We must understand that the war in the east is in fact a war against Russia for Ukraine and her European future … The world must know that Europe ends with us.
Viktor Ukolov, parliamentary deputy, Ukrainian Truth, June 2014
Why not call these events the war for Europe?
Artem Kharchenko, Zahid, March 2022
With the ‘full-scale’ war in Ukraine heading into its second year, the Western media keep on churning out articles on the topic of ‘When will it ever end?’. But how did ‘it’ begin? The answer is hard to find in made-for-airport-bookstore biographies of Putler the orc versus Zelenskiy the elf out to save the West (from its worrying lack of moral authority).
But as someone who spent a significant portion of his life living there, up to and during the war, the endless changes of fortune at the front are not as interesting as the decades-long drama that led up to them. Indeed, instead of unpredictable military fireworks, I am often struck much more with a sense of historical inertia. No matter the ‘postwar’ situation—in reality, just as the pre-2022 period wasn’t ‘prewar’, so it seems unlikely that a real postwar situation will emerge any time soon—the ‘only’ change will be a heightening of the stakes and a shifting of the front line. The political questions that burned away in pre-2022 Ukraine will return with greater intensity. And as before, refusal to deal with them will only lead to greater escalation.
Of course, as long as soldiers kill each other in industrial quantities on a shifting front line, historical rationalisations mean quite little. The logic of fear, in all its pre-emptive modalities, takes priority. But nevertheless, the following dilemmas are far from being limited to Ukraine. Many countries today increasingly face demands for military alignment. Often these are linked to economic benefits of various degrees of tangibility. Often, especially by the nationalist middle classes, it is linked to all-important Civilisational Values. ‘Left-wing values’ are also quite easily co-opted into this civilisational matrix. And everyone knows about the potential military consequences, and sometimes even acknowledges them, until ‘it’ actually happens, and everyone is caught by surprise—for most, unpleasantly.
The Minsk dilemma
The war in Ukraine began in early 2014 and fighting significantly decreased on 12 February 2015 with the signing of the second Minsk Agreements. Major fighting only ended some days after this, with a final, crushing Russian/separatist defeat of the Ukrainian army in the town of Debaltseve. While the war had initially begun as a counterinsurgency by the new, post-Maidan ‘revolutionary’ government against anti-Maidan activists in east Ukraine, from around June 2014 covert Russian military assistance gradually increased. Minsk, like any peace agreement, was thereby merely the recognition of military realities. The Ukrainian army was weak, its society was highly polarised and its economy was nosediving. As a result, Minsk reflected the interests of the much stronger Russian Federation, as well as that of a significant portion of Ukrainian society, albeit one that was not represented by the post-2014 government and the public sphere more generally.
Ukrainian nationalists were reviled by Minsk from Day 1. Ukrainian government officials involved in Minsk, such as Poroshenko and Irina Geraschenko, would often defend it with references to Ukraine’s weakness at the time and the need to buy time to build up the Ukrainian army. Among Ukraine’s liberal-nationalist civil society, newly radicalised and tempered by Euromaidan and the war in the east, Minsk was hence generally considered a traitorous betrayal, with only government lackeys describing it as a necessary but temporary compromise.
Why was this politicised section of Ukrainian society so unhappy with Minsk? Because Minsk would have inevitably taken ‘Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions’ off the table. It would betray the aims of the Maidan revolution. If the industrial Donbass was given special economic rights, there could be none of the ‘brave liberal reforms’ (read: deindustrialisation) so important to the EU for admitting new, especially Eastern members. Giving constitutionally secured ‘special political rights’ to the Donbass would also allow for easy vetoing of any moves to join NATO or EU. The population of the Donbass had always been especially opposed to EU–NATO integration, especially after a year of bombardment by the new pro-NATO government. Furthermore, Minsk included political amnesty for leaders of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (L/DPR). This meant that a new centre of radically anti-Euro-Atlantic politicians would emerge. The worst part of Minsk was that it stipulated the holding of elections in the Donbass before the area was ‘secured’ by the Ukrainian army, meaning that it would be impossible to remove undesirable political figures.
