The crisis in Ukraine dramatically escalated over the course of the last week, culminating in yesterday’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics by Russia and the subsequent deployment of Russian troops into these areas. The United States and European powers are now rolling out sanctions targeting Russia, including Germany’s suspension of the critical NordStream 2 gas pipeline. The sanctions announced so far by the Biden administration in particular targets the financial sector, sanctioning two major Russian banks and prohibiting people and institutions in the United States from buying Russian government debt. These same states continue to threaten unleashing “unprecedented” sanctions in the event of a further escalation, which would aim to cut the country off from the world economy and cause tremendous suffering among ordinary Russians. Many ruling-class figures in the United States are even demanding that such sanctions be imposed now preemptively.
An emergency session of the United Nations Security Council was held last night, where the United States and its allies condemned Russia and the Russian representative defended its actions. The representative from China stated, “All parties concerned must exercise restraint and avoid any action that may fuel tensions. We welcome and encourage every effort towards a diplomatic solution and call on all parties concerned to continue dialogue and consultation and seek reasonable solutions to address each other’s concerns on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” India, which has a close relationship with Russia, also issued essentially a neutral statement at the security council. The governments of Syria and Nicaragua have supported Russia’s move.
The U.S. government condemned the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as a violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine, viewing the deployment of Russian soldiers as a foreign occupation of Ukrainian territory against the wishes of the government. It is hard to imagine a more hypocritical position coming from the country most infamous around the world for its constant invasions and occupations of other nations. Right now in Syria, for instance, the Pentagon has soldiers deployed in separatist-controlled areas of the north despite clear opposition from the internationally-recognized government — exactly the same thing as the United States accuses Russia of in Ukraine.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp of Eastern Europe, the imperialist NATO military alliance has steadily expanded eastward, absorbing 14 formerly socialist states between 1999 and 2020. Three of these countries — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — were former republics of the Soviet Union itself. The expansion of a hostile military alliance right up to Russia’s border was rightfully viewed as a dire threat. But worst of all would be if Ukraine followed suit. Ukraine was the second largest republic in the Soviet Union after Russia, shares a 1,200 mile border with Russia, and has historically been an invasion route for western European armies marching into Russia. The government brought to power by the 2014 coup in Ukraine was determined to join NATO, and the United States and its allies provided the coup with military, economic and diplomatic support.
The immediate roots of the current crisis can be traced back to this coup that overthrew the government of Viktor Yanukovych, which was pursuing a neutral foreign policy that sought positive relations with both Russia and the West. A protest movement emerged in 2013 with the full backing of the United States — high-level State Department official Victoria Nuland even famously toured a protest site and handed out cookies to anti-government demonstrators. Several weeks later, a conversation between Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt was leaked in which Nuland and Pyatt were discussing in detail which opposition figures should play what role in a future Ukrainian government.
The finishing blow to the Yanukovych government was delivered in February 2014 by neo-Nazi paramilitary forces that stormed the presidential palace. Openly pro-Nazi political forces rapidly grew and ascended to positions of major influence in the state following the coup. They, along with other forces in the new Ukrainian government, espoused virulently anti-Russian politics and hostility towards the ethnically Russian population of Ukraine concentrated in the country’s east. Rejecting the authority of the new regime in Kiev, a separatist movement in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk emerged, declaring independence and initiating an armed struggle. The most intense phase of this armed struggle was ended with the signing of the Minsk Agreements in late 2014, although relatively minor violations of the ceasefire continued to occur. But the agreements, which called for a national dialogue and the granting of autonomous powers to local authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, were never fully implemented by the west and the conflict remained locked in a stalemate.
Over the past several weeks, the U.S. government doubled down on this provocative behavior. It constantly issued predictions of an imminent Russian invasion along with apocalyptic casualty estimates without providing evidence. At the same time, the United States and its allies threatened all-out economic war to devastate Russia in the event of an intervention. All of Russia’s core demands — a pledge to not bring Ukraine into NATO, stop sending it heavy armaments pointed at Russia — were described as “non-starters.” This was designed to paint Russia into a corner, putting it in a position where it either takes military action or appears to have been pushed back in humiliating fashion by the West’s threat of sanctions. Beginning last week, there was a major intensification of ceasefire violations, with the Ukrainian military launching artillery barrages and other attacks on Donetsk and Luhansk. As the crisis unfolded, Russia’s clearly stated goal was the initiation of a dialogue between itself and the West over a new security framework for Europe that would take into account Russia’s interests.
The only way to have a stable peace and spare the people of Eastern Europe from the ravages of war is for just such a diplomatic arrangement to be reached. Any further attempts by U.S. imperialism to inflame the situation risks catastrophe for the working class of Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the entire world.
