I apologize for the long gap in blog posts. On the upside, I now have hosting for the podcast and I’ll be recording and hopefully releasing a new episode next week. I do plan to speak about the situation in Ukraine for part of that episode, so hopefully between that and this post, readers will have an idea of my stance on this.
I should point out that I’m going to try to keep this as brief and simplified as possible because as long-time readers and friends know, when it comes to Ukrainian politics I tend to get on my soapbox. And since my location prevents me from having a more hands on approach at the moment, I’ll save the stump speeches for another later.
So in case you’ve missed it, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship and who crossed the Ukrainian border illegally earlier this year, has been running around Kyiv trying to raise hell and calling for the impeachment of President Petro Poroshenko. There are arguments over the size of protest crowds and accusations of working for the Russians are flying like bullets at Gallipoli. Pro-Saakashvili people are trying to compare their movement to Maidan, while pro-Poroshenko people are starting to sound a lot like pro-Kremlin voices talking about Yanukovych during the actual Maidan revolution, right down to implying that the protesters are paid or duped without any agency.
Right from the start I must say that observing both sides (and I have friends and acquaintances on both sides of the barricades), I don’t think anyone sticking up for Saakashvili really puts much faith in him or even cares about him at all. Saakashvili seems to have made himself a rallying point around which opponents of the president can concentrate. Unlike the Russia-leaning Opposition Bloc, it’s kind of hard to pretend Saakashvili is really Russian when he, like Poroshenko, basically got into a shooting war with Moscow back in 2008. This means protesters can rally behind him while maintaining that all important “patriotism” that is so essential in Ukrainian politics these days.
For my part, I always felt bringing Saakashvili to Ukraine was a stupid gimmick, a feature of this idiotic idea that every country or individual who has some beef with the Kremlin must be a useful ally for that reason alone. That Saakashvili cleaned up corruption in Georgia and transformed that country is beyond question, something I’ve heard personally from Georgians who otherwise didn’t like the former president. Nonetheless, there was zero reason to believe that he could repeat that in the Odesa oblast or anywhere in Ukraine for that matter. I, like many Ukrainians, also have a problem with the way the Poroshenko government would hand out Ukrainian passports like candy to any semi-celebrity, including Russian Duma deputies who actually voted for the Crimean annexation, while people who have risked their lives fighting for Ukraine find themselves without residency or deported, in some cases back to Russia to face prosecution.
As ridiculous as Saakashvili’s “revolution” is, I’m more dismayed by the reactions coming from defenders of the status quo, be they openly pro-Poroshenko or not. For one thing, Poroshenko brought this on himself by first bringing Saakashvili in and then by stripping him of his citizenship when he became inconvenient. I wonder how many of the status quo defenders were excited by Poroshenko’s decision to invite Saakashvili in the first place. But never mind that for now. I think the best way to handle this succinctly is to give an approximation of the arguments I’ve been seeing from the status-quo defenders and providing an explanation as to why they are bullshit.
We’re at war!
No. Sorry, status quo defenders, but you don’t get to use this argument. Remember, you chose Minsk II, not victory. Any time you see this argument, push the person to say what Ukraine should do to end the war. They have no answers whatsoever. UN Peacekeepers? Won’t happen and would probably lead to a solidification of the phony “republics” if it did somehow happen. The West wins the war for Ukraine? Not going to happen. Obama had the perfect chance to crush and humiliate Putin in 2014, but he ruled out any military action from the get-go. Wait until Russia collapses? Forget it. Ukraine would suffer some sort of socio-economic collapse first, and even if it somehow didn’t, a collapse of the Russian Federation would have grave consequences for Ukraine, especially one still run by corrupt oligarchs. This is all fantasy.
Ukraine can in fact win a war against Russia, but the Poroshenko government clearly has no interest in doing so, and I’ve yet to see any of these “We’re at war” people put forth any plan for victory.
And it’s also worth noting that Ukraine has no shot at victory or even a favorable peace if its war effort is undermined by oligarchs and corrupt officials who put their personal luxury above Ukraine. Corruption in Ukraine not only exists in the arms industry, but even within the military itself.
This is helping Russian propagandists!
I find this objection rather amusing for several reasons. First of all, we know that Russian propagandists are perfectly content to just make shit up about Ukraine. Such made up stories include putting Hitler on a Ukrainian banknote, claims that the US is using Ukraine as a biological weapons testing site, and about 47 different alternative MH17 conspiracy theories, to cite just a few.
Another reason why this argument is funny is that it seems to be coming from the same side that supports things like the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory’s mission to whitewash the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and transform the Ukrainian Insurgent Army into a diverse, inclusive multi-cultural outfit that killed 12,000 Wehrmacht soldiers and never, ever killed any helpless civilians (but if they did, those people had it coming). When you try to point out that promoting the cult of literal fascists (yes, they fucking were by definition, fascists) like Stepan Bandera or Roman Shukhevych can alienate many Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Western Europeans, and Americans while at the same time providing excellent propaganda material for the Kremlin’s agitprop mills, these people tend to tell you that they don’t care what anybody says- “Ukraine has a right to its own heroes! And we decide who those heroes will be and what their stories are!”
So in short- fuck people who do that and use this argument about airing dirty laundry in front of the Russians. Either you care about optics and values all the time, or you’re full of shit. And I also have little sympathy for chest-thumping patriots who claim not to give a fuck about what the Western world thinks of Ukraine, but then have their hand out, whining about why the US hasn’t sent them Javelins yet. Hey, partisan, why don’t you just defeat the Russian Federation the way your heroic UPA defeated the Soviet Union? Oh…Wait…That didn’t work out too well, did it? Well there’s no better strategy than glorifying failure and doing the same fucking thing over and over again no matter how many times its been shown not to work, right?
