Part 2: A Ukrainian political scientist explains the War, Ukrainian nationhood, Maidan, NATO and neo-Nazis

Guest Post By Tushar Dhara

Tushar Dhara: Is it fair to say that Ukraine’s economic performance, especially GDP per capita, is less today than it was in 1991? I also noticed that some of the country’s macro-economic indicators like public and foreign debt, forex reserves and cost of borrowing were not very good in 2020, a period when lockdowns and the pandemic created global economic disruption. Could this have made the country more vulnerable?
Denys Pilash: It’s true that Ukraine’s economy was doing badly, and it was contending with Moldova for being the poorest country in Europe, in terms of income and GDP per capita. It was a continuation of a malign economic policy, the frame work of which was neo-liberalism, more privatization and marketization. Russia and Belarus were ever more neo-liberal than Ukraine in the case of labour legislation. Still, the intention of the Ukrainian ruling class was pretty clear. This led to a bad economic situation and meant that their logic led to a vicious circle of foreign loans and IMF loans, and the rollover of foreign debt. It was done by all Ukrainian governments, whether pro-Russia or pro-West. It was leading to a debt trap. It was one of the pretexts to the second Maidan protest. When Yanukovich was thinking about whether to borrow more from the West or from Russia – signing an agreement with the EU then backtracked and went back to Russia – it was all about finding the funds to fill the hole in the budget. They had no strategic vision about long term economic growth.

Tushar Dhara: What were the reasons for the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests? And in terms of participation, what was the role of the left and the far right. Can you clarify?
Denys Pilash: The simplistic view is that it was either a genuine revolution for European values or some kind of far-right CIA-staged coup. The reality is much more complex. It was a genuine people’s uprising that was rooted in the unresolved grievances of the population. There were two major agendas in the protest. The first was the Euro-Enthusiastic, liberal position, where it was all about joining the European way. It was attractive for a population that associates Europe with a higher standard of life, a higher quality of healthcare and jobs. Millions of Ukrainians were migrant workers in EU states and they wanted the legal status of a visa-free regime that came with Ukraine becoming an associate member. But again, it was more about a symbolic agenda. On the other hand there was the agenda of a minority of the protestors with a clear ideological vision, the nationalist and far right parties. They constituted a minority but were effective in imposing their images, symbols and slogans. They were contrary to all the demands of the protestors. They were against European integration, Parliamentary democracy, more progressive communist and LGBT agendas. It was anti-Russian sentiment, a sentiment that we need to nationally liberate ourselves. They were legitimizing this.  

At the same time there was a not articulated agenda that was very close to the everyday needs of the people, and those people in the East that didn’t support Maidan, who also suffered from poverty, no political voice etc. Our group, which was called left opposition, disseminated thousands of leaflets that proposed a democratic-socialist solution instead of an oligarchic-capitalist model. Though there was positive feedback, we were a small, marginalized group without a political subject that could influence what’s going on at a higher level. We were also targeted by the far right. The not-so-big Ukrainian left – not the remnants of the old Communist party, but the left that came from grassroots struggles of student movements and trade unions – were attacked by the far right long before Maidan. The impunity of the far right was an everyday reality. The only distinction was that before maidan no one was concerned, but after it the Ukrainian far right became one of the talking points of Russian propaganda. Everyone was concerned, but it wasn’t the biggest problem for us.     

Tushar Dhara: There is a lot of confusion about the far right in Ukraine. Some point to their electoral performance and say it’s not big. Others say units like the Azov battalion have infiltrated deeply into Ukrainian society. There are also reports that Ukraine has one of the strongest far-right movements in Europe, incorporating pagan mythology, Mixed Martial Arts fight camps and national-socialist black metal concerts. Apparently skinheads from European countries have travelled to Ukraine to participate. Putin has used this as a justification to invade. What is the reality?
Denys Pilash: Again, the reality is much more complex. We have two simplistic views. One is to downplay their importance. Yes, they are electorally weak, and get roughly 2 percent of the vote. The only time they were significant was in 2012 where they got 12 percent of the vote. But, the majority of the population is rejecting them. The other point of view exaggerates their influence, equates all Ukrainians with Nazis.

The Azov regiment for several years has been part of the ministry of interior. It’s part of the National Guard, not the army. You don’t have many examples in other countries of official military troops linked to such political ideologies. We have an Azov movement which is linked to a political party, the National Corps. Some split from it and there are smaller far-right groups. Their existence was fuelled by the Russian driven Crimean and Donbas wars. It brought them legitimacy as defenders, but in any society a majority don’t want war, but the far-right strive for war. It’s their natural breeding ground and it boosts their existence.

