Wednesday, October 19, 2022

A Ukrainian Left under construction on several fronts

The national conference of Sotsialny Rukh / Social Movement

Catherine Samary is a noted Marxist scholar, based in France, who has written extensively on Eastern Europe in such publications as Le Monde diplomatique. Among her books in English is Yugoslavia Dismembered. The article below is a timely introduction to the fledgling left now beginning to emerge in Ukraine, amidst the war. As Samary notes, this left will be sponsoring an on-line conference on Reconstruction and Justice in Post-War Ukraine on October 21-23. I have translated her report from Contretemps. – Richard Fidler

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A Ukrainian Left under construction on several fronts

By Catherine Samary

On September 17, the Ukrainian socialist NGO Sotsialny Rukh (SR - Social Movement),[1] held a national conference in Kyiv. Far from a simple factual and make-shift report, the aim here is to shed light on the specific profile of this young left, based on how it operates at the heart of Ukrainian society and at odds with the dominant contradictory interpretations of the “Euro-Maidan” (2013-2014) which divide the left and are exploited by Putin. In doing so, it will also be a matter of reprising the long-standing differences within the Marxist left on the role a sovereign Ukraine had in the construction and dismantling of the USSRalso mobilized by Putin to legitimize his “military operation.” In the current context of a war with global implications, we will see that the questions facing SR are far from being only Ukrainian.

I attended the Sotsialny Rukh (SR) conference with two mandates[2] but a single goal, consistent with the positions defended in the various networks in which I participate: to consolidate the internationalist links from below with this new Ukrainian left. Links forged in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014 and renewed in opposition to the Russian war of imperial aggression. Essential links, because they offer precious and fragile resistance to the dominant politics and ideologies that clash within the war and within the current imperialist world order.

This war, seen from Kyiv in mid-September, was both distant and very present: as we know and as we saw in the streets of the city, activities had resumed and seemed “normal” following the strategic withdrawal of Russian troops to the south and east of the country. And yet the war remains there in many ways — in addition to the fall in the standard of living (with an average salary of the order of 400 euros), millions of displaced persons or refugees, job losses, deaths, destruction and multiple forms of violence, especially against women. People were frequently reminded of the war by the emergency sirens that sounded whenever the Russian forces launched missiles although they were in the dark as to which strategic places of the country were being targeted. This happened several times in mid-September, when missiles targeted the hydro-electric power station and its dams in the Krivih Rih mining region, producing destructive floods. This proved to be the cause of the alarm that sounded in Kyiv at midday on September 16, forcing the closure of the bank where we wanted to exchange money. However, we were told that the foreign exchange services, forced to close at the street level, were still operating in the vast gallery set up in the basement, equipped with various shops and offices ensuring the continuity of activities. But in the period when the conference was taking place the alerts were clearly part of a certain “normalcy” in Kyiv: the conversations that had started on the terraces around us continued peacefully that day, like most other activities in the capital.

In the city, two other “traces” of the war were evident. For one thing, all the statues were bundled inside permanent shelters, sometimes covered with an image or a panel indicating the nature of the camouflaged work. For another, the anti-tank barriers erected at the start of the Russian offensive towards Kyiv in late February, were visible here and there, still ready for use but placed along the sides of strategic arteries. Given the way the war has progressed, the entry of tanks and troops into the capital now seems unlikely. Still, the country’s authorities plan to protect some ceremonies against possible missile fire (or remind some international personalities of the reality of the war) by holding them in the basement of the very deep and beautiful Metro of Kyiv (which resembles Moscow’s) — to the great displeasure of the population thereby hampered in its movements. Unfortunately, the very failures of Putin’s armies mean — especially after the setbacks suffered by Moscow in the Donbas and on the bridge that connects Crimea to Russia — real new threats of missile strikes on the major cities and strategic crossroads.

From one conference to anotherthe social anchoring of SR

But overall, in mid-September, the capital was still operating “normally” in the seventh month of the war, whereas last May the country’s political forces, trade unions, and other associations — as well as diplomats — still had their headquarters in Lviv, having deserted Kyiv following the late February invasion. So it was there that a first activists’ meeting had been co-organized on May 8 by Sotsialny Rukh (SR) and the left-wing European network ENSU.[3]

In Lviv, Ukrainians who were members or sympathizers of SR explained their wartime activities (political, trade-union, feminist, LGBT, ecological, etc.), in addition to their previous activities imposed by the urgent needs of solidarity from below in education and defense of the rights of everyone facing the destruction and social damage of the war. For their part, the ENSU delegates sought to publicize the work of these activists[4] and to organize with them actions combining defense of rights and self-organized humanitarian aid. The organization of trade-union convoys is the emblematic form of this type of action.[5]

The task was to help anchor a political, trade union, feminist left[6] within the overall resistance of Ukrainian society to the war when one of the major characteristics of the disagreements within the Western left is precisely to disregard this Ukrainian society — either by ignoring it (in favor of purely geo-strategic analyses ), or by reducing it to being nothing more than a victim and cannon fodder at the heart of imperialist agendas, or even identifying it solely with the reactionary currents of the dominant Right and extreme Right.

It was for this very reason — to publicize the existence of the Ukrainian left working within the popular resistance — that the conference held in Kyiv on September 17 was opened up to members of the Western left’s international solidarity networks in person or over Zoom. But SR had mainly internal aims in mind for the conference. Though unable to hold a “congress” (given wartime constraints on preparation and logistics, it was an opportunity for the organization to assess its strengths and weaknesses and the ways it has been dealing with challenges that are both general and specific to post-Soviet Ukrainian society — in particular, better equipping itself to collectively articulate and promote its political identity in a society where “the left” is synonymous with the Stalinist past and support for Putin’s war and regime.

In the event, Putin’s speeches on the eve of his “military operation” explicitly referred to two major issues dividing the left and which have shaped the political identity of SR: on the one hand, the characterization of the fall of the last so-called “pro-Russian” president of Ukraine in 2013-2014 – Viktor Yanukovych; on the other hand, the “raison d’être” of Ukraine independence.

I will now provide a brief overview of these two questions as a way to better understand Sotsialny Rukh’s profile. For this socialist NGO was created in 2015 on the basis of essential political demarcations that exist even today within the “post-Soviet” left in relation to the Maidan and the counter-Maidan.

The left and Maidan

The Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014 refers to what has been called the “Maidan revolution” — named after the main square in Kyiv which was then the site of demonstrations, confrontations and occupations of public places and buildings which accompanied the fall of President Yanukovych. As we are always reminded by those who defend the thesis of a “fascist coup d’état supported by the West,” he had been democratically re-elected in 2010 as president of Ukraine.[7] However, it was the record of the Yanukovych regime after his 2010 victory and the evolution since then of Ukrainian society[8] and Russia that are central to the differences that have since divided the Ukrainian and international left.

I cannot expand in this article[9] on the background of the 2013 crisis with its various phases, on a Ukrainian society hit hard by the ongoing domination of “its oligarchs and its ‘Troika’” (the IMF, EU and Russia). Let us just state briefly what is often omitted in the reminders: on the one hand, the election of Yanukovych in 2010 came after the very serious financial and banking crisis of 2008-2009 which produced a massive flight of Western capital from Ukraine (which had been attracted by the change of regime of the “Orange Revolution” of 2004), the drastic fall in its GDP and a big increase of its external debt. The country faced a double squeeze: from the IMF and its conditions relayed by the EU in its neo-liberal criteria for “partnership” (increase in energy rates paid by the population, cuts to public services, etc.); and from the relations of domination that Russia tried to impose by wielding the “weapon of gas” (volumes and prices weighing heavily in Ukraine, an essential transit point for Russian gas towards the EU). Yanukovych’s election in 2010 had expressed a kind of mandate in favor of military neutrality and balance in international relations. The oligarchs themselves, including Yanukovych and his family, were pulling out all the stops in the direction of both Russia and the West, in the search for profit. Yanukovych’s democratic election said nothing about his subsequent practices. Basically, it was his unpopularity (like that of his predecessors and successors!) that brought about his downfall — coupled with corruption, anti-social policies and repression.

But it is in this context that the Ukrainian and international left saw the crystallization (after the ordeal of the NATO war over Kosovo in 1999) of contradictory political and geo-strategic visions pertaining to what could be called “neo-campism”[10] — which were extended, recomposed or radicalized in the face of the invasion of Ukraine launched by Putin on February 24, 2022.

The 2013-2014 Ukrainian crisis has thus been described on the one hand as a “democratic revolution” of the “Euro-Maidan” emphasizing the protests against Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the association agreement with the European Union (EU). At the opposite extreme, a part of the radical left in Ukraine and in Europe, has also evoked “Euro-Maidan” but in order to reject it as a whole. In both cases, the effect was to reduce the demonstrations (whether rejoicing or regretting it) to a “pro-European” movement, and to assimilate possible hopes of openings towards the EU with “anti-Russian” positions – in both cases simplistic reductions, erasing the self-organized and popular dimensions of the mobilizations, their rejection of a corrupt oligarchic regime and its repression. In fact, the initial protests against the break in the “partnership” with the EU were weak, but violently repressed. And it was this crackdown that triggered the massive occupation of Maidan Square and infuriated protesters pushing for the overthrow of the president and against compromise measures. And it was these mass mobilizations that produced the fall of the regime through profound rejection of Yanukovych’s family oligarchy, extending deep into his own region (so much so that he had to flee to Russia).

