The following article is by Kai Ehlers, a German-based expert on the former Soviet Union. We publish it as a progressive contribution to the discussion on Ukraine and food for thought about the developments there. Translation by Workers World managing editor John Catalinotto.
June 25 — This one even Petro Poroshenko’s sponsors were unable to deny: His “peace plan,” as he presented it a week ago, was no offer to negotiate. Instead, it was a catalog of demands for submission. Those who are willing to surrender must agree to the demands. For those unwilling to capitulate, he promised expulsion, or if they want to continue to resist, he threatened liquidation.
Meanwhile, it looks as if even this awful document has helped to promote a certain willingness to talk on all sides. No one should overlook that even after the submission of the “peace plan” there will continue to be shots fired and up to the drafting of this article this will continue, and from both sides, and that the stream of civilian refugees who race uncontrolled over to the Russian Federation to the north and to the Crimea to the south, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, will continue.
All this is certainly true even after Vladimir Putin’s surprising invitation to the Russian Federation Council — which had given him “carte blanche” to intervene in Ukraine — to revoke this power.
Under the impact of this situation, some basic questions are raised. We do not answer them here exhaustively, but they should be shown shortly.
The most important question, which comes up again and again from different angles, is: Will Russia let itself be provoked to intervene militarily in the Ukrainian conflict? If not, as Putin’s current step seems to make clear, then why not?
Is Russia afraid of risking international isolation, perhaps even a possible large-scale military conflict with the Western powers? Answer: Certainly yes. Positively speaking, Russia has neither interest in destroying its economic and cultural relations with the countries of the West, even if it is now closer to China, nor does Russia wish a military confrontation. Russia is still busy trying to move out of the heap of ruins into which it had sunk with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the Russian concerns arise not so much from the fear of a third or a fourth — as some people call it — world war. Russia considers such a world war scenario — despite all the justified distrust of the impulse to hegemony of the West, of the United States and also the European Union — as improbable right now.
Currently, however, Russia’s concern is to avoid infection with the Ukrainian disease. This concern led Russia to embark on an overly hasty annexation of the Crimea. This concern causes Russia now to demonstratively stay out of the intra-Ukrainian conflict. The Ukrainian disease — well, this is not only about separatism and it is not only about Russian nationalism — which could, in the course of the fighting, in the wake of refugee flows in Russia, spread to Russia as a mirror image of Ukraine.
Russia’s concern above all is the dynamics of a social revolt that is in rebellion against the results of the 25 years of growth of the Ukrainian oligarchy, a rebellion that could also extend to the Russian territory beyond the Ukraine border. It’s true that Russia has left behind the stage of naked, private oligarchism that still prevails in Ukraine and now will consolidate again under Poroshenko, and has replaced it with a state-integrated oligarchism. But what still remains are the social differences between rich and poor, between the sparkling megacities and the precarious living conditions in the countryside and not less so in the regions, which exacerbate new social tensions that beg for resolution. A guerrilla war of resistance in the belly of Russia, a flood of refugees, the resulting burden on the Russian economy and society, could mean unrest for Russia in these circumstances.
But the question has a still deeper core: What are the objectives of the People’s Republic of Donbass/Lugansk and of the people who sympathize with them in other parts of Ukraine — even in Kiev and in the west of the country, even if this sympathy is now repressed by the nationalist forces currently prevailing there? This mass sentiment means, in a nutshell — even though there is not a clear consciousness among all “pro-Russian,” “separatist” or simply only anti-oligarchic forces — the following: the demand for self-determination against foreign rule and exploitation by the oligarchic and now even Western-backed capital, the demand for administrative structures and life decisions more like those made in a republic of Soviets. In short, it means an emergence — coming out of spontaneity — of a radical anti-oligarchic, anti-capitalist approach with strong historic ties to socialist traditions.
It was not by accident that recently tens of thousands of steelworkers marched in Donetsk with demands for nationalization of large businesses by the city. Such demonstrations are just the tip of the iceberg.
If Poroshenko, on behalf of a centralization of state power, can wage war against this movement, whose basic goals are self-determination, regional self-government and federalization of the country, then that is a clear counterinsurgency, supported by [the Kiev regime’s] Western supporters and financiers, in order to stamp out the anti-capitalist sparks which lie in these separatist impulses.
And if Vladimir Putin in turn denies support to the Donetsk and Lugansk separatists, it is because the new Russian ruling class does not want to allow these revolutionary sparks into Russia, no matter how weak they may be.
It is basically understood that behind the Ukrainian conflict is the demand for self-determination of the people as a fundamental human right on one side and the will of the ruling elites to subordinate this right to the profit interests of big business on the other. This confrontation, which is on the order of the day globally, will be fought now in an exemplary way in Ukraine. Of course the motives do not show up in ideological purity and not all participants are equally aware of them, but instead they are muddled, unclear, contradictory, even adventurous here and there when there is plundering and there are anti-social or asocial motives. But when did a revolution ever have a plan that all would accept in the same way? The ruling forces, on the other hand, are united on one thing, which is that these positions must not be allowed to rise. This attitude also holds for post-socialist Russia and its ruling stratum.
There is still much to discuss, especially to see how the conflict will now be conducted. Will the revolutionary impulse simply be cut down mercilessly? Will it through divisions be co-opted and neutralized? Or will it be reflected in real changes in conditions? Whichever way it goes — the impulses from this still open situation, the social reality of Russia, of Europe and the reality that generally characterizes today’s world order — in today’s Ukraine is the arena where the three crucial transformation lines of today’s world meet and overlap.
One is the process of overcoming post-Soviet trauma from which new social forms of association are being sought. Another is the catch-up nationalization*, superimposed on this social process. And third is the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world, which expresses itself in the conflict of integration with the EU on one hand and with the Eurasian Union on the other, between the Atlantic Alliance and the Asian Alliance. As part of Europe and Asia at the same time, Russia plays a crucial role.
Note: Poroshenko is the billionaire oligarch who was recently elected president of the pro-West regime in Kiev and who has directed the military onslaught on the Donbass region in southeast Ukraine.
*By “catch-up nationalization,” Ehlers means the attempt to accelerate technological development to equal that in the developed imperialist countries.