The war and the socialist left in Ukraine - interview with Yuliya Yurchenko

Yuliya Yurchenko, a normally UK-based Ukrainian activist involved in the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign and in Ukrainian socialist organisation Sotsialniy Rukh (Social Movement), spoke to Sacha Ismail and Michael Baker from Ukraine. Yuliya teaches at the University of Greenwich in London; her work includes the book Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: from Marketisation to Armed Conflict.

We also recommend the interview Yuliya did recently for US socialist magazine Spectre.

I’m originally from Vinnytsia [a medium-sized city somewhat west of the middle of Ukraine], which is where I am now. I came back to Ukraine on the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign delegation in February, with a group of trade unionists, journalists and left-wing politicians. We had planned to visit different bits of Ukraine, but in the end stayed in Kyiv due to safety concerns – this was just before the start of the invasion, as it turned out. We wanted to meet Ukrainian politicians and representatives, but perhaps even more importantly civil society organisations, and in particular trade unionists and representatives of the left – the real left in practice, not just in name. In particular I wanted to meet comrades from Sotsialniy Rukh and help gather and deliver their message to people in Britain and beyond. We wanted to hear these people’s assessment of the situation, but also their aspirations for the kind of Ukraine they want to see in the longer term.

It must seem like a long time ago now?

It seems like forever, but also like it’s been one long day…This is something a lot of people here have said about the last two months. As the war began, our delegation received a recommendation from the UK to leave Ukraine immediately. I stayed partly for personal reasons, because I wanted to be with my family, but also because I wanted to be with my comrades. I think perhaps on a deeper level I felt stubborn and wanted to reject the situation where so many millions of Ukrainians over many decades have had to leave the country to seek better fortunes elsewhere or because an external power tries to impose ideas about what its future should be, and threatens your very life.

I don’t know how long I’ll stay. There are meetings in Europe that Sotsialniy Rukh want me to attend, including with MEPs [Members of the European Parliament], where we’ll be laying out our economic program, in particular the demands about debt cancellation and post-war reconstruction. It would make sense for me to go as I’ve been coordinating those campaigns.

Razem [the Polish left party], the Nordic left and some other sympathetic MEPs are helping us organise it. More broadly it’s hard to know where you can be more useful, here or outside the country.

What do you think Putin's goals are? And what's your assessment of how the war's gone so far?

Well, there’s a large element of speculation, but certain things are clear from the rhetoric that’s come out of the Kremlin and its media mouthpieces. Moreover, that rhetoric goes back not just weeks but actually decades and there has been plenty of analysis of it.

We may not know Putin’s exact plans for Ukraine, but we know that he and his supporters reject any notion of self-determination or even really autonomy for the country. They reject the idea that Ukraine is or can be a separate nation in its own right. Look at the article published by [Russian state news outlet] RIA Novosti [which argued essentially that Ukraine and “Ukrainian-ness” as a whole must be suppressed]. The message is increasingly not even about liberating Donbas [in eastern Ukraine] from a “junta” in Kiev. They’re saying the whole country is corrupted by Nazism and needs “denazifying”. The reason Russian forces mainly restricted to certain areas of the country is because they have suffered some military setbacks and the war has dragged on longer than they were planning.

I think they expected the West to do a deal and auction off Ukraine, which it would have done if the Ukrainian army and people hadn’t fought tooth and nail.

Was this degree of resistance surprising to you?

Not exactly surprising but certainly awe-inspiring. I thought Ukrainians would resist and I thought much of the Russian leaders’ calculation would be self-deluding, but the degree of both has perhaps surprised me.

I think Zelensky’s instinct pre-invasion would have been to go for a deal with Russia to preserve civilian lives, perhaps partition of the country, and he is no doubt under pressure from the Western powers whose funding we are so dependent on. In the context of the great popular mobilisation though, the territorial battalions, all the different volunteers, Ukrainian society as a whole, this is not such an easy option. Every time there are negotiations and rumours of a deal, you see a clear popular reaction, on social media and in communities. That popular pressure is surely an important factor in why the war has gone on longer than Russia predicted.

