Ukraine: Russia’s offensive against its great power rivals

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Since 21 November, Ukraine has been going through a political crisis which looks a lot like the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004. As in 2004, the pro-Russian faction is at loggerheads with the opposition, the declared partisan of ‘opening up to the West’. There is the same sharpening of diplomatic tensions between Russia and the countries of the European Union and the USA.

However this remake is not a simple copy. In 2004 the rejection of an obviously rigged election lit the fuse; today it’s the rejection by President Viktor Yanukovych of the agreement on association proposed by the EU that’s at the origin of the crisis. This issue with the EU, a week before the date envisaged for the signing of the agreement, provoked a violent offensive against the government from the different pro-European factions of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie, who have been shouting about “high treason” and demanding the resignation of the President. Following calls for “the whole people to respond to this as if it was a coup d’État, i.e. by coming out on the streets[1], the demonstrators occupied the town centre of Kiev and camped out on Independence Square, the symbolic centre of the Orange Revolution. The brutal repression, the confrontations and large number of injuries led the prime minister Mykola Azarov to declare that “what’s happening has all the signs of a coup d’État” and to organise counter-demonstrations. As in 2004, the media in the big democratic countries made a lot of noise about the will of the Ukrainian people to free itself from the Moscow-backed clique in power. The photos and reporting didn’t so much put forward the perspective of democracy but the violent repression by the pro-Russian faction, the lies of Russia and the diktats of Putin. The hope of a better, freer life is no longer tied to the perspective of an electoral victory by the opposition, which today is in a minority, unlike in 2004 when Victor Yushchenko was a sure bet to win.

Ukraine: an imperialist prize

In 2005, with regard to the Orange Revolution, we wrote:

Behind this barrage, the essential question has nothing to do with the struggle for democracy. The real issue is the ever growing confrontation among the great powers, in particular the US’s present offensive against Russia, which aims at getting Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence. It is important to note that Putin directed his anger essentially against the US. In fact, it is the US which is behind the candidate Yushchenko and his ‘orange’ movement. At the time of a conference in New Delhi on December 5, the leader of the Kremlin denounced the US for trying to “reshape the diversity of civilization through the principles of a unipolar world, the equivalent of a boot camp” and impose “a dictatorship in international affairs, made up of a pretty-sounding pseudo-democratic verbiage”. Putin has not been afraid of throwing in the face of the US the reality of its own situation in Iraq when, on December 7 in Moscow he pointed out to the Iraqi prime minister that he could not figure out “how it’s possible to organize elections in the context of a total occupation by foreign troops”! It is with the same logic that the Russian president opposed the declaration by the 55 OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) countries in support of the process taking place in Ukraine and confirming the organization’s role in monitoring the unfolding of the third round of the presidential elections of December 26. The humiliation the ‘international community’ inflicted on Putin by refusing to acknowledge his own backyard is aggravated by the fact that several hundred observers from not only the US, but also from Great Britain and Germany, will be sent.

Ever since the collapse of the USSR and the catastrophic constitution of the Commonwealth of Independent States (which was meant to salvage the crumbs of its ex-empire), Russia’s borders have been relentlessly under threat, both because of the pressure from Germany and the US, and the permanent tendency toward exploding, inherent to it. The unleashing of the first Chechen war in 1992, then the second in 1996 under the pretext of the fight against terrorism, expresses the brutality of a power in decline trying to safeguard its strategically vital position in the Caucasus at all costs. For Moscow the war was a matter of opposing Washington’s imperialist schemes, which aim at destabilizing Russia, and those of Berlin, which developed an undeniable imperialist aggressiveness, as we had seen in the spring of 1991, when Germany played a major role in the explosion of the Yugoslav conflict.

The Caucasus question is therefore far from a solution, because the US resolutely continues to advance its own interests in the area. It is in this context that we can understand Shevardnadze’s eviction in 2003 by the ‘rose revolution’, which placed a pro-American clique in power. This has allowed the US to station its troops in the country, in addition to those already deployed in Kyrgyzstan and in Uzbekistan, north of Afghanistan. This strengthens the US’ military presence south of Russia and the threat to Russia of encirclement by the US. The Ukrainian question has always been a pivotal one, whether during tsarist Russia or Soviet Russia, but today the problems is posed in an even more crucial fashion. 

