Richard Fidler writes The British website Labour Hub, which says it “shares a socialist vision of a radical, transformative Labour Government for the 21st Century,” promotes debate and information of interest to socialists in the Labour Party. It recently published a statement on the Ukraine war by John McDonnell, shadow Chancellor (foreign minister) under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. Labour Hub has now published a response to criticism by the Stop the War Coalition. It merits republication as a compelling statement on the issues from a socialist perspective.
Ukraine: Some Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
John McDonnell’s article on this site last week generated a lively debate on social media and provoked a response from Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition. Andrew Murray takes issue, not with the Ukrainians’ right to defend themselves, which he says Stop the War has “always supported” – which may come as a surprise to some – but with the fact that any weapons will be sent to the “Zelensky regime” which has banned political parties and attacked trade union bargaining rights – measures of a “regime being sustained by NATO.”
He also complains that the policy that John “urges is essentially the same as that of the Tory Party.” Replying to the argument put by defenders of Ukraine that they are against all imperialisms, Andrew Murray says they are effectively aligned with NATO: “Washington and London will call the post-war tune in Ukraine, and it will not be socialist.” Furthermore, any arms sent “will simply prolong the conflict and the suffering.”
Many supporters of Ukraine would undoubtedly respond that their support for the country against unprovoked military invasion, for Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign nation-state, is unconditional, not dependent on the political outlook of the Ukrainian government of the day, nor on the posturing of Western governments. It’s simple: without arms, Ukraine’s ability to resist would be greatly weakened. The conflict would then indeed not be prolonged, as Andrew Murray fears: rather it would result in the victory of a militarily superior Russia – but the suffering of the Ukrainian people would thenceforth be very prolonged indeed.
And not just the Ukrainians: if Russia achieves its war aims there, it will feel emboldened to re-extend its empire into all the other nation-states in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe that became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed, arguing, as in Ukraine, that the borders drawn were arbitrary and that these territories historically belonged to Russia. That would be very bad news not only for the citizens of those states but also for global peace and stability.
All of this ought to be obvious to socialists and internationalists. Yet the character of the Zelenskiy government, the influence of the far right, the role of the US and NATO and a range of other issues are frequently raised as reasons to reject assistance to Ukraine’s need to resist its invasive imperialist neighbour. Below we address some of the most frequently raised objections to supporting Ukraine.
1. Ukraine’s record on political expression and unions
Q: How can you support Zelenskiy’s government which has banned trade unions and political parties?
A: Supporting Ukraine’s right to exist a an independent country does not mean supporting the government of the day. But on the substantive point, prior to last year’s invasion there was no ban in place. The electoral commission banned the Communist Party from participation in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, under the 2015 “decommunisation” law, which forbids the promotion of “totalitarian regimes”, defined as Nazi and Communist. This is undemocratic, but the Communist Party continued to operate legally and it has mounted legal challenges to the ban.
After the invasion, Ukraine’s national security and defence council took the decision to ban eleven parties, which have links with Russia, from any political activity. Most of the parties affected were small, but one of them, the Opposition Platform for Life, has 44 seats in the 450-seat Ukrainian Parliament and is led by a pro-Putin oligarch. Its deputies are protected by parliamentary immunity, a remarkable degree of leniency considered the country is faced with destruction. More here.
To say the government has banned unions is plain wrong. In August, the government removed bargaining rights for workers at small and medium-sized companies. It will be effective for as long as the country is under martial law and means that workers in these companies will now be covered by contracts they negotiate as individuals, rather than the national labour code. Ukraine’s Federation of Trade Unions opposes the law and freely campaigns against it – in contrast to trade union activity in the breakaway ‘People’s Republics’ which is routinely suppressed, often by kidnappings and assassinations.
2. Fascist influence
Q: Isn’t the post-Maidan situation one in which fascist elements are highly influential? Why do you not highlight the role of fascist elements who torched a trade union headquarters in Odesa killing 42 people? Why do you not mention the notorious Azov battalion? Why do you keep silent about the official support the regime has shown for Stepan Bandera, the notorious fascist leader during the 1940s who was responsible for genocidal operations against Jews, Communists, and ethnic Poles?
