by Andrew Murray
So, could world imperialism mark the 100th anniversary of the first great inter-imperialist conflict by starting a third one? It would seem it is possible.
The unfolding Ukrainian crisis has bought every pundit and politician to attention. From left to right, expert advice about the nature of the new Ukrainian government, about Putin’s intentions, about the ethnic composition of the Donbass and the history of the Crimea fills the air. Everyone, it appears, is more of an authority on the politics of the Russian government than on the attitude of the British one to the events.
That seems wrong. In an international crisis of this magnitude it is the first responsibility of the anti-war movement to assess and, if necessary, oppose the policies of our own government, rather than limit ourselves to condemnations (or support) for every other government under the sun. Doubtless it was more amiable in 1914 for a British socialist to chew over the nefarious policies of the Tsar or Kaiser than to confront the big fat fact in front of the left (the vast colonial empire of the British), but it didn’t really help.
Cameron and Hague are all over the media (Hague from Kiev), denouncing Russia’s breach of international law in apparently taking control of the Crimea by main, if locally popular, force over the weekend. This is, they aver, a violation of national sovereignty and the principles of the international community. It has been pointed out that, coming from the country which bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without any legal cover at all, which sought United Nations authority for attacking Afghanistan in 2001 some time after the fact, which invaded Iraq in 2003 in flagrant opposition to the will of the UN Security Council, and which manipulated a limited “no fly” mandate over Libya in 2011 into a charter for illegitimate regime change, this need not necessarily be taken as an oracular judgement from on high, but rather as common-or-garden hypocrisy.
But it is not sufficient to stop there, at that unarguably powerful debating point. Why does the British government flout the principles of national sovereignty and international law wholesale, and then scream to high heaven when Russia appears to violate them retail?
The answer is surely that there is a struggle going on in the world – indeed, for the world. As a number of people have noted in recent times, the unipolar moment in international affairs has passed. Its tombstone will probably read : 1991-2008. A combination of the disasters and defeats of the “war on terror” and the economic crisis of neo-liberalism, together with the bounding growth of Chinese power and the steady returning of strength to the atrophied sinews of Russian authority, have turned the one-superpower world into something more like one-megapower and quite-a-few rising powers planet – all in flat contradiction to the programme of the once-notorious Project for a New American Century which specifically enjoined US administrations to exert every effort to prevent any such pluralism of power emerging. Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama have all done their best in one way or another, but returning history has proved stronger. It has become commonplace to invoked the spirit of pre-1914 inter-imperialist rivalry again today, although more often in relation to the threatening situation in the Far east where China, Japan and the US are increasingly squaring off.
British power is, in the process, being cast off from its traditional moorings, as chief helper to the sole superpower. It was Cameron who, when casting around for votes at the height of the Labour Party’s Iraq-related unpopularity, said that Britain did not always have to follow the policy of the USA. It was Cameron who, allied to French President Sarkozy, started to define a tentatively independent imperial policy by heading up the aggression against Libya at a moment when Obama appeared indifferent – and it was Cameron who again sought to lead the charge against Syria, hoping once more to drag a more-reluctant US administration behind him, only to find that it was Obama who could seize on the decision of a House of Commons which repudiated the Prime Minister, by halting the whole project for a further Middle East war (for now at least).
So to Ukraine. Under less sombre circumstances, it would certainly be comic to see Cameron and Hague, who spend every moment of their domestic political lives bending and manoeuvring around the winds of Euro-scepticism, pandering to every inane tabloid bout of Brussels-bashing (in part on plausible grounds of the EU’s undemocratic proceedings), now having to endorse the overthrow of a democratically-chosen government by a movement brandishing the European Union flag and demanding the very integration which the Tory Party abhors.
That starts to identify the problems the British elite has in the post-unipolar world. The EU – can’t live with it, can’t live without it. The USA – much the same. Where do the essential interests of the British elite sit, when other powers push to the brink of war? It is the problem Sir Edward Grey contemplated in 1914, when he declared the lights were going out all over Europe, but today it is confronted from a position of much greater relative weakness, where the possibility of Britain acting independently is radically diminished.
For a start, an official entered Downing Street for a crisis meeting carrying a briefing document averring that, whatever happened, “the government will not curb trade with Russia or close London’s financial centre to Russians as part of any possible package of sanctions against Moscow”, according to the BBC report. That the City must remain open to any money, however “hot”, and that London must remain the global oligarchs playground, are still articles of faith for Britain’s financier-controlled government, held in a grip as tight as that exercised on the Kiev regime by any corrupt rustbelt baron from Donetsk, whatever international law and national sovereignty etc & co may indicate. The entrepot and bolt-hole for the disreputable financiers of all nations is still in business, and what may be lost in the Ukraine may be gained in the buoyancy of property prices in Knightsbridge and Hampstead.
