The most recent apologia for a pro war stance on Labour Hub from Vincent Présumey and Stefan Bekier claims to be dispelling myths, but is transparently erecting many of its own. The most glaring is this statement slipped in towards the end. “This all-out war since February 2022 was in no way caused by NATO expansion or any aggression towards Russia on its part.” There is no attempt to justify this statement. It is simply an assertion. The most obvious rejoinder to it is that it does not look that way in Russia.
If an assessment of this war and the historical background to it has any prospect of being taken seriously, it is necessary to have some analysis of Russian motivation that goes beyond trivialised prolefeed notions that its all a manifestation of a belated mid life crisis on Vladimir Putin’s part or that Russia is inherently, timelessly imperialist, but one of the strangest things about the wall to wall coverage in the media here since Feb 24th last year has been how little of it has seriously examined why the Russians sent their troops over the border, and this piece is no exception.
Here is a list of why they did, from their point of view; which can largely be summarised as the massive increase in Ukrainian military spending and NATO military aid, training and technical assistance from 2014 to 2021.
- The signing of a new military doctrine (2015) which explicitly named Russia as Ukraine’s enemy (in violation of the Ukrainian constitution).
- The number of soldiers increased from 140k in 2014 to 250k in 2015, and then by 2020 with 900K reserves). Even without the reserves, this is three times bigger than the British Army and about half the size of that of the US! It is also, again, even without reserves, significantly larger than the force the Russians invaded with (around 150K).
- The growth of the Ukrainian nationalist national guard from 15k in 2014 to 60k men in 2019. These included overtly fascist elements.
- The ongoing war in the Donbass in which 14,000 people were killed, including over 3,000 civilians in the Donetsk Rebel Republics.
- The ongoing flow of far right volunteers to fight in the Donbass.
- US military aid alone amounting to almost $3 billion dollars by the end of 2021. This has, of course, been dwarfed since, with a level of expenditure comparable to what they were putting into Vietnam in the late 60s.
- The presence of NATO advisers in military units along the frontlines in the Donbass, sometimes as contractors from western military security companies.
- The presence of a large contingent of US intelligence officers in the headquarters of the SBU (Ukrainian intelligence service) in Kiev (according to former SBU chief).
- Statements from senior Ukrainian figures (including a former Foreign Minister and the head of the armed forces) that discussed a future war with Russia, the targeting of Russian cities and power stations, and the annexation of Russian territory in the Kuban.
- In that context, Ukrainian claims that they had developed and would begin producing long-range cruise missiles (2019). Not hard to see who they would be aimed at.
- Statements by a senior Ukrainian politician that the Russian population of the Donbass and Crimea should be put in concentration camps following their ‘liberation’ by Ukraine.
- Statements by various officials during 2021 that Ukraine would seek to acquire nuclear weapons, which substantiated a long-term far right desire for Ukraine to become a nuclear armed power.
- Increasing verbal expressions of support for a future Ukrainian membership of NATO by senior western politicians.
- The cutting of military-to-military relations between NATO and Russia in late 2021.
- Recent admissions by Hollande and Merkel that they used the Minsk 1 and 2 agreements to buy time for the Ukrainian military to grow.
- The cutting off of water supplies to Crimea and the Donbass, which affected the civilian population.
- The January-February 2022 incursions by Ukrainian special forces into Russia and the shelling of border posts near the Donbass.
- The massing of Ukrainian forces around the Donbass, which Russia interpreted as preparation for an invasion of the rebel provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.
- Border incursions by NATO ships in the Black Sea during late 2021.
- The use of Ukrainian territory for flights by US reconnaissance drones and aircraft.
And this is without considering the political context within Ukraine since 2014:
- The post 2014 purging of the state, and the promotion of fascist nationalists within its institutions.
- The glorification of Nazi Germany and its collaborators in Ukraine, and the justification of their war against the peoples of the USSR, by both the state (in education especially) and the media.
- The effective banning of socialist symbols and imagery through the twin effects of a ‘de-communisation’ law and a law on extremist symbolism which clearly defined socialist symbols, left Nazi symbols undefined, and which was exacerbated by selective application only to Soviet symbols such as the red star and flag, the hammer and sickle and so on.
- Allowing nationalists and fascists to create a widespread network of social organisations, youth movements and businesses which propagated fascist ideology targeting Russians, Russian-ness (what they call the ‘internal occupation’) and manifestations of ‘Sovietism’.
- Legal and social repression of the use of the Russian language, including in the education and state systems.
- The imprisonment and judicial harassment of opposition activists and critical academics, the assassination of critical journalists and social leaders.
- The adoption of laws that equated dissent with ‘separatism’ and ‘sedition’, which meant that even calls for peace and a negotiated solution to the Donbass crisis became criminalised.
