War is never good for the poor. War is never good for workers. War itself is a crime. War produces crimes. Peace is a priority.
The war in Ukraine did not begin with the Russian intervention. There are a series of authors for this war, each one important to understanding what is happening today.
Pluri-nationalism vs. ethnic chauvinism. Ukraine, shaped out of Lithuanian, Polish, and Tsarist empires, is a pluri-national state with large minorities of Russian, Hungarian, Moldavian, and Romanian speakers. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the question of ethnicity was held in check by the fact that all Ukrainians were Soviet citizens and that Soviet citizenship was supra-ethnic. In 1990, when Ukraine departed from the Soviet Union, the question of ethnicity emerged as a barrier to full participation in society for all Ukrainians. The socio-political problem faced by Ukraine was not unique; ethnic nationalism surfaced in almost every country in the post-communist East, from the terrible break-up of Yugoslavia initiated by Croatian independence in 1991 to the military confrontation between Georgia and Russia in 2008. Ethnic cleansing was treated as utterly normal, such as when the West cheered on the forced removal of half a million Serbs from Krajina, Croatia in 1995. In contrast, Czechoslovakia, one of the countries in the communist East, broke up along ethnic lines peacefully in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Democracy vs the Coup. In 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych sought a loan from Russia, which Putin said he would provide if Yanukovych would sideline the country’s oligarchy-controlled financial networks. Instead, Yanukovych turned to the European Union (EU), which offered similar advice, but whose concerns were set aside by the United States, a dynamic that was on full display when US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, ‘Fuck the EU’. Earlier, Nuland had boasted about the billions of dollars the US spent on ‘democracy promotion’ in Ukraine, which in fact meant the strengthening of pro-Western and anti-Russian forces. Yanukovych was removed and replaced in a parliamentary coup by a string of US-backed leaders (Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Petro Poroshenko). President Poroshenko (2014–2019) drove a Ukrainian nationalist agenda around the slogan armiia, mova, vira (‘military, language, faith’), which became reality with the end to military cooperation with Russia (2014), the enacting of legislation which made Ukrainian ‘the only official state language’ and restricted the use of Russian and other minority languages (2019), and the Ukrainian church breaking ties with the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (2018). These measures, along with the empowerment of neo-Nazi elements, shattered the country’s pluri-national compact and produced serious armed conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which is home to a substantial Russian-speaking ethnic minority. Threatened by state policy and neo-Nazi militias, this minority population sought protection from Russia. To mitigate the dangerous ethnic cleansing and end the war in the Donbass region, all parties agreed to a set of de-escalation measures, including ceasefire, known as the Minsk Agreements (2014–15).
Wars make very complicated historical processes appear to be simple. The war in Ukraine is not merely about NATO or about ethnicity; it is about all these things and more. Every war must end at some point and diplomacy must restart. Rather than allow this war to escalate and for positions to harden too quickly, it is important for the guns to go silent and the discussions to recommence. Unless at least the following three issues are put on the table, nothing will advance:
- Adherence to the Minsk Agreements.
- Security guarantees for Russia and Ukraine, which would require Europe to develop an independent relationship with Russia that is not shaped by US interests.
- Reversal of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist laws and a return to the pluri-national compact.
The Soviet Ukrainian writer Mykola Bazhan wrote the powerful poem Elegy for Circus Attractions (1927) on the tensions of a circus. Could there be any better metaphor for our times?
A lady will shriek out piercingly…
Then panic takes aim and flies
into their heart-breaking howls,
crumpling their naked mouths!
Grind up the spit and tears,
whisk lips into grimaces!
They’re swinging like corpses on threads,
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, journalist, commentator, and Marxist intellectual. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.