At the economic level, the partnership between Ukraine and Russia is of great importance to Moscow, but it is above all at the strategic and military levels that the control of Ukraine is to it of even greater importance than the Caucasus. This is because, to begin with, Ukraine is the third nuclear power in the world, thanks to the military atomic bases inherited from the ex-Eastern bloc. Moscow needs them in order to show, in the context of inter-imperialist blackmails, its capacity to have control over such great nuclear power. Secondly, if Moscow has lost all probability of gaining direct access to the Mediterranean, the loss of Ukraine would mean a weakening of the possibility to have access to the Black Sea as well. Behind the loss of access to the Black Sea, where Russia’s nuclear bases and fleet are found in Sebastopol, there is the weakening of the means to gain a link with Asia and Turkey. In addition, the loss of Ukraine would dramatically weaken the Russian position vis-à-vis the European powers, and particularly Germany, while at same time it would weaken its capacity to play a role in Europe’s future destiny and that of the Eastern countries, the majority of which are already pro-American. It is certain that a Ukraine turned toward the West, and therefore controlled by it and the US in particular, highlights the Russian power’s total inadequacy, and stimulates an acceleration of the phenomenon of explosion of the CIS, along with a sequel of horrors. It is more than probable that such a situation would only push whole regions of Russia itself to declare independence, encouraged by the great powers”[2].

The big difference between today and 2004 is a result of the weakening of the USA, which has been accelerated by its succession of military adventures, notably in the Middle East. Russia’s retreat on the international scene has on the other hand been attenuated, notably with the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. This conflict reversed the tendency towards rapprochement between Georgia and the EU, which Ukraine was also aspiring to. So while the first ‘revolution’ was an offensive by the USA against Russia, the second is by all the evidence a counter-offensive by Russia. It’s president Yanukovych who sparked the hostilities by annulling the association agreement with the EU in favour of a ‘Tripartite Commission’ including both the EU and Russia. The accord initially envisaged would have allowed the establishment of a free trade zone that would have seen Ukraine joining the EU by the back door and thus moving closer to NATO. These attempts at rapprochement with the EU were seen by Moscow as a provocation since the aim was to tear Ukraine away from its influence. The situation in Ukraine has been essentially determined by these imperialist conflicts.

The immediate origin of this new crisis can be traced to the pressure mounted by Russia and the western powers on the Ukrainian bourgeoisie since the pro-Russian faction came to power in the 2010 elections. From this time, Angela Merkel offered to act as an intermediary in the negotiations over the gas contracts signed with Moscow in 2009 by the former prime minister, Julia Timoshenko. But Moscow immediately declined the offer, thus preventing the Europeans from sticking their noses in Russo-Ukrainian affairs.

Three months before the Vilnius Summit which was to culminate in the signing of the agreement between Ukraine and the EU, Russia issued its first warning by closing its frontiers to Ukrainian exports. A number of sectors, including steel and turbines, suffered as a result. Ukraine lost 5 billion dollars in this business; 400,000 jobs were at stake, along with numerous enterprises that work solely towards the Russian market. Moscow also resorted to the following piece of blackmail: if Ukraine doesn’t join the Customs Union around Russia, the Kremlin would ask other members of this Union to close their frontiers as well[3].

The various cliques of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie have been deeply divided by all this pressure. Certain oligarchs, like Rinat Akhmetov, had been opposed to signing the Vilnius agreement. At the moment, everyone is waiting to see the outcome. The pro-EU oligarchs, but also those close to Russia, are fearful of any exclusive relationship with Moscow. They want to maintain for as long as possible Ukraine’s position of ‘neutrality’, to maintain stability until the next elections in order to postpone a confrontation with Russia. Ukraine’s exclusive alignment with Russia’s imperialist policies is thus not accepted, even by the pro-Russian faction.

On the other hand, the pressures from the EU are not without their own contradictions. The main outlets of Ukrainian industry and agriculture are the countries of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine exports next to nothing to the EU countries, which is on the verge of signing a free trade agreement for commodities which don’t actually exist! For Ukrainian commodities to meet with European standards, industry would have to invest around 160 billion dollars in the productive apparatus.

For the western powers, Ukraine is mainly of interest as a supplementary sphere of influence. Customs barriers between Ukraine and Russia are practically non-existent – there are few customs duties. Thus both from Moscow’s and the west’s points of view, the agreement with the EU boils down to opening Russia up to western commodities. Obviously, this is unacceptable for Russia.