We then saw a convergence of a part of the anti-Stalinist left and neo-Stalinist currents or allies of the deposed president’s Party of Regions in their appraisal of “Euro-Maidan” as a simple instrument of Western capitalist institutions. It is important to stress the extent to which this type of conspiratorial approach has influenced anti-imperialist politics in the post-Soviet era. Not, of course, without kernels of truth: it is well known that the CIA and its organizations deployed considerable resources to corrupt Russian and Polish trade unionists during the crucial phase of the 1980s, a method used in more recent times on bloggers and organizations active within the Arab revolutions. But should this lead to denying the authenticity of popular uprisings — and the possibility that they learn from experience? In Ukraine this was how popular perceptions of the parties evolved between 2004 and 2014 — when the so-called “democratic” parties denouncing corruption in the Orange Revolution in 2004 were discovered to be deeply corrupt themselves. And more generally, as everywhere, we have observed the rise of abstention and mistrust towards the institutional parties, amidst terrible ideological confusion.

The tragedy on the left was and remains, on the one hand, the accumulation of great divisions over how we analyze the Soviet past and, on the other, tremendous ignorance concerning the events and radical transformations of the countries claiming to be socialist.[11] This further reinforced the de facto convergence of a part of this conspiratorial left with the propaganda of the autocratic powers of Russia and other former post-Soviet republics which had a radical fear of aspirations to self-determination (as in Chechnya) or of the real dégagisme [“down with all of them”] of the mass anti-establishment movements, particularly in the 2000s. The conspiratorial interpretation legitimated their turn to repression (as in Stalin’s time): any opposition was attributed to infiltration by “foreign agents.” When this “foreigner” is, moreover, the “main enemy” (imperialist), the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” reinforces support for the Kremlin’s policy in opposition to the “color revolutions”[12] (considered as manipulated by the West) — including that of 2004 in Ukraine or Georgia in 2003, and again in Ukraine in 2014.

The Euro -Maidan of 2013-2014 was seen through this kind of lens, layering on top denunciation of the active role (real but exaggerated in such accounts) of the far-right militias in the popular mobilizations. The overrepresentation of these currents and their influence in the transitional government set up in Ukraine (before the new elections) after the fall and flight of Yanukovych served as “proof” of a “fascist anti-Russian coup d’état backed by the West” — which can be found in Putin’s speech preceding the “military operation” of February 24, 2022. A number of factors buttressed this narrative and heightened concern in the most Russian-speaking regions, in 2014 at least. [13] These included official glorification of the nationalist hero Stepan Bandera (who chose to ally with the Nazis against the Stalinist USSR); the questioning of the 2012 law on languages (adopted under the Yanukovych presidency and giving de facto joint official-language status to Russian and other regionally prevalent languages), and the affirmation of the Ukrainian language as sole official language. [14]

But this did not imply “separatism,[15] still less a war. Even in 2014, in the context of the anti-Maidan mobilizations and real mistrust of Kyiv, the population grouped within the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, dominated (without freedom of expression) by separatist forces, accounted for no more than 20-30% of the Donbas. As for the referendum organized in Crimea (which had an autonomous status within Ukraine) in the presence of the Russian armed forces, it certainly offered the “choice” of joining Russia or Ukraine — but the latter was presented as fascist (and “anti-Russian”). And, in truth, the fundamental issue for Putin was to reclaim Crimea in order to consolidate the military base of Sevastopol there (and the Black Sea fleet within it). By annexing Crimea, Russia violated the protocol it had signed with Ukraine in 1994 in Budapest (in the presence of the United States and Great Britain) according to which it promised to respect Ukraine’s borders in exchange for Russia’s recovery of all its nuclear weapons.[16]

At the same time, for those arguing that the country had experienced a “Western-orchestrated fascist-coup,” it meant that Ukrainian society had brought to power a Nazi government in the 2014 elections, backed by a consolidation of “pro-EU” parties. However, this “thesis” is contradicted by the recurrent difficulty all the institutional parties (particularly on the right and the far right) had in forming majorities or even entering parliament, as well as the successive scandals and crises affecting the Poroshenko presidency (2014-2019). One need search no further for proof of this than the surprise election of the Jewish, Russian-speaking actor, Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019, elected on a promise to defeat corruption and to negotiate with Putin for a peaceful settlement of the Donbas conflicts.

The currents that in 2015 formed Sotsialny Rukh took an independent stand in relation to these positions, which received powerful backing from state propaganda bodies. Independent of any power – in Kyiv or Moscow — the approach of SR, however marginal and fragile it may be, is precious for any critical view and internationalist resistance “from below.”

A New Left within the “Revolution of Dignity”

This left in construction had chosen in 2014 to join what it prefers to call a “revolution of dignity” with its aspirations for social justice and its dégagisme then impossible in Russia. Admittedly, this revolutionary dynamic had been unable to challenge an oligarchic system and the movement was traversed by reactionary ideologies. The current that had formed under the name “Left Opposition” fought these tendencies, seeking to turn popular egalitarian aspirations into progressive and anti-fascist responses, criticisms of the neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the EU — associated for example with the Ukrainian debt aggravated after the global and European financial crisis of 2008-2009.

Bringing together activists from various regions of Ukraine and from different political cultures (anarchists, Trotskyists and post-Stalinists especially), this left had also gauged the reasons for the popular mistrust expressed in the anti-Maidan of eastern and southern Ukraine toward the new power in Kyiv. Putin’s policy in 2014 — and since 2022 — has undoubtedly reinforced “anti-Russian “ sentiments but also the defense of a plural Ukraine.[17] This is also true on the left, among the anarchist currents identifying themselves with the fight of the anarchist leader Makhno, but also among the anti-Stalinist Marxists identified with Roman Rosdolsky, founder of the Communist Party in western Ukraine and close to the Trotskyist Left Opposition against Stalin.[18] Putin (in his February 2022 speech) denounced an independent Ukraine as a “creation” of Lenin. The centrality of self-determination of the peoples in the constitution of a free and egalitarian socialist union was fundamentally recognized by Lenin, in particular vis-a-vis the assertion of independent popular Ukraine — initially against the Bolsheviks.[19] But this obviously came into tension with several dimensions of the socialist revolutionary project – how to combine the sovereign rights of the peoples with redistributive planning from rich to less developed regions? What form of democracy to invent, combining individual and collective, social and national rights?[20]

But this entire past and its sources have been largely buried and need peace and democracy to be studied and shared. In the post-Maidan context, anarchists and more generally anti-fascists and anti-imperialists found themselves on both sides of the confrontations in which far-right “pro-Russian” or, on the contrary, virulently “anti-Russian” currents were working — also on both sides. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, a cloak of opaqueness shrouds political labels and concepts inherited from a bygone century.[21] If part of the left supports Putin as being “the enemy of my main enemy” (NATO dominated by the United States), Putin’s “anti-Western” course combines the questioning of all the revolutionary dimensions of the post-October 1917 USSR, support for Stalin’s great-power logic, contempt for any protected and egalitarian social status of workers, women, and LGBT people. And, as he explicitly stated in his speech prior to the February 2022 invasion,[22] an independent Ukraine is for him an artificial and aberrant creation of Lenin and his desire to create the USSR in 1922 on the basis of sovereign states. Global far-right currents can identify with an ethnic approach to the nation and the rejection of the “decadent” West — which should prompt some questioning among those on the left who see in Putin a support against Western imperialism.

The Maidan left that would establish Sotsialny Rukh was therefore led to identify itself in opposition to these various fronts — and therefore very marginal. It was fundamentally the expression of a new generation of activists (the average age is around 30) seeking to critically appropriate the revolutionary heritage of the 20th century while incorporating the contributions of the movements of emancipation (and “intersectional” logics crossing the oppressions of class, gender, ‘race’, sexuality, etc.) as well as environmental protection. Its need to build social roots in an “impure” society and movements and its intellectual references therefore place it at at odds with bookish and dogmatic approaches — without of course providing ready-made answers on subjects open to multiple controversies.

Its anticapitalist convictions, its concrete and critical analysis of Ukrainian society and its critical- Marxist knowledge of the Soviet past protected it from “campist” postures: it challenged as counter-productive (from the point of view of the fight against secessionist forces) the “anti-terrorist operations” of the government of Kyiv against the populations of the Donbas; but at the same time it denounced the role of Moscow and the Ukrainian bureaucratic-military apparatus in crisis behind the pseudo-referendum in Crimea against a “fascist Ukraine,” followed by the self-proclamation of the pseudo “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk (DPR and LPR). It sought to identify popular aspirations common to the whole of Ukraine and hoped for a ceasefire under the control of the OSCE or the UN, the dismantling of all paramilitary forces, and a rejection of any Russian interference as a precondition for updating the Ukrainian constitution on democratic bases and control of its choices and conflicts — against any logic of dividing spheres of influence between Moscow and Washington over and above Ukrainian society.[23]

I met this new and youthful left for the first time in Kyiv in 2013 and 2014, taking part in the debates of the conference it organized on “The left and Maidan.” I am indebted to it for my own articles on these events[24] for an “outlook” associated with its involvement against the current on several fronts at the heart of a “revolution of dignity” — an unfinished and impure revolution opening a phase of hybrid war that was radically transformed into outright war in 2022.