That in turn put pressure on Western governments to give us support and send us more, if still insufficient, weapons. All the recent atrocities, in Mariupol, in the areas around Kyiv, at Kramatorsk railway station, have reinforced that dynamic. We now see the German government, long the most defensive of Russia, seriously distancing themselves. This is very important, because Germany is such a central factor in Europe. Even Boris Johnson’s attempts to save himself by turning into Churchill 2.0 have really weighed in favour of Ukraine. At the same time, it’s not just the manoeuvring of governments – don’t discount the stand taken by trade unions, by civil society, the demonstrations and mass pressure.

The situation is grim but more favourable than I would have imagined and I can even imagine a situation where Russia is forced out of Donbas.

Is it the case that people in the West see this as something that has just begun, whereas a lot of Ukrainians regard the war as starting eight years ago, when Russian forces enter eastern Ukraine, but now escalating?

In 2014 this was very much the case, but people have a great capacity to try to get on with their lives. Now, with this great escalation, that’s not possible in the same way. What we should say is that already in 2014 Putin’s attitude to Ukraine was already very clear. We had a smaller scale Russian invasion eight years ago and all the while people in the so-called republics [in Donbas] were being kidnapped and tortured, the trade unions were being squashed, the Crimean Tatar people were being hounded out of the Crimean peninsula. If people in Ukraine tried to get on with their lives to a certain degree, in the West these things were largely ignored. That would not have been the case if there was a war in the Netherlands, for example. Comrades from non-white, so to speak, countries have rightly pointed out how Ukrainians are now being treated differently, but in so far as this is true it was not previously the case and Ukrainians have long been the “wrong kind of white” for the EU. Mind you, not all Ukrainians are white, of course.

Do you think that the reason solidarity with Ukraine and Ukrainians has entered people’s consciousness so dramatically is because the governments and ruling classes of the West have taken it up, for their own reasons?

You have to distinguish who in society you’re talking about, right? I think everyday people who are expressing solidarity are largely being absolutely genuine. There are plenty of organisations, labour movement and civil society organisations, that have expressed solidarity all the way through. There are those who have just taken these things up now, but they are still motivated by solidarity to various degrees. In the case of many politicians, however, I seriously doubt that is the case to the same textent. There were German politicians, for instance, who didn’t want to help us even a few weeks ago and have now shifted for obviously self-interested reasons.

Those reasons include the fact that Putin is now also threatening other European states, the Baltic states and even Scandinavia. This is something that should concern us too. The threatening imperialist attitude way beyond Ukraine is quite open – [former Russian president Dimitry] Medvedev says they want “Eurasia” to stretch from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Meanwhile Putin attacks Europe as "Gayropa", and says that only the Russkii mir [Russian world] will save the planet from the culturally rotten West.

At the same time there are millions of refugees, who are not on boats in the Mediterranean, they are on the Polish border, and they cannot be pushed literally back into the sea, to certain death. This is another source of pressure on the Western states.

In terms of Donbas, from a socialist and democratic point of view, what kind of settlement should the left advocate?

There are clearly important social groups who want greater self-governance, and that is of course fine. You could have devolved autonomy within Ukraine, for instance similar to what used to exist in the Crimea. This needs to be debated and decided in a proper democratic way, without Russian troops, mercenaries and functionaries, and with proper international observation. All the people who have been forced to leave since 2014 must have the right to go back and take part in the process. At the same time there is a need for serious investment and economic cooperation to address the large-scale social and economic problems in the region, problems that have been horrendously exacerbated by the de-industrialisation, de-development, and ecological degradation of the last eight years, which is not limited to Russia-controlled territories.

You have referred to Western military aid. How would you respond to Western leftists who say they’re against Russia’s war but don’t want the West sending weapons to Ukraine?

By all means we can talk about pacifist solutions to conflicts before they begin. Now we’re in a conflict that is a war of aggression, unprovoked, and where there are indiscriminate killings, torture and rape of civilians. I would also point out that Ukraine tried negotiations for eight years and the result was this invasion. If anybody from the UK Stop the War Coalition or some sort of hardcore pacificist organisation wants to propose a practicable plan how to resolve this without fighting back, I would be genuinely interested. But I think the discussions proposed so far are frankly callous, delusional crap. Refusing weapons to Ukraine will not result in peace in any sense the left can or should support.