But that is only one side of the story. When one US diplomat tells another, in discussing the Ukraine crisis, “fuck the EU”, an uncouth expression of inter-imperial rivalry, we can be sure that they are speaking William Hague’s language. The EU as a matter of business challenges the City’s place in the sun – but then so do the imposition of sanctions on almost anyone for whatever reason which impede the flow of money to the hedge funds, merchant banks and other pillars of our regime. The EU needs Russia’s gas, transiting via Ukraine, the USA doesn’t. London needs misappropriated roubles, Frankfurt is indifferent to them. Washington wants a world without rivals (not least in determining when international law is sacrosanct and when it may be ignored), Germany and the EU know they have to learn to live with them.
For all these reasons, a united response by the great powers to the Crimean incident is not likely to go beyond platitudes, and will certainly not amount to military measures. But their steady incursion into the “post-Soviet space” has certainly played its part in provoking the current crisis. Any number of amber lights signalled from Moscow since 1991 have been ignored.
It is now beyond clear that in the USSR, as in Yugoslavia, the thoughtless elevation of intra-state boundaries of small consequence into inter-state frontiers was a catastrophic mistake, leaving millions of people suddenly stranded in a state to which they felt no attachment, and excluded from the national community with which they identified. If the Soviet Union had to be unwound, it would have been better if the separation had been accompanied by a redrawing of boundaries by agreement, in which case the arbitrary 1954 transfer of the Crimea from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine would likely have no longer stood, amongst other transfers.
This has been exacerbated by the steady drive of the EU, with Germany as its motor, eastward. One country after another has been drawn out of the Russian orbit and into the EU sphere – often, it must be said, with popular assent. But as the present author wrote in a book published in 1997 “of all the new ‘nation-states’ the Ukraine holds the greatest capacity for dramatic fragmentation, and is the object of the greatest interest by outside powers. Russia cannot accept Ukrainian independence, still less its incorporation into a German bloc, without accepting its own permanent relegation to the second rank of powers and denying its privatised giant industrial companies the most obvious external market to attach. Yet without the Ukraine, Germany’s domination of Europe would remain attenuated and provisional, always at the mercy of a Russian resurgence. The splits amongst the Ukrainian people, reflecting different histories and culture, could provide any number of internal pretexts and possibilities for external intervention.” The 1500 people who bought Flashpoint World War III, at least, were warned!
Here anyway is the “dramatic fragmentation”. HereHague, Cameron and their dutiful media echoes omit to recall that the “Maidan” movement, beginning ostensibly as an argument over trade agreements, culminated in the overthrow of an elected government. This, it seems, they now support, as they did in Cairo last year when the Mubarak military overthrew Morsi. Of course, being an elected government should not immunise against mass pressure, and it does not give that government carte blanche to loot and shoot at will. And, yes, there are other liberties beyond clean elections required to make a democracy, some of these absent in whole or part in the Yakunovych-Tymoshenko Ukraine. Nevertheless, the legitimacy of Yakunovych’s election in 2010 was not contested at the time, and was acknowledged as the genuine choice of the people at the time. If the President himself appears to be fast vanishing down history’s memory chute, the process by which he became President should not be so rapidly forgotten. If the outcome of any election is to be contingent on the subsequent endorsement of “Maidan” (or the endless variations which could be played on that theme by one side or another) then one may as well not bother with elections at all. Putin’s assertion that the events in Kiev in February amounted to an unconstitutional coup effected by violence (some of the shot were police officers), and that Yakunovych has a de jure claim to the Ukrainian Presidency is at any rate not absurd.
Yanukovich-Tymoshenko are in any case a unity of sorts. They are the twin representatives not of a “normal” ruling class with roots in society, but of interlocking oligarchic networks, neither of which are categorically pro-Russian or pro-“west” (Yakunovich never wanted to burn his bridges with the EU, nor has Tymoshenko never been averse to doing a little profitable business with Moscow), but play off one against another in their own interests and are in turn manipulated by them. The people have been largely politically disenfranchised in all this.
Both groups speculate on the symbols of national/religious/cultural identity the better to secure a mass base in order to lay hold of the unexpected bounty of a Ukrainian state, a “nation-state” lacking both a coherent nation and a functioning state. The issue from an internal perspective was hardly the EU integration offer (in purely economic terms the Russian terms were better), but the symbolic resonance of the orientation the choice between the two represented.
