The national question in the Ukraine

Homes in Donetsk destroyed by Ukrainian army

By James Wilson

Events in Ukraine have culminated in large scale war and the splitting of the country. This is in reality the culmination of the process which began in 2014 with the “Maidan” coup in Kyiv against the elected government of Yanukovych – a coup supported by the US. These events are in human terms horrifically tragic, but to find a progressive way out it is necessary to understand the deep historical forces that produced them.

Why Kyiv and NATO have destroyed the unity of the Ukrainian state

The events in Ukraine were the inevitable result of the suppression of the national rights of the Russian speaking population of Eastern Ukraine by the Kyiv government after 2014 – and the adoption of policies, both domestically and in terms of NATO entry, entirely unacceptable to the population of the East of Ukraine. This therefore means the way out is simple – and could be achieved rapidly if it were not for pressure from the US/NATO.

  • Ukraine should make clear it will not join NATO – thereby removing the military threat to Russia.
  • The rights of the Russian speaking population of the East of Ukraine, their right to self-determination, must be respected.

This solution is obviously progressive and should be supported by the left. If not, it means the left is supporting:

  • Entry of Ukraine into NATO
  • A policy of forcing the Russian speaking population of the East of Ukraine to be under the control of Kyiv – a policy which could only be achieved by military-fascist terror.

It would seem inconceivable that anyone on the left could support these latter policies. But unfortunately, due to confusion regarding the character of the Ukraine, and the logic of these confusions, sections of the left have fallen into de facto support for such reactionary policies. It is therefore vital to understand the real character of the situation in Ukraine and the logic of policies that are supported.

The 2014 coup d’etat

The policies embarked on by Kyiv after the 2014 coup, supported by the US and NATO, necessarily destroyed the basis of unity of the Ukrainian state. More precisely, Ukraine became unviable as a state the moment that the Western (Ukrainian) part of the country embarked upon the suppression of the Eastern (Russian) part. These processes were the culmination of centuries of development, so it is necessary to understand them clearly.

The formation of the Ukrainian state

Ukraine was a multi-national state whose present borders were only finalised in 1945. More exactly, leaving aside relatively smaller groups (Romanians, Hungarians and others), it was a bi-national state. As always, unity of such a multi/bi-national state could only be maintained as long as policies were not decided on which were completely rejected by one of its constituents. If policies completely unacceptable to one of the components is embarked upon, the unity of the state is bound to collapse.

Failure to understand this historical character of the Ukrainian state has led parts of the left to confusion and, in the worst cases, to alignment with reactionary forces in the Kyiv regime who have carried out policies of oppession against the Russian-speaking population of East Ukraine and who aim to reimpose Kyiv control on them by terror. Support for such policies has absolutely nothing to do with left-wing policies.

In Ukraine 30% of the population speaks Russian, 70% Ukrainian. This coincides with the religious division. The Russian-speaking population are Russian Orthodox, the Ukrainian-speaking are Ukrainian Orthodox (with small numbers of Catholics and Protestants). Essentially the West and North of the Ukrainian state is dominated by Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers. The East and South-East is dominated by Russian speakers.

The historical creation of Ukraine

The centuries-long reason for this division in Ukraine is obvious. Originally what is now Western Ukraine was part of Poland/Lithuania. In the mid-14th century Poland militarily conquered Galicia – now south-eastern Poland and Western Ukraine. Almost simultaneously Kyiv became part of Lithuania. Polish domination of Western Ukraine continued into the 20th century – what is now the most western part of Ukraine was only incorporated in 1945.

From the 15th century, Polish/Lithuanian control began to be replaced in the east by Russia. Transfer of Kyiv from Poland by Cossacks was carried out in 1648, forming an alliance with Russia in 1654. Russia gained sovereignty over a large part of Ukraine from Poland in 1686. Crimea joined Russia in 1783. In short, for centuries Eastern Ukraine was Russian whereas Western Ukraine remained within Poland/the Polish sphere of influence.

Therefore, through a centuries-long historical process, two national communities were formed in the Ukraine – Ukrainian in the West and Russian in Eastern Ukraine.