Putin’s Three Russian War Dolls

SR’s position on this war is consistent on the one hand with its analytical and activist approach in the 2013-2022 phase, but also with its commitment to a sovereign Ukraine as a component of a socialist struggle.

It was Putin’s aggression that shifted many questions and hesitations in the direction of the construction of a plural Ukraine — which will have to accept and overcome democratically (in a pluralistic way) its own internal conflicts and its conflicting readings of the dark pages of the past.[25]

Putin himself provided in his speech of February 22[26] the keys to interpreting his drive to war, which became clearer after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. They can be summed up in three nested Russian dolls.

The first is explicitly related to the “Great Russian” discourse of the 19th century on “one Russian people” in three dimensions (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine). Putin opposes it to Lenin’s decision to found the USSR on the basis of a questioning of the Russian Empire (and its relations of oppression), thus on an act of free union signed on an equal basis between republics (of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) recognized as sovereign.

Like the first, the second Russian doll has nothing to do with NATO and feeds on far-right ideologies about the “Russian world” of Eurasia (against the feminist, LGBT and atheist decadence of the rest of the world). Putin fits together various ideologies in his own way. He pragmatically bases them on two projects that accommodate the newly achieved sovereignties of (autocratic and anti-social) post-Soviet non-Russian republics: the Eurasian Economic Union which seeks to counter the projects of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership”; and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mini-NATO, which proved its effectiveness in the face of the social unrest destabilizing the autocratic government in Kazakhstan last year.[27]

Thus comforted in his “own space” of domination, Putin hoped to expand the dimensions of the third doll: his place in the Court of the great powers and facing NATO to negotiate from a position of strength the sharing of “spheres of influence.” The audacity of the Russian offensive (in defense of the imperial and imperialist interests of these projects) was catalyzed by the “brain dead” state of NATO after the painful retreat from Afghanistan and the overt disagreements between the EU, France and Germany on energy issues and relations with Russia. It is therefore not a threat from NATO, but on the contrary, its crisis which provided the basis for an offensive by Putin at the start of 2022 — reinforced by his assessment of the situation in Ukraine. He hoped to secure a boost in domestic popularity analogous to the one he achieved following the annexation of the Crimea.

Zelensky’s attempts to negotiate the fate of Donbas with Putin were met with contempt by the Russian autocrat. But they also confronted the Ukrainian president with threats from his extreme right. Turning then to Biden, he was rebuffed with an explicit refusal to defend Ukraine against threats of Russian intervention. All in all, the popularity of the Ukrainian president had fallen at the end of 2021. This confirmed Putin’s conviction of a fall-and-flight scenario in which Zelensky would be replaced by a Ukrainian Pétain within the framework of a nationwide display of force, especially directed at the capital — with the same type of narrative as for the referendum in Crimea: against a Nazified Ukraine, return to the Russian home.

Sotsialny Rukh and the war

Like the great mass of the Ukrainian population, and President Zelensky, the members of SR opted from the outset to resist the invasion, refusing to disappear in the straightjacket of the Russian doll. This position in no way suppressed their anticapitalist anarcho-communist profile or their critical independence from the Zelensky government. They consider that government to be “the lesser evil” on the Ukrainian political scene, endowed as it is with strong popular legitimacy as an expression of the defense of Ukrainian sovereignty — which implies, in wartime, that the critiques the left formulates must be (likewise) popular, concrete and not contradictory with the commitment to oppose the war.

The violence of the Russian invasion made it obvious even to the most pacifist that they had the right to defend themselves, to refuse to equate the weapons of the aggressor with those necessary for the people who decide to resist and defend their dignity, their rights, their life. Long-standing ties with the Russian Socialist Movement led the way to a common position issued on April 7, 2022[28] that confronted arguments from the Western left:

“We want to address a highly controversial demand, that of military aid to Ukraine. We understand the repercussions of militarization for the progressive left movement worldwide and the left’s resistance to NATO expansion or Western intervention. However, more context is needed to provide a fuller picture.

“First of all, NATO countries provided weapons to Russia despite the 2014 embargo (France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, and Spain). Thus, the discussion about whether weapons sent to the region end up in the right or wrong hands sounds a bit belated. They are already in bad hands, and EU countries would only be righting their earlier wrongs by providing weapons to Ukraine. Moreover, the alternative security guarantees that the Ukrainian government has proposed require the involvement of a number of countries, and probably can be achieved only with their involvement, too.

“Secondly, as numerous articles have emphasized, the Azov regiment is a problem. However, unlike in 2014, the far right is not playing a prominent role in today’s war, which has become a people’s war – and our comrades on the anti-authoritarian left of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus are fighting together against imperialism. As has become clear in the last few days, Russia is trying to compensate for its failure on the ground with air attacks. Air defense will not give Azov any additional power, but it will help Ukraine keep control of its territory and reduce civilian deaths even if negotiations fail.”

All requests for aid (military, material, financial) expressed by SR were accompanied by the rejection of any neo-liberal and anti-social conditions — a position which is also in the platform of the solidarity network ENSU. Witness the slogans and the concrete conduct of two SR campaigns (supported by ENSU), illustrating the reality of this front of social resistance within the fight against Russian aggression: on the one hand the denunciation of the causes and content of the Ukrainian debt (sparing the oligarchs and weighing on the country’s social budgets) accompanied by the demand for its cancellation, particularly in view of the disasters inflicted by the war. But also, the campaign launched more concretely at the trade-union level against the Zelensky government’s laws attacking the social protections inherited from the Soviet era. Always in the background was the question of what Ukraine was building (and rebuilding) in the wake of the war’s destruction. This is the theme of the conference to be held next October 21-23[29]: “[W]hat should the new Ukraine be like? Is there a chance to build a society based on solidarity, justice, and sustainable development? What is to be done with the ruins of the global security system? What is the role of global progressive movements in its restoration?”

These same questions — which challenge the international left without offering simple answers — were at the heart of the resolution adopted[30] by the September 17 conference in Kyiv, which begins as follows:

“The people of Ukraine have been facing hard challenges, yet they have proven their ability to fight for the right to decide on their own fate, and their determination to defend the country and to end the war as soon as possible. The authorities and representatives of market-fundamentalist ideology, together with big business, keep pushing through an economic model focused on benefiting a minority at the expense of the welfare of the absolute majority. In this model, workers are completely subservient to the will of their employers, while social and regulatory functions of the state are abolished for the sake of ‘business needs’, ‘competition’ and ‘free market’.”

Of the three texts put to the vote, the one adopted was the most developed presentation of SR’s identity. But there was little time for debate. The aim of this initial conference was to provide some theses and basic ideas for pursuing the tasks of training and collective development in the next period. Here are the “priorities” that the text puts forward for the reflections and actions of Sotsialnyi Rukh “in the struggle”:

1. Complete victory and security for Ukraine.

The Russian army must be defeated now, this is a prerequisite for the democratic and social development of both our country and the world.

Preserving independence and democracy will require, first and foremost, the development of its own defense capabilities. On this basis, a new international security system must be built to effectively counter any manifestations of imperialist aggression in the world. […]

2. Socially oriented reconstruction of Ukraine.

Neoliberal forces are trying to impose their vision of post-war Ukraine, a country belonging to big business, not to its people, and having neither social protection nor guarantees. Unlike that, we believe it is necessary to advocate for the reconstruction that emphasizes progressive development of the living standards of the majority of the population, and of our social infrastructure, provision of economic guarantees. Reconstruction must be ecological, social, decentralized and democratic, inclusive and feminist. […]

3. Social democratization.

Democratization of all levels of life, eliminating the influence of money and big business on politics, in-creasing the representation and importance of trade unions, national minorities and communities in power and their full involvement in decision-making. […]

4. Identity and inclusiveness.

The new Ukrainian identity, which is being born before our eyes, is multi-ethnic and multicultural, because most Ukrainians, who now defend our country, are at least bilingual. The multilingualism and diversity of Ukrainian national culture must be preserved and developed, focusing on the Ukrainian language becoming a universal means of exchange and production of knowledge in all areas of public life, culture, science, and technology. The entire cultural heritage of humankind should not only become available in Ukrainian, but Ukrainian should also be used to produce advanced works of literature and art, scientific and technical knowledge of a global level.

It is necessary to ensure the development of Ukrainian culture and language in all their diversity, socially oriented Ukrainianization, based on decent and competent public funding of education, publishing, popularization of science, festivals, cultural projects, cinema, etc. […]

5. International solidarity against imperialism and climate catastrophe.

Although Ukraine is the largest country on the European continent, it is thrown to the periphery of regional politics. Having no influence on decision-making, it is reduced to a marketplace for European states.

