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'Mother Russia' stereotypes outdated as Ukraine war heats up

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The following article was written in the days before I departed Moscow on July 17, 2014 following a two-week visit to Crimea and Moscow.

Bombardments of cities and towns in eastern Ukraine by the Ukraine army are not letting up. Two days ago, Russia Today reported that 18 civilians had died in Luhansk city over the previous three days from the indiscriminate shelling of neighbourhoods. Today, shelling has killed 20 and cut electricity, water service and communication in the city of 400,000 people. In a display of how the media is turning a blind eye to war crimes, the BBC called the attacks in Luhansk "fresh clashes."

The number of dead is much higher in Donetsk region, including eleven people who died when missiles struck an apartment building in Snezhnoe July 15. It was 6:30 a.m. Most people were still in bed. Russia Today broadcast shocking images of dozens of people digging at rubble after the attack. A child is rescued and taken to a waiting ambulance. It's not clear in the footage if he is alive. (Further video, subtitled, of the aftermath of the attack is here.)

One camp of Ukraine refugees along the Russian border has been moved inland by 20 kilometers out of concern it could be hit by Ukraine mortar fire.

[We have learned from doctors in Luhansk, via the OSCE special mission in southeast Ukraine, that 250 people have been killed in Luhansk region in June and July from shelling and other attacks. 850 have been injured.]

The Ukraine government has artillery, rockets and tanks at its disposition, but its conscript army is not motivated or trained to fight in defended urban areas. Even the more-motivated fascist militias that are operating in tandem with the Ukraine army lack fighting experience. The likely role of extreme right commanders in the units conducting artillery and mortar bombardments might explain the randomness and savagery of it all.

As this unfolds, the Russian government is issuing declarations of concern and it is taking care of the swelling numbers of refugees. But it's not doing anything to stop the crazed shelling and missile strikes of the Ukraine army and militias, and that has growing number of Russians wondering why not. Of course, anything it does, such as impose a no-fly zone or threaten to knock out artillery batteries, will bring howls of rage from the NATO warmaking side.

Russian colleagues here in Moscow say the government was expecting that the popular resistance in southeast Ukraine would have been vanquished by now. That would suit its acute interest in preserving relations with capitalist Europe. But defeat of the rebellion is beginning to look unlikely, which will open a whole new stage of the anti-austerity and pro-democracy struggle in southeast Ukraine, including the appeal it symbolizes for people in other parts of Ukraine and Russia.

Russia's cautious reactions to the war being waged by Kyiv disproves the claims by governments and some left wing voices in Europe and North America that Russia has territorial ambitions in eastern Ukraine or is deliberately provoking chaos and destabilization. It is NATO and the regime in Kyiv that is sowing chaos and destabilization, not to speak of perpetrating or abetting war crimes. The regime is refusing any talks with the pro-autonomy political forces in Ukraine's southeast and it is raining artillery shells and rockets upon the population in an effort to terrorize it into submission. It won’t work; every bomb that falls creates legions of new opponents of Kyiv’s military course and the pro-Europe austerity economic agenda that lies behind it.

Impact of events in Russia

The right wing takeover in Kyiv last February and now the war that the regime is waging in the southeast have been an uncomfortable wake-up call for many Russians, something akin to a slap in the face. One Russian colleague explained to me that one year ago, when he would speak to university students of the importance of following and engaging in politics and world events, he would likely as not be dismissed as someone harkening back to Soviet times. It's very different today. Many Russians feel threatened by events, as well they should. They are deeply aware of the key backing of Kyiv by the member countries of the NATO military alliance. NATO is not only supplying Kyiv with weapons and advisors, it is also slapping travel bans and economic sanctions on Russia’s leaders and it has begun to target its industries with sanctions.

Crimea is targeted by sanctions that are harming its agricultural production and its vitally important tourism industry. As I discovered when I traveled there recently, the major credit card companies are participating in the sanctions. Tourism is down sharply.

The turn of the Ukraine bourgeoisie to austerity Europe and to war against its own population is not surprising. This is a ruling elite that has no plan or interest in the nation. It is notorious for its rise to wealth and power during the past 25 years made possible by its privileged access to organs of political power when the frenzied privatization of the state-owned resources of Soviet Ukraine took place. They also employed every imaginable trick of graft and corruption.[1]

Similar political bankruptcy was a hallmark of this bourgeoisie’s historic predecessors 100 years ago in the divided territory of the future Ukraine, split between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and Poland. Soviet Ukraine was born through the profound social revolution of 1917-20.