It will just mean Russia conquering the country more easily and being even less restrained in terrorising the population and repressing the very minorities it pretends to liberate; put briefly – if you appease the bully, they bully harder. If people want to argue that should happen in order to end the conflict and save lives, let them argue it openly and state which lives and towns they feel is fine to give up to Russia. I think it is both a losing and an immoral position.

It also seems like pretend pacifism?

Yes, indeed. There is an established tradition on the left of supporting armed resistance in African, Asian and Latin American countries against imperialist powers. But then in Ukraine you get objections about the Azov battalion – rightly so, but in reality this kind of problem exists in almost all such conflicts.

At the root of it I think is seeing Russia as a counterweight to the US. They let their anti-Americanism and anti-NATOism get in the way of seeing the reality in Ukraine.

Tell us about Sotsialniy Rukh and its work.

Sotsialniy Rukh came together in 2015, a mix of established left-wing activists, involved in different political groupings and organisations, and young activists who were looking to create a meaningfully socialist organisation in Ukraine, as opposed to one that just has “socialist” or “communist” in its name, as is the case in parts of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Those young comrades had been going on demonstrations and engaging in grassroots activism, but decided it was time to form a political organisation – because protests and strikes will not by themselves overturn the oligarchic regime.

A big focus of work since then has been working with independent trade unions. The trade union movement in Ukraine has a divide between bureaucratic unions that came out of the Soviet era, and a new, independent union movement. There are new trade unions being organised in a range of sectors – in the health sector for instance, and in small and medium enterprises.

Sotsialniy Rukh is active in helping to form and develop trade unions – for instance one of our comrades was involved in this in the construction sector, where he worked – and in helping organise demonstrations and strikes. We’ve been working with trade unions and workers to run a legal advice service for those whose rights are being violated. We also try to raise workers’ consciousness, for instance through reading clubs and summer schools.

Since the war started we’ve been engaged in the volunteer movement, helping source medicine, food, clothes and protective gear for the territorial defence. By the way, there is also a left-wing battalion, organised by anarchists and socialists who are fighting in the territorial defence.

How did that come about?

You should speak to Taras Bilous about that, because he’s part of it. Essentially I think in the established battalions there is a risk of being associated with the wrong kind of people; and people therefore want to organise together with like-minded others. Many of those involved have known each other for a while, for instance through organising protests outside illegal construction sites in defence of workers’ rights.

But since February most of the stuff we’ve been doing is raising awareness about social problems caused by the war, deprivation, the problems facing internally displaced people, for instance the problems caused by profiteering in the housing market. In Lviv [in the far west of Ukraine] there are so many refugees that the housing market is completely screwed up – Aliona Liasheva wrote about it for Spilne [the left-wing Commons journal]. The work advising people on their labour rights is now even more important than before and there is also a major legal assault on workers’ rights. Now we are also spearheading and coordinating the campaign for cancellation of Ukraine’s foreign debt.

This is something that Sotsialniy Rukh and its members raised through different channels for some time, for instance through Spilne, which many comrades are involved in. There has been both academic-type analysis and campaigning already, but obviously the issue has become much more pressing.

In the war Ukraine’s expenses have exploded because of humanitarian, medical and military needs, and meanwhile the preliminary assessment shows that we have already suffered losses amounting to one trillion US dollars! Even prior to the war Ukraine was the second largest debtor in terms of outstanding debt with the IMF, and it also has a lot of private debt. Now it is wracking this up by issuing war bonds and so forth. We find it grotesque that the poorest country in Europe, fighting a war for the rest of Europe to contain Russia, has to prioritise its debt repayments over meeting the exploding needs of its population. So we have ramped up campaigning, demanding that the debt is written off.

The Polish party Razem has been an amazing ally; they have been helping build an international network to lobby for our case.

Connected to this, there is a major question about assistance to Ukraine to rebuild after the war, which poses the question of what type of assistance. Obviously part of that is reparations from Russia, funded by expropriating the assets of oligarchs. More broadly, people have talked about a new Marshall Plan, so we need to look what made the Marshall plan a success, and what were the positives and negatives in it. For instance it included restrictions on left-wing political activity in the countries that received aid. So while demanding foreign aid we must defend political pluralism as sacrosanct, as an essential for the future of the country.