This was expressed in its most extreme form in World War II. Western Ukrainian fascist leaders fought alongside the Nazi invasion of the USSR in forces such as the SS Division Galicia – although far more citizens of the Ukraine fought against the Nazis than supported them.

But those who fought alongside the Nazis are now declared to be “national heroes” by the Kyiv regime with streets named after them, statues erected in their honour etc.  A notable example is Stepan Bandera, a mass murderer responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other victims, leader of the so-called Ukrainian Insurgent Army which fought alongside the Nazis.

Why the Ukrainian state split

Despite these differences the binational Ukrainian state, after the dissolution of the USSR, could be maintained, as long as no policy was embarked on by either side which was intolerable to the other. This meant internally a situation whereby the Russian population was treated as a nationally respected minority, with Russian, spoken by 30% of the population, as an official state language, and neutrality/no entry into military blocs against either the West or Russia etc.

Such policies are the only basis on which the unity of multi/bi-national states can be sustained. For example, in Canada state unity is maintained by the policy of strict English-French bilingualism. Twice, in 1980 and 1995, Quebec has only voted against secession by narrow majorities – in the latter case by only 0.58% of the vote. Given that acceptance of being in Canada is only agreed by the people of Quebec by a thin majority, it is obvious that ending the bilingual policy in Canada – that is, suppression of the rights of the French-speaking Canadian people – would tip Quebec into supporting independence.

In Britain, a multi-national state, the rights of Scotland, Wales and the north of Ireland to secede is formally recognised.   

But the 2014 “Maidan” coup in Kyiv, overthrowing the elected government, a coup supported by the US, was designed to impose policies entirely intolerable to the Russian population of East Ukraine. These policies have been progressively implemented – abolition of Russian as an official state language, glorification of Nazi figures such as Bandera, etc. These policies began to be implemented by military/fascist terror by pro-Kyiv forces in East Ukraine – including the burning to death of 46 Russian people by pro-Kyiv fascists in Odessa on 2 May 2014.

The US/NATO military threat to Russia blew up the unity of the Ukrainian state

Ukraine’s membership of NATO was inextricably linked with this development within Ukraine itself. It would place NATO missiles within a few minutes’ flying time of Moscow and other targets in Russia – unacceptable both to Russia itself and to the Russian population of Eastern Ukraine.

The US claim that NATO membership for Ukraine was a question of “sovereign rights” is pure sophistry – as it well understands. In 1962 the US was prepared to threaten world nuclear war to prevent the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, with no US talk of the “sovereign rights” of Cuba. Fortunately, the USSR’s leadership had the sense to withdraw missiles from Cuba – leading to a peaceful outcome. The US, however, has pushed aggressively forward with the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, including insisting on Ukraine having the possibility to join – leading to a war.

A nuclear superpower such as the US was never going to accept Soviet missiles being in Cuba – the distance from Havana to Washington is 1,800 kilometres, or only a few minutes’ flying time for a missile. The USSR leadership’s decision to attempt to install missiles in Cuba was an adventure from which, fortunately, they decided to withdraw. But the distance from Kyiv to Moscow is even closer than from Havana to Washington – only 860km. Russia was, therefore, never going to accept a military threat – entry of Ukraine into NATO – which was even greater than Soviet missiles in Cuba were to the US. 

Confronted with national oppression, embarked on by Kyiv’s both domestic and international policies, the Russian population of East Ukraine, foreseeably, withdrew support for a bi-national state. Crimea decided by referendum to join Russia – 97% voting for integration. Donetsk and Lugansk decided to form independent “People’s Republics” – the Donetsk referendum was 89% in favour and Lugansk’s 97%.

The binational state of Ukraine therefore collapsed for the wholly predictable reason that the post-2014 Kyiv regime embarked both domestically and internationally on policies entirely oppressive of, and unacceptable to, the Russian population in East Ukraine. For this reason, Kyiv control of the East of Ukraine could only be reimposed by military/fascist terror against the overwhelming majority of the Russian population in East Ukraine.