The growing contradictions between the centers of capital accumulation in the world capitalist system will not stop even after the complete destruction of Russian imperialist power. […]

The climate catastrophe unfolding before our eyes demands urgent action. Humanity must mobilize resources for the immediate and complete rejection of hydrocarbon fuel. […]

The aim of the conference was also to tackle the organizational tasks associated with this program.

The introductory report by the president of SR, the labor rights lawyer Vitalyi Dudin, emphasized that in six months SR had seen its membership double in size,[31] which did not take it out of marginality but posed new challenges for it: the movement had to find ways to function adapted to a greater number of members in their various fields of intervention — trade union, feminist, youth, socio-political research, Commons magazine, social and international media, etc. And, in doing so, it also had to face up to the responsibilities pertaining to its increased influence.

Indeed, SR came into its own as the left that opposes both the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the neo-liberal[32] and anti-democratic policies (for example, the “decommunization” law[33]) of the Zelensky government. This means that the question of political “representation” of workers is acutely posed on the Ukrainian political scene – as it often is elsewhere. Responding to this challenge, the task of building a “party” was raised in two ways. On the one hand, this objective is very much part of the political resolution adopted by the conference, which specifies in the introduction:

“A party is needed to implement an alternative vision of Ukraine — democratic, social, and socialist. This party would protect and unite the working class and the unprivileged, those who now lack political representation and suffer from constant abuse. Such a party must protect the absolute majority of the working population from the employers’ dictate.

“The ultimate goal of such a political force must be the emancipation of humankind and the radical democratization of economic, political, national, and social life.”

In addition, the question of the links between current activity in the trade unions (or social movements) and the party was addressed in a concrete way, after the introductory balance-sheet report. On this specific subject the SR president invited Vasilii Andreev, president of the building trades union, to address the conference. He reported on his experience in beginning to establish the necessary bases for legal recognition of a political party that he sees as an extension of his union. The SR organization has decided to assess more closely, in dialogue with Vasilii Andreev, the programmatic proximity between the two organizations and, on the practical level, to test in the various branches and regions the possibilities for functioning in common.

To follow up on the various tasks, the conference elected a new collective “Council” (or Rada) of seven members — including three linked to trade-union work (including SR president Vitalyi Dudin), three women heavily involved in feminist networks, and one of the organizers of the young “Direct Action” networks in student circles. In all sectors, the conference was a step toward more effective work together in a relationship “of trust,” as emphasized by Vitalyi Dudin. These various types of activities include those begun before the war, associated with the defense of rights (including popular education), but also the various forms of broad self-organization responding in solidarity to the damage and disasters of war — its destruction of jobs and therefore loss of resources, and often of roofs, but also the inadequacy of collective services and the many forms of violence against women.[34]

Dudin’s report itself underscored two tasks that SR will strive to take on. That of “translating” the socialist convictions expressed in the resolution into concrete formulations that are comprehensible, mobilizing, and pointing toward breaks with the existing order (a “transitional” logic, perhaps?). And that of building the confidence needed to function as a “collective intellectual” implementing this type of project. These are tasks challenging all left organizations globally, becoming more complex in their execution as the organization expands. SR is an organization which, while still small in size, is already very diverse (fortunately!) in terms of the political cultures of its members — predominantly ecolo-anarcho-communist, feminist, LGBT, anti-fascist. These are assets.

But what does it mean, as the texts of SR assert, to be in favor of a “democratic socialism”? The question was raised by one of the comrades present at the conference. And on digging deeper, it turned out that it was the content of the notion of “democratic” that was most problematic for him. Criticism of the Stalinist past has in no way resolved the questions that are asked not only by the Ukrainian left but by all the anticapitalist currents: how to organize the new society (what forms of democracy, and what institutions behind the socialization of planning, the market, ownership?). Moreover, how to move from the struggle in and against the existing system to the construction of other decision-making powers and other eco-communist rights and priorities. And at what levels should we be organized territorially to be credible and efficient? What to expect from the EU? The Ukrainian population has suffered the effects of a radical “peripheralization” in the capitalist order and has come up against the neo-liberal criteria of the EU in the “partnership” relationship established since 2009. The great mass of the population aspires to have the status, rights – and, it hopes, the protections (in every way) — of full membership. This is a debate that SR and its membership have not had in full — but it has begun, and it is a debate that (also) divides the European left. It fits into the global issues raised by the war. The resolution adopted by SR stresses:

“The left in Europe and around the world turned out to be helpless and disoriented when the Russian aggression in Ukraine occurred. Unless the international socialist movement realizes mistakes it has made and builds a new, truly internationalist cooperation and coordination, we simply have no chance of preventing the growth of inter-imperialist struggle in the future.”

The only perspective that opens up margins for progressive resistance against all forms of imperialism is that popular Ukrainian resistance (which makes effective use of the weapons received) will lead to the downfall of Putin. It can do so — by arousing in particular in the Russian Federation and in the former Soviet republics an identification of non-Russian nations with the Ukrainian decolonial cause and more generally a mass refusal to die for a dirty war. It is up to the internationalist left to raise awareness of the similarity of the decolonial challenges facing the Ukrainian and Russian left to those of the peoples of the “global South,” as the Indian feminist and communist Kavita Krishnan points out.[35] The decolonization of the Russian Federation is the key to making credible the agenda for the dissolution of NATO and the CSTO and the debates (initiated by Taras Bilous[36] within Sotsialny Rukh) on the need for another global “security” architecture, rejecting any logic of “blocs” and shared “spheres of influence.”

[1] See their presentation “Who we are?”:

[2] I was there, on the one hand, with three other members of the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine, ENSU ( ) and as a member of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA). See the collective report of the four ENSU members who were in Kyiv, But I was also mandated to attend by the leadership of the Fourth International to speak on its behalf ; see my intervention

[3] See the reports and videos on the ENSU website,

[4] See the short interview videos recorded by Olivier Besancenot, delegate (with me) in Lviv for the NPA, allowing “a week of solidarity” (and usable in the networks):

[5] See for example on the Solidaires website the inter-union actions for Ukraine: detape/ and, again, internationally this summer toward the Krivih mining site:

[6] Read the Manifesto of Ukrainian feminists “The right to resist,”

[7] It is quite true that Yanukovych’s election in 2010 against the so-called pro-Western candidate Yulia Tymoshenko went well — as all international observers testified, unlike the fraud denounced during the 2004 elections: Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, said to be “pro-Russian,” was then for the first time a candidate for the presidency. The “orange revolution” mobilized against corruption and these frauds then forced him to organize a second round, which he lost to the “pro-Western” candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

[8] On the evolution of Ukrainian society between 2013 and 2022 read Daria Saburova, “Questions on Ukraine,” See also Denys Gorbach’s chapter on the political economy of Ukraine in this phase, in (collective book) L’invasion de l’Ukraine — Histoires, conflicts et resistances populaires, La Dispute, 2022.

[9] Read my analysis of “La société ukrainienne entre ses oligarques et sa Troïka” written at the turn of 2014 for the online journal of the Scientific Council of Attac, Les Possibles,

[10] On the context of the so-called “bi-polar world” at the origin of this notion, its evolution and that of the “anti-imperialists,” particularly in relation to the conflicts in the Middle East, read Gilbert Achcar, On a critique of “campist” approaches to the Kosovo crisis (1999) and that of Ukraine in 2014, see C. Samary, “What internationalism in the context of the Ukrainian crisis? Eyes wide open against one-eyed ‘campisms’,”

[11] Read in particular,

[12] The term evokes the symbolic color chosen by movements opposing corrupt regimes.

[13] Read the interview with the young historical researcher and editor of the journal Commons, Taras Bilous, a member of SR from the Donbas who explains his activity in the Donbas and the reality of the “people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DPR and LPR),” after Maidan,

[14] On the evolution of language policy and laws on languages see

[15] Let us recall what the current war, which is targeting in particular the more Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, underscores: the fact of speaking Russian does not imply a “separatist” political position towards Putin’s Russia. See the results of the referendums on the independence of Ukraine in 1991: more than 80% “for” in the Donbas — and even in Crimea about 55% (the latter obtained a statute of autonomy within the framework of the Ukrainian constitution — as well as, within it, the port of Sevastopol).

[16] A similar protocol was signed with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Yeltsin’s Russia (thanks to which the USSR had been dismantled), far from being in conflict with NATO, was supported by the United States, which preferred to see all the nuclear weapons of the former USSR under his control.

[17] See, in addition to the cited text by Taras Bilous (note 14), the article by Milan Milakovsky in The Guardian of October 7, 2022: “How Putin lost hearts and minds in eastern Ukraine,” commentisfree/2022/oct/07/vladimir-putin-eastern-ukraine-referendums-russian-moscow.

