I think it’s worth pausing, and reflecting on the fact that the EU has applied sanctions.
Well. Don’t make the EU angry. You wouldn’t like them when they get angry. Raaaahhhrr! EU SMASH!
And yet – and yet – Russia continues to ‘defy the international community’. Such rare valour. Such nose-thumbery. Such bare-faced insouciance.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am obviously happy that the US and EU are not flexing serious muscle, that the dire warnings of neocon expeditions are looking so utterly threadbare, that Obama is specifically ruling out “a military excursion in Ukraine“. I just think that the futile pretence at scolding the Russian Federation by applying a few paltry sanctions to “Putin allies” is inherently hilarious and ought to incite torrents of deprecatory laughter.
Still, if you think that the major issue in Ukraine is imperialism, then the response of sections of the British Left to the situation is bizarre indeed. Because it wasn’t very long ago that Russian troops in unmarked uniforms occupied key positions in the Crimean peninsula, and started the process that led to the ‘referendum’ for secession. There could hardly be a clearer attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, and it will have reverberations beyond Crimea, inasmuch as those secessionist tendencies already being expressed in other parts of the south and east of Ukraine will be accentuated while simultaneously the nationalist reaction in the west will be bolstered. If you want to know how it came to be that a popular movement against a thuggish government of the oligarchs, resulted in a right-wing nationalist government with fascists in leading positions, you need as part of your explanation the role of Russian imperialism in supporting Ukraine’s stupendously wealthy ruling class. Whoever does not want to speak of Russian imperialism should be equally silent on Ukrainian fascism. You see, Lindsey German was right after all: it’s a messy situation that imperialist intervention will only make worse.
Now I hardly think state ‘sovereignty’ is a thing to be treated with holy veneration. There are already far too many countries in my opinion, and at least a few of them could stand to be invaded and annexed by neighbours. Still, this is the international order that we live in: the primary power which any state claims is the exclusive right to final political control over a bounded territory which it administers. And, oversimplifying, one of the primary of imperialist states is that it routinely abridges or cancels that right within its ‘sphere of influence’. If the United States sends troops into a country and starts overseeing votes on this and that, which does happen sometimes, we on the Left tend to call it imperialism and oppose it.
And the consequences of said ‘sovereignty’ being breached are usually not negligible. After all, if you have a country that is potentially divisible by two or more factors, then the fastest way to catalyse that division is for at least one imperialist state to intervene. So, Russian military intervention in Crimea would be, I think, a thing to take very seriously and even oppose. And if it turns out – and we may wish to look into the history here – that Russia has some sort of past habit of militarily and politically dominating Ukraine, then this should make it all the more urgent to oppose what it is doing.
However, there are some on the British Left expressing a degree of sympathy for Russian imperialism’s claims in this, despite in other respects not being fans of Putin or the ruling class he fronts. Forget the grim old tankie polemicists and their formulaic bombast. They’ll be saying the same things until doomsday – just fill in the proper nouns. Consider instead the indomitable Irish socialist Eamon McCann, who did once leaflet against Russian imperialism in Czechoslovakia, but who now argues in favour of siding with Russia on this issue. This piece has been shared as the top article on the Stop the War website, and I see that John Rees, of Counterfire and Stop the War, has lauded the piece as a great blast against the ‘Russophobes’. I doubt that this position commands the support of the majority of the British Left, but nor is it the view of a marginal grouping.
So, let’s consider the argument. The crux of it appears to be that the territorial wishes of the population in Crimea are being fulfilled. Whatever the problems with the referendum, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia has a democratic mandate. Setting aside everything that is ridiculous about a rigged ballot conducted under military occupation, McCann is probably right that the majority of Crimeans used the ballot to express their real preference. But since when was that the end of the matter? The majority of residents of the Malvinas, and Gibraltar, wish to remain British. The majority of Israelis probably favour conserving a Zionist territorial entity. Probably the majority of people in Northern Ireland still favour British rule. The majority of people in the southern United States once favoured secession, I hear. I am not claiming that pro-Russian attitudes among Crimeans represents the same type of phenomenon, but there is nothing sacred in a majority. Do we have no interest in the politics of nationalist belonging? And even if you decide that you can’t oppose the annexation of Crimea ‘because it’s what the people want’, I see no imperative reason to actually support it.
The wider argument, though, is that NATO has been encircling Russia for years, that it has been driving eastward into Ukraine, and that the Russian Federation’s actions – while no less self-interested than those of Washington – are essentially reactive. This, essentially, is the case that Stop the War’s political leadership has been making since the beginning. But, setting aside arguments over ‘who started it’, this is simply to describe an inter-imperialist rivalry. And, moreover, it is one in which the Kremlin has scored a number of significant successes in recent years – including, for example, winning the war in Georgia, and helping its man get back into power in Ukraine after the first ‘Orange Revolution’ went sour. Since when did we have to choose sides in such rivalries?
This brings me to my last point. What is all this for? I can well understand the need to explain (not exaggerate) the role of the US and EU, and to place Russia’s actions in a geopolitical context of inter-imperialist rivalry. But why is it so necessary, now, to soft-sell Russian imperialism, or even take its side? Recently, in a rather cantankerous piece, Andrew Murray took issue with my critique of Lindsey German’s appalling article about Ukraine. I don’t think it deserves an exhaustive retort, but in it he informed readers that the difference between the leaders of Stop the War and people such as myself is that the former are oriented toward action (while – I think this is strongly implied – the latter merely enjoy pontificating about outré sexual kinks and splitting the left). Now I too occasionally yearn for the simpler, hesternal days of 2003. But I have to wonder in what nostalgic fug one could fail to notice that the military action here is being undertaken by the Russian Federation, about which Stop the War proposes to do nothing, while the risk of US or EU military intervention is palpably negligible. So what ‘action’ are Stop the War actually proposing? To what practical end? You can’t hope to make the slogans and positions of a previous conjuncture relevant again by sheer rhetorical exertion!
That seems to me to be the problem. Of all the problems besetting Ukraine, the threat of a US-led intervention is at present not as close to the top of the pile as are a right-wing government with fascists in it, and Russian domination. That can change, but in the meantime it leaves a certain model of ‘internationalism’ predicated on exclusively opposing ‘our’ imperialists looking somewhat redundant.
Original Lenin’s Tomb