But the problem wasn’t just in the Donbass. It was in all of Ukraine. The danger of the Donbass was that it would tip the already strained scales away from the Euro-optimists. During the invasion of Iraq, Ukrainian support for NATO-integration dropped below 20%, even though the Ukrainian government sent a group of its soldiers to fight alongside the Alliance. The numbers didn’t increase throughout the pre-maidan period. In 2012-13, as few as 13% of Ukrainians supported entering NATO. Polls also showed that affluence played a key role in one’s views on NATO, with richer, more educated individuals more likely to support integration. Liberal writers complained about how even in 2018, only around 40 per cent of Ukrainians wished to join NATO. And this following years of pro-NATO violence and media propaganda.
In fact, 2013 polls showed that geopolitical non-alignment was the most popular option among Ukrainians. This spectre lurked in the minds of Euro-Atlantic liberals long after. A 2018 article by a pro-EU Ukrainian expert dedicated to bemoaning low support for NATO among Ukrainians argued that ‘non-alignment is criminal’, and reminded readers of sinister ‘Soviet Communist’ support for the Non Aligned Movement in the twentieth century.
While in the 2000s most Ukrainians opposed it, by 2013 more than 40 per cent of Ukrainians supported EU integration after years of propagandisation in its favour by the Yanukovych government and western-funded media.
But EU membership, despite the constantly repeated mantra of the instant economic prosperity it would bring, was also a hard sell for Ukrainians. Many could see through the vague promises and feel the real effects of EU-supported economic liberalisation and ‘free trade’ on their livelihoods. Throughout the post-Maidan period, even though millions of anti-EU Ukrainians were no longer counted, polls showed that pro-EU sentiment fluctuated between 50-65 per cent. Post-Maidan surveys always showed that over 70 per cent of Ukrainians were unsatisfied with the direction that Ukraine had taken following Maidan: deindustrialisation, privatisation, chauvinistic nationalism.
According to Ukrainian state statistics, 54 per cent of Ukrainians earned $280 or less a month—by 2020, 85 per cent earned $291 or less (taking into account dollar inflation). In the words of former Minister of Economic Development Ihor Petrashko, ‘Over 2013–2019 domestic exports of aerospace production declined by 4.8 times (from 1.86 to 0.38 billion USD), of train wagons by 7.5 times (from 4.1 to 0.5 billion dollars), of metallurgical products by 1.7 times (from 17.6 billion to 10.3 billion USD), of chemical products—by 2.1 times (from 4 to 1.9 billion USD)’.
This popular discontent could be somewhat managed by various political tricks following 2014. But it depended on the exclusion on the hubs of anti-Euro-Atlantic sentiment—the multi-million-strong electorate of the Donbass and Crimea, which had always overwhelmingly voted in favour of anti-EU, economically protectionist politicians (or ones that claimed to be such during the elections, at any rate). The balance would be destroyed by the implementation of Minsk.
This is why such a paradoxical situation emerged—‘nationalist’ Ukrainians refusing to allow the peaceful reintegration of lost territories. This is where a bit of class analysis is useful. The term ‘nationalists’ paints a somewhat misleading picture. The most important opponents of Minsk—the true winners of the Euromaidan revolution, to the chagrin of some nationalists, who felt they deserved the fruits of the revolution—were liberals, neoliberals, classical liberals, however one wants to call them. Their priority is trade liberalisation, privatisation, the eradication of state intervention in the economy. Hence their bitter animus against the industrial, working-class population concentrated in the Donbass, whom they generally call ‘bydlo’ (unthinking oxen), ‘sovki’ (Soviet rubbish) and so on. Hence their fear of the return of this population into Ukraine’s electoral politics. Hence various forms of denial of the right to vote for parts of the Donbass under Ukrainian control from 2014 onwards, often with reference to ‘security threats’, along with suspension of voting rights for over a million internally displaced people from the region.
