understanding that they went too far. But it is already too late.
As for the Gazprom positions in negotiations with Ukraine, it is very clear that there was always a pressure on the corporation to press down the prices for Kiev in order to keep good relations between two countries. When it became clear that Ukraine is sacrificing its relations with Russia in order to follow the EU, Gazprom used it as a possibility to drop its political obligations towards its Ukrainian partner and increase prices. It is important to note that the financial situation of the corporation was not good at this point: they needed money. However, eventually political pressures increased again and now Gazprom is supplying Ukraine with gas on a discount price.
How do you see the Maidan and anti-Maidan movements? What is their respective class basis? Where do you think these movements stand in terms of their composition? Are they spontaneous grassroots movements or manufactured unrests fomented by foreign influence with imperialist motives? How has this balance changed over time in each case?
Maidan was a strange combination of marginalized people from western Ukraine who backed the far right and Kiev middle and upper-middle classes that backed the liberal nationalists. The movement in the southeast was composed of working-class and small business people. Yet this general geographic breakdown does not convey the whole picture. Resistance to the current Kiev government is in no way limited to the southeast. In fact, resistance is very strong in Kiev itself. Additionally, there are even resistant groups in western Ukraine, though they face severe repression. The language question played little if any role in determining peoples’ allegiances, contrary to what the Russian media said. Both sides are predominantly Russian-speaking. In Spring 2014 we (the Institute for Global Research and Social Movements, IGSO) organized a school for social activists from Ukraine in Belgorod, which activists from all over the country attended. The class composition of these resistance movements was very clear as were their sympathies, which can be described as populist left. It is not necessarily anticapitalist, but the common ground is the rejection of neoliberalism and the feeling that one has to fight to re-establish the Welfare State (“Social Republic”) and popular sovereignty. The attitude towards Russia is contradictory. On the one hand, Moscow helps the movement resist Kiev. On the other hand, Russia opposes the social and political reforms that are seen as the goal of the struggle. In that sense, declarations of Aleksey Mozgovoy, one of the most popular comandantes of the rebellion are quite telling.
In March 2014, the tape of a phone conversation between the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Catherine Ashton, and the Estonian Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet, was leaked. In it, Paet claims he was told during his visit in Ukraine that the new coalition at the time was behind the snipers who shot at protesters and the police at Independence Square in February 2014. What is your take on these events that led to Viktor Yanukovich fleeing the country a few days later?
There may have been a provocation, but most probably not in the case of snipers. There is a lot of video material that is quite clear. The police snipers just returned fire when the government forces were attacked. The balance of losses was quite clear: about 50 policemen killed in the first day. Only later there were losses among the protesters. It doesn’t look like a typical case of police repression.
While Russia hastily signed the Geneva Statement in April 17, 2014, accepting such unfavorable terms as “the disarming of all illegal armed groups,” with the continuing retreat of Ukrainian troops towards the end of summer 2014, it was Kiev and the West this time who rushed to sign the Minsk Protocol in September. They announced a week later that the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) between the EU and Ukraine would be postponed. This seems to be an indication of a rapid change in the balance of forces on the ground between these conjunctures. Since the signing of Minsk I in September 2014, where do we stand in terms of the balance of power between Russia and the West?
On the ground the opolcheniye (the rebel force) is winning every single battle, and this is reflected in the negotiations. Of course, Russian military hardware that was supplied to DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LPR (Lugansk People’s Republic) in August 2014 and later played an important role, as did advisors and volunteers. But Russian diplomacy is persistently accepting the worst conditions possible for Novorossiya given the current balance of forces.
Was there ever a chance for the election of leftist governments in DPR and LPR, or was the Kremlin in control, making sure it did not happen? What is the situation in DPR and LPR today, and what exactly is Moscow’s policy towards Novorossiya and Ukraine?
