In Ukraine

Originally published on the urbanramblings website.

However one views Russia’s invasion, to support pursuit of the war by Kyiv until victory, until all lost territory has been regained, and to call for Russia’s strategic defeat—the current position of that regime, supported by the US and NATO—is to support a profoundly criminal policy, since the goal is unrealisable. Its pursuit will not change the outcome of the war but will continue to destroy Ukraine. David Mandel

Gary Smith’s argument on Labour List, written under the pressure of a critique from Stop the War’s Andrew Murray, starts with the resounding phrase “Solidarity should know no borders”.

One border that he doesn’t acknowledge is the one that has run in blood across the Donbass since the Ukrainian Air Force bombed Donetsk City in May 2014. This followed a popular insurrection in the East of the country against the Maidan coup, because it overthrew a President they had voted for, with the help of the US and EU with an increasingly influential role being played by the local far right.

Gary Smith simplistically sees this as a “Russian occupation”. His attempt to explain away local support undermines his entire stance, however. He is AGAINST a local referendum in Crimea and Donbass, to determine whether the people who live there wish to revert to Ukraine or remain in the Russian Federation, on the grounds that there has been an exchange of population since 2014. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that some of the people who have moved into the Russian zone since the start of the war have been refugees from Western Ukraine. Russian speaking people who felt under threat or out of sympathy with the Ukrainian nationalist form of the oligarchic regime in Kyiv. Early in the war, there were convoys of cars trying to get out of Western Ukraine to get to the Russian zone. Some of them were shelled. He also doesn’t note that a third of the refugees from the war overall have fled to Russia itself, which is the largest single destination country.

He uncritically repeats lurid propaganda that a policy of evacuating civilians from war zones -as the Russians have done – amounts to “abduction”. It seems odd to argue that children in an orphanage, for instance, should be left in a zone that is being shelled and fought over by both sides. Better to get them out, surely? He does not note that when Russia evacuated Kherson last Autumn, a majority of people chose to leave, but those hostile to them stayed; and were allowed to do so; which would not be the case if they were being “abducted”. Hopefully he does not agree that keeping them in situ to act as human shields for military installations – as Amnesty International noted the Ukrainians were doing – is somehow acceptable because its them doing it.

Overall however, opposing a referendum – giving the people a choice – shows that he knows that the reversion to Ukraine would lose in these areas. There are good reasons for that. Even if you think the referenda held by the Russians last Autumn in Donbass, and in Crimea in 2014 had no significance, people in Donbass have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014. 50,000 of them are in the Donbass militia. Dontesk city has been shelled almost every day for nearly ten years. There is no love lost on either side of this border. It is also stated in terms by the head of Ukraine’s Military Intelligence, Kyrillo Budanov, that the people in Donbass and Crimea have a “completely different view of the world” and will have to be “re educated” or “physically eliminated”. This is not, in his view, a liberation of a population oppressed by a Russian occupation, but a reconquest against the resistance of people who support it. Budanov is a serious man. We should take him at his word.

So Gary Smith’s view, and that of the GMB Motion, is that the determination of Ukraine’s future should be left in the hands of some of the pre 2014 population, but definitely not all of it. Self determination for the West. Forcible occupation and ethnic cleansing for the East. Not a position the TUC should support if we think that “solidarity has no borders”.

Gary Smith’s case relies on two gigantic false premises.

1 That it is a Russian war aim to conquer the whole of Ukraine and eliminate the Ukrainian nation. It isn’t. Occupation of the whole of Ukraine would be like “swallowing a porcupine” for Russia, as John Mearsheimer put it. Why would they want to do that?

Russian war aims have been quite clear from before the war started, and negotiating about them seriously in the Winter of 2021-2 could have averted the conflict.