- And the total refusal of NATO to even consider negotiating about any of this in the period between November 2021 and February 24th, during which Russian attempts to propose a mutual security arrangement that would have demilitarised the crisis were turned down flat, mobilisations were treated as bluff and concessions seen as signs of weakness.
This is not simply rationally calculated on the Russian side. but emotionally felt. If you were to walk down the Arbat in Moscow, you would pass poster sized black and white portrait photographs of the hundreds of children killed by Ukrainian shelling in Donetsk since 2014. This might be considered as emotionally manipulative as the coverage we have on the BBC, though it lacks Orla Guerin’s mordant voiceovers, but it makes the point that, in any war, no one has a monopoly on suffering. Coverage that downplays that of the other side, or attempts to ignore their motivation leads to decisions based on outrage and lack of understanding.
On the Left, those that support the escalation of this war rely a lot on emotive propaganda of this sort. The point of which is to emotionally short circuit awkward questions, rule out of consideration any awkward facts, with a fierce emotional response that has to feed on itself more and more as the war drags on, digging so deep into a trench that it becomes impossible to see beyond it. This necessarily leads to some weird rewriting of history to justify it and a realignment alongside the traditional Atlanticist right in the Labour Movement in their bloc with the British ruling class and their “Special Relationship” with the USA. Ukraine Solidarity is calling a conference next weekend with the aim of generating a “new internationalism” which will gather together the currents that prioritise targeting enemies of the United States.
The Presumey and Bekier piece also contains a number of very strange historical assertions that simply don’t bear scrutiny.
- That 19th Century cultural figures like Gogol and Tchaikovsky were Ukrainian because they were born on current Ukrainian territory. I may be wrong here, but I don’t think that Gogol or Tchaikovsky considered themselves to be Ukrainian; or indeed, Trotsky, Khrushchev or Brezhnev, all of who were born in Ukraine, would have either. Identity is more complex than birthplace, and this kind of claim is crude, misleading and ahistorical.
- The “specific Ukrainian and peasant revolution in 1917-1918” occurred within two broad developments; an attempt to set up Soviet Republics in the Industrial South and East and an attempt to set up a nationalist regime under Petliura in the rural West. In the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution, the Petliura forces distinguished themselves by carrying out even more antisemitic pogroms that the Whites, who were hardly restrained on that front. That political division from 1917 to 1921 reflected the split between urban/industrial and Russian speaking on the one hand and rural and Ukrainian speaking on the other, and has been broadly replicated in voting patterns within modern Ukraine since 1991.
- The existence within Ukrainian nationalism of left wing currents is taken to imply that the movement itself was overall leftish or progressive and still is. This does not look reality in the face. All national movements are diverse, but the question is, which current is dominant/hegemonic and why, (which relates to where such movements get their external support from), Given that Ukrainian nationalism’s core was in Western Ukraine, gaining sustenance initially from the Habsburgs, then later the Nazis is why even Presumey and Bekier have to concede points like “The majority of the ‘Banderist’ forces (in fact split into several armed factions) actively engaged in anti-Semitic genocide” and “Ukrainian peasants, while they were oppressed for centuries, undoubtedly had their own victims: the Jews, and a substantial part of the population had been favourably disposed towards, and even participated in, the Shoah” and today “a part of the oppressed Ukrainian youth has internalized the stigma and turned it around, taking up Banderite or Fascist emblems and flags.” While this is not original sin, there is no doubt that it is an accurate description of what the dominant current in Ukrainian nationalism has been, and still is.
- The 1991 independence referendum is taken as still an accurate reflection about which state the peoples in the Donbass and Crimea want to be part of, without reflecting that at that time it was considered feasible to have a binational state with equal rights peacefully coexisting with Russia on the one side and the EU/USA on the other. Rather a lot has happened since then, and it no longer is.
- The description of the 2014 crisis presents the Maidan movement as purely popular and anti oligarchic, with ne’r a whiff of Western intervention misses both the role of the US and EU and the reaction against it in other parts of Ukraine, which was equally popular. Putting “colour revolution” in inverted commas for the earlier movement of 2004 is of a piece with this and the statement about NATO having no role in the crisis. The most powerful actor in these crises is painted over, ignored, looked at and not noticed. Its as if it wasn’t (and isn’t) there. The movement against the results of the Maidan in the South and East is presented as though it had no popular support. This is an equally serious evasion of reality that makes a mockery of the fact that over 3,000 civilians have been killed by Ukrainian army shelling and thousands of Donbass residents have been actively fighting the Ukrainian Army since 2014 in the Donbass militias. They have a memorial garden in Donetsk City to all the children that have been killed. And these kids are just as dead as any killed in Western Ukraine. They won’t get the full Fergal Keane treatment on the BBC, but they are just as dead. While Donetsk holds these graves…So, any attempt to get a peace settlement has to take their rights into account as much as those of people in Western Ukraine. There is a distinct sense that Presumey and Bekier don’t think they should and that “pro Russian” forces and currents deserve everything they get for being “pro Russian”. It being OK to ban Parties, close down media outlets and even take reprisals against individuals because they are “pro Russian”. In taking this position they concede that “pro Russian” forces are sufficiently present to require such repression, which ought to make them wonder why.