[18] His critique, Friedrich Engels and the ‘peoples without histories’. The national question in the 1848 revolution, was published in French by Editions Syllepse in 2018 with a preface and introduction of the perspective of his fight and his Marxist writings of great wealth. On the history of Ukraine and the positions of the Bolsheviks, in particular of Lenin and Trotsky in criticism of Stalin, read in particular Zbigniew MarcinKowalewski , “Pour l’indépendance de l’Ukraine soviétique,” Cahiers du socialisme, 2022. []

[19] This point is developed from different angles in two chapters of the collective book, L’invasion de l’Ukraine, La Dispute (2022): the one by Hanna Perekhoda on the Donbas (of which she herself is a native) and mine centered on the issue of self-determination, returning in particular to the divisions traversing the Marxists and the Bolsheviks in particular on the “national questions” at the heart of the past and future socialist project.

[20] These questions were restated — without being resolved — in the Yugoslav experience. I discuss these tensions and issues in the collection Du communisme decolonial à la démocratie des communs, Ed. du Cygne, 2018.

[21] To get a sense of this context, read this enlightening text on ESSF (October 4, 2022) of anarcho-syndicalist activists from eastern Ukraine highlighting the mostly Russian sources of information from western left currents, mostly ignoring the Ukrainian left:

[22] Read on this subject in particular Denis Paillard, “Héritage impérial: Poutine et le nationalisme grand russe,” 2022, online text published on his Mediapart blog, then on the Europe solidaire sans frontières website:

[23] Read Taras Bilous, a member of SR previously cited, “Moscow and Washington should not determine Ukraine’s future,” January 2022,

[24] See on my website in the section “Dés(ordre) mondial” 2013 et seq., real-time analyses Cf. (February 2014); in particular, reproduced on the Ukrainian site of the Left Opposition, in March 2014, faced with the “hybrid” war in Donbas, “Ukraine : une guerre innommable et des questions sans réponses claires,” http://www.europe- .

[25] On this level too, one should read the critical view of another young historian, a member of SR, Vladislav Starodubtsev, “Remembrance done wrong. Patriotic Narratives, Left-wing history and constructed imaginations of Ukrainian national remembrance policies,”

[26] Vladimir Putin, Address by the President of the Russian Federation, [official website of the President of Russia], published February 21 , 2022,

[27] See David Teurtrie, “Où en est l’Union économique eurasiatique ? Entre instabilité sociopolitique et ambitions géoéconomiques,” in Thierry de Montbrial (dir.), Ramses 2022. Au-delà du Covid, Dunod, “Hors collection,” Paris, 2021, p. 160-165 et “L’OTSC: une réaffirmation du leadership russe en Eurasie post-soviétique?,” Revue Défense Nationale, 2017, vol. 7, no 802, p. 153-160.

[28] “Against Russian Imperialism,”

[29] Watch and listen to the three-day conference on this theme organized in English and Ukrainian by the journal Commons in which members of SR and ENSU will be participating.


[31] About 40 active members (of an estimated total of about 80) were present at the conference and took part in the votes.

[32] See Vitaliy Dudin, “Ukraine’s recovery must benefit the people. The West has other ideas,”

[33] See SR’s statement against the (supposedly temporary) ban of several parties claiming to be leftist or socialist accused of supporting Putin, -parts /

[34] See the various campaigns on the ENSU site, including those mentioned at the trade union level; but also, in addition to the support for the Ukrainian Feminist Manifesto previously mentioned (note 6), the European petition supporting the reproductive rights of Ukrainian women in time of war, in particular refugees in Poland and the EU, -rights/ensu-abortion-petition-all-languages.

[35] Listen to or read her interview on this subject:

[36] Taras Bilous, “The War in Ukraine, International Security, and the Left,”, in response to Susan Watkins, “An Avoidable War?,” New Left Review, April 2022,

Thursday, October 6, 2022

As Putin escalates his war, Ukrainians mount impressive collective resistance

Russia’s war on Ukraine is escalating dangerously. Putin has responded to the recent humiliating defeats of Russian invasion forces by decreeing a “partial mobilization” of at least 300,000 troops and illegally annexing four occupied provinces of Ukraine. In Russia the mobilization is immensely unpopular; many people are unwilling to participate in what they increasingly recognize as an imperialist war of conquest. Putin threatens to use nuclear weapons to thwart the Ukrainian resistance. The United States says it will retaliate. We are now closer to a global nuclear war than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis of 1962.

In the following article, Daria Saburova, a Ukrainian socialist and feminist, explains how the Russian war drive developed. She offers a unique perspective on the impressive collective resistance mounted by Ukrainian civil society, and addresses many of the issues that have been debated on the left both in Ukraine and abroad in relation to the war.

Daria Saburova was born in Kyiv where she lived for 20 years before moving to France where she is currently a doctoral student in philosophy. She remains in close touch with family and friends in Ukraine. In an article she published in March, she addresses what she describes as a major “dilemma” of the Western left:

“I have been really struck by the persistent inability of a good part of our comrades in France and elsewhere to overcome a vision of the world where the power ultimately responsible for all wars is the United States and NATO. This is why many analyses of the situation in Ukraine are surprisingly about something else: it is a question of going back to the ‘root causes’ that are quite distant, historically and geographically. Such a geopolitical approach partly masks the lack of knowledge of the political and social processes of the post-Soviet space, fuelling in particular the idea that, basically, all oligarchic governments in this part of the world are equal, regardless of the degree of repression they inflict on their own population and the populations of neighbouring states. It is in the name of this simplistic view of complex realities that Ukrainians are practically invited to capitulate, either directly or — more indirectly and under the guise of revolutionary antimilitarism — by opposing any military aid to Ukraine provided by NATO member countries. While addressing the Ukrainians with an internationalist salute, it is thus suggested that they should accept the military occupation and a government imposed by Putin. […]

“We must certainly not turn a blind eye to the bleak prospects for all possible outcomes of this war. As a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and Marxist, I have watched with concern the political developments in my country since 2014, from the removal of Lenin’s statues and decommunization laws to the proliferation of far-right paramilitary groups and the war in Donbass. Putin’s war in Ukraine is likely to sharply accentuate these tendencies and anti-Russian sentiments in all spheres of life. All wars, all movements of what has been called ‘national liberation’ carry such dangers. Preventing the advance of a foolish nationalism that seeks to erase multilingualism and the Soviet legacy in Ukraine, making difficult the development in that country of anti-capitalist, feminist and ecological movements, will be the future task of the Ukrainian and international left. But at this moment, we have to show total solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance against the invader. Solidarity with Ukraine is at the same time solidarity with the voices in Russia that are rising louder and louder against the war and against the government. Along with the repression, political and social fractures in Russia will intensify. The Russian government wants to hide from its population the images of the bombings of the civilian districts of Kiev, Kharkiv and Mariupol, but how long will it be able to do so? Whatever the outcome of this war, I am increasingly convinced that Ukraine will be the downfall of Putin.”

Saburova’s article was the basis for a workshop on Ukraine that she presented at the “summer university” of France’s Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA). My translation of the French text, published as “Questions sur l’Ukraine.” – Richard Fidler


Questions about Ukraine

by Daria Saburova

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. — to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! […] Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up” (1916)

I/ From the annexation of Crimea to the war in the Donbass

a) Civil war or war of aggression?

On February 27, 2014, a few days after the fall of Yanukovych following the Maïdan revolution, a group of armed people took control of the Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers in Crimea. The next day, the “little green men”, soldiers dressed in unmarked military uniforms, invaded the airports of Sevastopol and Simferopol, as well as other strategic places on the peninsula. More than two-thirds of Ukrainian troops stationed in Crimea and 99% of security service personnel moved to Russia (Stepaniuk, 2022: 90). Barely three weeks later, following a hastily organized referendum, Putin signed Crimea into the Russian Federation (d’Anieri, 2019: 1).

In April of the same year, in eastern Ukraine, separatist forces took control of administrative buildings in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv, calling for the organization of referendums on the independence of these regions. While the Ukrainian authorities quickly regained control of Kharkiv, they were unable to recover the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, and the counter-revolution risked dying out in other cities in the South-East. The Ukrainian government responded to the creation of the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk (which proclaimed their independence in May) by launching an “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) with fighting that would last until February 2015, the date of the signing of the Minsk II agreement. Although this agreement helped to reduce significantly the intensity of the fighting, it met as we know with the same failure as the first agreement of September 2014. By the time of the February 2022 invasion, the war had already resulted in more than 13,000 deaths and close to 2 million refugees (Malnyk, 2022).

The questions most often asked in connection with these events concern the nature of the conflict in the Donbass and the inevitability of its extension: was it a civil war, a war of Russian aggression against Ukraine or a war that one could immediately characterize as inter-imperialist? Could the continuation of the war in Donbass and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine have been avoided if the Minsk agreements had been effectively implemented?

