Class Struggle inside Ukraine

Two recent articles in Open Democracy report responses from Ukrainian trade unions to the “Lugano Declaration”, which came out of a conference between high Western and Ukrainian officials in Switzerland last week and sets out plans for economic reconstruction “after the war is over” by the Ukrainian Oligarchy* and its major imperial sponsors; the US, UK and EU.

This exposes the way that Ukrainian Oligarchs are ruthlessly using the war to entrench their position against the working class.

Natalia Zemlyanska, head of Ukraine’s Union of Manufacturers and Entrepreneurs commented, “No representatives from Ukrainian trade unions, nor our social partners from the employers’ side, were invited to help develop the reconstruction plan.

Thus, Ukrainian unions are not considered by their ruling class to be a significantly valuable part of their nation to deserve any voice in discussions about helping shape its future economy. This is not new. As Zemlanskya noted, the principle of social dialogue “died in Ukraine long before the Russian invasion”.

Its worth bearing in mind what the pre war baseline they are “reconstructing” was. Overall, Ukraine was a country in structural crisis and decline. In 2019 the population was down 10 million from the level of 1993, declining at about half a million a year. Its GDP was lower than it was in 1989, with an aging population despite a low life expectancy of just 71.76 years (67 for men) and the shortest healthy life expectancy in Europe. Unemployment was consistently around 9%. It was 88th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index – well below Russian and Belarus, just below China, Ecuador and Azerbaijan; and just above the Dominican Republic, Saint Lucia and Tunisia.

The reconstruction planned at Lugano will entrench these trends by consolidating the liberalisation of labour legislation that has accelerated since the Maidan events in 2014 – which has now been entrenched by emergency wartime regulations – to further squeeze the space for trade unions to operate, to give employers a free hand, and remove state oversight of the labour market.

This has been supported by countries like the UK for some years. Alongside the military training delivered since 2014, in 2021 the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office funded a propaganda project to make labour deregulation popularly acceptable; in a clear demonstration of what making “development” subordinate to foreign policy imperatives looks like.

This highlights something that at first sight looks paradoxical. While seeking EU membership, Ukraine is moving sharply away from EU labour standards. In October 2020, eighteen months before the Russian invasion, the joint report of the Ukrainian unions and the European TUC , noted that obligations to enshrine “international labour norms in law and in practice, ensure freedom of association and collective bargaining in particular, strengthen social dialogue and capacities of social partners, and gradually align its legislation with the EU Acquis in the field of employment, remuneration, social policies and equal opportunitieswere just not being done. As they noted, “no reasonable progress has been achieved“.

Now that the EU powers like Germany and France, which previously might have aimed for a modus operandi with Russia, both militarily and economically, have been brought to heel by the US and will be paying the economic price both for increased arms expenditure and being forcibly weaned off relatively cheap Russian energy supplies, negotiations on labour standards with Ukraine could well be used by neo liberal forces in the EU to leverage a weakening of its own current levels as an unaffordable luxury in straightened times – in an odd mirror image of the downward pressure exerted by the UKs trajectory of a post Brexit race to the bottom.

Before the war, wage levels were already among the lowest in Europe, with one quarter of the population receiving an income lower than the actual living wage, fuelling a persistent and massive exodus of younger workers in a search of better pay in the EU, particularly in the neighbouring countries, and avoiding being conscripted to fight in the Donbass at the same time.

It has got worse since. Employers are now able to suspend employment contracts: so employees do not receive wages, but are still considered employed. And this is being widely used. By 1 April, roughly five million citizens had applied for income loss benefits – 16 times more than the 308,000 registered number of unemployed at the end of May.

This gives carte blanche for ‘shadow employers’ who do not employ people officially. The state now no longer monitors wage debts – a long term problem in Ukraine.

In response to the war Parliament has further suspended parts of workplace protections and collective agreements, put forward legislation to take employees of small and medium-sized enterprises – 70% of Ukraine’s workforce –outside of the scope of current labour legislation and given employers the right to terminate employment contracts at will.

