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What’s the End Game for Ukraine?

Who actually wants a war in Ukraine? Despite sending the troops in in the first place, I’m not convinced Putin does. The Russian and blockaded Ukrainian troops in Crimea don’t – as these remarkable scenes from earlier show. Russians and Ukrainians East and West don’t. The new government, excepting Svoboda (Freedom) and the fascist street militias, don’t. And neither does the State Department, Downing Street and Berlin. As no one wants war, and no one has an interest in one, you might naively ask how we ended up here and why negotiations with a view to a settlement aren’t taking place?

I want to back peddle a bit. The US, Britain and Russia are party to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Now, those are two words that have been bandied about a lot in recent days. What is ‘territorial integrity’? Is it just about lines on a map staying once and forever inviolable? It all depends, really. For example, before it occupied land taken from Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six Day War did Israel have “territorial integrity” when Jerusalem was split between two states and was only nine miles wide at its narrowest point? Does present day Germany and Poland, despite having different borders than was the case 80 years ago?

This implies there’s something more to the idea of this concept merely than an irregularly shaped and coloured blot of land in an atlas. In his discussion of what constitutes a state, the classical German sociologist Max Weber noted that a state was an organisation that exercised a legitimate monopoly of violence over a given territory. But this is too neat. Every nation recognises the Mexican government, for example. It is the legitimate, sovereign body for that country. Yet can it be described as having territorial integrity when whole Mexican states are blighted by a vicious drugs war that has killed thousands? Similarly, can a state have true territorial integrity when large numbers of its citizens – especially those from minority nationalities and ethnicities – might not recognise it as legitimate, as per the situation in Ukraine?

For all the Western powers’ waxing over territorial integrity, that was fatally undermined when the revolution took place. Revolutions are rarely respecters of constitutional niceties (take note, Vladimir), but in this case Ukraine’s uprising was essentially a national-popular uprising by the western Ukrainian majority. As this was and is opposed by large numbers in the east, evidenced by large-scale demonstrations and take overs of state buildings any talk of territorial integrity is a fiction. The presence of Russian troops in Crimea merely underline what was already accomplished.

What now, then? As the earthquake of revolution has shaken open nationalist fissures, a deep and lasting settlement has to begin with those nationalities, not cartographic scribbles. That other Vladimir, Vladimir Lenin has something to commend him here. In a different time and for very different reasons, he grappled with the problem of minority nationalities of Imperial Russia. Sometimes known as the prison house of nations, how was it possible to reconcile the masses of the subject nations to socialist politics when nationalism deeply conditioned political opposition to Tsarism?

Lenin’s argument was simple: grant subject nationalities the right to self-determination, up to and including separation. The logic was two-fold. By incorporating national rights into the Bolshevik’s programme, revolutionary socialists could appear to be the most consistent champions for small nations groaning under the weight of Great Russian chauvinism. This would give them the masses’ ear – after all, Lenin did note that nationalism was the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism. The second fiddle to the Bolshevik bow was the belief that granting nations their independence, if the so chose, sooner rather than later drew the sting out of nationalism. The reality of life under the local elites would be no better than life under the Tsar. But without nationalism for those elites to hide behind, the antagonisms proper to capitalism would come more to the fore and make the rapid development of socialist consciousness more likely.

I’m no revolutionary, and a retro replay of the Red October is not lurking around the corner. But when you start thinking through ‘what is to be done?’ Lenin’s position has something to recommend it. Flecked with the blood of pogrom and genocide Ukrainian nationalism might be, its frame is supported by an historic antipathy to Russian domination. Russian speakers, on the other hand, can certainly find no accommodation with a “national” government that embraces the record of Ukrainian nationalism under the Nazis, revokes their language rights, tears down monuments to the war’s Soviet fallen and talks about ‘one nation’ Ukraine. Enforcing “territorial integrity” under present circumstances is a recipe, at best, for persistent social divisions.

