Ukraine: four points in response to Chris Nineham

Anindya Bhattacharyya, Estelle Cooch and Ben Neal respond to Counterfire’s position on the situation in Ukraine.

Chris Nineham has written a very clear article on the Counterfire website laying out the position of Counterfire and much of Stop the War over the Ukraine situation.

It suffers from a degree of strawfiguring: caricaturing one’s opponents’ positions, but we are all guilty of that to some extent. We want to mark, however, that “the main enemy is at home” was a response to the left openly backing their domestic imperialist war effort. Nobody on the left is chanting “bomb Russia” in the style of the late Kenny Everett, although a glance at Greece should disabuse anyone of illusions in the EU’s intentions. Chris’s article nonetheless makes several more substantial points that deserve a proper reply. Four follow.

1. Imperialism is embedded in capitalism

Chris is right to insist on looking at the “wider geopolitical context” but one can’t simply stop at an analysis of imperialism, let alone one indistinguishable from realpolitik thinktanks like Stratfor.

Imperialism is not like polo, a game the ruling classes play for fun. It is a necessary outcome of capitalist competition organised into national blocs. So any analysis of the imperial balance of forces must itself be embedded in an analysis of capitalism in post-crisis austerity.

For instance the picture isn’t simply one of increased rivalry between different national blocs, but also increased interdependency. For sure the bourgeois media demonises the Putin regime, but the City sure as hell doesn’t demonise Russian capital. Putin, judging from Reddit’s global id, is seen as rather cool. The ideological picture is considerably more contradictory than mere Ruskie bashing redux.

2. Russia’s imperialism matters

Chris says “neither Washington nor Moscow” was “never meant as a response to imperialism”. Well one can draw different conclusions from that particular slogan, as we see today.

But the theory of state capitalism does have consequences for our understanding of imperialism. We recognise that Russia has been a capitalist and imperialist power under the Tsar, under Stalin, under Khrushchev, under Putin. We side with resistance movements from below against such powers.

This is why Chris’s list of IS attitudes to imperialist conflicts past is so strange. There is no mention of IS attitude to dissident movements in the Eastern bloc, or to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan under Russian occupation. To be fair he mentions Chechnya. But surely these are the relevant examples, not Vietnam or Cuba.

Acknowledging Russia’s imperialism has consequences for our understanding of national liberation movements. Take a plane to Calcutta and you will land in an airport named after an Indian independence hero who collaborated with the Axis against the Raj. Chris complains that the leadership of the Euromaidan protest movement is “overwhelmingly pro-Western as well as nationalist”. Yes, what do you expect in a former Russian colony?

3. Movements are not passive

Chris is too quick to throw out formulations like “the movement has been co-opted”, as if it were a horse that the ruling class could simply tame. Counterfire made this mistake over Syria and they are making it now over Ukraine.

This writing off of mass subjectivity in the Eastern bloc leads to a narrowing of political horizons, and an ironic one given Chris’s generally positive assessment of mass movements. “The only way we can make a contribution to stopping a war is by doing our best to block the Western war effort,” says Chris.

No: we can also and we must also build solidarity with working class revolutionaries in Ukraine (socialist and anarchist and other), and (as Chris rightfully acknowledges) with the Russian anti-war movement. One of the major drivers of what is happening in Ukraine is Putin’s fear that its mass movement could inspire similar currents inside Russia.

The mass nature of the uprising in Ukraine has at least a potential revolutionary dynamic, one for the moment is being led down the blind alley of a neoliberal government that contains fascists, being crushed in the vice of imperialism. Both these factors are raising the kind of ethnic tensions which could lead to a Yugoslavia-type situation.

4. It’s not 2004 any more

Chris’s passing reference to Chechnya reminded us of something that troubled us during the Georgia war. We saw what happened as a spillover of the war on terror, triggered by neocon proxies, and critically sided with Russia. But we also went very quiet about Chechnya. The latter was a mistake.

Today’s climate is very different. The neocons are not in charge of the White House and the obsession with them is mistaken. The aggressive imperialism they stood for was always a gamble based on exploiting a temporary window of opportunity. That’s what the Project for a New American Century was all about. That window has passed. Applying a 2004 analysis of the US ruling class to 2014 simply won’t wash.

Today, Obama’s administration has its sights set on the challenge of China. Its “pivot” to Asia has seen the development of alliances in the region and temporary deployments of troops as the US seeks to concentrate 60% of its military power in the region.

