By Paul Taylor
There are two causes for the war in Ukraine. One has been brewing for thirty years – the eastward expansion of NATO which threatened the security of over 140 million Russians with the prospect of tactical nuclear weapons being within a few minutes flying time of most of the Russian population – something the USA would never tolerate, as it showed in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. At that time, the US made clear it was prepared to risk nuclear war to prevent the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, which were actually twice as far from Washington as Ukraine is from Moscow.
The other cause for war is the attacks on the security and self-determination of the Russian minority which lives inside the state of Ukraine.
The threat to peace posed by the expansion of NATO has received much attention and has been accepted as a valid concern across a broad political spectrum.
However, the demand for respect for the national rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine has either been downplayed or delayed. Far too often the rights of the Russian minority have been dismissed as having no substance, or worse, as just duplicitous propaganda emanating from Moscow. This is false.
The campaign of oppression against the Russian minority includes the 2014 massacre in Odessa, for which no one has been brought to justice. United Nations figures also show that 81.4% of the conflict-related civilian casualties in Ukraine 2018-2021 were in the territory of the besieged Donbass Peoples Republics in eastern Ukraine.
The present war is a reminder that the left and the wider labour and peace movement should defend the right to self-determination of an oppressed national minority.
It is also a reminder that the origins of a conflict should not be put aside as mere history. To understand the present war, and thereby better understand the route to peace, it is essential that the attack on the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine is placed centre stage in the debate.
The overthrow of the democratically elected president of Ukraine in 2014 unleashed an assault on the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine over the subsequent eight years.
This attack on the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine became a state-sanctioned policy. Opposition to that policy was depicted as treachery and treated as such.
President Zelensky’s advice to people in Donbass, ‘If you feel like Russian – “suitcase, station, Russia” reveals that the ‘othering’ of the Russian minority in Ukraine goes to the very top of Ukrainian politics.
A succession of laws, government actions and state-sanctioned violence occurred after 2014. The denial against the Russian ‘other’ made the Russian minority fear for its very existence.
The Maidan coup of 2014 did include pluralists who recognised that a multinational Ukraine would only be at peace if the rights of all minorities were respected.
However, the forces that wanted a culturally homogenous state came out on top. A rotten compromise was made between some oligarchs and the Ukrainian far-right. Anti-Russian, Ukrainian chauvinism became the glue for the new alliance of forces dominating the state.
Fascism and the far-right
From 2014, the far-right was incorporated into the structures of the Ukrainian state. It was the most hostile to the Russian minority and its supposed inferiority to Europeans. Their ideology, that pure Ukrainians are the most faithful defenders of European civilisation, summarised in the slogan ‘For Europe’, also placed them at the cutting edge of the many physical attacks on the Russian and other minorities from Kyiv to Donbass.
As Lev Golinkin put it in February 2019, ‘The DC establishment’s standard defence of Kyiv is to point out that Ukraine’s far-right has a smaller percentage of seats in the parliament than their counterparts in places like France. That’s a spurious argument: What Ukraine’s far-right lacks in polls numbers, it makes up for with things Marine Le Pen could only dream of—paramilitary units and free rein on the streets.’
The declaration by the Ukrainian parliament in 2018 of a national day of commemoration for the most infamous Ukrainian Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera sent a clear message of state-sanctioned hate to all national minorities in Ukraine. Later that year the authorities in Lviv, in West Ukraine, took matters a step further when they announced that 2019 would be the ‘Year of Stepan Bandera’.
In March 2021, Euronews explained how Ukrainian politics has become dominated by the race of leading politicians to the far-right in a contest to see who is the most ‘patriotic’: to be proved by their degree of hostility to the Russian minority.
Euronews noted, “They [‘nationalist’ forces] are pressuring Zelenskyy and [Denys] Shmygal, the prime minister, to decide if they are nationalist or not,” said Alexei Jakubin, a senior politics lecturer at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Zelenskyy, who won the 2019 election in Ukraine by a landslide with over 70% of the vote, is currently polling at just 19%.
Lviv’s authorities, dominated by right-wing parties including Svoboda and European Solidarity, the party of former president Petro Poroshenko, smell blood.
“Zelenskyy and Poroshenko have a fight going on about who is the most patriotic [and] Zelenskyy is in a difficult position because his support is much lower he is moving [towards] the right-wing, which is the territory of Poroshenko,” said Jakubin.
“This is a test to see whether or not he is a real patriot,” he added.
“It is not the first time by any means that a war over Bandera’s legacy has been waged in the highest echelons of Ukrainian politics.”
The Minsk agreements of 2014-15 offered a way forward which respected the security needs and the right to self-determination of all Ukrainians, including the Russian minority. However, its proposals for a form of local government or autonomy for the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine were completely rejected by those in the Kyiv regime who wanted a purely “Ukrainian” state which would not respect the rights of the 30% of the population who spoke Russian.
As recently as February 21, Olga Rudenko, the chief editor of The Kyiv Independent described president Zelensky as being “Seriously in Over His Head”, in an opinion piece for the New York Times. Revealingly, she wrote, “….any concession to Russia, particularly over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, would likely bring hundreds of thousands of people to the streets — threatening him with the fate of Viktor Yanukovych, the president overthrown by a revolution in 2014….”
This potential threat is not idle speculation. As Nicolai N. Petro wrote, “Prominent nationalist intellectuals have argued that Russophone Ukrainians simply need to be re-educated into a proper appreciation of their suppressed Ukrainian identity, or forced to leave. Donetsk University professor Elena Styazhkina calls this ‘positive, peaceful colonization.’ Others, like the Deputy Prime responsible for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Alexei Reznikov, have argued for a more direct approach—expelling those who are disloyal and limiting the rights of Ukrainian citizens from those regions to participate in political life for 25 years.”
Standing behind the Kyiv regime is the US, which encouraged the regime not to implement the Minsk Agreements and to maintain an 8-year long military bombardment of the Donbass Peoples Republics. It serves US interests that the Ukraine-Russia conflict escalates rather than becomes resolved. In parallel, the US has pushed NATO to undermine Russia’s security by increasing the militarisation of the NATO countries closest to Russia and by pursuing proposals for NATO to expand even further east. These are the principal causes of the current conflict in Ukraine.