If one seeks a purely empirical answer to the first question, there is no doubt that the war in the Donbass can be called a civil war, insofar as a part of the local inhabitants actually participated initially in the Anti-Maïdan demonstrations, and then in the pro-Russian separatist movement. The fact that the warring parties may have received external aid does not change the validity of this qualification: civil wars generally involve, in one way or another, external intervention. However, in the political field, this question quickly goes beyond the dimension of a simple empirical or theoretical question and becomes a partisan question, because it involves respective responsibilities, which in turn determine the political positions taken with regard to the conflict in the Donbass (Marples, 2022: 2; Goujon, 2021: 79). Putin has accordingly always denied Russia’s military involvement in the Donbass. The term “civil war” to describe what is happening there is thus part of the ideological arsenal of Russian propaganda. On the side of Ukraine and the European institutions, which nevertheless recognize the participation of local populations in the separatist movement, the term “civil war” is on the contrary banned. The war in Donbass has been characterized since 2014 (and officially since 2018) as a “war of Russian aggression” to underline not only Russia’s military involvement in a civil war already underway, but also and above all its decisive role in triggering it (Cherviatsova, 2022: 29). It is not denied that the local populations have joined the ranks of the separatists, but they are viewed as mere puppets of the Kremlin.

b) The separatist movement: what involvement of Russia?

In reality, it must be recognized that both dimensions are present, and the question must rather focus on the relationship between the two dimensions of the conflict. It is certain that the separatist movement would not have succeeded in establishing itself without a minimum of support from the local populations, or rather without the lack of support for the post-Maïdan regime and for the operation to liberate Donbass launched by the Ukrainian government in the spring of 2014. There are no viable opinion polls regarding territories under separatist control. But it should be remembered that in these territories, the Party of Regions and its leader Yanukovych, himself from Donetsk, won more than 80% of the vote in the second round of the 2010 presidential elections. A major part of the population, mainly Russian speaking, sees itself as “ethnic Russian”, shares nostalgic feelings about the USSR — both its positive socio-economic aspects and its socially and politically conservative aspects — and the entire region depends economically on its links with Russia (Marples, 2022: 3-4).

The events of 2014 can thus be understood as the culmination of a process where, during the previous decade, the real identity and economic divisions were invested and politically instrumentalized by different fractions of Ukrainian capital. The accentuation of these cleavages allowed each faction to distinguish itself in the electoral game, relegating to the background the socio-economic and political concerns common to the working classes of all the regions of Ukraine. It wasn’t always like this. The ethnic-cultural and linguistic theme of the “two Ukraines” only became politically central from the 2004 elections between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko. At the same time, we witnessed the marginalization of the Communist Party as an independent player in political life and its entry into a coalition with the Party of Regions. From 2004, Ukrainian political life would therefore be structured for a long time according to the division between, on the one hand, the national-democratic, liberal, and pro-European camp, claiming a West-Ukrainian identity and, on the other, the paternalistic, Russian-speaking, pro-Russian camp, claiming a southeast-Ukrainian identity. This divide also takes the form of a struggle around historical memory: some claim adherence to the national liberation movement with the figure of Bandera as a national hero, while others highlight the “Great Patriotic War” against fascism. Each side develops a diabolical image of the other: the West Ukrainians are stigmatized as heirs of the Nazi collaborators, the East Ukrainians as nostalgic heirs of the Stalinism responsible for the death of several million Ukrainians during the 1930s famine. This local dynamic is accompanied geopolitically by a rise in tensions between Russia and the West that has come to be crystallized particularly around the Ukrainian question (Gorbach, 2022).

According to the polls, the majority of the population of Donbass was against the signing of the free trade agreement with the European Union (55.2% for “no”), with the preference for the Customs Union (64. 5% for “yes”). According to a poll conducted in December 2013, only 13% of respondents said they supported EuroMaïdan, while 81% said they did not support it (Risch, 2022: 10-11). The majority attitude of the inhabitants of the Donbass towards the Maïdan ranged from indifference to hostility, reinforced by the class contempt which the pro-Maïdan could show towards them.

But that does not mean that there was from the outset a vast popular mobilization for the independence of the region or for its attachment to Russia, and that the criticism of the Maïdan was inevitably going to evolve into a civil war. Separatist and all-Russian organizations (“Republic of Donetsk”, “Novorossiya Fan Club”, “Russian Bloc”, etc.) were very marginal before 2014. Until February 2014, their demonstrations condemning the fascist coup, calling for the defense of the Russian Orthodox Church and Donbass belonging to Russia attracted only a few dozen people (Risch, 2022: 17). The spread of the separatist theme was instead the work of local elites and Russian-backed minority separatist forces who were able to exploit diffuse popular discontent with the new government. Interviews with the citizens of the separatist regions revealed above all a feeling of helplessness, the impression of being hostages of geopolitical games that are beyond their control, resentment towards all the belligerent parties and a deep desire for a return to peace (Gritsiuk, 2020). The contrast is striking when this low level of popular mobilization is compared with the current Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, with 98% of respondents to the latest polls giving strong support to the Ukrainian army. [ 1 ] .

It can therefore be said that without the involvement of Russia, the mistrust of the Donbass populations regarding the Maïdan revolution would surely not have been transformed into a civil war. First, there is the immense role that Russian propaganda played in discrediting the Maïdan as a US-orchestrated fascist coup. The Russian media or those controlled by pro-Russian local elites, the main sources of information for the local populations, disseminated all kinds of false information and rumours concerning the fate reserved by the new power in Kyiv for the Russian-speaking populations: that the Russian-speakers were going to be dismissed from positions in public institutions and companies, even expelled from the country; that the “Banderites” were going to come to the Donbass to sow fear and violence; that the Donbass mines were going to be definitively closed and used by European countries to store their radioactive waste; that the Ukrainian market was going to be flooded with genetically modified food products; that the United States was going to use Ukraine as a base to wage war against Russia. In the political crisis of the winter-spring of 2013-2014, Russia was thus increasingly perceived as a guarantor of peace and stability (Risch, 2022: 22-23).

Then there was the direct involvement of Kremlin advisers like Surkov and Glazyrev, as well as Russian special forces in the Anti-Maïdan protests and the separatist uprising under the banner of the “Russian Spring”. This was first led by Russian citizen Girkin-Strelkov, later replaced by Donetsk national Aleksandr Zakharchenko in order to give more legitimacy to the leadership of the new republics (Marples, 2022: 3).

Finally, from June 2014, Russia was involved in the war not only by sending heavy weapons to local separatists but directly with the participation of Russian army units in the fighting in Ilovaïsk in August 2014, in Debaltseve in February 2015, etc. (Goujon, 2021: 80). This military intervention occurred when the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions were about to inflict a decisive defeat on the separatist forces. It was the entry of the Russian army into the war that inverted the balance of power, pushing Ukrainian President Poroshenko to begin the process of negotiations and to sign the ceasefire known as the Minsk agreements.

c) The Minsk agreements: an avoidable war?

It must therefore be remembered that the Minsk agreements intervened in a very unfavourable military situation for the Ukrainian government, at a time when Russia was reversing the situation on the battlefield and threatening to continue the territorial conquests in the East and South of the Ukraine with the challenge of creating a land corridor from Crimea to Transnistria. There was already at that time a very real fear of large-scale invasion of the country. Ukraine was therefore forced to accept the terms of the negotiations. For Russia, it was a matter of finding a way to maintain a decisive influence on Ukraine’s internal and external policy, because with the loss of Crimea and part of Donbass, Ukraine also lost its electorate most oriented towards the pro-Russian vote. To ensure control of its former semi-colony, Russia therefore was more interested in the reintegration by Ukraine of the separatist territories provided the country was federalized — no strategic decision could then be taken without the agreement of all the members of the federation — than it was in recognizing their independence or attaching them definitively to Russia, which the separatist leaders themselves nevertheless wanted.

The negotiations occurred in two instalments: in September 2014 (Minsk I), then in February 2015 (Minsk II). The Minsk agreements included several points with a security component (ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, exchange of prisoners, restoration of the Ukrainian border) and a political component (amnesty for those involved in the separatist movement, constitutional reform of Ukraine laying down a principle of decentralization of power, recognition of a special status for the regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, organization of local elections). Nothing in these agreements has been fully implemented. Their failure can be explained by the deadlock in negotiations on the political side. Ukraine demanded that local elections be organized according to Ukrainian law and under the supervision of independent international institutions after the dismantling and prior withdrawal of all illegal military formations (separatist forces, mercenaries and regular Russian army) and the takeover by Ukraine of its border control. Putin, on the other hand, wanted the process to begin with local elections and constitutional reform. The other point of disagreement concerned the amnesty for the leaders of the separatist republics and the recognition of special status for the Donbass. This status implied that the regions could carry out an autonomous economic, social, linguistic and cultural policy, appoint prosecutors and have independent judicial bodies, as well as forming their own “people’s militias”. The text also suggested that the central government should contribute to strengthening cooperation between the Lugansk and Donetsk regions and Russia. Concretely, the text of the agreements aimed to legalize the status quo: the current separatist leaders would become the official representatives of Ukrainian power in the occupied territories, their military formations would be maintained and would officially take control of the Russian-Ukrainian border.