This does not mean that the US has abandoned its interests elsewhere. One has only to consider its attitude to the Arab Spring, particularly its involvement in the bombing of Libya, to see that. However, military involvement by the US has not been the main enemy of revolutionaries in the region. For Syrian revolutionaries, the unstinting support of Russia and China has allowed Assad’s regime to frustrate the revolution, drawing it into armed conflict and slaughtering tens of thousands.

Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now involves the reason socialists are anti-imperialist in the first place. We are revolutionaries, and the primary (though not sole) reason we oppose imperialism is because it puts down or derails revolutions. We want a victory for revolution and therefore a defeat for the imperialist system full stop. Non-revolutionaries in contrast do not propose a world without imperialism so content themselves with supporting the other side in the global chess game.

In quiet periods, like the Middle East ten years ago, reformists and revolutionaries find themselves opposing imperialism for much the same reason and can form close alliances. After all, the point of difference is a hypothetical revolutionary movement not an actual one. But we are not in a quiet period any more. The Arab revolutions have changed all that. The financial crisis has changed all that. Our first duty is to support the actual revolutions taking place: and the consequences for our anti-imperialism must flow from that axiom.


  1. […] forces being laid out neatly on opposing sides like a vicious hangover from the Cold War era. This tactic of dichotomies of you are either with or against us mentality that was used to beat us d… I believe we have seen the inheritance of an often simple, and I’d argue lazy, analysis of […]

  2. This is less than convincing. Why on earth you think that the period 2004-2008 was a “quiet period” is beyond me: it wasn’t in Latin America. It wasn’t in Iraq. It wasn’t, even, here, if you can cast your mind back to the political upsets that we were involved with then.

    2008 certainly changed things. It made the unholy alliance between reformism and finance, as represented by New Labour (and variants) unworkable, for one. It also revealed – in painful, painful detail – just how ill-prepared and theoretically ill-served sections of the left were when confronted with something like this. Since it is at least plausible we’ll run into something rather similar (if not on the same scale) within a shortish period of time, perhaps we will be better served next time round.

    But there’s another thing here. You’re desperate to try and claim Obama has no continuity with the Bush administration. Certainly, the form of foreign policy has shifted, and its particular focus on Asia. But the content remains the same – not just at the level of windy generalities (where so much of this discussion, unfortunately, takes place), but on the specifics. Consider: Obama has overseen and expanded the US’ electronic intelligence gathering operations, as Edward Snowden detailed. This is a direct inheritance from the War on Terror. Drone operations have expanded hugely. And direct military interventions have been enacted over Libya – and would’ve been over Syria, too, if, gloriously, the UK had not wobbled.

    To try and claim that all of this is mere aside, or a detail, in the name of proclaiming the “Arab revolutions” change everything, is to hopelessly misunderstand the particular dynamic of the system – and our state’s role within it – in favour of what appears to be a bad combination of wishful thinking, and generalisation beyond what can be supported by the facts. I note, maybe in passing, that you scarcely refer to recent events in Ukraine. Perhaps this is a recognition that the “Ukrainian revolution” was not the ideal-type mass uprising a few too many people believed it to be. Of course, Praviy Sektor are very happy to chant “revolutsiya!” on the streets, which tells you something about the very, very deep problems involved here. (I’ll attach the video in a sec.)

    To say that the movement has been “co-opted” is not “writing off subjectivity in Eastern Europe”: quite the opposite, it is *restoring* subjectivity precisely because it at least gives some recognition to the actual turn of events actually enacted by actual Ukrainians – rather than the liberal myth-making over this that some have fallen into. I doubt very much that the majority of protestors wanted the one-half neoliberal, one-quarter fascist government they have now got; nonetheless, it was the radical right that seized the advantage, forced the issue, and brought events to a head in overthrowing the government. (How far and to what extent they were supported and maybe funded by various other sources is moot, although cannot easily be discounted. See, for instance, the reporting of Mark Ames on some of this, at least.) That is “subjectivity” in action. And, frankly, it’s bloody awful to behold.

    So: an unimpressive defence of a weak position. We can probably all agree on the generalities – imperialism is bad; fascism is bad. But we need to deal with the specifics: a semi-fascist government has come to power in a European country, more or less aided and abetted by the West, collectively. Russia, a weakened power, has attempted to grab what it can from the situation, exploiting what appear to be both the genuine fears of those in Crimea, and longstanding historical demands for greater autonomy within whichever polity they end up. (Compare the 1991 referendum result to 2014’s; it is an uncannily similar result.) Our own government, a major military power (just behind Russia, in fact) allied to the overwhelmingly dominant power, is playing its own dubious role. In this actually existing situation, it should be obvious where the main fire of those seeking the radical transformation of society is to be directed: against, as ever, the main enemy – our own state.