What is the Ukrainian government’s attitude to debt cancellation?

They are very nervous about it, they don’t like to hear about it, because what they hear is not cancellation but default, making it even more difficult for Ukraine to work with the international institutions and with investors in the future. The ministry of finance insists that Ukraine will honour its debts. They made a biannual payment on Eurobonds at the start of March, and there is another one due in September. They are trying to find creative ways to get round the problem of lack of funds, for instance issuing war bonds and finding ways to reorganise financial transfers with the IMF. They seem somewhat in denial about the fact that Ukraine simply does not have the necessary resources. So in our campaign we are trying to put pressure internationally, on the European Central Bank, on the US government, on the IMF – on Ukraine’s major international “partners”. If we can shift them then the Ukrainian government will of course accept it more easily.

Even in Britain it’s quite hard to argue for socialism; it surely must be even harder in Ukraine where Stalinism has discredited the idea so much? Is that the case? Is it different with the younger generation?

I’m not the best person to speak to about this because I’m normally in the UK, but my observation is that a lot depends on the language. If you start with Lenin, you may well get a knee-jerk reaction. But if you start with people’s position in society, and social inequality, and ask them what we should do about the oligarchs, you will get a better conversation. The same if you ask shouldn’t the state provide decent pensions, healthcare, education and so on? And as a political economist I understand that the system that can provide those is very far from the unbridled market type.

Since 2014 in particular there has been a right-wing campaign around “decommunisation”, linked to rejecting things connected to Russia and all things USSR. Obviously this is absurd; you have to unpick the argument. What about the enterprises accumulated and built up during the USSR, which account for a huge chunk of the Ukrainian economy? Should they all be shut down? Should they be burnt down as an act of defiance? Secondly, who are people angry at? The Soviet Union had been gone 25 years by then, and now over 30. Who is responsible for the situation now? Then if you talk to people about how the economy could be restructured and the need for decent social provision you can get them on board, and you can explain that capitalism runs against these things.

These points make sense, but isn’t what you’re describing more social democracy than socialism?

Well, you can then raise further questions about who owns services and industries and how they are managed. For instance, in terms of healthcare, ok, you can have a universal service, but who will pay for it and who will own it? Will it just be insurance for private hospitals? And actually, ironically, many people have a certain nostalgia for various kinds of public services that existed under the Soviet Union, for instance widespread local health facilities, which capitalism has since demolished. That can be tapped into. However, there is no doubt that these are more difficult conversations than in Britain, where there is a strong labour movement history that has was not interrupted in the same way.

It's been interrupted to a much less total extent, at least.

Yes. We’re restarting in a way. The other thing that doesn’t help us here is that we have parties that have ‘socialist’ in their names or in their propaganda but they have essentially been mechanisms for different fractions of the oligarchic class to carve up state property into their private property. There is a widespread hostility to the power of oligarchs, which was reflected in both the Euromaidan movement and then later in Zelensky’s election or rather how it was perceived. When people were in the squares for the Maidan, they were booing oligarchs who were trying to barter a deal with Yanukovych. It was in many respects a reactionary or reactive movement, there was a common thread of being pissed off at police brutality, lawlessness, corruption and the oligarchs remaining in power whoever was voted in. If Russia had not started the war in the east, it is conceivable we would have seen more of a social or class-struggle movement developing by now.

We had [Petro] Poroshenko [Ukrainian president 2014-19], whose pitch was that he was the best commander-in-chief for the war, and then he was rejected in favour of the populist Zelensky, it was a kind of Maidan protest in the voting booths, though in reality he is not anti-oligarch. There is a crisis of representation that the left could tap into, though how soon a substantial political force will emerge I don’t know. Not necessarily the next election, but maybe not so long after that.

For now Zelensky presumably remains very popular?

Yes, because he’s a very effective performer, and also because he has proven himself as a war-time leader. I imagine if we have a free election he will be re-elected. But the composition of the cabinet and certainly the parliament, how oligarchic-dominated it is and what kind of laws it makes, will be very important. There will the neo-liberal puppets of the appropriators [capitalists] who say the solution for post-war reconstruction is to liberalise everything even further, which will damage reconstruction as well as increasing inequality.