These liberals were hardly representative of Ukrainian society. They were a small group of urban intellectuals or white-collar, often IT, professionals employed by foreign corporations, with many of the former relying on Western grants from USAID and the Open Society Foundation. But they inevitably had to ally—or fuse—with radical nationalists. Trade liberalisation could never be a slogan that would rally millions. Nor are many people inspired to die or kill for it—essential prerequisites for a successful revolution. Plenty of other reasons have encouraged an alliance between liberals and radical nationalists in Ukraine over the past decades, not least among them a common foreign sponsor (and enemy). Their common class origin—the educated and frustrated petit-bourgeois of a poor country—also played a role, particularly in their shared hatred for the ‘mindless Soviet proletariat’ of the east who refused to accept the wisdom of ‘necessary reforms’. Europhile racism was also a shared ‘value’.
Ever since 2014, radical economic liberals have been in charge of economic policy, and radical ethnocentrist nationalists given crucial positions in the police and army, along with the right to commit street violence against peace activists and other undesirable ‘separatists and antifascists’. This quite comfortable alliance agreed on the need to deny any possibility of implementing the Minsk Agreement.
If Minsk were implemented, there would be a return to something like the pre-2014 Ukraine—pluralistic, if stagnant. By 2016, and even more loudly in 2019, top Ukrainian businessmen who hitherto had avidly supported Euromaidan and EU integration—Igor Kolomoisky and Viktor Pinchuk—wrote public articles advocating for the implementation of the Minsk agreements and a pause on Euro-Atlantic integration. ‘Painful compromises’, in Pinchuk’s words, were needed to return to peaceful economic normality.
The precarity of the anti-Minsk ruling coalition, which neither the masses nor the economic elite particularly approved of, was keenly felt. Minsk, due to its derailing of Euro-Atlantic ‘integration’, would also certainly mean less access to Western aid funds for the liberals—a rollback of the magical ‘reforms’.
Nationalists, apart from everything else, were also quite worried about the possibility of facing criminal charges in a Ukraine that was at peace, where parties elected by the majority of the population (including the Donbass) could run for power. In the words of the telegram channel ‘Tales of the IV Reich’, managed by a top Azov lieutenant:
The implementation of ‘Minsk’ into the Constitution of Ukraine is worse than a full-scale war for us, the Ukrainian right-wingers. We are no strangers to fighting the Russians—the thousand-year war of freedom-loving Eastern Europeans against the Tatar rabble continues to this day. If [Minsk is implemented] … We, military veterans, will not have any life in such a Ukraine. We will be under constant pressure from the system, the possibility of liquidation by amnestied militants, no one needs life in constant fear.
Many Ukrainian liberals hoped that Russia would simply annex the parts of the Donbass it already held so that Ukraine wouldn’t have to pretend it would implement Minsk. Alexey Arestovich stated on 17 February that he would ‘send a bottle of cognac to Putin’ if he recognised the separatist republics, so ‘we [could] thereby throw off the Minsk constrictor’ by forfeiting the need to peacefully reintegrate the territories.
Despite election promises to end the war through compromises, once in power Zelenskiy was always adamant to declare his disdain for Minsk. In 2020 he called the agreements ‘handcuffs’ and ‘a defeat’, and on 18 February 2022 he called it a ‘pointless document’. Ukrainian liberal-nationalists abroad, such as the academic Alexander Motyl, shared this desire to rid Ukraine of Donbass. Motyl often repeated in his interviews the need to abandon the Donbass to Russia, if Ukraine was to have any chance of being a unified ‘European nation’.
Ukraine’s representatives to organisations set up to regulate the war in Donbass were also quite forthright about their feelings vis a vis Minsk. Serhiy Harmash, a representative to the Trilateral Contact Group on the war in Ukraine (set up in 2014), gave a January 2022 Radio Free Europe interview titled ‘Putin wants to conquer Ukraine through the Minsk agreements’. In it, he argued the Minsk agreements were unacceptable because they involved ‘subjectivizing the LNR and DNR as sides of the conflict, which is equivalent to the capitulation of Ukraine’. He worried that ‘[after Minsk] there will be no possibility of NATO-expansion to the east or Ukraine’s entry to NATO’. Roman Bessmertny, another of Ukraine’s representatives to the trilateral contact group, wrote a 16 February 2022 article titled ‘two reasons not to implement Minsk’.