    Whilst we’re discussing this, meanwhile, Ukraine is taking part in joint NATO exercises on the other side of the Black Sea:

  3. Very glad to see that Chris Nineham’s attempt to rewrite history by saying that the slogan Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism was “never meant as a response to imperialist war” has been soundly rejected here. Of course it was, and it is mind boggling that he should have asserted otherwise, The examples of Cuba, Vietnam and other national liberation struggles and the fact that IS/SWP supported them rather than being neutral is also completely beside the point. We also supported the revolts in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Socialists support national liberation struggles, regardless of the politics of those leading them and regardless of who is supporting them from outside. If one great power supports a national liberation movement at one point for its own foreign policy reasons and then no longer does so, it changes the prospects of success of that movement for sure, and it changes the geopolitical situation, but it doesn’t change whether socialists should support it. I also agree with Dr Paul that the actions of Putin are in danger of producing civil war in Ukraine, just as the actions of the West greatly exacerbated divisions in the former Yugoslavia.

  4. Chris Nineham needs a history lesson.
    He wrote on Counterfire: “Some on the left have adopted the slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. But this is a mistake that can only weaken the anti-war movement…. The phrase originates from a longer slogan coined by the International Socialists, forerunner of the SWP, during the Cold War; ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism.’ It was never meant as a response to imperialism or imperialist war, it was a statement aimed to distinguish the IS’s political approach from those on the left who regarded Russia as socialist.”
    The slogan actually arose of out a debate and split in the U.S. Trotskyist movement in response to the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The position of the Trotskyist movement had been defense of the Soviet Union from imperialist attack. But, what happens when it starts attacking other countries? The pact allowed both the Nazis and and the Stalinists to invade and divide Poland while the secret protocols allowed Stalin to conquer the Baltic States and then Finland. Hitler with his eastern flank covered invaded the rest of Western Europe. The slogan meant that the revolutionary movement should not ally itself with any imperialist power.

  5. The points in response to Chris Nineham’s article are well-made. However, I feel there may be a danger in underestimating the possibilities of this leading to a full-blown NATO/Russia conflict. The article notes that Russia and the West are interdependent and also that the US is now more interested in Asia than East Europe as if these undercut that possibility. To an extent that is true, but the US remains very interested in East Europe, and clearly are active there in supporting pro-Western govts, as well as recent attempts to instal the missile shield. Plus there are all sorts of reason, ranging from misperception of each side’s intentions, misunderstanding of actions, the political impossibility of backing down when boxed into a corner etc, that make war a real possibility. I also would add that as we are already seeing NATO bolstering their forces in the region there may very well be scope very soon for a campaign against further escalation by the West, one that expresses solidarity with anti-war voices in Moscow.

  6. This point of saying the neo-cons are no more keeps popping up here and there like it has some deep meaning on singling out Russia as the main imperialist antagonist in the Ukraine/Crimea crisis. As if the Obama presidency swept away, along with Rumsfeld and Cheney, the U.S. long historical commitment to doing what it takes to attain geopolitical hegemony, a pursuit that existed long before the term “neo-con” existed. In actuality Obama’s decision to make his administration a “team of rivals” kept a number of neo-con acolytes in the State and Defense Departments, the most infamous of late being Victoria Nuland. This has led to the State Dept. at times working at cross purposes within itself and with Obama – instances of the tail wagging the dog. These left over State Dept. neo-cons (still disappointed Obama didn’t face off Putin over Syria), are still obsessed with icing out Russian influence everywhere, have long seen the Ukraine as a strategic testing ground, and are embedded in agencies operating in the Ukraine that pumped in $5bn of political influence over the last decade. These are just the facts. How much influence they have had on events can be debated, but there’s no doubt they played a part.

  7. Chris Nineham’s appeal to IS history doesn’t work at all. He says that the slogan “Neither Washington not Moscow, but International Socialism” was “never meant as a response to imperialism or imperialist war”. In fact it was precisely meant as a response to such a situation of imperialist war – the Korean War. One of the first uses, if not the actual first use was by Tony Cliff in the 1950 article “The Struggle of the Powers” where he wrote:
    “In their mad rush for profit, for wealth, the two gigantic imperialist powers are threatening the existence of world civilisation, are threatening humanity with the terrible suffering of atomic war. The interests of the working class, of humanity, demand that neither of the imperialist world powers be supported, but that both be struggled against. The battle-cry of the real, genuine socialists today must be:
    Neither Washington not Moscow, but International Socialism.”