A: The Maidan revolution was politically ambiguous and contradictory – it involved everyone from the far right to the far left. It was not a ‘fascist coup’ – the electoral support for fascist parties in Ukraine is around 2-3%. Essentially it was a struggle against corruption, authoritarianism and Russian imperialist influence.
The tragic fire in Odesa was not part of a generalised pattern of repression of trade unionists but an isolated incident. Those killed were not trade union activists but supporters of the overthrown regime who took refuge there after clashing with opponents. Atrocious as these deaths were, they were not murders of trade union leaders or activists by the Ukrainian government.
In these polarised circumstances, fascism is always a potential threat and fascist groups’ membership was boosted by the Russian invasion of the east of the country in 2014-16. But most Ukrainian socialists argue that this danger should not be overstated. The Azov battalion was indeed set up by fascist elements but it is no longer dominated by them: during the war, large numbers of people, who want nothing to do with fascism, joined it alongside many other volunteer military formations.
On Bandera, it was the then President Yushchenko who in 2007 and 2010 awarded posthumous medals to Bandera and Shukhevich who committed similar crimes. These awards were blocked by the courts. Parliament in 2021 asked Zelenskiy to reinstate them. He refused. Last year the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany made statements honouring Bandera. Zelenskiy fired him.
This is not to deny that Ukraine has a huge problem facing up to the role played by some of its citizens in the Holocaust, as is the case in Poland, Romania, Russia and other East European states. The political elite are split on the issue.
It should be added that there are marked fascistic features in the so-called breakaway ‘People’s Republics’, where the dominant ideology is Orthodox, conservative, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma in orientation.
3. Anti-Russian measures
Q: What about the post-2014 anti-Russian measures whereby Russian would no longer be an official language alongside Ukrainian, Russian was removed from all educational programmes, Russian books were banned and Russian-speaking citizens became victims of continuous discrimination?
A: A law making Ukrainian the single state language was adopted in 2019 – the culmination of three decades of argument. This step was shaped both by aspirations to revive Ukrainian culture that has suffered historically from Russian imperial domination, and by hard-line Ukrainian nationalism. It was opposed by Ukrainian socialists. The law requires that Ukrainian be used in public spaces and it does not apply to private or religious life: breaching the law is essentially a civil, not criminal offence.
4. Donetsk and Lugansk
Q: When you focus on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, why do you ignore the May 2014 referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk in which 87% of citizens voted for independence, which was met by eight years of bombardment by Kyiv and the killing of 13,000 civilians, largely ignored by the world community?
A: The collapse in living standards in these regions under the old kleptocratic regime made them easy prey for the proclamation by a wing of the oligarchy that these were now ‘Autonomous Republics’. They were soon infiltrated by scarcely concealed elements of the Russian armed forces and controlled on the ground by mafia-like militias, which routinely intimidated organized labour and political dissidents, institutionalized violence, and trampled on human rights.
Many of the industrial assets of the region – despite some rhetoric about ‘nationalization’ —have been handed over to a company registered in South Ossetia, a Russian-occupied enclave in Georgia, and controlled by a billionaire linked to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. No serious attempt has been made to rebuild the economy, which shrank by 60% after the proclamation of the ‘Autonomous Republics’.
Russia’s policy here has been similar to its approach to Ukrainian territory that it has seized during the war: to issue Russian passports in large numbers in a transparent attempt to obliterate Ukrainian identity. Following the Russian invasion, workers were taken straight from the coal mines to fight at the front and the over-55s were conscripted.
The referendums of 2014 were not free, in contrast to the 1991 poll, where the region voted by a margin of over 80% in favour of Ukrainian independence. By 2013-14, there is considerable evidence of quite strong support for greater autonomy within Ukraine, which was supported by Yanukovich’s party. But support for separation was negligible, and was stoked up by extremists in response to the Maidan events.
The 13,000 figure represents casualties on both sides of this conflict and they are mostly military, not civilian. Since the start of Russia’s illegal incursion, an estimated 3.3 million people have fled their homes. Of these, 1.8 million have been living as internally displaced persons in Ukraine and 1.5 million in Russia and Belarus. More here.
5. Ties with Russia
Q: Why do you fixate on the sovereignty of Ukraine and ignore its centuries-old ties to Russia and the fact that it had never been a real nation-state before the collapse of the Soviet Union, so that its unilateral declaration of independence left millions of Russian-speakers stranded within its new borders?