But, we cannot ignore their counterparts on the Russian side. Possibly, the person who played a crucial role in triggering the war in Donbas, is a former Russian special forces soldier called Igor ‘Strelkov’ Girkin [Strelkov means shooter in Russian], a monarchist white guards ideologue. They also have a bunch of other Russian nationalists and open Nazis. For example there is a big mythology in the international left about one of the units in Luhansk under Aleksey Mozgovoy, one of the warlords who was the head of the Prizrak Brigade. He said he had communists in his unit, but he also had Nazis. For a long time Putin’s regime was a beacon for the European far right, from the Golden Dawn in Greece to Marine le Pen in France, the Serbian Chetniks and others. They were coming to train on the Russian side. You had a situation where Nazis from Scandinavian countries, one of them joined Azov and other one joined a [Russian] separatist group [in Donbas]. They were having friendly chats like ‘I am shooting at you’, ‘let’s meet in Valhalla’ and trading Zionist conspiracies. For these people it’s no more than a game or some kind of a training ground. They cared nothing for the suffering of the local population, in fact they despised them. They came here to have a nice war. One of the worst outcomes of the war was that it was boosting far right networks, notwithstanding which side they joined. But it is a danger for other countries when they go back.

Tushar Dhara: Ukraine has a lot of agricultural, mineral and hydrocarbon resources, especially in the Donbas, which has some of the biggest coal basins in Europe. How does one understand the war from the perspective of energy resources? 

Denys Pilash: That’s a great question, because if we speak about the coal basin in Donbas and minerals, they were the basis of heavy industry in Soviet Ukraine. The miners’ movement in the 1980s during the collapse of the USSR was very important because they were a crucial force in the country and laid the foundation of the independent unions that exist today. But, they couldn’t constitute themselves as a working class political subject, and they were used in the political games between the oligarchic groups. The huge protests in the 1990s were diminished in the next decade. A majority of the coal and iron mines were owned by Ukrainian or Russian oligarchs and they were not investing to modernize the industries. They were moving their profits to offshore tax havens. There was also a situation where miners’ lives were lost. As a result the coal industry was not profitable, it was relying on money from the budget to keep it going. One of the reasons for conflict in Eastern Ukraine was local oligarchs boosting the separatists in Donbas in order to gain influence, because they were losing influence in Kyiv. Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, primarily extracted wealth from the mines and people in Donbas and transferred it to Switzerland, Netherlands and London. He and other Ukrainian oligarchs became an organic part of the global capitalist class. They had shares in multinationals and were investing outside while the population was stagnating. Ultimately they were sidelined by Russia, which has become the primary force in the Donbas conflict. Their property was grabbed and given to Russian oligarchs.     

Coming to the Nord Stream pipelines, Ukraine and Europe in general was heavily reliant on Russia’s fossil fuels. That was weaponized by Russia. It used the prices for gas as leverage against Ukraine, Belarus and other countries, putting economic and political pressure. Ukraine controlled the pipelines running through its territory, so Russia started to find other ways to have the pipelines. Nord Stream 2 goes through the Baltic, to minimize Ukraine’s role as a transporter of gas. It is also involved in the bigger situation with oil and gas markets. The United States is pushing its own gas supplies, and you have Western multinationals that have connections with Russian firms like Gazprom and Rosneft. It brings us to another issue: there is a demand for a green transition, an eco-socialist vision of the world, but you have the fossil fuel empires like Russia and Saudi Arabia using their petrodollars for military aggression. It shows us how cynically and dangerously these unchecked petro-states are weaponizing [geo politics].

Tushar Dhara: What was the position of Ukraine within the Soviet Union?
Denys Pilash: The position and policy changed at different stages of Soviet history. After the 1917 revolution national republics emerged on the peripheries of the empire and Ukraine peoples’ republic was one of them and it was a very complicated struggle between different factions. Then with the Bolsheviks you had numerous Ukrainian socialist parties, some of which were fighting against the Bolsheviks and others sided with them, but had lots of criticisms. After the civil war was over in the 1920s and the Soviet Union was constituted as a federation, you first had an “affirmative action” empire. Lenin’s policy of Ukrainization meant that the authorities supported national cultural revival. Ukrainian writers and artists were committed revolutionaries and the 1920s was the best time for them to create new Ukrainian culture. But the vast majority of them perished in the Stalinist repression. There was a change in policy under Stalin, where he pressured for more Russification. It meant a change in the economic policy towards the peasantry. Ukraine had a majority peasant population which was targeted by a forced collectivization policy, in which hunger was weaponized against those peasants who didn’t want to join. This led to the infamous ‘Holodomor’, the mass hunger of 1932-33, which many in Ukraine now tend to exaggerate in its scale, make it out to be a holocaust or genocide. However, it was clearly criminal Stalinist policies that led to millions of hunger deaths. There is a popular misconception that it was just rich peasants, or Kulaks, who suffered. Actually, it transcended class, because the majority who perished were not prosperous peasants. Millions of people in Ukraine and Kazakhstan died and it was part of a tragic legacy. The British empire used hunger against the Irish and in the Bengalfamine. The Stalinistleadership had an imperialist approach in how to deal with starving people.