As a result, the Minsk agreements were unacceptable to Ukrainian public opinion. They ensured at most a temporary freezing of the conflict. It was clear that for Russia, these agreements were about acquiring a permanent instrument of interference in Ukrainian affairs, preventing the country from conducting an independent foreign and domestic policy. Moreover, these agreements did not provide any solution to the Crimea issue (Cherviatsova, 2022). The application of these agreements by the Ukrainian government would surely have led to a new political crisis, a new Maïdan led this time by the most reactionary fringe of Ukrainian civil society. From the point of view of realpolitik, one could always say that the Ukrainian government could have avoided the war by making concessions to Russia. But such an assertion amounts to blaming the victim and accepting that the imperialist powers can dictate to the people the conditions of their submission under military pressure.

2/ Political and social life in Ukraine between 2014 and 2022

a) Electoral alternance and neoliberal reforms

In this context of war and stalemate in negotiations, Petro Poroshenko’s mandate was marked by a creeping rightwing trend in domestic politics and the strengthening of militarist and nationalist discourse which responded to the demands of the most radical fringe of post-Maïdan civil society. Poroshenko demonstrated a willingness to wage the war until the recovery of Crimea, to continue increasing the military budgets and to promote Ukraine’s membership in NATO. In April 2019, however, it was Volodymyr Zelensky who won the second round of the presidential elections with more than 73% of the vote, and his Servant of the People party, named after the eponymous television series to which Zelensky owes his popularity, won an absolute majority in Parliament with 43% of the votes. Zelensky’s election campaign was, classically, based on anti-oligarch and anti-corruption slogans, and his victory was in part due to the fact that he presented himself as an “anti-system” candidate against the incumbent president who, once again, took advantage of his mandate to considerably increase his fortune. But Zelensky also came forward with the promise to end the conflict in the Donbass. Ukrainians therefore voted clearly to reject the conservative-nationalist program of Poroshenko, who for his campaign had adopted the slogan “Army, Language, Faith”.

On the Donbass question, Zelensky was finally forced to maintain the course of his predecessor, caught between two fires: on the one hand, the Kremlin showed no will to make concessions in the negotiations; on the other hand, the national-liberal part of Ukrainian civil society refused to accept a scenario of capitulation to Russia and the separatists. He began his mandate with an exchange of prisoners of war and the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from certain towns bordering the separatist republics. But the resumption of negotiations with Russia, on the occasion of the meeting between Zelensky and Putin in Paris in December 2019, came up against demonstrations in Kyiv supported by the nationalist opposition parties, the associations of veterans and the far-right groups. In this new round of negotiations, Zelensky failed to obtain an agreement that the local elections in the Donbass be preceded by a prior dismantling of the separatist militias, a withdrawal of Russian troops and a return under Ukrainian control of its eastern border with Russia. Negotiations were again deadlocked, and the Kremlin decided to escalate, invading Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Internally, Zelensky also continues the neoliberal policies of his predecessor, in accordance with the demands of the International Monetary Fund. With the decisive change in geopolitical orientation, the structure of the Ukrainian economy is gradually changing, the share of industrial production traditionally exported to Russia decreasing while the share of raw materials and agricultural production exported to Europe is increasing ( Kravchuk, 2016; Kravchuk, 2018). But the Ukrainian economy is above all over-indebted and depends massively on IMF loans granted in exchange for austerity measures.

In March 2015, the IMF granted Ukraine a loan of 16 billion euros against the backdrop of an economic crisis in which the country had been plunged since the events of Maïdan and the start of the conflict in the Donbass. The conditions of this loan as usual included a series of structural reforms to reduce public budgets (Dutchak et al., 2018). Among these reforms, there was the increase for the population of the price of natural gas, the reduction of the number of positions in the public administration, the increase in the retirement age (Chernina Daria, 2017a). The reform in the health sphere provided for a change in the method of financing health institutions according to the principles of self-financing and profitability, thus attacking the principle of free and universal medicine inherited from the Soviet Union (Chernina , 2017b; Chernina, 2020). On the user side, the reform provided for the generalization of private health insurance. In education, the reforms begun in 2014 involve the “rationalization” of the system by reducing the number of universities and schools through closures and consolidations with deplorable consequences on access to education in villages and small towns. The reform of the scholarship system reduces the category of students having access to it. As in the health sphere, the principle of university autonomy is encouraged (Muliavka, 2016; Chernina, 2017c). Finally, the Zelensky government enacted a law to put an end to the moratorium on the sale of agricultural land which dated from the fall of the USSR. The creation of a genuine market in agricultural land open to foreign investors was a long-standing condition of Ukraine’s creditors, but it was never implemented until 2021 (Soroka, 2019).

Some of these reforms had already been partially initiated, others only considered by pre-Maïdan governments. Ukraine has borrowed from the IMF since the 1990s, but in practice no government has ever implemented all its conditions for fear of an explosive social situation. The political crisis of 2014 and the war in the Donbass finally cleared the way for these reforms, making it possible to present them as inevitable, as part of the war effort and the European integration effort.

b) The situation of persons displaced from Donbass

According to the last census of 2001, there were 7.3 million inhabitants (15% of the Ukrainian population) in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. The war that started in the spring of 2014 produced close to 2 million refugees. According to official statistics for 2019, 1.38 million displaced persons were registered in Ukraine and several hundred thousand in Russia. Officially, the majority of the displaced persons resided before February 2022 in the territories controlled by the Ukrainian government in the regions of Donetsk (488,000) and Luhansk (217,000), as well as in the capital (149,000). In fact, a large number of displaced persons, including a majority of women and pensioners, have returned to the occupied territories because of the difficulties in finding housing, work, access to social assistance, etc. The IDP status allowed them to continue to receive Ukrainian pensions and allowances which had to be collected locally every month. In May 2019, 1.2 million people crossed the demarcation line in both directions (Gyidel, 2022: 111).

The Ukrainian state not only failed to anticipate the refugee crisis: six months after the start of the war in the Donbass, there was still no legal framework for the reception of displaced persons. The law that establishes the legal status of displaced persons was only adopted in October 2014. This status provides access to financial aid — largely insufficient to live on  [ 2 ]— and to specific social services, but also restricts civic rights: displaced persons do not have the right to vote in local elections under the pretext of their temporary registration. Despite the provision of a number of temporary accommodations which quickly turned into ghettos, there was a total failure to provide durable accommodation: only 63 families out of 1.2 million displaced people benefited. The abandonment of Donbass refugees by the state has been accompanied by their stigmatization by the media and by a mistrust of part of the Ukrainian population with regard to potential “separatists” which could be expressed, in some cases, through discrimination in employment and on the rental market (Gyidel, 2022).

At the same time, dozens of volunteer organizations, including those created by the displaced people themselves, such as the organization Vostok SOS, were set up to take over the functions of the state: humanitarian aid, assistance in finding housing and work, support with administrative procedures, legal support. In general, the Maïdan had the effect of significantly raising citizen engagement against a background of lack of confidence in the state and the recognition of its inability to solve urgent humanitarian problems. On this level, we can note a change compared to previous decades. Faced with the disaffection of the social state, the 1990s were more marked by individual strategies of depoliticized coping, limited to narrow circles of the private sphere, while the post-Maïdan era is marked by the constitution of a vast network of citizen solidarity initiatives across the whole of society.

Important solidarity initiatives are also springing up in support of combatants and ex-combatants in the Donbass. When the conflict broke out, the Ukrainian army was very impoverished, ill-equipped and under-trained. In April 2014, only 4% of soldiers had basic protective equipment such as helmets and bulletproof vests. To alleviate the situation, more than thirty battalions of volunteers were formed to reinforce the regular army. At the time, the existence of these battalions was based solely on voluntary solidarity initiatives that provided uniforms, equipment and livelihoods to combatants (Stepaniuk, 2022). These practices of solidarity have spread today; while Western aid mainly translates into heavy weapons, the army and territorial defense units continue to depend on a massive mobilization of citizens for the purchase of basic protective equipment, medicines, drones, cars, etc.

c) The problem of the far right

The question of the volunteer battalions naturally brings us back to the question of the extreme right within the Ukrainian army, the “Azov” battalion having received disproportionate media attention both in the Russian media and in Western anti-imperialist literature. This question has become the partisan question par excellence. The invasion of Ukraine on February 24 was presented by Putin as a campaign of denazification, in the wake of the theses on the “fascist coup” promoted in 2014 to discredit the popular uprising against Yanukovych under the pretext of the presence of far-right groups in the protests.

Part of the international left has unfortunately uncritically taken up the propagandist rhetoric of the Putin regime. Therefore, when seeking to appeal for international solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance, it is very tempting to bend the stick the other way, going so far as to deny the existence of the extreme right in Ukraine, or in any case to minimize the extension of its networks within society and institutions. Such a counter-propaganda strategy, adopted by national-liberal forces, should not be ours. We need to be realistic about all the components of the armed resistance, without however conditioning our support for the resistance of the Ukrainian people on the predominance of a pure class line within it. The rise of the extreme right today constitutes our great common danger, in Ukraine as elsewhere, and the French left is surely the best placed to know it. For an internationalist left which does not lose hope and conviction in the need for major social transformations on a planetary scale, the task is not to abandon the Ukrainians on the pretext that there are a handful of neo-Nazis in the ranks of the army, but to reflect on how solidarity with the popular anti-imperialist movement, and in particular with its anti-capitalist, trade-unionist, feminist and anti-racist component can help to marginalize the far right and prepare the ground for the resumption of social struggles on progressive foundations.

