‘Polite Intervention’ and the Ukrainian Uprising
March 4, 2014—Why, do you suppose, war has not yet broken out between Russia and Ukraine? The answer is very simple: no one plans to go to war, and no one can. Kiev for practical purposes does not have an army, while the government that has appeared in Kiev has no control over half of Ukraine, and cannot even exercise particular control over its own supporters. If the Ukrainian authorities make any serious attempt to mobilize their forces, this will merely provoke new protests. Even rumors of such a possibility have been enough to provoke anti-government demonstrations in Odessa.
Moscow, meanwhile, is rattling its sabers, but very cautiously. If the Kremlin were really serious about sending troops onto Ukrainian territory, it would not have asked permission from the Council of the Federation, but would simply have issued the order. Instead of real action we saw PR action, with a “unanimous vote by the senators.” A war broke out in the virtual space of the Internet, backed by hysterical commentaries from liberals and malevolent howls from conservative propagandists. In essence, this was enough to fulfill the tasks faced by the authorities at present.
‘Neither peace nor war’
The psychological effect was almost as if we were waging a serious war somewhere near Kharkov. Meanwhile, there were no victims and there was no destruction. Unless, that is, we count the collapse of the ruble. Here too, however, things were not so simple; for several months, the Russian government and the Central Bank had been seeking a devaluation of the national currency. At least since September analysts had been forecasting figures of 37 rubles to the dollar and 50 to the euro. The Ukrainian events merely accelerated this process, and helped the financial authorities carry out their plan while evading responsibility for devaluing the savings of our citizens.
When a certain number of leftists, repeating century-old slogans, speak of “a war unleashed in the interests of large-scale capital,” they once again get things wrong. Instead of repeating clichés from old textbooks, what is needed is a little economic analysis. The truth is that large-scale capital, both private and bureaucratic, has no need at present for a war.
Human vices often rebound to the advantage of society. If our government and military leadership were made up of intelligent, principled and decisive people, we could indeed expect far more unpleasant developments. The Russian economy is highly dependent on the gas pipeline that passes through Ukraine. The economies of many European Union countries, not to speak of Ukraine, also depend on this pipeline operating without interruption. Of course, the investments made by “our” oligarchs in Ukrainian enterprises need defending, but military action would sooner exacerbate the problems here than solve them. The cynicism and avarice of our present-day rulers are the best guarantee that there will not be a major war.
The authorities in Kiev are also satisfied. They are able to employ the “Russian threat” to consolidate the new regime, to explain away economic difficulties as the result of external pressure, and in retrospect, to justify their own steps that have brought Ukraine to collapse. The present situation of “neither peace nor war” thus suits both governments perfectly, at least for the moment. The only significant cause for unease is Moscow’s aim of preserving the fugitive Viktor Yanukovich as the “real president,” while hinting at the possibility of restoring him to the Kievan throne.
But this should not be taken too seriously; as stated earlier, the people in the Kremlin are cynical, will not make any serious undertakings to the Ukrainian fugitive, and if they do, will break them. Of course, it is very convenient for the Kremlin authorities to have a “lawful president” on hand, but if an opportunity fails to present itself, the former legitimate ruler will be transformed in the space of five minutes into an unwelcome foreigner.
In Crimea, Russian forces have restricted themselves to “polite intervention.” Of course, this was a violation of sovereignty, but let’s be honest: in an analogous situation the French, Americans and British would have done the same. When the French held off from intervening in Rwanda and allowed a bloodbath to go ahead, progressive opinion condemned them wrathfully for their inertia. When the same French state intervened in Mali and prevented a full-scale civil war, the same progressive opinion angrily denounced the intervention. An analogous situation has emerged with Crimea. Both possible decisions were associated with the prospect of serious political and moral losses, with the risk of coming under fire from domestic and international criticism. In Moscow the choice was in favor of a local intervention, but an effort was made to carry it out as cautiously as possible.
So far, Russian forces have acted in a far more restrained fashion than the French and Americans in similar situations. Perhaps this is not because of the government but despite it; on both sides, it may simply be that the good sense of the lower ranks has prevailed in conditions where the hierarchy of command has been weakened.
The Russian special forces have not stormed the bases of the Ukrainian troops, but march around them and squabble half-heartedly with the Ukrainian commanders trying to persuade the latter to hand over their weapons. The Ukrainians refuse, referring not to the oath they have taken and to their loyalty to their homeland, but to the fact that the weapons are state property, for which the commanders of the base are responsible. The Russians respond to these arguments with understanding; if they were in the place of their Ukrainian colleagues, they would do the same.
It is a new form of war, without gunfire or casualties. No one wants to start shooting, and no one particularly cares what happens to the obsolete armored personnel carriers or to the firearms stored in the barracks. At any rate, neither side is prepared to risk life and limb and this provides cause for hope.
‘The sheepskin is not worth
The Russian elites are mortally afraid of seriously angering the West, but in the West too people have realized that they will not achieve their goals in Ukraine without Russian help. The European Union does not need a zone of chaos on its eastern frontier, a new Somalia or Congo on its very doorstep. Nor is it possible for the EU to send its own troops or police onto Ukrainian territory, as in Bosnia or Kosovo, or at any rate without Russian assent.