Then you have the second world war. There is a perception that the twenty seven million Soviet citizens who died were Russians. But they constituted only half of this number. The Soviet Union was a federation of republics and besides Russians there were Ukrainians, Belarussians, Jews, Tatars, Central Asians and Siberians. Putin claims a unique Russian contribution to the defeat of fascism, but a quarter to a third of the soldiers in the Red Army was from Soviet Ukraine. Lots of civilians were killed by the Nazis, not just the Jewish and Romani.

There is another conception about Ukraine, when you speak about Ukraine lets speak about the nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis. Like almost everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe you had people who were suffering and joining the anti-fascist resistance. You also had people joining different groups that were linked to the Axis powers or were close ideologically. The Ukrainian nationalists and insurgent army wasn’t a monolith and different factions were killing each other. On the one had you have a picture that these were just freedom fighters. Volodymyr Viatrovych, a history commissar at the Institute for National Memory, gave a list of organizations in one of his laws that have to be respected as national liberation figures. On the other hand you have the Russian official narrative that has no nuance, that does not differentiate and has no interest in historic research. It just uses the most common figure of the nationalist groups, Stepan Bandera, and invokes him as a symbol of Ukrainian ultra nationalism. But again, the Ukrainian nationalist groups had different motivations. Many of them were primarily involved in ethnic cleansing and clashes with the Polish population. Some of them were collaborating with the Nazis. Bandera himself was in a Nazi concentration camp where he got some preferential treatment. When the war was ending the Nazis felt they needed his assistance they let him go to rally the remnants of the nationalists.

After Stalin Ukraine was in a discriminated position, but also in a privileged position. In the informal hierarchy of nationalities, despite Soviet claims that it was internationalist, Russia was the older brother. Russia was everyone’s elder brother or sister, and then you have brother number two, which was Ukraine, due to its population, importance and proximity to Russia. The pan-Slavic identity wasn’t openly discussed, because it also had a lot of racist connotations. The concept of the three fraternal Slavic nations – number one was Russia, number two Ukraine and then Belarus – was dubious. Ivan Dziuba was a Ukrainian Soviet dissident, who died a few days before the Russian invasion started. In the 1960s he wrote a book in which he used Marxist and Leninist principles to show that Soviet policy was inconsistent with internationalism and how it preferred Russia as the imperial centre of the country.

In 1944 Stalin deported entire peoples, including Crimean Tatars and Armenians from Crimea and made it primarily Russian with some Ukrainian peoples. It was then transferred to Ukraine primarily for some economic reasons. This was the failure of Soviet national policy which went contrary to Marxist and Internationalist ideas.

Tushar Dhara: My last question is about history. Russia is pushing a narrative which twists history for current political ends. Russia and Ukraine are claimed to come from a common Slavic root. How would you characterize this use of history and mythology?
Denys Pilash: History is utilized very heavily in Central and Eastern Europe, and hence you have ‘memory wars’. In the 1990s with the disbanding of Marxist rhetoric there was a vacuum of ideological narratives and it was filled by different types of nationalist mythology, from Serbia and Croatia to Russia. They tried to mix these primordialist notions with modern nationalism, tracking their histories and claiming they have a constant and eternal resonance. And yes, Russian and Ukrainian histories date back to the times of Kyivan Rus and it’s pretty much modernizing medieval history, where they try to impose modern categories like the nation state on an entity that existed in a different reality. But it’s invoked for the justification of modern politics. Contemporary Russia has tried to build direct links and claim that Ukraine and Belarus are fake nations and they need to be part of the Russian motherland. You have lots of national mythology in Ukraine as well, that there used to be some reference points in the 19th  century, that Ukrainian identity is deeply rooted in the phenomena of Cossacks, and that the Cossack uprising of [Bohdan] Khmelnytsky. There are people in Ukraine and in Russia who are using the social sciences for an ideological project. We see this with Putin’s articles on history, which reflects an ideological thinking borrowed from 19th century ideas of nationalism and imperialism. Putin is constantly referencing Ivan Illyn, a Russian philosopher sympathetic to Fascism. At the same time they try to invoke anti-fascism.

We have the revival of something very archaic, reactionary and conservative throughout the world. I will leave it to your readers to make the relevant comparisons with India.

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