Wages fell by an average of 10% in May, compared to the pre-war period. Wages in raw material extraction, security and manual labour have almost halved.

Future Faking?

Right now, under the impact of the war, six million people, mostly women, have left the country. In Europe, many of them are now living in countries where wages are higher, laws are largely obeyed, and housing and Nurseries are affordable. Their return en masse gets less likely the longer the war goes on, and, after the end of martial law, which forbids men under the age of 60 from leaving the country, many who can will leave the country to join them. A long war will create tensions on this front too.

In the immediate term the state wants to develop microbusinesses to relaunch the economy: which amounts to lending to micro-entrepreneurs or training people in IT skills. This will be hampered by the destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure, low purchasing power and general instability which present small businesses with enormous problems in setting up supply chains or finding customers.

The Lugano Declaration rests heavily on ‘A Blueprint for the Reconstruction of Ukraine’, published by a group of international economists in April, which aims to:

1) introduce more flexible employment contracts and eliminate labour legislation that precludes the development of liberal economic policy;

2) provide government subsidies for foreign companies;

3) large-scale privatisation, including Ukraine’s biggest banks;

4) priority credit support for export sector;

5) use of low-skilled and labour-intensive public works to fix infrastructure;

6) establish a technocratic agency that will distribute international aid.

The kind of future society envisaged here is quite clear.

And this is beginning to generate tensions. As Vitaliy Dudin notes, “Ukrainians were ready to endure any difficulties in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion. But as the tide of the war has changed, not everyone thinks the current situation – where business has advantages over workers – is fair”.

The extent to which this finds expression remains to be seen. This is a very important perception. “As the tide of the war has changed”. A spirit of unquestioning national unity might be viable in the immediate shock of an invasion, or when it looked, briefly, as though the Russian withdrawal from Kyiv might be the prelude for a general victory for Ukraine in the short term. But, the longer the war drags on, and the more Russia advances, the more the class contradiction on the Ukrainian side is likely to find expression.

Dudin’s argument that an alternative based on state investment to create secure, sustainable jobs, with popular engagement and trade union involvement, skills training, proper state scrutiny and regulation of employer practice because, as he puts it post-war Ukrainian society needs integration, and that will be ensured by the development of state-owned and cooperative enterprises that do not make profits to the detriment of society and environment, and this requires policies of redistribution through taxation and the confiscation of surplus wealth from Ukraine’s richest people runs counter the interests of those running the state – who are precisely “Ukraine’s richest people” – and contrary to the kind of society they are fighting the war for; in alliance with the most predatory imperialisms on the planet.

Achieving a programme like Dudin’s won’t be done with the Oligarchs in power, nor with NATO backing them. Zemlanskaya’s argument that “The most important thing is to win – and then to see in what form Ukraine has ended the war, and what the future will look like,” is declaring a class truce while the war lasts – a truce that is not being respected by the ruling class. It also begs two questions

  1. Is the neo liberal dystopia the Oligarchs and NATO have in mind worth fighting and dying for?
  2. When and in what circumstances will the war be over, and what interest do the working class in Ukraine have in the circumstances in which that happens? The US, UK and the gung ho wing of NATO are for fuelling it for as long as possible, years not months; and are quite insouciant what might be left of Ukraine at the end of it. They are pre-emptively opposing diplomatic negotiations.

This is also a question for the international labour movement, being hit increasingly hard by the economic blowback from the war itself and, more severely, the sanctions the US has imposed to pursue it by other means. None of us has an interest in this war continuing.