A: Britain too had centuries-old ties with Ireland and considerable support in the North for its imperial domination – hardly grounds to support British troops there from the late 1960s onwards. In Russia’s case, its imperial identity was built by absorbing, crushing and denying Ukrainian nationality from at least the 17th century onwards. In Putin’s view, Lenin and the Bolsheviks invented Ukrainian nationalism to undermine holy Russia.
In fact, a genuine Ukrainian Revolution took place alongside the Russian Revolution, involving communists, anarchists and socialist-revolutionaries. The impact of Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization and livestock destruction, which led to the Great Famine of 1932-3 in which 4 million Ukrainians died, strengthened right wing and openly Nazi currents in Ukrainian nationalism. That said, the proportion of Ukrainians who died fighting the Nazis is greater than the proportion of Russians. It was Ukrainian regiments of the Red Army which liberated Auschwitz. Ignoring this, the Greater Russian narrative proclaims an inherently fascist character to Ukrainian identity for its own purposes.
Soviet Ukraine became an independent state in December 1991, by a massive referendum where independence was approved by more than 90% everywhere, this level falling to just over 80% in Donbass and 54% in Crimea. Putin’s invasion, driven by an attempt to unite Russian society around a belief in historic Russia, seeks to bury these inconvenient expression of democracy.
6. NATO interference
Q: Why are you not concerned about ongoing US interference in Ukraine, its role in overthrowing the Yanukovych government, its desire for regime change in Russia, NATO’s aim of expansion up to Russia’s borders or the terrorist act, probably perpetrated by the USA, of blowing up a Russian gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea?
A: All imperialist powers work to influence the affairs of other countries in the interests of their governments and corporations. But remember that US imperialism was originally opposed to Ukrainian independence and afterwards lobbied heavily for the Budapest memorandum under which nuclear weapons stored in Ukraine were moved to Russia.
In 2014 Yanukovich was overthrown, not by a ‘NATO coup’, but by a genuine mass popular uprising inside the country. The spark was his decision to scrap talks on an association agreement with the European Union, and instead to reinforce Ukraine’s links with Russia.
The Russian regime’s reaction to the uprising underlines its imperialist relationship and attitudes to Ukraine. Putin responded to the uprising by occupying and annexing Crimea and starting a war in the east of the country. At that time Russia enjoyed some support in eastern Ukraine – though not a majority. Evidence suggests this support has evaporated as a result of Putin’s full-scale invasion in 2022, with Ukrainians – including Russian-speaking Ukrainians – rallying against Russia.
The argument that NATO expansion provides a justification for Putin’s actions does not stand up. The last time any country bordering Russia joined NATO was in 2004 – the small Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia. The only ones to join since then are four small Balkan countries nowhere near Russia. And Ukraine is not a member of NATO and is not about to become one – and that’s actually the view of senior US officials who do not want to be bound by the treaty obligations that Ukraine’s membership would entail.
Unsurprisingly, the invasion of Ukraine has strengthened support for NATO, for instance swinging elite and public opinion in Sweden and Finland into joining.
There is no solid evidence that the US blew up the Nord Stream pipeline, nor do US motivations for doing so correspond to the facts. More here.
We absolutely should not trust the US and the other big Western powers, or forget their own records of imperialist piracy. But in Ukraine, the US, UK, etc., are not fighting. Russia is the aggressor and the oppressor, reprising its extremely brutal history of dominating the Ukrainian people.
7. Russian security and Crimea
Q:Why do you ignore Russia’s legitimate security concerns, especially in relation to Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet has been based since 1783 and where NATO has plans to build military bases?
A: The Russian seizure of Crimea was in flagrant violation of the Budapest memorandum, which Russia had signed in 1994, which guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders in return for Ukraine giving to Russia the nuclear arsenal stored on its territory. Although the idea that ‘Crimea has always been Russian’ is commonly put about, at the only time in its history when people in Crimea were able to choose freely, in 1991, 54% of voters supported being part of Ukraine.
Russia’s historically-held military bases in Crimea were part of its imperial control of the entire country, much as Britain controlled Ireland for centuries. That repressive domination can hardly be used to justify a continued military presence today.