    The analogy with Cuba and Vietnam is also rather stretched – these were genuine national liberation movements that were also caught up in the inter-imperialist rivalries of the Cold War (actually the same could possibly be said of Korea, but that’s another argument). There is no national liberation movement being crushed by US imperialism in Eastern Europe. In fact Russia seems to be doing rather more of the crushing at the moment.

  8. For many on the left recognition of the changes in political landscape wrought by neo-liberalism was obscured by the need to combat those who drew right wing conclusions from these changes. So recognising the importance of these changes was treated as an ideological retreat. Eventually though you end up in a Cul-de-sac with this method.

    The same is true of many of those arguing about the nature of imperialism in the contemporary world. Recognising that this has changed since the early noughties is treated as in some sense retreating from opposition to imperialism (and typically one is accused of association with the reactionaries of yesteryear). There is a way in which even the narratives of NATO expansion etc read as if they were written in about 2007.

    I think Richard Seymour’s point about harking back to the days when the Bush gang was in power and much wider alliances against US power were possible (does anyone else recall ‘don’t attack Chirac’?) runs the risk of letting actually existing imperialism, east and west, off the hook. He was also right about the fact that increasing the intensity of one’s rhetoric won’t make a faulty perspective stick. All you end up doing is retreating to one side or other of the capitalist chessboard.

    Kudos to RS21 for an excellent piece.

  9. Thanks for this Bat. This is excellent. Though one minor point of disagreement:
    ‘Chris’s passing reference to Chechnya reminded us of something that troubled us during the Georgia war. We saw what happened as a spillover of the war on terror, triggered by neocon proxies, and critically sided with Russia. But we also went very quiet about Chechnya. The latter was a mistake.’

    I’m not sure it would be fair to say that we critically “sided” with Russia. In fact I remember at a STW meeting on Georgia in 2008 where even John Rees explicitly stated that this was an intra-imperialist conflict, whereas Kate Hudson disagreed saying she believed Russia had behaved entirely understandably. Yes, there was an overwhelming agreement that NATO’s expansion had to be opposed but there was a high degree of nuance stemming from that position, and as there were no demonstrations or any solidarity action at the time, I felt the exact line was never concrete on this.

    One of the reasons I bring this is up is because it’s related to what happened to the anti-war movement. I would argue that as it decayed in numbers, it mulched into itself and the former anti-imperialist ‘left’ of the STW leadership were won over to the CP-styled anti-imperialism from above. I think this deserves teasing out as I’m against the anecdotal, ex-post-facto, original sin arguments or Chris’s claims of continuity. I think the reality is far worse to be honest.

  10. I’ve put this comment on the Counterfire site.

    Were Russia playing a purely defensive role here, then the argument above might just be plausible, although even that would be stretching one’s reasoning a bit far. As it is, although he is acting in response to long-running Western infiltration into Eastern Europe up to the Russian boundary, Putin is nonetheless playing a dangerous game. This is not so much in respect of provoking Western diplomatic, economic and military responses (although the last of these is unlikely), but in ratcheting up tensions within Ukraine and in helping to create the kind of dynamics that led to so much pointless bloodshed and destruction in Yugoslavia as it collapsed.

    The old Soviet borders, like the ones in Yugoslavia, were largely administrative and often left members of one nationality in the territory of another. Furthermore, there often social mixing of the nationalities — this was especially the case in respect of Russians and Ukrainians in the east and south of Ukraine. So when the federations break apart and regions become separate countries, there are a lot of unresolved questions, or, to put it better, things that were of little importance and consequence could suddenly take on a growing significance.

    The biggest danger in Ukraine is that the growing nationalist fervour of both a Ukrainian and Russian brand is threatening to make a factor that was implicit in the establishment of Ukraine as a sovereign state an actuality — that is, forcing the population of the mixed areas to choose their identity and allegiance: Ukraine or Russia; Ukrainian or Russian? With large numbers of mixed marriages, friendships, neighbours and workmates, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the poisonous consequences this would have, particularly, as in the case of Yugoslavia, there are no political forces encouraging unity amongst the different nationalities.