As distasteful Minsk may have been, the alternative was also quite clear. Throughout 2014-21 there were plenty of articles in Ukrainian Truth, the bulwark of liberal Euro-Atlantic values, that acknowledged that the abandonment of Minsk would result in a full-scale war with the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, plenty of Ukrainian nationalists were quite eager for a war with Russia to finally unify the perennially split and disappointing Ukrainian nation. The 24 February invasion was greeted with open gratitude by many on their social media accounts.
But there were significant forces in Ukrainian society that called for implementation of the Minsk agreements. Zelenskiy was elected on a peace platform, and he promised to do ‘anything necessary’ for peace. Sergei Sivokho, his advisor to the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine with the responsibility of advising on humanitarian policies toward his native region of the Donbass, essentially proposed implementation of Minsk and wide-ranging cultural autonomy for Russian speakers, until he was attacked by Azov nationalists in 2020. Seventy nationalists threw him to the ground in the middle of his presentation on his detailed project for ‘national dialogue’, calling him a traitor. Shortly after, he was fired. Nevertheless, more than seventy Ukrainian civic organisations joined his National Forum For Reconciliation and Unity. In a 2015 poll, 57 per cent of Ukrainians supported implementation of the Minsk agreements. Less than 30 per cent agreed that lost territories should be recovered by military force—the default position of the ruling liberal-nationalists.
Despite constant government repression (and the fairly inept opportunism of its party leaders), the Opposition Platform–For Life, whose program was implementation of the Minsk Agreement and a more sovereign economic policy not under the yoke of the International Monetary Fund, consistently came second in polls and did well in elections. Its ratings were increasing in 2021, with approval ratings of around 20 per cent, until Zelenskiy applied a variety of extralegal sanctions against them. If the Donbass and Crimea returned to Ukraine, the party—or another iteration with the same politics—would, if not win elections, then certainly gain enough votes in order to play a key role in Ukrainian politics or coalition governments. There were popular bloggers who advocated for the implementation of Minsk, such as Dmitry Dzhangirov, Anatoliy Shariy and Olesya Medvedeva, whose videos consistently received hundreds of thousands of views.
But this was not enough. Volodymyr Ischenko has written elsewhere of the political incapacity of the pro-Minsk camp, which was neither able to build nor interested in building strong civic organisations to counter the immense ecosystem of western-funded, anti-Minsk, liberal-nationalist civil society.
I would also note the following problems. For one, it was simply very difficult to overcome the system of violent political repression and electoral disenfranchisement practiced by the post-2014 government. The electoral disenfranchisement of millions was praised by liberal leaders of the Euromaidan revolution, such as Mustafa Nayem. Furthermore, for most Ukrainians, there were more urgent priorities to focus on. Close to 90 per cent of Ukrainians were struggling to survive on a median salary of less than $300, or were among the millions of pensioners whose pension was closer to $100 a month. 2021 was a record year for Ukraine in terms of emigration: over 660 thousand people left the country permanently. This is three times larger than Pakistan’s figure for the same year. Pakistan’s population is around six times larger than Ukraine’s.
In a society where the media blared out the same anti-Minsk messages, and where it was clear to everyone that the ‘wrong’ opinion could have dangerous consequences, many people simply decided to keep their mouths shut and concentrate on surviving and, ideally, emigrating.
Hence, by early 2022, 63 per cent of Ukrainians thought that the Minsk agreements had to be ‘revised’. According to the same poll, 67 per cent of respondents said they were ‘superficially familiar’ with the Minsk agreements, and only 12 per cent professed to know their contents ‘very well’. It should be kept in mind that the agreements are themselves only a page in length.
The visible ‘Ukrainian Left’
Liberals, nationalists—what about the Ukrainian Left? Online left-wing media has been graced in recent years by impassioned appeals from the ‘Ukrainian Left’, especially the ‘Social Movement’ groupuscule. ‘Ukrainian lived experience’ rallies against ‘the arrogant, ignorant Western Left’. I also have some anecdotes to tell from my encounters with this ‘Ukrainian Left’ in the years before 2022, which I will present as short, anonymous quotes: ‘Slava ukraini, why is this speaker at the rally talking about workers instead of student problems?’ ‘Yes, we need strong unions like Israel’. ‘Of course I’m working on a USAID grant, how else?’ ‘We need responsible governance like in the EU’.