Leftist groups were quite strong in Donetsk and Lugansk in the spring of 2014, which was also reflected in their strong presence in the Supreme Soviets of both republics. However, after August 2014, Russian representatives successfully managed to marginalize the left in the power structures of both republics. Their main tool for this was the provision of humanitarian aid and military materials. They were provided only on the condition of serious political concessions. Some leaders in both republics who didn’t agree with this policy had to resign. Around the same time our IGSO school for social movements was closed in Belgorod (our accounts at Sberbank were simply blocked). There were physical attacks at some prominent center-left figures like Pavel Guborev. In autumn, this was followed by the decision not to register most leftist parties and candidates for the election of the new parliament, which was now totally under Russian control. However, most of the left represented by the Borot’ba Party, the Communist Party and other groups took refuge in the structures of popular militias, which became politically radicalized. That was reflected in Aleksey Mozgovoy’s statements. As the leader of “The Specter Brigade,” Mozgovoy called for the resignation of Moscow puppets in the Donetsk and Lugansk governments who were blocking popular struggles for the liberation of Ukraine from the oligarchs. However, this didn’t lead to further conflict because in January active military conflict with Kiev restarted.
It has to be said though that this situation can’t be blamed solely on the Moscow leadership. The Left in Donetsk was quite naive and inexperienced. As a result, it not only lost many opportunities, but was also unprepared for the political attack on its positions. But even more, we have to blame that outcome on the international left and many sections of the Russian left who did nothing to support the progressive forces in southeastern Ukraine politically or materially. Instead of helping the real struggle, these people and organizations were engaged in shameful debates about the level of political correctness of activists on the ground and on whether they deserved their support.
You wrote earlier that the elections of November 2, 2014 in Lugansk and Donetsk, which witnessed a high turnout, tended to attenuate tensions within these republics, notably between the political power and the rebel forces. How has the situation evolved since then, with the resurgence of combat in January, followed by the renewed truce, implemented with the Minsk II accord on February 15? Do we observe tensions between the political power and the rebel forces within LPR and DPR? Are there any significant strategic disagreements?
When the Minsk I agreement was signed, everyone knew that it was a short-term truce and the hostilities would resume very soon. The same thing can be said of Minsk II.
As for the tensions between opolcheniye fighters and the political leadership, they are very significant especially in LPR. However, with the support of Moscow, political leaders manage to keep opolcheniye under control. They also try to push ideologically-motivated Russian volunteers back home and replace them with those loyal to the Kremlin and to current DPR-LPR leadership.
It is speculated that the sharp fall in oil and gas prices (since September and November 2014, respectively) was the result of a coordinated attack of the United States and Saudi Arabia against Russia (possibly with Iran and Venezuela in mind as well). Did Ukraine find itself in the middle of an energy chess game? What do you think about the alternative Russia-Turkey deal after the South Stream project was dropped?
The fall of oil prices had nothing to do with any conspiracy. The only curious thing is the fact that they didn’t fall much, much earlier. In 2011 Sergey Glaziev, Putin’s economic advisor, published a book predicting that oil prices would collapse by 2014 at the latest. IGSO’s economic expert, Vasiliy Koltashov, also wrote a few times that there would be no chance to keep oil prices high after the fall of 2014. It was entirely predictable because of the huge overproduction of oil that was taking place since 2011, before the US even entered the global oil market as an exporter. High prices resulted from speculation fueled by the Federal Reserve’s policy of Quantitative Easing. This policy has some objective limits, and it was clear that it couldn’t last for a longer period than it actually did.
As for the South Stream project and the new pipeline through Turkey, the main problem for Moscow is not finding an alternative route, but, rather, coping with falling demand and changes on the energy market that are only beginning. Russia must find ways to reorient its economy towards developing the domestic market, rather than supplying energy to the West, but this will not happen without massive social and political changes because it affects the structure, composition, and interests of the current ruling class.
Boris Nemtsov’s assassination is often depicted as a turning point. Is it likely to have a major impact, one way or another, on Russia’s public opinion and internal affairs or on Kremlin’s policy with the West and Ukraine?
Even within the liberal opposition, nobody took Nemtsov seriously in Russia before he was killed. Of course, his death was used by the opposition to mobilize more people for a protest march, but even so, participation in the march was much lower than it was in 2011-12. What we can see as a turning point instead, is the decision of British authorities to go after Russian investors in London. It had a serious demoralizing effect on Russian decision-makers in Moscow, increasing their will to make even greater concessions. But since the West isn’t going to accept any reasonable terms of compromise or even surrender unless the Moscow government agrees to annihilate its own country, this alone won’t end the stalemate. At least, not so far.