Many responses from the left to the Ukraine crisis have ignored, sidestepped, or downplayed the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian people.
Yet Ukraine is one of the longest-oppressed large nations in the world. In an article of 1939 where he raised Ukraine’s right to self-determination as an urgent question, Leon Trotsky wrote: “The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many ‘socialists’ and even ‘communists’ have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force”.
The same is true today. If the right of nations to self-determination is important anywhere, it is important in Ukraine. If the axiom that peace and harmony between nations is possible only through mutual recognition of rights to self-determination is valid anywhere, it is valid in Ukraine.
Only a few currents on the left side with Putin, and even those a bit shamefacedly: Counterfire and Stop The War, No2EU, the Morning Star.
Others propose a “plague on all houses” response. The US Socialist Worker (which used to be linked with the British SWP, but has been estranged from it, for unclear reasons, since 2001) puts it most crisply: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, neither Kiev nor Simferopol, but international socialism”.
For sure socialists side with Ukrainian leftists in their fight against the right-wing government in Kiev. But as between Ukraine being dominated by Moscow, and Ukraine being ruled by a government based in Kiev and among the people of Ukraine, our response should not be “neither… nor”. We support Ukraine’s national rights.
Nations’ right to self-determination does not depend on them having a congenial governments. The governments under which most of Britain’s colonies won independence were authoritarian and corrupt. The socialist who responded with the slogan “Neither London nor New Delhi”, or “Neither London nor Cairo”, or “Neither London nor Dublin”, would be a traitor.
The even-handed “plague on all houses” response also leads to a skewed picture of reality. Thus, the official statement from the SWP’s international network includes no call for Ukrainian self-determination, for Russian troops out, or for cancellation of Ukraine’s debt; but it declares:
“The anti-Russian nationalism that is strongest in western Ukraine has deep roots. Russia has dominated Ukraine since independence in 1991…” And for centuries before that!
“The memory of Russian oppression within the USSR is still vivid and reaches even earlier to the independence struggles of the first half of the 20th [century]”. Stalin’s deliberately-sustained mass famine in eastern Ukraine killed millions in 1932-3. There is a deep historical basis to Ukrainian nationalism in eastern Ukraine, and among Russian-speaking Ukrainians, as well as in the West.
“On the other side, many of the millions of Russian speakers identify with Russia”. And many don’t. On the evidence of the referendum in 1991, where 92% of the people, and at least 84% even in the most easterly regions, voted to separate from Russia, most do not.
“One of the first acts of the new Ukrainian government after the fall of Yanukovych was to strip Russian of its status as an official language. This encouraged mass protests in the east of the country”. The parliament voted to reverse the 2012 law making Russian an official language. That was undemocratic — and stupid. The new president vetoed the measure, and it was dropped. Even if passed, it would not have applied in Crimea. Russian had not been an official language in Ukraine (outside Crimea) between 1991 and 2012. The protests in the east (often violent, but not, by most reports, “mass”) were generated by Russian interference, not by the language question.
The “plague on all houses” response is an addled version of the “Third Camp” attitude which AWL has advocated on many issues; but a very addled version.
Usually the SWP argues for “two camps”. Really to oppose US imperialism and its allies, they say, you must to some degree support the US’s adversaries, whether it be the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas in Israel-Palestine, Saddam Hussein and then the sectarian Islamist “resistance” in Iraq, or Milosevic in Kosova. To do otherwise is to be “pro-imperialist”. Support for an independent working-class “third force”, against both the US and allies, and their reactionary opponents, is ruled out.
On Ukraine (as also on Syria) they break from that “two camps” approach, but to an approach which is more “no camp” than “third camp”. (The “no camp” stance has precedents in SWP history, in the wars for independence of Croatia and Bosnia, for example).
Our slogans of Russian troops out and cancelling Ukraine’s debt to the West seek to support the Ukrainian people as a “third camp”. We solidarise with the East European leftists who, on the LeftEast website, call for “the third position [opposed to both Yanukovych and the new Kiev regime]… namely a class perspective”, and appeals to Ukraine’s left “to form a third pole, distinct from today’s Tweedledums and Tweedledees… You are the only ones who can give meaning to the deaths and wounds of the [occupied square in Kiev]”.
Our position is defined primarily by its positive support for those “third poles” — the people of Ukraine, as against Putin’s troops or the IMF and Western government imposing neo-liberal measures; the working-class left in Ukraine, as against the oligarchs and the chauvinists. When we use negative “neither, nor” slogans, we use them as consequences, expressions, or summaries of that positive alignment; and they do not stop us assessing the other “poles” in the political situation in their varied realities.
The “no camp” stance, instead, offers only abstract ultimate aims (international socialism) as an evasion.