Arguing against negotiations on the grounds that this would “reward” Russia should bear in mind the consequences for all concerned if the war continues. And that peace on the Russian terms – Crimea and Donbass not part of nationalist Ukraine, Ukraine not in NATO, Mutual Security arrangement (or even long drawn out negotiations around them) – would be better than a resolution on NATO’s terms – forcible reconquest of Crimea and Donbass, Ukraine fully integrated into a triumphant and triumphalist NATO with rapidly increasing military budgets, readying its new 300,000 strong strike force for interventions further east against countries they would consider ripe for plucking.

*Ukraine, we should note, had more politicians named in the Pandora Papers than any other country; 38, twice as many as Russia’s 19. President Zelensky was one of them.

Neither Moscow nor Kyiv, but Washington

The commitment by the US of $40 billion to funnel war fighting material into Ukraine makes it clear that this war is being driven by neither Moscow nor Kyiv, but Washington.

$40 billion is ten times Ukraine’s 2021 military budget.

Figures from Wikipedia

If the aid were a country on its own, it would be the tenth biggest military spender in the world, not far below Japan and Saudi Arabia, well above Italy and Australia, and double the budget of Canada or Israel.

Figures from Institute for International Strategic Studies, using average market exchange rates.

This comparison can be seen even more clearly if we leave off the USA and China, as the two countries with an expenditure in a different league to all the others – the US especially.

It is also noticeable on this graph that the UK spent more on its military in 2021 than Russia did.

It is clear from this that the US is pushing for a long war, that it will sabotage peace negotiations and keep sanctions in place even if a ceasefire is achieved. The knock on effects on the rest of the world are already grim and will get worse unless a peace deal is reached.

The UK’s role as the USAs most bellicose supporter will be discussed at an online meeting – Opposing the New Age of Militarism – on June 15th organised by No Cold War Britain.

“No one in the West will believe you”.

Evan Davies, of the BBC Radio 4 PM programme, is so deeply bought into ruling class ideology that he sometimes gives the game away without realising it. My all time favourite is when he commented, on the impending French Presidential election in 2007, that the 35 hour week really had to go because although “it is really good for the people, its really bad for the economy. Which begs the question of what, or who, “the economy” is supposed to be good for, if its not for “the people.”

He did it again when interviewing the Russian Ambassador to the EU on 26th May. Having asked what Russia’s aims in Ukraine were, and being told that they are

  • an end to military threats against the Donbass
  • and demilitarisation and denazification in Ukraine

and that a Russian perception of an imminent threat of a Donbass invasion set for March 8th, as far as they could make out, was the trigger for the preemptive invasion on Feb 24th; his response was not to challenge any of the assertions or argue whether they were right or wrong, but simply to state, with a sneer you could almost cut, “no one in the West will believe you”.

Before looking at the validity or otherwise of the Ambassador’s statement, it is significant that Davies said “no one in the West, not “no one in the world. While “the West” tends to mistake itself for “the world”, or at least, as the only part of the world that matters, this does give the game away that the perception of this war in “the West” is not the same as that in the rest of “the world”; which Davies must be at least subconsciously aware of. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The countries imposing sanctions on Russia are the United States and its direct allies: the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand – all of them part of the Global North. The Global South has not joined in.

So, taking “the West” as the aberration that it is, could the tendency to dismiss anything the Russians might say as “just what you’ve been told to say”, as Davies put it, have anything to do with the almost complete lack of dissenting voices on our media?

Taking the points one at a time and examining them…

Militarisation of Ukraine and military threats against the Donbass.

Vyacheslav Tetekin, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (the largest opposition force in the country) details the sharp and sustained increases in military spending by Ukraine after 2014, at a time in which living standards are still below the level they were at the time of the break up of the Soviet Union, the involvement of the US and its allies in training and arms supply, and the huge build up of forces focussed on the Donbas, particularly this year. This is cited in an article by John Ross on the military turn of the US in Monthly Review that is well worth reading. As has been remarked, Ukraine is not in NATO, but NATO has certainly been in Ukraine.

