Quick thoughts on Russia/Ukraine

[UPDATED 1 Sept 07:25, 08:29, 19:11]

This quick blog post is a response to a discussion (actually a couple of discussions) I’ve had on Twitter, relating to Jeremy Corbyn, his associates in Stop the War, and their positions on Russia/Ukraine. My comment got a bit long so I have semi-polished it (not much) and am posting it here. Take it as provisional thinking aloud not as a definitive statement of position. 

The context is the claim (e.g. by Tom Porter, James Bloodworth, Edward LucasAnne Applebaum, and the Telegraph) that Corbyn is excessively pro-Putin, a claim dismissed as a "smear" by his supporters. 

I have updated it three times now, the first time to engage more closely with Corbyn's own position, the second time to add more links, and the third to correct a misreading I made of one of Corbyn's comments (see end of post for the correction).

On taking sides

First, I don’t think that it is possible to be entirely non-partisan, neutral and objective when looking at politics or geopolitics. My view is partial. It is shaped by the sources I read, including anarchist and leftist sources from the countries that I am interested in, e.g. the voices of Syrian revolutionaries, of the Ukrainian left, of dissidents in Russia.

I take a lot of effort to read sources carefully, to avoid unreliable sources, to triangulate information between different sources, and to track where bits of information come from. But there are sources which I trust more than others. I take the Western mainstream media with a pinch of salt – but I trust it more than I trust state media in countries such as Russiaor Iran with high levels of censorship and little press freedom. I trust left-wing papers more than I trust right-wing papers – but I prefer to consider (on the basis of evidence) the track record of integrity and authority of specific journalists and editors rather than assume that their ideology determines what they publish.

On Russia/Ukraine specifically, I do not side with the Ukrainian state, which I see as a capitalist liberal democracy dominated by patriotic neo-liberal capitalists who have an authoritarian, anti-union and social conservative streak (i.e. not much different from several other states in Europe). But I do defend them against the much larger, much more reactionary, much more powerful geopolitical force on their border, which is actively militarily violating their sovereignty.

Ideally, my position would be in the “third camp” – neither Kiev nor Moscow. But taking a neutral stance when the second most heavily armed country in the world is invading a small democracy is objectively to side with the bigger power.

I recognise that there are fascists on both sides, but it is clear to me that one side (the pro-Russian) is soaked full of fascists. Fascism is highly influential in the Kremlin, in Russia’s “hybrid army” and in the so-called People’s Republics of eastern Ukraine. Moscow supports and funds fascists in both eastern and western Europe. In Kiev, in contrast, fascist groups are currently in insurgency against the government. 

Who has been the greater antagonist?

It is completely clear to me that Russia and its proxies are the antagonist here. They hold many more cards in their hands than the Kiev government. The role of the EU and NATO and of the US has been fairly small. The US and EU of course welcomed the Maidan and the removal of the previous corrupt pro-Moscow previous government, but they did relatively little of material consequence.

Corbyn says "We must defend the right of people to demonstrate against their governments, but it was remarkable that the EU leadership in the person of Baroness Catherine Ashton and the US political Establishment in the guise of Senator John McCain both chose to give very strong support to demonstrations in Kiev which were far from representing all Ukrainians." But can any demonstrations represent "all" of a nation's citizens? Is it remarkable when liberal democracies support demonstrations focused on restoring the constitution and eradicating corruption? Did Ashton actually do anything to back up her words?

Corbyn calls NATO and the EU "the tools of US policy in Europe". But the interests of the EU are different and sometimes at odds with those of the US, and its actions have followed a very different line. Both the EU and the US have changed direction on these questions several times in the last few years. The EU in particular has no unitary coherent geopolitical agenda, but is riven by the competing agendas of the member states and of the ideological currents represented with the EU.

Extending free trade with the EU to Ukraine does not constitute an act of aggression.

It’s also important to remember many EU member states lived under direct Russian imperialism for half a century, and at risk of Russian military aggression now, so their hostility to Moscow is very understandable – but this has not translated into any kind of intervention from the EU or NATO in Ukrainian affairs at all comparable with the heavy intervention Russia has conducted.

Russia has agency and takes initiative; it does not simply respond to NATO “provocation” or (as Corbyn puts it) "pressure". It acts in its own interests. And it talks about “provocation” to justify these interests.

On respecting Russia’s needs

Corbyn urges "respect" for the Kremlin's interests: on Russian state channel RT, for example, he said we need to have "some kind of respectful existence with" Russia. I don’t buy the idea that we need to respect or accommodate to Russia’s geopolitical needs, any more than we should have to Hitler’s demand for lebensraum. Sure, we need to understand and listen to its interests. We know, for instance, that Russia cares about access to oil, arms sales, a sphere of influence and a buffer zone, access to the sea, etc – these are standard interests for imperial powers. But we should not respect these interests when they are unjust. Global justice, not realpolitik, is my criteria for taking a position on geopolitics.

Its smaller neighbours have their own interests too, which we need to understand as well (though not necessarily respect if they don’t correspond with what is just). And of course the West has its own interests – but these are not always as coherent and singular as we like to think, with competing ideologies and lobbies fighting to set the agenda. And sometimes (if rarely), Western interests actually do coincide with the interests of global justice.

Is peace the goal?

Finally, I don’t think peace is the goal; I think global justice is the goal. Peace in Syria is desirable – but freedom from tyranny is the only route to a decent, just and lasting peace. Peace in Ukraine and “Donbass” is desirable – but not a peace that leaves large chunks of Ukraine under dictatorships or occupation.


A correction
In my first re-edit of this post, I added in the following:
Corbyn says that "The far-right is now sitting in government in Ukraine." Note the odd formulation "sitting in government": the government is not a far right government, although there are far right MPs in its coalition - but there are no fascists or far right politicians in the cabinet at present.
The article is from the reliably pro-Moscow Morning Star. I misread the date in which he wrote it, which was April 2014. At that time, Corbyn was right; there were three Svoboda ministers in the short-lived interim coalition government. To see what happened to Svoboda in the Autumn 2014 elections, read Anton Shekhovtsov's post. Also read his excellent analysis of the state of the Ukrainian far right from January.



paulocanning said…
Wow. The smear post you link to has about three lines on Russia/Ukraine, when we both know she's aware of my work. This sums up these people. Wise monkeys.
Jim Denham said…
Excellent and very well-researched post, Bob.