  • They were initially to remove the military threat to the Donbass and allow it autonomy within Ukraine. 14,000 people had died in the conflict since 2014, most of them on the Donbass side of the line. Initially Russia didn’t even recognise the Donbass Republics, despite local pressure and pressure in the Duma from The Communist Party of the Russian Federation – the main opposition Party – to do so. The demands from Donbass itself to be absorbed into the Russian Federation were only accepted and implemented after 6 months of fighting and the failure of initial peace negotiations in May 2022 that are widely acknowledged to have been torpedoed by the US and UK.
  • Recognition of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. This is overwhelmingly supported by the people who live in Crimea. For background see here.
  • A commitment from Ukraine not to join NATO. NATO is presented in the West/Global North as a defensive alliance, because NATO is the military expression of the Global North. Being a member if NATO is being part of a bloc of wealthy imperialist countries responsible between them for 62% of global military spending and whose core members, including the UK, are responsible for 4.5 million deaths in the war on terror over the last twenty years. It does not defend “democracy” it is an organisation to defend the Pax Americana, which is anything but peaceful for anyone on the receiving end of it. Every year, NATO conducts “war games” in Eastern Europe practising for a war with Russia. Locking in Ukraine, with a large army, swollen by Western finance and honed by Western training, spiced up by far right volunteers who see the Donbass as the front line of the war between (white) Europe and (untermensch) Asia would make such a war inevitable. The refusal of NATO to even negotiate on the Russian proposals for mutual security guarantees in the winter of 2021 -2, convinced them that this was the case.
  • A removal of far right (Banderite) influence on the Ukrainian state. This influence has been played down in the West for the last eighteen months, but it is pervasive. This goes a lot deeper than Azov battalion insignia. The wholesale glorification of Stepan Bandera, a man whose organisation provided a strong contingent of concentration camp guards, fought with the Nazis and killed 100,000 Polish villagers, as well as countless numbers of Jews, and the embedding of far right organisations and their mode of thought across the entire state is no trivial matter and reflects a wider rehabilitation of the far right increasingly pervasive in the Global North.

Supporters of the GMB motion should reflect on what, if anything, is wrong with any of these positions.

Is it desirable to glorify a Fascist movement as part of an attempt to build up national consciousness?

Is it desirable to be part of the world’s premier predatory imperialist alliance?

Should the people who live in Donbass and Crimea be forced to live in a state that is hostile to them and wants to ethnically cleanse them?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no”, then the GMB Motion can’t be supported.

2. Gary Smith does not acknowledge the role of NATO in general and the United States in particular in fomenting this conflict. The geo-political aim of the US since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been to “dominate the post Soviet space”. That means Eastern Europe, former Soviet Republics and, ultimately, Russia too. This goes along with breaking any relationship between countries in the EU and Russia that might threaten US dominance in Europe as a whole. That’s why they never agreed to any notion that Russia could join NATO – because the centre of military and economic gravity on the continent would be between Russia and Germany, and that would be hard for them to control. Blowing up the Nordstream pipeline is symbolic of this.

The United States is funding this war, and supplying the military equipment, satellite intelligence and propaganda mobilisation needed to keep it going. You’d have to have to have been paying no attention at all to the US record across the world in the last 150 years to have any delusion that this has anything to do with the rights or otherwise of Ukrainians. Senator Mitt Romney put it as cynically as you might expect “Supporting Ukraine weakens an adversary, enhances our national security advantage, and requires no shedding of American blood”.

On the principle that “he who pays the piper calls the tune” it would also be naive to assume that Kyiv has any weight at all in strategic decisions. A concern with “imperialism” that ignores the role and influence of the world’s dominant imperialism – and its local dominance inside Ukraine itself -is an attempt to blow smoke in our eyes.

The best traditions of international solidarity in the trade union movement are to stand up against the wars and exploitation visited upon the world by our own ruling class. The worst tradition is that of knowing our place, tugging our forelock, and going along with the foreign policy objectives of our own imperialism and its senior partner in Washington, in the hope that, loyalty will be rewarded with some crumbs from their table, like well paid manufacturing jobs in BAE systems perhaps.

The current course of the Kyiv government is to subject their people to self immolation at the behest of the US. This summary of how grim things are getting is from Dimitriy Kovalevich.

In Western media, the current conflict in Ukraine is often presented as a war between Western-style ‘freedom and democracy’ and Russian-style ‘authoritarianism and dictatorship’. We are told, furthermore, that such ‘freedom and democracy’ are represented by the governing regime in Kiev.

But this is a regime that has banned all men between the ages of 18 and 60 as well as women in certain professions from leaving the country. There is no free internal movement of citizens. The main exceptions to the prohibition on leaving the country are those unfit for military service, those fathers who have three or more minor children (all below the age of 16), and persons caring for people with disabilities. (The latter exemption only applies if there is no other family member to provide care.)

The regime, which came to power in a violent coup in February 2014, has long ago banned all left-wing political parties in the country, and since last year it has banned street protests and strikes. Also last year, it passed a law severely restricting the rights of trade unions. Ukraine was supposed to hold a legislative election this fall, but this has been postponed. (Elections are to take place in the Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine on September 8-10). For neoliberal capitalism, there can never be too many restrictions against freedom, nor can there ever be too much exploitation.