The U.S. press criticizes Moscow fiercely, but indicates plainly that the U.S. will not help Kiev, since there are no appropriate treaties and Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has already refused money to Kiev, in particularly blunt fashion. IMF head Christine Largarde has declared that Ukraine does not need immediate financial assistance:
“We do not see anything critical that would be worth panicking about at the moment. We definitely hope that no-one rushes in with large sums, which would in fact be pointless if these contributions were not evaluated in the proper manner.”
In Brussels and Washington, the decision evidently has already been made that the sheepskin, as we Russians say, is not worth dividing up, that with the prospects uncertain the risk is just too great. If anyone has to bear the moral, material and financial costs of restoring order, the thinking goes, then let it be the Russians.
In principle, the strategy of confining the conflict to Crimea alone suits both the Kremlin and the West—and perhaps even the new authorities in Kiev too. In recent times the German press has been urging Ukraine to sacrifice Crimea for the sake of integration into Europe. The problem, however, is that the process is developing spontaneously, and that it is no longer controlled by a few politicians. Both in Moscow and in Kiev the governments in the recent period have shown plainly that they are incapable of working out any long-term strategy. It is thus quite obvious that the crisis will grow and deepen, but not according to the scenario promised by the people who are terrifying themselves and others with the specter of a Russo-Ukrainian war.
More than likely, the present authorities in Kiev will not hold out for long in any case. Commentators in Moscow who are sympathetic to them remind us constantly that most of the ministries in the new government are not held by radicals from Svoboda or the Right Sector, but by more moderate politicians. Meanwhile, the commentators neglect to mention that these “moderates” are hostages of the radicals. As Mao said, power comes from the barrel of a gun. In circumstances where the army has fallen to pieces, and the organs of law enforcement have either been smashed, or are demoralized, or have been placed under the control of the Right Sector, it is the radical nationalists who control the situation. The “moderates” in the government are only tolerated because they have promised to stop the eastern provinces splitting away. Now that they are failing to cope with this task, they will be purged. Either western Ukraine will move against Kiev as well, seeking the formation of a more resolute and “national” government as a “response to Russian aggression,” or the same impulse will come from within the capital itself. In either case, right-wing pressure will result in such a government being formed that Kiev itself will rise in revolt.
In the east, meanwhile, the disintegration of the Party of the Regions and the collapse of the old administration have not resulted in the “triumphant progress” of the Maidan movement, but on the contrary, to growing resistance to the new authorities holding sway in Kiev. Among leftists, the deepening economic crisis is sowing hopes that the demonstrations under “national slogans” will soon be replaced by class-based protests both in the east and the west. Developments of this sort, however, do not occur automatically.
Neither Maidan nor the demonstrations in the east have had the character of a spontaneous popular revolution. In both cases, outside forces have been involved. The class nature of the new regime in Kiev was demonstrated with striking clarity when billionaire oligarchs were appointed to key posts in the eastern regions. In exchange for “stabilization,” they were offered the chance to privatize not only the economy in the eastern provinces, but also the functions of power. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the people who are now coming to power in the east are not exactly sons and daughters of the popular masses either.
The only cause for optimism is the fact that from the beginning, the ideological vector of the protests in the east has been different from that in the west. Left activists were driven from the Maidan in Kiev and beaten up (that is not to mention what happened to left-wing symbols and monuments.) In Kharkov and Odessa, by contrast, Soviet monuments were defended, and here and there people even raised red flags. But there should be no illusions here: what is involved for the present is cultural differences rather than class positions. Members of the left need to work in the protest movement in the eastern regions, strengthening their influence and helping to shape a positive program. In this case, there is a real chance that the entire movement can be shifted to more progressive positions, and that the left can win hegemony within it. This is no more than a potential opening, but with the Maidan movement no such chance existed.
The conflict unfolding in Ukraine is not a contest of unalloyed good versus unambiguous evil. Nor is it even a contest between a “Russian” south and east and a “Ukrainian” west. In both cases, economic interests are intertwined with cultural contradictions, and the logic of the conflict is leading to the formation of alliances that do not always correspond to declared ideologies. What is occurring is not so much a split within the country as its fragmentation.
The world war of which jingoists and liberal Russophobes write with such anticipation will not take place. Nor will there be a war between Russia and Ukraine. There will probably not even be a civil war, in the form in which we imagine it. But there will be something that could prove worse than a civil war—chaos, fraught with arbitrary and mindless violence by all against all. If this occurs, the worst of the possible scenarios will come to pass. As in Somalia or the Congo.
The only positive outcome to this crisis would be a federalization of the state combined with a democratization of rule at the local level (otherwise, federalization will simply lead to the country being divided between oligarchic groups). But this is also a program of democratic revolution, which under certain conditions could extend to social revolution—especially if changes meanwhile start happening in Russia itself.
But even if this does not occur in the near future, we should hope that within Ukraine, forces able to resist the logic of disintegration begin to ripen.
—Links, March 4, 2014