Their views can also be readily found in the public sphere. Hanna Perekhoda’s 2022 article claims that Donbass was ‘settled … [by people] mostly from Russia’ following the 1932-3 ‘artificial famine’. This ‘leftwing’ rhetoric of sinister ethnic replacement creating an ‘anti-Ukrainian’ population whose aspirations are a priori unacceptable mirrors dominant ethnonationalist discourse.
Andriy Parubiy, an important individual with a neo-Nazi background who played a key role in the violence of Euromaidan, afterwards occupying key state positions, said in 2016,
My grandmother … told me about how millions of Ukrainians were killed in eastern Ukraine by these same Muscovite occupiers from the Kremlin. Millions of our grandfathers were killed on those territories, which were then settled by migrants from all corners of the other state. And today you appeal to the local population, to the opinion of the people who live there?’
In the words of Vadim Prystaiko, Deputy Foreign Minister and Foreign Minister from 2019-2020, ‘It would be politically useless to talk to these people [residents of Donbass] who are, in fact, field commanders and not Ukrainians in the full sense of the word.
The quotes from ‘the Ukrainian left’ can be multiplied ad nauseum. According to one of the leading figures of ‘Social Movement’, Vladyslav Starobudtsev, SS Galizien and the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA) were organisations working towards ‘liberation’ of their country, and that ‘non-Ukrainians’ who critique them are ‘idiots’. Denying that the SS Galicia Division took part in the Holocaust, he does not treat the fact—shown by Ukrainian historian John-Paul Himka in his recent book Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust—that the UPA was responsible for the brutal killings of upwards of tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and Ukrainian communists in the 1940s, often without prompting, or even against the wishes of Nazi Germany.
Despite social media appearances, this ‘Left’ is a mirage. It consists of a dozen or so active people, plus whatever student friends they bring along to their lectures. Many of them have long ago left Ukraine and reside in Western university. This ‘Ukrainian left’ has no effect on Ukrainian society, nor is it meant to. Its function is for Ukrainian international optics—for the university-age knowledge class of the imperial metropoles, among whom various left-liberal decolonial frameworks are fashionable nowadays. And it is for this audience, whose political weight in the metropole is far from negligible, that a whole cottage industry of Atlantic Council-affiliated ‘anticolonial Ukrainists’ has sprung up—Stephen Velychenko, Terrell Starr, Maksym Eristavi, Alexander Motyl.
According to the renowned academic Motyl in his article ‘Ukraine’s Donbas is like America’s Deep South’, the population of the Donbass has ‘proven to be the most reactionary, intolerant and illiberal population within Ukraine’, and the Azov Batallion ‘resembles the Black Panthers’. The relation to reality matters little; it’s all about optics, emotive affect.
Peculiar evolutions, predictable alliances
In fact, Euromaidan and all that followed decimated the Ukrainian Left. Many fled Ukraine; others were arrested, and there are plenty of stories of mysterious suicides of comrades. Some joined the separatists in the east, thereby losing the possibility of returning to the rest of Ukraine. Some left-wing anti-fascists in the football hooligan subculture joined the Right in the course of Euromaidan and the war in the east. They decided that in the battle between European civilisation, with all its various cultural tolerances, and totalitarian Muscovy, right-wing Ukrainian nationalists were an acceptable ally. Many then decided that instead of a tactical ally, they represented a progressive, national liberatory force. There are grounds to suspect that one of the top lieutenants in Azov was once an anti-fascist.
For those few remaining individuals who claimed a ‘left-wing’ orientation (always being careful to deny any association with communism or even Marxism), the situation was stark. Either support a peaceful resolution of the conflict, critique both an ethnonationalism whose only outcome could be the destruction of the state it claimed to serve and the equally destructive economic neoliberalism brought by the ‘Euromaidan revolution’—but at the cost of being shut out from ‘civil society’, having no chance of receiving pleasant international funding, being shunned by one’s existing urban, ‘creative’ urban social groups and facing death threats, stabbings and constant fear—or join in with the general flow of liberal-nationalist civil society. Loudly proclaim one’s allegiance to the civilising mission of Europe, but add that Europe’s ‘real essence’ is some sort of left-wing social democracy. Latch onto feminism and such to claim that the real Euro-optimists are leftists who attack Putinist homophobia. Proclaim yourself an even more integral nationalist than the right-wingers who harass you—in a ‘decolonial’ way, of course, arguing that Donbass separatists are homophobic Putinist fascists who should be destroyed to make way for Euromaidan’s progressive revolution.