    Here, Putin is as responsible as the Ukrainian nationalists, particularly the fascistic brand which provided much of the muscle when the Maidan protests became nasty and who have since been rewarded with plum government posts — something which doesn’t seem to worry the Western powers, and, worse, about which our Maidanista left-wingers here are remarkably complacent. The parallel rise of Ukrainian and Russian national fervour threatens to set half of Ukraine ablaze. Yes, we must oppose the blast of anti-Russian propaganda in Western countries, but we must also show that Putin’s words and actions are adding greatly to the tensions in Ukraine, and thereby doing no good at all.

  11. commented on this on twitter and urged to comment below by Bat, so here goes:

    I’m generally in agreement with the arguments here contra Nineham and against the weird ‘we ought to support Russia’ tendency, but I think some of the specifities of Ukraine are being ignored somewhat. First, the comparison with Subhas Chandra Bose airport. In western Ukraine you do have a lot of things named after Stepan Bandera and the OUN(B)/UPA, and while it’s easy to argue ‘well, that’s explicable because they were opposing Russian imperialism’, Bandera and the UPA’s actions are not comparable to Bose’s. The UPA were not pragmatic collaborators but enthusiastic fascists – they also had immense amounts of blood on their hands, cf the pogroms in Lviv in 1941 and the genocidal massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Galicia in 1943.

    Second, Ukraine’s relationship to Russian imperialism in the Soviet period was not always strictly colonial. The ‘Ukrainisation’ drives in education, press, signage and what would now be called ‘affirmative action’ during the 1920s and to a lesser degree the ’60s were sweeping and (eventually successfully) opposed by Russifiers. In addition, the Soviet ruling group during the ’70s in particular was substantially Ukrainian, particularly through Brezhnev (a Ukrainian) and his ‘Dnepropetrovsk mafia’. Kiev and eastern Ukraine were not the periphery of Soviet industry but one of its centres, something reflected in levels of urbanisation, development, education, etc. For instance: in the March 1991 referendum on staying part of the USSR, Ukraine voted 71% in favour; in the referendum in December the same year on Ukrainian independence, 92% voted in favour. The explanation for this is surely the August coup against Gorbachev causing panic at a possible ‘re-Stalinisation’, rather than a sudden upsurge in nationalism in the space of nine months.

    Third, the area of Ukraine that *did* have a substantially colonial relationship to Russia is the west, ie the parts annexed in 1939 and again in 1945, which a) have a very different history, never having been part either of the Tsarist empire or the early USSR and b) were the site of a (UPA-led and western-backed) guerrilla insurgency which, despite brutal attempts at suppression, carried on well into the 1950s. The history of these areas is much closer to that of, say, the Baltic states, and the much larger popularity of nationalism and of the new government there is easily explained.

    The upshot of all of this is that rightly or wrongly a lot of people in Ukraine, possibly as many as support Euromaidan if not more, would not recognise themselves in the dichotomy of ‘former Russian colony’/’national liberation movement’. As the Crimean referendum (no matter how dodgy and illegitimate) and the protests in eastern cities make clear, the ‘revolution’ does not encompass the entire country, and in fact mostly bypasses, Kiev aside, the most urbanised and developed areas of Ukraine. There is substantial suspicion of the ‘national liberation movement’ and of Ukrainian government there which is not mere colonial nostalgia but the product of real historical differences. This isn’t in any way to make apologies for Russian imperialism – I daresay for most in Kharkov or Donetsk actual Russian annexation is no more popular than the current government – but to make clear that there are reasons why the movement in Ukraine is not nearly as straightforward as we might like, and for the left to throw its lot in completely with the ‘pro-western forces’ is not as anti-colonial as it may appear.

  12. The biggest threat to revolutions in the Arab world is imperialism. So opposing imperialism is a major priority. We can’t influence the outcome of revolutions happening in countries we’re not actually living in. But we can influence our rulers’ drive to war to stop their attempts to intervene in revolutionary process going on. It’s quite clear that the economic crisis is exacerbating the competition between nation states. This makes a bigger great power clash even more likely and even more dangerous. We’re in a potentially much more dangerous phase than we were in in 2003– a phase in which we could see major powers clashing rather than a dominant power versus non-state militias like the Taliban/ AQ etc. RS21 are separating the economic from the military and proclaiming an open road from here to revolution, as long as we simply provide solidarity to revolutionaries. This creates a dangerous downplaying of imperialism. It also ignores the fact that a significant way of ramping up the class struggle in Britain is by taking on our rulers on the subject of warmongering, where they’re decidedly weak. Just another good reason to raise the slogan ‘the main enemy is at home’.


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