Putin’s address announces recognition
Announcing the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk to Russia and the world, President Vladimir Putin gave a high-profile address yesterday shortly before giving the order to deploy troops. He discussed both the contemporary geopolitical situation as well as the circumstances that led to the creation of the modern Ukrainian state.
Much of the address focused on a false presentation of the history of Soviet policy on national self-determination and the federative structure of the USSR. To support his thesis that, “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” Putin argued that it was the misguided policy of the Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian Revolution that set in motion the chain of events that produced the present-day Ukrainian state. In particular, he singled out the role of Vladimir Lenin, claiming, “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’” Putin stated that this “started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia — by separating, severing what is historically Russian land” and criticized “Lenin’s ideas of what amounted in essence to a confederative state arrangement and a slogan about the right of nations to self-determination, up to secession.”
But in reality, the policy promoted by Lenin was the cornerstone of maintaining peaceful relations and unity among the peoples of the Soviet Union from the Russian Revolution until the beginning of the USSR’s collapse. By organizing the new, socialist state along the lines of the right to self-determination, Lenin was striking a blow at what was called “Great Russian chauvinism” — the domination of the Russian state and the Russian nationality in the territory of the just-overthrown Russian empire. Along with the administrative transfer of territories, this was a way of ensuring that the peoples of the newly formed socialist state could live together in peace and equality, replacing the brutal domination characteristic of the Czar’s regime. The principle of self-determination laid the basis for multinational unity that was the foundation of the Soviet Union’s great successes — for instance, 4.5 million Ukrainians fought alongside Russians to defeat fascism in World War II.
The implementation of the Soviet policy on nationalities was a highly complex process taking place in a period of profound turmoil and civil war. In the 1917-1922 war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, there were instances where the Soviet government intervened against forces that were organized around the banner of national independence when this demand had become fused with capitalist counterrevolution. Even after the conclusion of the civil war, struggle continued related to the national question. While millions of Ukrainians fought in the Red Army against fascism, others who were opposed to the socialist system, for instance, fought in units organized by the Nazi SS that were committed to genocide against Ukrainian Jews, Russians, and anyone opposed to fascism. But the remarkable transformation of Russia from a “prison house of nations” where oppressed peoples suffered under the chauvinist rule of the Russian czar into a federation with enshrined rights for each republic would have been impossible had it not been for Lenin’s policy on the national question.
Contrary to Putin’s claims, it was not “the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution” that led to the Soviet Union’s collapse. While it is true that reactionary nationalist movements that emerged in the USSR in the 1980s were “not based on any expectations or unfulfilled dreams of the Soviet peoples but primarily the growing appetites of the local elites,” ultimate blame for the destruction of the Soviet Union rightly rests on the shoulders of the capitalist restorationist faction within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It was in fact the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, who illegally and unilaterally dissolved the USSR in 1991 by signing the “Belovezh Accords.”
The breakup and overthrow of the USSR was the biggest setback ever for the working class — including in Russia and Ukraine — and for the movement around the globe fighting for independence from colonialism and imperialism. Being the product of the first effort by the working class to build socialism, the USSR of course also grappled with many defects and problems. All socialists hope for the re-establishment of peaceful relations between the peoples of the former Soviet Union, a peace that was shattered by the restoration of capitalism.
NATO is the aggressor
But aside from the question of ethnicity and nationality in the states of the former Soviet Union, there is a clear justification from a geopolitical standpoint of why Russia feels existentially threatened by the actions of the West in Ukraine. The plight of ethnic Russians suffering under the nationalist government of Ukraine is an important factor in Russian decision-making and generates significant internal political pressure on the Russian government to act decisively. But the overarching geopolitical concern motivating Russia is the expansion of the NATO military alliance.
The very existence of NATO poses a grave threat to peace around the world. NATO was established in 1949 at the onset of the Cold War with the purpose of grouping all the major imperialist powers together in preparation for a future war to destroy the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the USSR, it has re-oriented as an anti-Russia alliance in line with the “Great Power Competition” doctrine of the United States that seeks a new Cold War. It has also been used to wage war on the peoples of former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya. There is nothing “defensive” about NATO — it is a tool for war and aggression.
The abolition of NATO would both resolve the explosive tensions in Eastern Europe and represent a historic step towards world peace. There is no legitimate reason for this bloc to exist. No nation is threatening to attack the United States and Western Europe, or could realistically pose such a threat. NATO is a key pillar of an unjust world order dominated by U.S. imperialism — a world order that is becoming increasingly intolerable to countries around the world.