Now to be fair, it is true that Russia’s propaganda machine benefits from Saakashvili’s antics. It helps support their narrative that Ukraine is a chaotic basketcase and protesting never solves anything. On the other hand, however, it also casts doubt on the claim that Ukraine is run by this iron-fisted neo-Nazi junta as well as the claim that it poses some kind of threat to Russia.
Saakashvili’s pseudo-revolution is not the solution to Ukraine’s problems, obviously, but it’s a really bad idea to tailor one’s actions based on what the Russians might say about it. You cannot control what they will put out, so if you let them determine the limits of your discourse you’ve effectively let them control you. People say that Putin misunderstood Ukraine in 2014 and that’s why he failed to achieve all his goals there, but while I think there is some truth to that, the game really hasn’t changed so much that Putin and his strategists couldn’t rely on the bulk of their techniques in order to keep Ukraine pinned down and unable to move forward with progressive change. From cultural policy to Eurovision, we’ve seen how easily Moscow can still press Kyiv’s buttons because the game hasn’t really changed.
Anti-Corruption Activists are Full of Shit!
I’ve seen many variants of this argument, including one recently from a certain diaspora cheerleader so dense I half expect her to one day explode and create another universe. But that individual is just an extreme case. I know far smarter people who also react to the phrase “anti-corruption activist” with this:
Believe me, I get it. I realize that these people aren’t all angels and they don’t have all the answers to Ukraine’s corruption problems. If anything they’re also victims of an extremely narrow range of political discourse in Ukraine, where it seems you’re always faced with false dilemmas and viper-toad choices. I’ll get into why “anti-corruption” doesn’t work as a political strategy later, but for now let’s just say that if one side is demonstratively corrupt, as Poroshenko and his people appear to be, it’s really hard to go all out against anti-corruption organizations. The government has, in fact, brought a lot of this on themselves.
But there have been changes since Maidan!
Okay. Great. But not all these changes have been great, nor do they all matter to most people. This is a little like Donald Trump talking about how great the stock market is doing. If we just take one issue, such as salaries, you can kind of see where the problem lies.
Things like low salaries and corruption directly undermine the war effort because they support key points of the Russian narrative:
-Protesting does nothing; it only makes things worse
-Ukraine has become worse off after Maidan
-There’s no difference between living in “democratic” Ukraine or under Russian occupation
-Russia may be corrupt and less democratic, but salaries and pensions are higher
Without getting into too much detail here, rest assured that the only way Ukraine can hope to achieve victory or even a favorable peace against Russia is by reaching the people behind enemy lines. Those people would be taking an extreme risk taking part in an insurgency against the Russian occupiers. Would they do that for the promise of an average salary of 190 euros and the opportunity to pay bribes to patriotic Ukrainian officials as opposed to Russian-speaking ones? I doubt it.
Put simply, Ukraine must provide these people with convincing proof that they would have a better future in Ukraine, and that vision must be so real to them that they would be willing to risk death and torture to attain it. Visa free travel they can’t afford or vague talk about “reforms” just won’t cut it. Unfortunately I’ve seen many examples of the current Ukrainian intelligentsia not caring about this issue in the slightest. It seems only in Ukraine can you find “nationalists” who would happily give away swathes of their territory simply so they can have a safe space to build their fantasy version of Ukraine (even if that Ukraine might need to resemble a Russia-like authoritarian kleptocracy). That these people aren’t immediately dismissed as traitors shows us how much reform Ukrainian politics really needs.
It’s a clusterfuck. That’s about all I can say. Poroshenko and the status-quo defenders won’t defeat Russia if left alone, nor will they do anything about major corruption. Anti-corruption activists aren’t going to defeat it either. The only thing that’s going to have an impact is when you get a militant, well-trained left movement in Ukraine which demonstrates the ability to fight the war against the occupier while at the same time organizing against the corrupt officials and oligarchs. What the centrists, nationalists, and anti-corruption crusaders all lack is a coherent, realistic understanding of why there is corruption in the country in the first place, i.e. capitalism. Just as the American ruling class, perpetually at odds with the vast majority of Americans, is using its influence in government to appropriate a larger share of public wealth, Ukrainian oligarchs and officials use a more direct, less legalized form of doing the same. And for that matter, Russia’s ruling class is doing it as well.
Ukraine’s understanding of class struggle has been stunted by several factors. I’d say the most prominent would be the relatively late formation of Ukrainian statehood and the fact that when the former briefly became a reality, Ukraine had no Ukrainian capitalist class (individual Ukrainian capitalists existed, but they were typically Russified and disconnected from the peasant majority). The other obvious factor is the disdain for socialism that comes not only from the Soviet experience, but the abhorrent behavior of the so-called “Communist Party of Ukraine” since independence in 1991. To this we can also add those well-meaning leftists who still can’t help but regurgitate the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals or talking points about “peace.”
But whatever the popularity or lack thereof when it comes to class struggle, it is very real, and it is shaping the events that we see in Ukraine, from the Russian invasion (an act of neo-colonialism) to Mr. Saakashvili’s aborted “revolution.” The invasion and occupation must necessarily take precedence over all, but the idea that Ukraine could ever hope to defeat such a powerful opponent while it is ruled by criminals or even just self-interested businessmen whose goals clash with that of the majority of Ukrainians is simply ludicrous.
To put it another way, Ukraine can’t win until there’s a force that points out what ought to be obvious by now- not all Ukrainians are on the same side.
Damn. There I am on this soap box again. Sorry about that.