The working class must not be taken in by the democratic lie

Ukraine is being hit by the contradictions between its economic interests and the pressures of imperialism. This impasse is undermining the coherence of its various bourgeois factions and pushing them into an irrational stance, notably the opposition. While the party in government is more or less for the ‘neutrality’ of the Ukraine, the opposition is trying to sell the Ukrainian population the illusion of a standard of living comparable to that of the Europeans if Ukraine would only sign the agreement with the EU. But its heterogeneous composition, which is a difference with 2004, shows the degree to which the advance of decomposition has put its mark on any political perspective. The most lucid European analyses[4], which are in principle in favour of Ukraine’s European orientation, don’t hide this:

“If this opposition takes power, I don’t see very well how it will turn out for an opposition led by a boxer who may be affable enough but isn’t up to running a government. Then the next personality is Timoshenko and her team, and everyone knows that this is a mafia team from the word go. There really are big questions about the financial honesty of this team – that’s why she’s in prison. Then the third component is the Nazis[5]. Thus Nazis plus mafia plus incompetent people – it would be a catastrophe. It would be a government like certain states in sub-Saharan Africa”. Here we see clear verification of the fact that “The area where the decomposition of capitalist society is expressed in the most spectacular way is that of military conflicts and international relations in general”[6]

The ideological grip of the different factions of the political apparatus is being undermined by the contradictions of the situation. The division of labour that is normal in the more developed democratic countries doesn’t work very well here. But this doesn’t stop the democratic mystification being used against the working class in Ukraine as much as at the international level. Here too we have the supposed struggle between democracy and dictatorship. The bourgeoisie is also well able to play on the nationalist strings which are so well kept up in Ukraine. The appeals to the interests of the ‘Ukrainian nation’ peddled by the pro-Russian faction are echoed by the many national flags carried in the demonstrations.

The ‘Orange Wave’ of 2004 was the result of divisions within the ruling class which weakened the position of Victor Yanukovych [7]. Control of the state apparatus began to escape him. The success of his rival, Yuchenko, was to a large extent due to the paralysis of the authority of the central state, but also to Yuchenko’s ability to make use of the official values of the regime of Leonid Kuchma, president between 1994 and 2005: nationalism, democracy, the market and the so-called ‘European option’. Yuchenko became the ‘saviour of the nation’ and the subject of a personality cult. The ideology of the ‘Orange’ movement was in no way different from the mystifications the bourgeoisie had used to brainwash the population for 14 years. The masses who supported Viktor Yuchenko or who backed Yanukovych were simply pawns manipulated by different bourgeois factions in the interest of this or that imperialist option. Today the situation is no different in this respect. The ‘democratic choice’ is just a trap.

We could add that Yuchenko, whose clan took power after the ‘Orange Revolution’, did not hesitate to impose repression and sacrifices on the working class when he was the prime minister and head banker of the government of his pro-Russian predecessor, Kuchma. The Yuchenko clan not only made use of the illusions of the Ukrainian population to get into power, but also considerably enriched itself on the back of the state, fully justifying its reputation as a mafia-like clique and resulting in the imprisonment of his accomplice, Julia Timoshenko.

But this same Timoshenko, heroine of democracy and the Orange Revolution, is at the origin of 15 billion dollars of credit from the IMF obtained through tough negotiating for three months. As an annex for this agreement, this is what she obtained for the working class in Ukraine: raising of the retirement age, increase in local taxes, in the price of electricity, water, etc.

In spite of their disagreements about imperialist options, the different political factions of the bourgeoisie, from right to left, have no other perspective than to force the working class into poverty. To take part in elections for this or that political clan will not slow down the attacks. Above all, by ranging itself behind a political faction of the bourgeoisie and behind democratic slogans, the workers lose their capacity to struggle on their own class ground.

Ukraine and all the sharks swimming around it express the reality of a capitalist system at the end of its tether. The working class is the only class radically opposed to this system. It must above all defend its own historic perspective and fight against all the campaigns aimed at mobilising it for the battles between competing bourgeois cliques, each one in a bigger dead end than the next one. The proletarian revolution is not opposed to a particular bourgeois clique and in favour of another, but is against their whole system – capitalism.  

Sam 22/12/13.

[1]. Appeal by Julia Timoshenko, the head of the clan in power between 2005 and 2009, issued from prison


[3]. Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia, which along with Russia are Ukraine’s main trade outlets


[4]. See the interview with Ivan Blot about the Ukrainian opposition on The Voice of Russia


[5]. The Svoboda party is formally called the National Socialist Party of Ukraine. Historically it descends from the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, whose armed wing (the UPA) actively collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War and massacred the Jews of Galicia in western Ukraine


[6]. Resolution on the international situation from the 20th Congress of the ICC


[7]. See ‘Ukraine, the authoritarian prison and the trap of democracy’