The idea that NATO plans to construct military bases in Crimea was raised by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in the immediate aftermath of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year – but there is no other evidence for this. Lavrov also claimed in the same speech that biological research laboratories in Ukraine and other east European countries were military facilities supported by NATO. In the year since Lavrov made these claims, they were discussed at the UN and in the media, but neither the Russian government nor anyone else has provided any additional evidence that they are true, while Ukraine and the US have consistently denied them.
As for naval bases, in 2021, the UK signed an agreement with Ukraine to support the defensive capability of its navy, including in the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian naval force there is dwarfed by the Russian Black Sea fleet. Given what has happened subsequently – the use of Russian vessels in the Black Sea to support the bombing of civilian targets – these defensive measures seem to be too little, too late, from a Ukrainian standpoint. The only country whose “legitimate security concerns” have been breached in the Black Sea is Ukraine.
Historically, socialists have opposed the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights by Israel, and argued that Israel’s claim of “legitimate security concerns” cannot be regarded as a justification for it. Why is the illegal annexation of Crimea any different?
8. Minsk Agreements
Q: Why do you not comment on the 2014-5 Minsk agreements which could have avoided conflict, but which were deliberately sabotaged by the US?
A: The first Minsk agreement in September 2014 was forced on Ukraine by the impact of Russian military advances in the east of the country and pressure from European states which feared destabilisation in their relationship with Russia and the possibility of war. It essentially legalised the ‘People’s Republic’ Russian puppet regimes in the east. It was an imperialist imposition.
From the start, Russia and its puppet governments ignored the terms of the agreement they had effectively imposed, violating the ceasefire and carrying out further military actions against Ukraine. The result was a second Minsk agreement in February 2015.
Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s aide for Ukraine at the time of Minsk 2, later described the agreement as “the first open geo-political counter-attack by Russia”. It was part of a “reconquest” of Ukraine and “legitimised the first division of Ukraine”.
Once again, Russia and its proxies ignored the terms of the agreement, in particular the clause requiring withdrawal of “all foreign armed forces”. It hindered the demilitarisation required of the ‘People’s Republics’ and pursued their creeping integration into its territory.
Ceasefire conditions were regularly ignored by both sides. On 21st February 2022 Putin declared unilaterally: “The Minsk agreements are non-existent now. Why should they be implemented if we recognise the independence of these republics [in eastern Ukraine]?”
The idea that what undermined the Minsk agreements was the US, which had little to do with them, is bizarre. The agreements were intended to allow Ukraine, alongside elections in the ‘Autonomous Republics’, to take back control of its borders, which Russia blocked.
9. Regional context
Q: Why do you refuse to see the conflict in Ukraine in the wider context – an anti-Russian rebellion in Georgia in 2003 stoked by the US; in 2004, three countries bordering Russia joining NATO; in 2008 Georgia itself applying to join NATO and attacking Russian peace-keeping forces in Ossetia, despite being there legally under a UN mandate, unleashing a Russia-Georgian war; and in 2020 Azerbaijan launching a war against Armenia (a Russian ally, with open support from Turkey, a NATO member); and in 2022 an anti-Russian coup attempt in Kazakhstan?
A: There is indeed a wider context, but not the one the question suggests. Take the accession of the three Baltic states, as well as Poland, the Czech Republic, etc., to NATO. People here often look at this in a Western-centric way, and do not ask themselves why the population of these countries supported accession. Historically, these countries have been colonised or threatened with colonisation by Russia. Their populations have grown up with a distrust of Russia that could be compared to the way that Mexican people regard the USA or Irish people regard Britain.
That said, there is no doubt that the US and its allies sought to use conflicts between Russia and its former colonies for their own purposes. Such was the case in Georgia in 2008, for example. But beyond hinting to the Georgian government that it would receive support in the case of conflict, the US and its allies did little. In the event, parts of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) were occupied by Russian troops, and still are. A part of Moldova is also occupied by Russian troops. The context is Russia’s reluctance to pull back from territories that it historically colonised.
The best way to ensure that US militarism is pushed out of Europe is to encourage the development of strong, independent countries whose borders are respected by their neighbours, not to view these countries as pawns in an inter-imperialist chess game.
The other context is the Kremlin’s aversion to powerful social movements in Russia’s former colonies.