Ukraine's revolution paralleled and intersected with the much better known Russian Revolution. With the defeat of the Russian and Ukraine revolutions and the rise of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s, the political axis of mainstream Ukraine nationalism shifted to the right, where has remained ever since. The new bourgeoisie of the 1990s never particularly bothered with Ukraine nationalism until now, since this wasn't needed for their graft and nepotism. But now they drape themselves in the yellow and blue national colours.

The concern in Russia over Ukraine intersects with something of which not a lot of people outside of Russia are aware. That is the deep antipathy of many Russians towards the billionaires that have come to own and dominate Russia's middle-power capitalist economy and its "managed democracy" (to use the succinct term of a colleague).

This antipathy to the wealthy intersects with popular resentment over the inadequacies and failings of Russia’s social services. The majority of people in Russia today have much more difficult access to health care, housing and other social safety nets compared to the days of the Soviet Union. This is not lost on Russian leaders. One of the things that keeps Vladimir Putin's standing in polls high (at least until this war is eastern Ukraine) is his occasional railings against the greed and excesses of the wealthy elite, even if his government does nothing about it.

There is no uniform picture of how present-day Russians view the changes they and their children have lived for the past 25 years (since the collapse of the Soviet Union). A wealthy minority have done extremely well. An upper middle section has also done well. The center of Moscow and of some other large cities in Russia are fabulously attractive places of wealth and excess consumption. The city centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, at least, are easily on par with the best of what imperialist capital cities have on offer.

But you don’t have to move too far out of the center of Moscow or other cities to move down the social ladder and encounter roads and sidewalks in disrepair, inadequate housing, and so on. For workers, on average, living standards are only just recovering to where they were 25 years ago. Compared to Soviet times, most Russians are working much longer hours, have poorer social services, fewer vacations and live with greater uncertainty over their future.

Russia's economy is highly dependent on revenues from natural resources, notably oil and gas. One sees everywhere the heavy dependence on imports of food, consumer and other items. The country's roads and telecommunication systems are not up to the standards required of a fully developed capitalist economy. Even the railroads are in decline as they became privatized and as the government and the new capitalists focus their attentions and decisions on short-term financial gains, not long term development of an economy and country.

All of this underlines the importance of studying the exact nature of the social and economic system that is modern-day Russia. An excellent source for researchers or just interested people is a new book by Moscow professor and researcher Ruslan Dzarasov, titled The Conundrum of Russian Capitalism: The Post-Soviet Economy in the World System (Pluto Press, 2013). The author draws sharp attention to the degree in which globalized capitalism is focused on earning wealth in the short term and disdaining any long term concern or planning. The zeal for short-term plunder is one of the features of capitalist nihilism in the face of the climate crisis. This phenomenon is heightened in post-Soviet Russian capitalism.

Russia as imperialist?

An important part of economic study is to determine where, exactly, Russia fits into the world capitalist system. Is it an imperialist country and social order, as many argue? Or is the story more complicated than that? The answer to that question would tell us a lot about the interests and the actions of the country’s economic and political elites. It would help us a great deal to understand the crisis in Ukraine. My article on the subject of "Russia as imperialist or not" published in June only scratches the surface. It uses traditional measures of what does and does not constitute an imperialist economy.

Much more analysis, beyond the scope of my limited, formal training in this area, is needed to update traditional measures and account for the globalized world of capitalism, the diminution, for now, of inter-imperialist conflict and the heightened place of inter-imperialist military alliances.

The left internationally has been slow or remiss in looking at this subject in any depth and drawing the appropriate conclusions. I can only surmise that the powerful and intimidating anti-Russia and anti-Vladimir Putin propaganda machines in the imperialist countries have played a role in this. We should not be intimidated or bamboozled away from serious study.

Although I am not an economist, I was driven to write my article in June because I am bothered that a simplistic portrayal of Russia as "imperialist" is serving to confuse matters in Ukraine and delay much-needed solidarity. There is inexcusable inaction against the murderous war by the Kyiv regime and its NATO backers. Never mind that the claim of Russian territorial and other "imperialist" designs on Ukraine is contrary to what events over the past six months clearly show. The underlying premise is also wrong -- Russia is a capitalist power, yes, but is far from being the ruthless, aggressive power, coordinated with others through alliances, that characterizes the imperialist powers. It is a middle power with an uneven, underdeveloped capitalist economy that has more in common with Brazil and South Korea than with France or Canada.