The position of socialists

The position of democrats and socialists confronted with this should be simple.

First, if the Russian population of the East of Ukraine decides to exercise their right of self-determination by secession, rather than having their rights recognised within a Ukrainian state, then undoubtedly it would be preferable, given the irreconcilable differences unleashed by the government in Kyiv, if the bi-national state of Ukraine had divided peacefully. An example is Czechoslovakia, which separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia by entirely peaceful means.

But unfortunately, history does not always run smoothly and in Ukraine the fascist and NATO dynamic in Western Ukraine makes this more unlikely. Therefore, far less than preferable methods, indeed tragic, have occurred – massacres, Ukrainian fascists, popular uprisings, entry of Russian troops. But this does not alter the essence of the issue – the right of the Russian population in the East of Ukraine to self-determination.

Once the right of Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea to self-determination is seen, they have the right to decide which military measures they wish to use to safeguard this. Faced with Kyiv’s policy of national oppression, and alliance with fascists, anyone with sense in Eastern Ukraine would sleep more securely knowing they were protected by the regular Russian army than only by East Ukrainian militias.

But the demand made by parts of the left for a withdrawal of Russian troops from Donetsk and Lugansk is unfortunately therefore against the right of these Russian regions for self-determination and endangers their population – confronted with the pro-NATO regime in Kyiv which is integrated with fascist forces.

However equally, as what is involved is the right of self-determination, if the Russian population of East Ukraine wish to remain within a single Ukrainian state, doubtless demanding for that recognition of their rights, that is also up to them. Either way it must be supported by the left.

The only alternative is an attempt by military-fascist terror by the Kyiv regime to impose itself in the East of Ukraine, armed by the US – which everyone on the left should oppose. Yet, extraordinarily, sections of the left, by their failure to analyse the reality of Ukraine, have been led into objective support for this attempt to use military/fascist terror to impose the Kyiv government’s control of the Russian population of the East of Ukraine and Crimea.

Some on the left attempt to obscure this clear choice by talking of “the Ukrainian people” – and therefore opposing the right of self-determination in East Ukraine. But this is pro-right-wing sophistry.

In Canada, for example, the people of Quebec are “French Canadians”. That is, they are Canadians but from a distinct national group within Canada which has the right to self-determination. Similarly, within Britain people in Scotland regard themselves as Scottish, and those in Wales regard themselves as Welsh. They are also citizens of Britain – and some/many may regard themselves also as “British”. But that does not alter their right to self-determination.

In Ireland, of course, the majority of the population have for a long time supported, and the majority of the island have achieved, independence – only the artificial drawing of boundaries by Britain prevented the whole of Ireland becoming independent, and even the British state recognises the right of the north of Ireland to secede.

Similarly in Ukraine some of the Russian-speaking population regard themselves as Ukrainian, some as Russian-speaking Ukrainians, some as Russian. But this does not alter the fact that they have the right to self-determination. For sections of the left to oppose this, and therefore to align with the military and fascist terror of the Kyiv regime, is appalling.


In summary, the fundamental domestic issue in Ukraine is clear. Should democrats and socialists accept the right of the Kyiv regime to impose military and fascist terror on the Russian population in the East of Ukraine? The answer should clearly be no!

Or should it support the right of the Russian population of the East of Ukraine to self-determination? The answer should clearly be yes.

Internationally the issue is equally clear. Should Ukraine enter NATO or not? That is, should a direct military threat to Russia be imposed, of the type which the US was prepared to risk world nuclear war in Cuba to prevent, and which is unacceptable to the Russian population of East Ukraine? The answer is clearly no.

It is absurd that confusion on the left has led parts of it to aligning with forces who want Ukraine to enter NATO.

The war in Ukraine could be ended extremely rapidly by:

  • making it clear Ukraine will not enter NATO;
  • accepting the rights of the Russian-speaking population of East Ukraine.

These are the policies that the left should support. Otherwise, they are aligned with Kyiv military/fascist terror and with NATO – neither position has anything at all to do with the left.