In early August, deputies of the Ukraine president’s ‘Servant of the People’ party in the national legislature (‘Rada’) introduced a bill that provides for the conscription of forced labor of all those who have not been conscripted to the armed forces. Formally free citizens who already cannot legally leave the country due to wartime restrictions will now also be subjected to forced labor.

There is also already a serious shortage of trained personnel in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of factory workers, skilled tradespeople, railway workers, drivers, and other equipment operators in agricultural industries, and on and on have been conscripted into the army. Many of them have died or been seriously injured in the futile attempts of Ukraine’s leaders and their Western patrons to storm the well fortified defensive lines of the Russian armed forces.

In addition, some eight million people have simply left the country during the past year and a half. Most of those have no wish or plans to return in any foreseeable future. Every day, Ukrainian border guards catch dozens of ‘conscription refugees’ at Ukraine’s borders. Sometimes, border officials use tracking drones generously provided by the governments of the European Union and the United States. The unfortunates who are caught quickly find themselves in the trenches along the hundreds of kilometers of front lines separating Ukrainian and Russian armies.

‘Help wanted’ signs can be seen in Ukraine on many delivery trucks, at bus stops, and in front of supermarkets. Orderlies and drivers, construction workers and packers read the signs, are “urgently needed for work”.

Although Ukraine is the poorest country on the European continent, many people are not eager to rush into a job. Since the beginning of the year, company managers are obliged to hire employees only after receiving formal approval from the local military conscription office. Thus, a man who applies for an advertised job as a driver may well instead find himself in the trenches, facing minefields and deadly Russian defensive positions. Meanwhile, his former employer will be back on the hustings looking for a replacement driver.

Another factor weighing on the labor market in Ukraine is wage reductions of up to 50 per cent. Teachers are facing salary cuts as the 2023 national budget for public education in Ukraine has been downgraded from an initial 154 billion hryvnias to 131 billion  hryvnias (US$3.5 billion). That is less than the 2022 expenditure. In addition, most school districts rely on supplementary funding from local governments, and these funds, too, are being squeezed. As the Ukrainian news outlet Apostrophe explained in a report in late 2022, citing a teacher in Kiev named Oksana: “In Kyiv, the situation is more or less the same, although the allowances have been partially removed. But the situation elsewhere in Ukraine is really worse. In many cities and villages, teachers are receiving ‘survival’ salaries only, losing from 15 per cent all the way to 50 per cent of their income, depending on the state of local budgets.”

The report explains, “Educators receive money not only from the Ministry of Education and Culture but also from local budgets. But local budgets during the war have also shrunk significantly. According to a study by the Kyiv School of Economics, every fourth community under [Russian] occupation [control] has collected 50 percent less revenue compared to pre-war plans. Another two-thirds of communities outside the combat zone reported a decrease in income. It is clear that in such a situation when it is necessary to urgently address humanitarian issues, local authorities cannot pay pre-war salaries to teachers.”

This takes place as inflation is around 30 percent annually. Wages in Ukraine today barely cover the cost of basic food. For these reasons and more, many workers retreat into the shadows and choose to work illegally, many in multiple jobs if possible.

Last year, Ukrainian authorities tried to solve their labor shortage problems by tapping into the large pool of the unemployed. The unemployed who were officially registered were sent into military zones to clear rubble, cut down trees, build shelters, etc. This is hard physical work, often located near the front lines. This initiative was labeled an ‘Army of Reconstruction’, but many people responded by simply stopping to register as unemployed. After all, unemployment benefits have also been cut in Ukraine. Today, the average benefit hovers around the equivalent of US$27 per month. The maximum benefit rate is $180 per month, but this is only good for three months.

Food prices in Ukraine are already higher than in Russia and EU countries, from where most food supplies in Ukraine come.

Simply put, Ukraine is gradually introducing a system of slave labor – people must work to meet basic food needs, but they work for steadily shrinking salaries and benefits. Western media is silent about all this ...

The new draft law on the mobilization of workers is intended to “ensure the functioning of the national economy under martial law”, in the words of those drafting the law. It is noteworthy that in early August, Ukraine began to talk about a likely ban against military conscripts leaving the country for three years following an eventual end to military hostilities and martial law. Just such a proposal was recently made by Vadym Denysenko (and here), head of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future and a former advisor to the head of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Denysenko said, “I am sure that even after the war it will be necessary to extend the ban on men traveling abroad for at least another three years. Otherwise, we simply will not survive as a nation.”