To do this, we must first understand the specificity of the far right in Ukraine. On the Maïdan, the neo-Nazi small groups constituted a minority, but the minority best organized and best prepared for violent confrontation with the forces of order, which gave them great visibility within the movement. But unlike France, the institutional far right has not had any electoral success since 2012. The Svoboda party fell from 12% of votes in the 2012 legislative elections to 4% in 2014, then to 2% in 2019. This is partly explained by the fact that, in the post-Maïdan context, the whole political field has shifted considerably to the right, and the patriotic-nationalist rhetoric specific to far-right parties has become commonplace in the face of the Russian threat. But this electoral dynamic also reveals the absence of hegemony of the extreme right in contemporary Ukraine, its ideology very openly contradicting the pro-European orientations of the majority component of the Maïdan camp and the deep concerns for political, economic and social justice of the majority of the population. The danger posed by its various organizations lies instead in their focus on street violence and the extension of their networks into the repressive institutions.

To give just a few examples, Azov is not just the name of a battalion, it is the name of a network of structures and projects of all kinds: in 2016, it formed the National Corps Party, managed its own organization of veterans, had its sports sections, summer camps and its “National Militias” paramilitary organization (Gorbach, 2018). The S14 organization has also formed a paramilitary group called “Municipal Guard”, officially funded by the Kyiv mayor’s office, which delegated to it during the COVID crisis certain surveillance and law enforcement functions in support of the local police.

According to reports by the research outfit Marker Monitoring Group, the first victims of extreme violence are feminist and LGBTQ+ activists, as well as far-left activists. Organizations like S14, National Corps, Right Sector systematically attack March 8 demonstrations, Pride Marches, conferences and presentations on left-wing topics, etc. Numerous attacks have been perpetrated against the Roma community, the Jewish community or Holocaust memorials, people considered “marginal”, in particular the homeless, political opponents and journalists deemed insufficiently patriotic, all in the relative indifference of law enforcement (Marker Monitoring Group, 2021; 2022).

The active participation of radical nationalists in the armed resistance against the Russian invasion contributes to the legitimization of their organizations. At the same time, even within armed formations reputed to be neo-Nazi, only a minority actually adhere to the ideology of their core. As research by Coline Maestracci, who has conducted dozens of interviews with Azov fighters, shows, those who sought to enlist after 2014 were primarily drawn to the effectiveness of this battalion in the fight against the Russian aggression (Maestracci, 2022).

d) The Ukrainian left and the war

Given the complexity of the issues, it is not surprising that the Ukrainian left found itself very divided in the face of the events that unfolded from November 2013 to spring 2014 and beyond. But we must first determine which organizations we are talking about, because some parties claiming to belong to this political family have long since lost the link with any emancipatory agenda.

This is the case of the Communist Party of Ukraine, the successor to the Soviet CP which occupied a strong position until the early 2000s. In 1998, the CP won 25% of the votes in the legislative elections and in 1999 its candidate Symonenko faced Leonid Kuchma in the second round of the presidential elections. Since the proclamation of the independence of Ukraine, this party has however never been an anti-capitalist and progressive party. At most, it played on its electorate’s nostalgia for the USSR by promoting a social conservatism which in the 1990s formed the consensus among the political elites who sought to attenuate the social effects of unfettered privatization. Basically, the CP represented a convenient opposition party making it possible to channel social discontent without representing a real threat to the oligarchic power in place. The party leadership de facto joins with the ruling class by participating in its schemes of corruption and by building up comfortable fortunes. For the reasons already mentioned, the political polarization around the pro-Russian versus pro-Ukrainian/pro-European axis contributes to the marginalization of the CP. Under Yanukovych, the CP formed a coalition with the ruling party, notably by passing the repressive laws of January 2014. During the Maïdan, along with other pro-Russian parties and organizations, the CP participated in the organization of counter-demonstrations in Kyiv and other cities of Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Local Communist leaders approved of the riot police’s use of force to disperse protests, echoing Russian propagandist rhetoric about a “fascist coup” and rejecting “European values” with homophobic and racist slogans . According to Denys Gorbach, the Ukrainian CP is ideologically closer to right-wing populist parties such as the National Rally than to progressive left-wing parties, mixing economic protectionism with discourse about the superiority of Slavs and anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ+ and pro-Orthodox Church discourse (Gorbach, 2016). The same conclusions can be applied to the Socialist Party of Ukraine and the Socialist Progressive Party of Ukraine. In this context, it is easy to understand why the average Ukrainian today declares himself “anti-communist”: not because the working classes have definitively renounced the ideal of social justice, but because communism is mainly associated with pro-Russian nationalism, the police state, social conservatism and the worship of Stalin. After the fall of Yanukovych, the symbols and rhetoric of the CP became subject to the decommunization laws adopted in May 2015, but the party continues to nominate its individual members in local elections. It was definitely banned following the invasion of Ukraine, along with other “pro-Russian” parties.

The “new left” independent of the institutional parties found itself deeply divided, first on the analysis of the Maïdan, then on the war in Donbass. On the one hand, the Stalinist party “Borotba” ( Struggle) saw in the Maïdan only a revolt of the national-liberal petty bourgeois. Borotba eventually sided with the anti-Maïdan in eastern and southern cities, whose first demonstrations were marked by an eclectic mix of communist, pan-Russian and clerical slogans. Several militants of this party perished in the tragic fire at the trade union centre in Odessa in May 2014. Today, some of its militants still live in Donetsk. Some have experienced arrests by separatist authorities, others have become openly pro-Putin or have gone into exile in Russia.

On the other hand, some left-wing nationalists such as the militants of the “Autonomous Resistance” ( Avtonomny Opir) have instead since 2014 joined the battalions of volunteers to fight the separatist forces. The Autonomous Resistance was basically a national socialist movement. However, the organization began to veer to the left from 2013, breaking with far-right organizations, placing the class struggle and no longer the nation at the center of its political analysis, but retaining its West-Ukrainian specificity with a strong nationalist dimension (Gorbach, 2015). It has developed an eclectic ideology and activity that combines glorification of the organization of Ukrainian nationalists of Stepan Bandera and participation in torch marches with the organization of marches in memory of [early 20th century anarchist leader] Nestor Makhno and participation in May Day demonstrations and union demonstrations.

The radical progressive left aiming to bring together various grassroots socialist, feminist, trade unionist, ecologist and anti-racist initiatives is represented in Ukraine by an organization called “Social Movement” ( Sotsialnyi Rukh). It was launched in 2015 by the Trotskyist organization “Left Opposition”, itself a product of the “Organization of Marxists” where it rubbed shoulders with Borotba until 2011. Social Movement is part of the radical left which at the time critically supported the Maïdan, identifying the desire for justice among the working classes who took part in the demonstrations: justice in the sense of respect for the law by the dominant classes who make those laws, but also in the sense of justice social. Its activists took part in the demonstrations and were involved in multiple citizen initiatives. The anarcho-syndicalist federation “Autonomous Union of Workers” and the student union “Direct Action” also took part in the Maïdan events, organizing actions on their own such as the occupation of the Ministry of Education.

Given the complexity and the situation in the Donbass, the positions of this left on the war were however marked by a certain hesitation. On the one hand, while emphasizing Russia’s responsibility in the outbreak of the armed struggle, it expressed its opposition to the most warlike fringes of Ukrainian society and its exclusive nationalist project, hoping that a diplomatic solution could be found for the peaceful and inclusive reintegration of Donbass and Crimea on the basis of a dialogue with the local populations, on the one hand, and conditions which would allow Ukraine as a whole to retain its independence vis-à-vis Russia on the other.

On the other hand, the radical left was also careful not to defend “revolutionary defeatism” and to strongly criticize the anti-terrorist operation against the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, which in the meantime had become lawless territories totally dependent on Russia. The activities of the Social Movement have mainly focused during these years on the fight against corruption and tax evasion, neoliberal reforms and privatizations, attacks on workers’ rights, and for the advancement of the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the environmental agenda. The organization has given priority to contacts with independent unions and has often supported strike movements by workers in the health, transport or mining industries, for example.

The invasion of Ukraine marks a new turning point that buries any plan for peace negotiations in the format of the Minsk agreements. It is now clear that the Putin regime will not back down from subjugating Ukraine unless it suffers military defeat. Since February 2022, the organizations of the radical left are resolutely engaged in resistance against the occupation, joining the general popular momentum to defend the right of Ukrainian society to existence and self-determination.


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[1]  ;

[2] 40 euros per person and 120 euros per family, see the decree of the Cabinet of Ministers of October 1, 2014.

See also this important statement by a collective of socialist activists from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland: “Support Ukrainian resistance and disempower fossil capital.”