Some, such as the left-communist/anarchist collective Nigilist, even put a more ‘Marxist’ spin on it by arguing that Euromaidan was an anti-feudal revolution (meaning that leftis ts could support it even if it was led by liberals) against Yanukovych’s quasi-Soviet regime, and that the Donbass anti-Maidans were reactionary supporters of the ancien regime, à la the war in the Vendée following the French revolution.
No doubt it wasn’t easy taking the first option. I know of one person who was stabbed for holding up a poster reading ‘Budget money for medicine, instead of the war’. Pushing for a peaceful solution to the war post-2014 was hard and dangerous. Maybe it was even hopeless, given the circumstances. But does that change the fact that it was the right thing to do?
Ukraine—a modern Cuba?
This claim has been put forth by some ‘Ukrainian leftists —members of ‘Social Movement’ like Taras Bilous, who are endorsed by the British Paul Mason, apparently one of the ‘good’ members of the generally irredeemable ‘Western Left’. According to this remarkable argument, Ukraine represents a sort of modern Cuba, and NATO expansion to it is akin to the Caribbean island once welcoming Soviet rockets.
Accordingly, whatever Ukraine chooses to do, it should be applauded in doing so. This is accompanied with various panegyrics to ‘Ukrainian agency’ and sneers against the ‘Western leftists’ who only care about great power agency and are US-centric in focusing on the latter’s global agency. One wonders what these same people, who spare no vitriol in criticising the racist, totalitarian, imperialist USSR, might have said about Cuba’s agency if they were alive back in the 60s, but no matter.
First of all, this term ‘Ukraine’ is interesting. Can the actions of the post-2014 government really be said to be identical with all the citizens of this country? According to a 2021 poll, only 22 per cent of Ukrainians said they supported the Euromaidan ‘revolution’ (another 19 per cent said they supported it to some extent). A 2021 poll, like many others, showed that over 70 per cent of Ukrainians believed that ‘our country is moving in the wrong direction’.
Apart from that, even if all Ukrainians did yearn for this course: Should the country destroying its own industrial economy through EU economic colonialism be praised? If they want it, let them do it, but why should foreigners of left-wing persuasions praise it? All in the name of an EU accession which, it has always been clear, will never happen. A ‘European dream’ which in practice would mean becoming a poorer version of Romania—or rather, gaining more of what Ukraine already enjoys as a hub for global sex slavery, even faster depopulation, stagnating wages and atrocious working conditions? And is joining the ranks the few rich European countries such an admirable goal that it should be supported by the Left? Is joining the ranks of the military alliance that killed millions in Iraq, Congo, Libya and Syria something that needs to be cheer on by us?
Some left-liberals would have us agree that yes, this goal is quite admirable, and if achieving this goal means a full-scale war with Russia, well, it’s a justifiable cost. Instead of reference to facts, they pillory opponents for having a ‘fascist/nineteenth-century sphere of influence mindset’. Some even consider it necessary to appeal to the ‘rules-based international order’. In reality, these word games are irrelevant. What matters is the real world—a world in which states exist, and where domestic actions can result in responses from one’s neighbours. This is neither good nor bad; it is simply a fact.
For a left-winger, the danger of US military intervention in Cuba was a justifiable cost given the social advances of the revolutionary regime. In the name of its Euro-Atlantic revolution, Ukraine has gained probably upwards of a hundred thousand dead, even more injured and traumatised, millions displaced, total de-industrialisation, social immiseration, economic hyper-liberalisation and war debts that would make post-First World War Europe wince. If one is a liberal or an ethnonationalist, this goal justifies any costs. But that isn’t the only possible interpretation.