And the government which has replaced the nightclub-bouncer regime of Yakunovych is a motley agglomeration of dominant elements from Tymoshenko’s gang with sundry nationalists, anti-semites, neo-fascists, Russophobes and men of considerable violence. It excludes, however, the boxer Klitchko, prize-fighting champion of German interests, indicating that the Berlin script may not be entirely being followed. This government is distinguished by the inclusion of overt neo-nazis in office, a first in post-war Europe. A man who has announced that “Jewish Bolsheviks rule the Ukraine” now holds a high portfolio, and one of his party colleagues is Prosecutor-General. An attempt has been made to ban the Ukrainian Communist Party, whose premises have been seized. The status of the Russian language has been downgraded. The police have disappeared from the streets of Kiev, to be replaced by marauding fascist gangs. No doubt there are other aspects to the situation, but again Putin’s assertions that order has broken down, and Russophobic and anti-semitic elements have prevailed is not without foundation. The mandate of this administration, should it remain in office, will be to impose an eye-watering EU/IMF regime of austerity on their suffering country as the price of admission to the “west” – and a government thrusting such a programme down the throats of its people will be almost obliged, for its own survival, to sweeten the medicine with a dose of chauvinism and scapegoating of the “other” – Russians, for the most part, in this case with a walk-on part for Jews no doubt. Kerry and Hague will surely have made it clear on their visit to Kiev this week that the more colourful and alarming elements must be pruned from the new regime, but it remains a fact, acknowledged by the Financial Times as long ago as 1996, that xenophobes and fascists were rampant in the Western Ukraine. That particular fact is etched in the blood of tens of thousands of Poles, Jews and Russians massacred in 1944-45 by the ancestors of the Right Front and Svoboda activists now in power in Kiev. What legitimacy can this menagerie have in the eyes of the millions who voted for Yakunovych’s Party of Regions in 2010?
On the other hand there is the primitive imperialism of Putin’s Russia, speculating on the tragedies and miseries of the last quarter-century, on the genuine feelings of national and social grievance, to try to recreate a Greater Russian sphere of control, in the interests of his own oligarchs. Flag-waving for Russia’s military can hardly be justified on class or progressive grounds, much as millions will rejoice in any signal of the death of the “unipolar moment”. The best that can be said for the Russian action is that it may have forced internal and external elements in Ukraine to put the brakes on before the full-scale pogroms start, by making it clear that the triumph of pro-western reaction will result in the country’s partition. Paradoxically – and this would not have been his purpose – the space may have opened up for a more democratic solution to the crisis, including the eviction of fascists from the Kiev government. And if this has been a breach of international law, its human victims mercifully amount to zero so far, in the starkest of contrasts with recent Anglo-American international outrages.
Nevertheless, the interests of the Ukrainians of all ethnicities and linguistic groups are just playthings of the great powers, Britain included, and of their sponsored Kiev politicians. This is given added pathos by the occasional invocation of a united past, as when an unarmed group of Ukrainian soldiers approached a Russian military unit bearing, not a white flag, but the red flag they fought under together in defending the Crimea against the Nazis in 1941.
So this leads us back to first principles. A solution to the crisis must be local and democratic. If the Bandera fascists of 1944 have their heirs in office today, then so too there are millions of Ukrainians who recall the spirit of the “brotherhood of the peoples” in which they were raised. Cameron and Hague have nothing to contribute – they and their NATO partners are forces actively working to aggravate every division in the interests of extending their own spheres of interest. Their sabre-rattling achieves nothing beyond deepening the conflict.
The people of the Crimea should be offered a democratic choice as to whether they wish to undo Khruschev’s impetuosity of 1954. And an inclusive government, as in Northern Ireland perhaps, should be formed to prevent the divisions in the rest of the Ukraine spreading to the point of civil war, maybe through a species of federalism and certainly through a respect for civil and minority rights and a rejection of the extreme right. All this can only be done internally.
And we in Britain should challenge the policies followed by the EU and NATO. The latter, the so-called cornerstone of Britain’s international alliances is in Ukraine what it was in Yugoslavia in 1999 and is in Afghanistan today – an instrument of imperialism that has nothing to do with national defence whatsoever. The sanctimonious hypocrisy of our government, stirring up division and conflict at the other end of Europe while carefully making sure that the City suffers no loss in profits thereby – there is our enemy, and there is the problem that only we can deal with.
Andrew Murray is vice president of the Stop the War Coalition and a 21centurymanifesto contributor