After the 2014, “the country’s finances were redeployed from the tasks of improving the welfare of the nation to strengthening the armed forces. Ukraine’s military budget has grown from $1.7 billion in 2014 to $8.9 billion in 2019 (5.9% of the country’s GDP)… Ukraine… spent three times more [as a percentage of GDP] for military purposes than the developed countries of the West…

Hundreds of instructors from the United States and other NATO countries participated in training of the Army. Ukraine was preparing for war under the supervision of the United States.

Huge funds were spent on the restoration of military hardware. During the war against Donbas in 2014-15, Ukraine has not used air combat support, as all combat aircraft required repair. However, by February 2022, there were already about 150 fighters, bombers and attack aircraft in the Ukrainian Air Force. Such a buildup of the Air Force would make sense only for the capture of Donbas.

At the same time, powerful fortifications were created on the border of Donbas and Ukraine… the salary of soldiers at the end of 2021 tripled, from 170 to 510 dollars. The Government of Ukraine has been dramatically increasing the size of its Armed Forces.

The first stage of Ukraine’s preparation for war was successfully completed by the end of 2021. The combat capability of the Ukrainian army has been restored, military equipment has been repaired and modernized…

the United States has planned two options for using the new, militarized Ukraine… The first one was to capture Donbas and, in case of a successful combination of circumstances, proceed for invasion to the Crimea. The second option was to provoke Russia’s armed intervention…

…Ukraine being under the heel of the United States creates a very real danger. In December 2021, Moscow put forward a demand to the NATO on measures to ensure Russia’s legitimate interests. The West…. ignored these demands, knowing that preparations for the invasion of Donbas are in full swing. The most combat-ready units of the Ukrainian Army numbering up to 150,000 thousand people were concentrated on the border of Donbas. They could break the resistance of the People’s militia of Donbas within 2-3 days, with the complete destruction of Donetsk and spill so much blood of the defenders of the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic]…

Ask yourself if this assessment, by the main opposition Party in Russia, is more or less plausible than the explanations in the media here, and why it is that we hear it so little. Is this because the accepted wisdom here, the cod psychology version; that its all down to a belated mid life crisis for President Putin, or the version that plays up timeless fears of an eternal Great Russian chauvinism, always just itching to expand and reconquer the old Russian Empire, are so weak by comparison?

The Freudian slip by President Bush last week did shed a little light on the way adverbs are used. “A brutal and unprovoked attack on Iraq…err.. Ukraine”. Of course, the Iraq invasion was never described in such terms. we were taking part, so how could it possibly be?

We should not forget that, in this country, at the time of the second Iraq war, there was a majority FOR the war when people believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed against the UK within 45 minutes. This was on the say so of our Intelligence Services, who told us what it was useful for us to believe, who we are expected to believe that they and their co workers in politics and the media are now telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Ukraine. It was only when it became clear that we had been lied to, that there were no WMD, that majority opinion turned against the war.

In the case of Russia and NATO, there is no doubt that NATO possesses WMD. Were Ukraine to join and they were deployed on its territory, flying time to Moscow would be a few minutes. A small fraction of the 45 that were considered a good enough reason for war in our case.

Denazification.

This is generally dismissed here with a scoffing reference to President Zelensky being Jewish and then the subject changed as quickly as possible. It is seen as absurd hyperbole. Given the tendency for the media here to label any target enemy, from General Galtieri to Saddam Hussein, as the new Hitler, and that we have used that as cover to intervene in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya since 2000 alone, a little self awareness might be in order here too. The airbrushing of the role of the far right in Ukraine goes as far as the BBC and the Guardian rubbishing their own previous reporting (without mentioning it of course, because what is instrumentally useful now must always have been “true”). A glance back at their previous coverage shows how absurd this is.

Here are some headlines from media here before the war started, from the BBC, Politico, Bellingcat, the Guardian and other sources, that have now been consigned to the memory hole because it is now embarrassing to acknowledge reality.

Ukraine celebrates Nazi collaborator; bans book critical of pogroms leader.

