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.”

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