What are trade unions doing during the war? Are they still functioning in workplaces?

Of course there is a large degree of disruption. It depends which unions we’re talking about, what industries, how close they are to where the fighting is happening. But yes they are still functioning and doing some important work. I think there were some lessons learnt after 2014 about how to keep contact with their members in the [Russian] occupied territories. One of the most impressive examples is the work done by Ukrainian railway workers and their unions, who throughout all this have worked to evacuate people and bring in supplies, even in areas where there is shelling and the tracks have been bombed.

There is also a dialogue with the government about workers’ rights, which is very necessary because as you know there has been a suspension of some workers’ rights. I believe that resulted in some elements of this change being rolled back, but I will check that for you.

Can you say something about the strength of the far right in Ukraine? Obviously this is widely discussed, or rather raised but not really discussed, on the Western left.

The far right is a problem. Since it was founded, Sotsialniy Rukh has had conflict with these right-wing groups and in some cases our members have been physically attacked. There are websites where they creates lists of levaki, “lefties”, for their people to target. Then they have wider activities like harassing gay rights parades or women’s day parades and trying to start fights there. And they have a relationship with the police and also regard these groups as doing a useful job for them. A cop may lose their job if they beat up a protester, so they can let the fascist do it for them. Even when they carry out arrests of the far right it does not usually lead to any serious consequences. Of course such a situation exists in many countries. It doesn’t necessarily mean that these groups have widespread social support.

In terms of the war and the army, you know about Azov. They were significantly more radical before 2014, and since then they have mellowed a bit, though of course they are still very vicious nationalists and some are actual Nazis. But now it seems some join them because of right-wing ideology and some because the battalion is famous and well organised and of course is part of the army itself. On one hand that makes them subject to all kinds of restrictions and controls on their activities, but on the other it is a serious problem in itself.

It is not clear how much the war has boosted them. Certainly in the siege of Mariupol they have appeared to many as heroic defenders. I’m not convinced it will lead to wider support, because unlike in 2014 they are submerged in a much wider mobilisation of Ukrainians as a broader political category. A bigger problem is broader hostility to Russians, which of course is understandable but totally wrong, rather than the far right specifically.

Thanks so much for taking this time. Last question, how does this war and the situation in Ukraine fit into the wider picture of 21st century capitalism, and how socialists should respond to it?

Even though this is a just war on Ukraine’s side, there is a real risk it will cement neoliberalism and militarisation further. We already see countries ramping up their military spending.

On a range of issues, from the rights of refugees to the question of international debt, the left needs to use this opportunity to draw out wider lessons, to talk about deprived nations whose rights have been overlooked in recent years, and to make arguments about the inadequacy of international institutions that have at best have done nothing to prevent all the horrors of war, indebtedness and social destruction. These institutions have brought disaster to what “naturally” should be some of the richest countries in the world, in Africa and Latin America for instance.

So there is a lot to grab hold of here. For instance with the debt campaign we are linking up with the International Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt , the Debt Jubilee Campaign and other groups to revive a dialogue about what should happen if a country finds itself in a state of war or natural disaster, about the idea of an automatic mechanism for suspending debt payments and replacing them with aid. This will not bring a revolution but it could be important for winning more ground.

I think we should argue for the UN to be democratised, and as part of that for the permanent section of the Security Council to be disbanded. The aim should be an international security architecture which at least sets the goal of every country being protected, no matter who or where they are.

Leaders and activists in Africa, for instance, are frustrated about Ukraine getting more attention or more consideration than other countries facing emergencies and what this says about international institutional racism. The answer is not competition over who gets a little bit more of the pie, but working together on the basis of recognising that many countries are being fucked by international capitalism. It’s one country today, tomorrow it will be another – we need to argue and fight to sort out the systemic problems. I think there could be a bit more space for international solidarity opening up, and the demand for debt cancellation could be one mechanism for that.

We have to do all this while challenging the ramping up of neoliberalism on one hand, and on the other hand animosity towards Russia and Russians as such when the war is over. We need to argue for international reconciliation and a restructuring of the global economy and institutions.