Ukraine’s got a real problem with far right violence (and, no, RT did not write this headline).

Hundreds march in Ukraine in annual tribute to Nazi collaborator.

Violent Anti-Semitism is gripping Ukraine – and the government is standing idly by.

Ukraine conflict: “White Power warrior” from Sweden.

Ukraine conflict: child soldiers join the fight.

Far- Right fighters from Europe fight for Ukraine.

Nazi symbols. salutes on display at Ukrainian nationalist march.

Yes. Its (still) OK to call Ukraine’s C14 neo Nazi.

A new Eurasian far right rising.

Far Right extremists in Ukrainian military bragged about Canadian training.

German TV shows Nazi symbols on helmets of Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukraine designates national holiday to commemorate Nazi collaborator.

Kiev’s far right groups refuse to disarm.

FBI: Militia trained by US military in Ukraine now training US White Supremacists

Ukrainian Neo Nazi C14 vigilantes drive out Roma families, burn their camp

Ukraine underplays role of far right in conflict

New “Glory to Ukraine” army chant invokes nationalist past

Britons join neo Nazi militia in Ukraine

Neo-Nazis and the far right are on the march in Ukraine

How the far right took top positions in power vacuum

Ukraine’s far right menace

With axes and hammers far right vigilantes destroy another Romany camp in Kyiv

“Defend the White Race” American extremists being targeted by Ukraine’s far right

When the media here talks about the Azov battalion as though they are heroes, this is who they are talking about.

In the context of climate breakdown, the impasse of neo liberalism and the rise of China, politics in the Global North will increasingly squeeze down the democratic space that exists for the left and the labour movement, and the rehabilitation of the far right will advance in leaps.

This issue is explored in further detail in the No Cold War Britain webinar here.

The Speech that Keir Starmer did not Make.

With Boris Johnson visiting Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to get more oil pumped, just a day after the execution of 81 prisoners by the Bin Salman regime, this is the speech that Keir Starmer could have made but did not.

While he made a general point…“going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not an energy strategy”, he stopped well short of calling for Johnson’s trip to be called off,and steered well away from any demand for a shift in policy on Yemen remarking instead, “Obviously there’s a real energy crisis in terms of the cost at the moment, so anything that brings the cost down now is a step in the right direction, whatever it is.” (my emphasis).

In this dark hour, our thoughts, our solidarity, and our resolve are with the people of Yemen.

They have been cast into a war, not through fault of their own. But because Mohamed Bin Salman knows that no people will choose to live under his bandit rule unless forced to at the barrel of a gun.

The consequences of Bin Salman’s war have been horrendous and tragic for the Yemeni people but also for the Saudi people, who have been plunged into chaos by a violent elite who have stolen their wealth, stolen their chance of democracy, and stolen their future.

And we must prepare ourselves for difficulties here. We will see economic pain, as we free ourselves from dependence on Saudi Oil, and clean our institutions from money stolen from the Arab peoples.

But the British public have always been willing to make sacrifice to defend democracy on our continent. And we will again.

Saudi Arabia’s neighbours and every other democracy that lives in the shadow of autocratic power are watching their worst nightmare unfold.

All those who believe in democracy over dictatorship, the rule of law over the reign of terror, in freedom over the jackboot of tyranny, must unite and take a stand and ensure Bin Salman fails.

We must make a clean break with the failed approach to handling Bin Salman, which after the intervention into Yemen started in 2015 – has been complicit in more than 20,000 bombing raids on Houthi territory, indiscriminately bombing civilians and hospitals, schools and other infrastructure, killed over 377,000 people, with one child under five dying every nine minutes, displaced millions more, led directly to a cholera epidemic with over a million people infected and much of the country on the brink of famine, with the United Nations describing Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and turned a blind eye to the arrests of anyone who publicly opposes him, symbolised by the murder of Jamal Kashoggi – and has fed his belief that the benefits of aggression outweigh the cost. We must finally show him he is wrong.