Russian nationalists in southeast Ukraine

If the assertion that Russia is NOT imperialist is correct, then the pressuring moves and military assaults by NATO and its Kyiv regime junior partner are an attack not only against the Ukraine nation but also against the Russian nation. As a matter of fact, I argued this from the get-go earlier this year. At the time, I did not have a strong theoretical foundation to do so; I was acting on political perception and instinct. Events and further study have borne those out.

On the subject of the Russian nationalists who are volunteering to fight in eastern Ukraine and playing a role in politics there, Russian colleagues express very thoughtful and considered opinions. They argue it is wrong to view Russian nationalism as uniformly right wing. If you ask many nationalists of their vision for a future eastern Ukraine (and Russia), they are likely as not to answer with "nationalization of big enterprises," "expansion of social services and welfare," "development of the national economy" and "greater democracy." Many will speak with pride of the Russian Federation's multinational and multicultural makeup. Elements of such a vision are echoed in the manifesto produced by the Ukrainian delegates who attended the July 6, 7 antiwar conference in Yalta, Crimea, which is an explicitly anti-capitalist document. (Read the manifesto here.)

Colleagues have great respect for the courage of the activists and fighters who are volunteering in eastern Ukraine. That has been my view as well, as I read the descriptive reports of the volunteers and why they are serving. Reports invariably explain that they are motivated by a determination to defend the population of eastern Ukraine from fascism and other forms of capitalist violence. Volunteers see an historic opening for this part of the world to break from the unequal, decrepit economic system that dominates in Russia and Ukraine and to inspire others to follow such a lead.[2]

I read recently in The Guardian a translation of an interview with a volunteer who served in Donetsk, a man of Armenian origin. He talks of harrowing experiences in combat, including incompetent commanders during the seizure of the Donetsk airport at the end of May, from which he was lucky to escape with his life. He was asked at the end of the interview why he had volunteered (from Russia) to risk his life for a foreign country. He replied, "I don't consider Russia a foreign country. I have the mentality of a Soviet person. My grandfathers fought for the Soviet Union and I am fighting for it.” (The man is clearly among those in southeastern Ukraine who view the goal there as some kind of political association with Russia. Given the ferocity of the Ukraine government military attacks, the number of people who view any kind of future in Ukraine is in sharp decline.)

Another recent video is an eight-minute interview with a volunteer fighter of Afghan origin. He compares the Kyiv regime's war with the decades-long war in Afghanistan. (Coincidentally, Ukraine still has a small numbers of soldiers serving in the ISAF foreign occupation army there.)

Given the scale of the assault that the people of the southeast are up against, their historic ties to Russia, including language, and the military experience and equipment that Russian volunteers bring, it's no surprise that Russians spring into leading roles.

There are reports of ruthless treatment by some self defense units of opposing paramilitaries taken captive, including boasting by one unit that while it treats soldiers with dignity, it will kill fascist cadre it captures. This gives credence to the claims of human rights organizations that rights violations are occurring on both sides of the conflict in the southeast (though hardly in the same proportion).[3] Progressives in Russia and southeast Ukraine condemn such conduct. Part of the political struggle today in chaotic eastern Ukraine is to achieve dignified treatment of opposing enemy combatants.

Marxists have many points of political convergence with Russian nationalists. It is inaccurate and misleading to portray them as uniformly right wing. Russian nationalists are in the front lines of defending the people of southeast Ukraine against extreme violence. They are displaying great bravery and making great sacrifices.

Crimea

My colleagues reminded me of the significant political blow that the imperialists received over Crimea. They lost a prize they lusted after deeply -- the possibility of greatly diminishing the presence of Russia’s navy in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea by taking control of Crimea and Sevastopol. Their loss was quick and decisive; they were not able to fire a single shot. Moreover, the anti-imperialist masses in other parts of the world duly took note. That is not good news for empires.

My July 14 news article reports on the vote at the United Nations General Assembly on March 27, 2014 in which 11 countries voted against a resolution to condemn Russia over Crimea. The "no" voted included Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia. Fifty eight countries abstained.

The imperialist "loss" over Crimea explains the vengeful economic and political sanctions which they have slapped on the people of Crimea. It also explains, in part, the fury of the war in Ukraine’s southeast. NATO does not want to lose two prizes in a row. All proportions guarded, Crimea join the ranks of Haiti, China, Cuba, Vietnam and countries or peoples who have dared to defy the dictats of empires. Crimeans are paying an economic price for doing so, and they wish that could be otherwise. But they are also thankful to now be beyond the reach of Kyiv’s civil war policies.