Could giving not just Crimea but the whole of East Ukraine the right to determine its future as per Lenin dampen down nationalism and with it the risk of war? Unfortunately, no. Ukraine is caught in a game between the great powers. In the first place separation along national lines is, in reality, the carving up of Ukraine into spheres of influence. Secondly, uncoupling east from west would strengthen the perception of Russian dominance. Separation would be a constant source of nationalist grievance. If anything, Ukrainian politics could get uglier.

Starting from great power machinations tramples on the rights and security of the people caught between them. But proceeding from national rights under these circumstances is a non-starter too. Perhaps, weirdly, Putin’s proposal of new elections might diffuse the situation somewhat. After all, the revolutionary government in Kiev are committed to them too. So hey, we have a point of agreement already! Or guarantees to national minorities that they will be protected – if they feel threatened – by replacing Russian with non-EU, non-US UN troops. Unfortunately, an equitable solution for all Ukrainians is highly unlikely because a permanent peace requires removing the US, EU and Russia from the equation. But let’s be realistic here. That’s not going to happen any time soon. Any agreement is going to be a shoddy compromise, a piece of paper off which hypocrisy drips like wet ink as the great power tussle continues in the background.

End game? I’m afraid it’s hardly started.

This article frst appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

One Comment

  1. David Ellis says:

    It is the task of revolutionaries, which there was no need for you to say you are not, to make sure that the `end game’ in Ukraine is determined by the people of Ukraine and their international allies and not by the imperialist powers East or West that menace it.

    Lenin it is certainly true was the man who introduced self-determination to the nationalities of the tyrannical Tsarist Empire but he also opposed criminal imperialist annexations such as the one Putin has carried out in Crimea.

    Of course the revolution has to weigh up its own strength. As it is certainly not capable of taking Crimea back by military force it must pragmatically decide, if only temporarily, to let it go whilst it consolidates by unifying the rest of the nation under a revolutionary democracy after all the Russian Ukranians were no more enamoured with the gangster capitalist Yanukovytch than they were with the gangster capitalist Tymoshenko. What the revolution must not do is allow the bunch of reprobate parliamentarians who serve only the gangsters but who have found themselves temporarily in `command’ with the abdication of Yanukovytch to invite the West, John McCain style, to have a war with Russia on its soil and at its expense. McCain’s sole and only concern is restoring the US as global hegemon and he would not care how many dead Ukranians it took.

    In any case, America has retreated from its neo-Conservative over-stretch and hubris due to having been bankrupted financially and bogged down militarily in Iraq and has long viewed Russia not simply as a rival but a partner in world policing i.e. in preventing revolutions. Obama represents a retreat by the elites from the Project for a New American Century which would establish it once and for all as the global hegemon after its overwhelming triumph in the Cold War. No longer is it trying to make the world in its own image. It is trying to manage the return to multi-polarity in a way that will at least let it remain the first amongst equals. We are witnessing the unraveling of US-sponsored globalization and the return of inter-imperialist rivalry and it will be a most unedifying spectacle. The Ukranian people can expect no help from the West who were only really eyeing it up as a potential location for cheap factory labour from which it can nick the doctors and nurses it needs to run its health services without having to pay to train them. It would not be overly concerned if Putin moved into Eastern Ukraine and got bogged down in an expensive war of attrition with the local population.

    Of course the neo-Stalinists using `anti-imperialism’ as a cover for anti-revolutionism welcome the return of `great nation’ power balancing which is why they are so sweet on Putin and why they characterise every revolution as a fascist/Islamist/CIA plot. Not for these people the slogan of `workes of all countries unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains and a whole world to gain’ but `freedom for the kleptocrats and oligarchs and the third world tyrannies’. Their deluded perspective, dictated by their hatred of revolution that matches that of the neo-Conservatives, is peace by power balancing between five or six imperialist elites conducted over the heads of the multi-billioned popular and working class masses.

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