Why the Russian people of Donetsk and Lugansk have the right to self-determination

Buses with refugees leaving for Russia (18 February) as Kyiv escalated its military attacks on the Donetsk People’s Republic

By Owen Sawyer

With the events in Ukraine Europe and the world is faced with a clear strategic choice. It can support the attempt by the regime in Kyiv, which officially incorporates fascist organisations such as the Azov battalion into its security forces, to reimpose its rule on the Russian population of Donetsk, Lugansk, and the Crimea – a policy which could only be carried out by military and fascist terror. Or it can accept that the Russian population of these regions, and the East of Ukraine in general, which differs from the West of Ukraine in language, religion and history, has the right to self-determination.

Clearly this right to self-determination would be preferable exercised in an entirely peaceful way. The ideal model would be like that of Czechoslovakia – which peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The present situation in Ukraine – via armed clashes, attacks from 2014 onwards by Ukrainian fascists on the Russian population in the East of Ukraine, now the official intervention by the Russian army – is very far from ideal. But it does not alter the core of the issue -should the Russian population of the East of Ukraine be compelled by military and fascist terror to be ruled by Kyiv or, as a clear national minority, should they have the right to self-determination?

Every democratic position, from simple avoidance of terror, through acceptance of democratic votes, to the Marxist principle of the right of nations to self-determination determines that the Russian population of the East of Ukraine has the right to self-determination.

What has brought this crisis to a head, however, is an external development – the advance of NATO into Eastern Europe since 1991 against all promises given to Russia that NATO would not advance closer to Russia’s borders by even an “inch”. This now proposes to allow Ukraine to enter NATO – bringing the threat of NATO missiles being within a few minutes flying time of Moscow.

The US claim that this issue is all about the right of Ukraine to decide its own defence policy is pure sophistry. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis the US never argued that it could not oppose Soviet missiles being in Cuba because Cuba had the right to decide its own defence alliances – the US made clear it was prepared to risk world nuclear war to prevent this. And Soviet missiles in Cuba were significantly further from Washington than the Ukraine is from Moscow.

The 2014 “Maidan” coup d’etat in Kyiv, which overthrew an elected government, was precisely to allow such a pro-NATO government to be installed – overturning the previous Ukrainian policy of neutrality/remaining outside military blocs.

This 2014 coup d’etat, to attempt to impose an anti-Russia/NATO aggressive policy on Ukraine, was obviously completely unacceptable to the Russian population of the East of Ukraine and therefore brought national tensions within the Ukrainian state to a boiling point. This was intensified with the fascist violence unleased by supporters of the Kyiv government in 2014, culminating in the massacre by fire of 46 Russian people in Odessa. Later these policies were institutionalised by the Kyiv government in abolition of the use of Russian, spoken by 30% of the Ukraine’s population, as an official state language, renaming of streets and other monuments after those who fought for the Nazis, the official incorporation of fascist organisations such as the Azov battalion into Ukraine’s armed forces etc.

Given the policies of the Kyiv government, and the military and fascist violence it unleashed, the Russian people of Crimea decided to join Russia, and the Russian people in Donetsk and Lugansk formed “People’s Republics” outside of the military control of Kyiv. In short, the 2014 coup d’etat ended the situation whereby there was an acceptance of a binational Ukraine-Russian peoples state and resulted in the Russian population deciding to separate from the Ukrainian state in order to avoid national oppression. This situation can only be reversed by military/fascist terror by the Kyiv regime.

There should be no misunderstanding as to the historical origins of this national divide within the Ukrainian state. What is now the Ukrainian state was divided by centuries of history. The West of Ukraine was historically under the control of Poland and Lithuania. What is now the Western most part of the Ukrainian state was only incorporated into the country in 1945. In contrast, the East of Ukraine was integrated into Russia for centuries. Transfer of what is now Kyiv from Poland by Cossacks was carried out in 1648. They formed an explicit alliance with Russia in 1654. Russia officially gained sovereignty over a large part of Ukraine from Poland in 1686. Crimea officially joined Russia in 1783. In short for centuries the East of Ukraine, in particular, was Russian. This is reflected in language, 30% of those in the Ukrainian state speak Russian, the religion of Eastern Ukraine is Russian Orthodox, the culture of Eastern Ukraine for several centuries has been Russian etc. In contrast the language of the West Ukraine is Ukrainian, its religion is what is now officially the Ukrainian Orthodox church (with smaller numbers of Catholics and Protestants), its culture is Ukrainian as distinct from Russian.

This means there are two nationalities within the Ukrainian state – Ukrainian (centred in West Ukraine) and Russian in East Ukraine. Socialists should consider any attempt by Russia to impose its rule in Western Ukraine as a violation of the right to self-determination – which would also have to be imposed by military terror. But equally the Russian people of the East of Ukraine are entitled to self-determination.

Binational/bi-ethnic, or multi-national/multi-ethnic states are of course not impossible. Czechoslovakia was one for a relatively long time before it separated, Canada is a multi-lingual state, even Britain is a multi-national state. But such states, by their nature, can only be maintained by ensuring that policies which are totally opposed by one of the key components of the state are not embarked on. In Canada this is secured by a strict policy of bilingualism and acceptance of the right of Quebec to secede if it wishes, In Britain the right of Scotland, Wales or the north of Ireland to secede if they wish is acknowledged. Breakdown of such policies inevitably leads to break up of such states. In the Ukraine, in tandem or caused by the expansion of NATO, policies completely unacceptable to the Russian population of the East of Ukraine were embarked on. This inevitably led to the breakup of the Ukrainian state.

Democrats and socialists quite rightly may not prefer the methods being used in Ukraine – referendums and legal agreements are much preferable to massacres, shelling, popular insurrections, intervention of Russian troops etc. But it does not alter the essence of the matter. The Russian people of the East of Ukraine – in Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea – have the right to self-determination. Every democrat and socialist must defend this. The only alternative is military-fascist rule by Kyiv to impose itself – every democrat and socialist must oppose this.