Most of these conflicts were unleashed by internal dynamics, not outside Western interference. The 2022 uprising in Kazakhstan, for example, was no coup but began as a popular uprising in western Kazakhstan, in an oil-producing city with a long history of struggle for union organisation. It was sparked by a doubling of gas prices. Protesters demanded the resignation of the government, the release of political prisoners and the return of the money stolen by the regime. Protests quickly spread across the country and were met by ferocious repression, with scores shot dead and the government calling in the Russian army for help. More here.
10. Global danger
Q: Isn’t there a danger that in calling for arms to Ukraine, you support what will increasingly become a NATO proxy war, possibly drawing China into a global conflict, with possible nuclear implications?
A: Any conflict involving a nuclear power raises fears of nuclear war, a horrifying prospect for all of us. In Ukraine, there is only one nuclear power involved in the conflict: Russia. Ukraine liquidated its stock of nuclear weapons under the 1994 agreement that its sovereignty would be respected. There is only one power that has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons over the past year: Russia.
The character of the war is also important. It is not just a war between two armies. The Russian army is being resisted by the Ukrainian army, but the main target of Russia’s heavy artillery has been civilians and civilian infrastructure. In areas occupied by Russia, human rights groups have collected mountains of evidence of monstrous crimes against civilians: deportations, including of children; kidnap and murder of elected officials, journalists and civil society activists; looting; and other forms of terror.
The danger of escalation, which is present in all conflicts, must be balanced responsibly against our moral duty to defend civilians faced with this kind of attack.
A policy of arming Ukraine with lethal weapons to defend itself and regain control of its sovereign territory can speed progress towards peace talks that result in a lasting settlement. But what if the policy of ending Western arms to Ukraine is adopted? It seems more than likely that Russia will continue with the war, and could well do so until the achievement of its initial aim, namely the occupation of all Ukrainian territory and the installation of a ‘friendly’ government. Nobody seriously believes this would make Central and Eastern Europe stable: It would make people in Moldova, Poland, the Balkans and elsewhere – to say nothing of the Caucasus and Central Asia – ask: who is next?
During the Vietnam war – when the fear of nuclear escalation was ever-present – the US constantly claimed to be ready for negotiations, while its bombing raids and terror against the civilian population continued. Socialists rejected this and called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops. Now, Russia is not even talking seriously about negotiations. Socialists must call for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops, which is the first necessary step to proper peace negotiations.
11. Unfortunate allies
Q: Aren’t you uncomfortable about being in the same camp as US imperialism and the Tory government? Aren’t socialists opposed to war, even if the prospects for a peace movement are not always hopeful? Doesn’t supporting arms to Ukraine strengthen the argument for more military spending, thus taking vital money away from domestic public services?
A: Socialists cannot decide our policy by putting a minus where the ruling class or its dominant faction puts a plus. We have to develop an independent working class policy. Defence of national independence and of human rights from imperialist violence and oppression, and of the space for the labour movement to exist and grow, are vital.
In any case, we are not simply in the same camp as the Ukrainian government, let alone its foreign imperialist allies. Our starting point is solidarity with the Ukrainian people as a whole against Russian imperialism.Of course socialists oppose war as an irrational and barbaric way of resolving differences and conflicts in society, but in a world of predatory invasions against oppressed peoples, we cannot be absolute pacifists. Socialists have a long and honourable record of supporting popular resistance against imperialism – and not only US imperialism.
Aid, including military aid, for oppressed peoples does not mean more government spending on the UK military. Nor should we adopt a pseudo-radical version of the idea that foreign aid takes money away from UK public services! There is plenty of money in society, but it is in the wrong hands, those of capital and the rich.
12. Your supporters on the ground
Q: Isn’t the Ukrainian left that you work with tiny, unrepresentative and lacking in any influence?
A: The Ukrainian labour movement as a whole, virtually unanimously, supports Ukraine’s war of self-defence and liberation. The Ukrainian trade unions are far from tiny, with millions of members. The more radical unions support and participate in Ukraine’s war too.
So do socialist and anarchist groups. The various radical and revolutionary organisations are indeed small – but then so is the Britain’s organised radical left. They are not without influence, because they are heavily involved in a wide range of struggles, both against the Russian invasion and to defend and promote workers’ and human rights against the Ukrainian ruling class during the war. They are our comrades, and they need solidarity.