Prospects of the war

There has been no letup in the bloody shelling and bombings of towns and cities by the Kyiv regime. Much of this is in retaliation for the rocket attack on the night of July 10/11 that destroyed a Ukraine army armoured column in Luhansk region. It was a harsh blow to Kyiv and the fascist militias with which it is allied.

The armoured mobility and firepower with which Kyiv expected it could ride to conquest in eastern Ukraine is beginning to look less overwhelming. The capacities of the self defense fighters are proving to be considerable. For example, Ukraine's fleet of military helicopters has been reduced to ten, according to Ukraine government spokesperson Tatiana Chyornovol, cited in the July 17 Moscow Times. The Times also reports self defense fighters saying they have shot down 11 jet fighters and one (well publicized) military transport aircraft. Here is a recent video of a destroyed and abandoned Ukraine artillery base near Krasnodon.

Kyiv is also paying a growing political price over its savage attacks on civilian populations. Days ago, another journalist was killed, this time the editor of a Russian-language newspaper reportedly tortured and killed in Ukraine proper by government forces. According to previous figures gathered by the Committee to Protect Journalists, this latest killing brings to seven the number of journalists killed in Ukraine since February. I believe all these killings were committed by Kyiv forces.

People in Europe and North America have a duty to build a solidarity movement to help end the military attacks in the southeast and promote a political resolution of the conflict that respects the right of self-determination of the people of eastern Ukraine. We need to help create political space where the demands of the self-determination movement and self defense forces can be respected and heard. We also need to support people throughout Ukraine whose democratic rights are increasingly under attack.

Echoes of civil protest in western Ukraine have been expressed in recent days, especially of relatives of the young men being conscripted into the Ukraine army. A rally took place in Kyiv on July 16 where mothers, wives and fathers of young men voiced opposition to the dangers and harsh conditions of compulsory military service to which their loved ones are being subjected. Another such anti-conscription protest took place on July 15 at the entrance to an army base in Ternopil, western Ukraine and can be viewed in this seven minute video.

Solidarity will assist in creating much-needed unity throughout Ukraine, in opposition to the billionaires who are running the country into the ground with their dirty civil war and dead-end, Europe-inspired austerity.

Notes:

1. From ‘Punishing Russia for the MH17 tragedy will not help Ukraine’, by Oliver Bullough, The Guardian, July 20, 2014:

Visitors [to Ukraine] can be forgiven for not realising quite how wrecked Ukraine is. Kiev has all the car showrooms, restaurants and elegant architecture of a European capital, but last year Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index rated Ukraine 144th in the world, level with the Central African Republic.

Ukraine’s orgy of kleptocracy reached its riotous peak under Viktor Yanukovych, leaving the country incapable of defending itself, or even of holding itself together. Tax officials trying to make sense of Yanukovych’s greed estimate that around £18bn a year was stolen from Ukraine’s coffers under his rule – almost a fifth of gross domestic product. No country can survive that.

2. I received this note from a colleague in Russia after the publication of this article: "Regarding Russian nationalists, you hit it right in your article except you overstate their commitment to democracy. Lots of them still have illusions than authoritarian political power by Russia is required to handle the huge problems faced by the country and region. And many have ideological and cultural intolerance. Apart from all that, your article is awesome."

3. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is issuing monthly reports on the human rights situation in Ukraine. Its latest report, dated June 15, is scandalously biased in favour of the government in Kyiv, describing Kyiv’s war in the southeast as a necessary ‘security’ operation. Thus, we read such obfuscation as the following: “Of particular concern is the continued erosion of the rule of law and the limited capacity of the Government to protect residents from the ever increasing acts of violence...” (point 176 of the report); and, “The recent evaluation of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) published on 23 May 2014, highlighted the positive steps of the Government in ratification of, or accession to, various human rights instruments.” (point 241).

There are, nonetheless, interesting observations in the report, including the poor reception and resources made available in Ukraine to Tatars who have chosen to leave Crimea and to refugees from the war zone in southeast Ukraine.

Roger Annis recently returned to Canada from a two-week visit to Crimea and Moscow. He attended the antiwar conference that took place in Yalta, Crimea on July 6, 7. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can sign onto the conference statement at this online petition website. Background of the conflict in Ukraine is contained in the July 16 article by Roger Annis, ‘It’s war in eastern Ukraine as Kyiv gov’t bombards cities and towns’.

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