- This is also expressed in their attempt to downplay the Odessa massacre – nearly 50 people burnt to death – with a piece of nit picking about what the name of the building they were burnt to death in was, and that the people killed were “pro Russian” not just “trade unionists” as if that makes it OK somehow. They were still burnt to death. At the hands of a right wing nationalist mob.
- If anyone thinks the Azov battalion have been sanitised, have a look at some of their films. The influence of the far right is not demonstrated in their showing in elections but by what role they play in the state. This assertion “the ethnic or culturally exclusive conception of the nation, expressed by the extreme right-wing currents claiming to be more or less Banderist, has in fact been in retreat since the Maïdan surge of social self-activity in favour of a democratic, inclusive and civic conception” is the direct opposite of the truth. Consider these points from Freedom House, quite a right wing source, from 2018. After Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and Russia’s subsequent aggression, extreme nationalist views and groups, along with their preachers and propagandists, have been granted significant legitimacy by the wider society. Extremist groups are, however, aggressively trying to impose their agenda on Ukrainian society, including by using force against those with opposite political and cultural views. They are a real physical threat to left-wing, feminist, liberal, and LGBT activists, human rights defenders, as well as ethnic and religious minorities. In the last few months, extremist groups have become increasingly active. The most disturbing element of their recent show of force is that so far it has gone fully unpunished by the authorities. Their activities challenge the legitimacy of the state, undermine its democratic institutions, and discredit the country’s law enforcement agencies.
- The notion that Ukraine since 2014 has been primarily characterised by ” the self-organisation of civil society” misses both this and the overarching pattern of privatisation in both industry and agriculture that has gained pace since then; and which the agreement signed between President Zelensky and Blackrock will copper bottom it if Ukraine “wins”. Negotiations with the EU on a path to Ukrainian membership have been marked by complaints from the EU that Ukraine is diverging from EU standards on labour rights and environmental standards and corruption is rife and deep rooted, with twice as many Ukrainian Oligarchs named in the Panama papers as the next most corrupt country (Russia). President Zelensky was one of the people named. This was leading to a structural crisis in which 600,000 people, mostly men, were emigrating every year, both to find better prospects and avoid being conscripted and the economy was close to collapse according to the Finance Minister speaking in January last year.
- As “the essence of montage is conflict” these two sentences coming one after the other create a dissonance that the authors seem unaware of. There is an oligarchic faction behind Zelenskiy – that of Kolomoiski, of Dnipro, which financed his studios – but he will emancipate himself from it. He began by trying to move towards the implementation of the Minsk agreements, before backing down. Funny kind of “emancipation”. As with an earlier statement about the supporters of the Orange Revolution being deceived by the politicians it had put in power, this is noted without examination, the better to move quickly on. That Zelensky was elected on peace ticket accounts for his landslide win over Poroshenko. But the way that he was rapidly brought to heel by both the far right and the US and carried on with the war as before is passed over in silence.
Their summary – that the Russian intervention is a “genocide” – that to Russia “Ukrainians can only be Russians or dead” is the complete nonsense of people made delirious by their own rhetoric. The Russian war aims are for a demilitarised Ukraine that is outside NATO and without far right influence, was initially for autonomy for the Donbass but is now for its incorporation within the Russian Federation. That is still a reasonable basis for a peace settlement that could begin to ratchet down tensions and allow people to live, if not together, at least side by side.
Not settling on this sort of basis begs a number of questions, which no one from Ukraine Solidarity ever addresses. As Russia has military superiority and the supply of NATO arms at the current rate isn’t stopping them making slow but definite military progress, at terrible cost in casualties on the Ukrainian side, and with increasing damage to infrastructure like power stations and railways, USC has called for a specific escalation of arms supplies. So, as they think the reconquest of the part of Ukraine that does not want to be part of a nationalist Ukraine is a justifiable objective, they should answer these four questions;
- How much additional weaponry would be needed to do it?
- How would this be paid for, and what else would be sacrificed to do so?
- Do support escalating beyond nuclear thresholds, which the Americans have already broadly concluded it would be crossed if there were an attempt to reconquer Crimea?
- What would be the impact of the prolonged war that such an extension of military supply would entrench be on what’s left of Ukraine and the people who live there?
Give a little to NATO, and you end up capitulating a lot.
2 thoughts on “Emotive Plagues instead of Analysis on Ukraine – A Reply to Présumey and Bekier.”
I can’t thank you enough!
You are gifted. I shall look forward to reading before I go to sleep! 🙏 ☮️
A fantastic analytics and measures reply, Paul. I hope you also post it on our WhatsApp groups.