That means doing all we can to help Yemen defend herself -urgently withdrawing the military support that we and our NATO allies provide Bin Salman, and the hardest possible sanctions must be taken against his regime. It must be isolated. Its finances frozen. It’s ability to function crippled. We should even withdraw the after sales services provided by BAE systems for the missiles and aircraft they have so lucratively sold.

And there are changes we must make here in the UK. For too long our country has been a safe-haven for the money that Bin Salman and his fellow bandits stole from the people of the Arabian peninsula. It must end now.

And this must be a turning point in our history, we must look back and say what this terrible day was actually when Bin Salman doomed himself to defeat.

He seeks division, so we must stay united. He hopes for inaction, so we must take a stand. He believes that we are too corrupted to do the right thing, so we must prove him wrong.

I believe we can. But only if we stand together.

Very few words have had to be changed from Starmer’s televised speech at the beginning of the Ukraine invasion – mostly personal names and places. If he were genuinely concerned at projecting “a liberal international order in defence of human rights” we should expect to hear a speech like this directed at UK and US allies and calling for an end to UK complicity in their war crimes.

But we don’t.

Could it be the direct involvement of RAF pilots training Saudi Airmen, or the Royal Navy personnel seconded to the Saudi fleet, and all that money made by UK built munitions that have blown up Yemeni civilians in large numbers, that explains the reticence?

An Invitation to Armageddon

CND poster from late 60s

Nuclear war is not “unthinkable”. Military planners spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for it. We are now closer to it than at any time this century.

President Zelensky of Ukraine is making continual calls for NATO to try to impose a “No Fly Zone” over Ukraine. War reporters elicit similar appeals from people on the ground, giving it a moral charge that builds pressure for it. It is possible that this is being done on the delusion that the consequences are so severe that it can’t happen; that no one in their right mind would sanction it. But the logic of war is escalation. And the people running it are not always in their right mind. Rehearsing something, even as a fantasy, can be preparation for doing it.

In case there is any doubt about what a No Fly Zone would mean, Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, General Philip Breedlove has spelt it out “If you put a no-fly zone in the eastern part of Ukraine … and we’re going to fly coalition or NATO aircraft into that no-fly zone, then we have to take out all the weapons that can fire into our no-fly zone and cause harm to our aircraft. So that means bombing enemy radars and missile systems on the other side of the border [i.e. Russia].That is tantamount to war.” General Breedlove is, we should note, in favour of doing this. And he is not alone, if media pundits on US talk shows are anything to go by.

If an action is “tantamount to war” between NATO and the Russian Federation, we should all be clear that a nuclear exchange becomes more likely than not and understand why.

Russia does not have a “no first use” policy for its nuclear weapons, and carried out drills for them just before the invasion, with an explicit warning to NATO not to get involved.

US nuclear war policy is, and always has been, based on a devastating first strike. The first iteration of this was their Strategic Integrated Operations Plan of 1960, in which a conventional war with the USSR would trigger the US smashing every city in Eastern Europe, Russia and China with 3,400 nuclear warheads; killing 600 million people (200 million of them collateral damage in Western Europe, Japan, India and other places close enough to the targets to be impacted) in a matter of hours. That would have been one person in 5 of the total global population at the time. There is no reason to believe that subsequent reiterations of this plan are any less restrained.

Having the two powers with the world’s greatest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, primed and ready, in an open conflict and incredibly nervous that the other is going to strike them first, means that we would be a nerve shredding hair trigger away from mutually assured destruction. No exchange of these missiles would be cautious or incremental, or slow. It would be all or nothing and very fast. All and nothing.

Whatever anyone’s view of this war, the reasons for it, or the way it could best and most swiftly be brought to an end; recognition that anyone calling for a No Fly Zone is inviting us to Armageddon should be seared into all of us and resolutely opposed.