Earlier, Denysenko’s Ukrainian Institute for the Future published data on population numbers in Ukraine. Since the start of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine 18 months ago, some 8.6 million citizens have left the country and not returned. Of the 29 million citizens remaining in the country, no more than 9.5 million are working. State-financed jobs excluded, there are some six to seven million workers earning salaries. Ukraine began its path to post-Soviet ‘independence’ in 1991, with a population of 52 million. The population numbers have been steadily declining ever since due to mass emigration.

At the same time, the fertility rate of the country has fallen below one. To ensure stabilisation and a small increase of the population, the fertility rate should be more than 2. But the Institute says the average fertility rate is 0.7 children per couple. It also cites analysts who project that the number of pensioners in Ukraine in the coming years will be double the number of working-age citizens.

Vadym Denysenko is partly right in the sense that millions of Ukrainian men would no doubt rush abroad were borders to be opened. The wives and children of many of them have already been living abroad for year and a half. Many would leave in search of better wages and in order to escape the mousetrap that Ukraine has become.

Denysenko’s proposal is not at all appreciated in Ukraine. It is viewed as a return to slavery and serfdom. Of particular note is that his Ukrainian Institute for the Future is a neoliberal think tank funded by right-wing think tanks in the West, including the Atlantic Council and the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States.

This idea of prohibiting Ukrainian citizens from leaving the country even after the end of hostilities stems, in part, from the fact that Ukraine is now heavily indebted to Western governments and financial institutions. Repayment with interest can only be guaranteed through the merciless exploitation of the Ukrainian population. To achieve that, it is necessary that the population be denied the option of running away from something rightly perceived as something resembling slavery or medieval serfdom.

In July 2023, the foreign exchange reserves of the National Bank of Ukraine grew by 6.9% to $41.7 billion, the highest monthly increase since 1991. However, the largest share of the increase came not from economic growth and increased export revenues but from international assistance to the tune of $4.7 billion. Most of that comes in the form of loans from the European Union, the United States, Japan, the IMF, and the World Bank, to be repaid in the future.

Bloomberg News reported on July 24 that Ukraine needs to bring back 2.8 million of its women citizens from abroad in order to have a chance at economic recovery following the end of military hostilities. According to one expert Bloomberg interviewed, if only half of the women return, this would cost Ukraine 10% of its GDP by 2032, on the order of $20 billion per year. Such losses will far outweigh the EU’s proposed four-year aid package to Ukraine in the amount of $14 billion per year.

According to a recent estimate by the Ukrainian Ministry of Economy, Ukraine will need to attract an additional 4.5 million workers to the labor market over the next ten years. But at current wage levels, people are more likely to leave the country than to stay and work.

Ukrainian journalist Diana Panchenko wrote on her blog earlier this month, “At the end of the war, a huge number of people will still leave. Ukrainians will be scattered all over the world, like the Roma people, for example.” She has been forced to flee Ukraine due to her writings critical of the government. She also noted in her blog post that, according to UN statistics, most Ukrainians who have left the country have settled in Russia. “It is not customary to talk about this in Kyiv, and the reason for that is clear.”

Answering a reader asking when the refugees could return to Ukraine, the journalist replied that, in her opinion, it would not be soon, the war could last a long time. Clearly, this will not help boost population growth. And how will it all end? Few in Ukraine can openly say this, but, according to Panchenko, “Ukraine has already lost – we have no economy and, even worse, we have no sovereignty. Today, we simply depend on what the West says. We have lost our identity.”

At the end of July, Ukrainians were also apprised of a stunning proposal that the working week may be increased to 60 hours, consisting of six days of work at ten hours per day or five days at 12 hours. At least, that is the idea published by the Eastern interregional office of the State Service of Ukraine on Labor Issues. The duration of weekly, uninterrupted rest would be reduced to 24 hours, that is, Ukrainians will have only Sunday as a day of rest from work. This idea would first be implemented in enterprises working in critical infrastructure or “defense”. The increase in the work week is said to be required by the shortage of workers and the need to constantly repair energy infrastructure.

As it stands presently, employers often exploit Ukrainian workers beyond the norms that would be established by this law. Recently, this same State Service of Ukraine on Labor Issues was approached by an employee whose employer set the rest period for the preceding month as only one day every three weeks and the duration of the shift as 12 hours. The employer claims that such a schedule will be in effect until the end of the year because, during martial law, the number of overtime hours required to work can be unlimited.

Thus, for the average Ukrainian, the Western values of freedom and democracy are turning into an unprecedented neoliberal experiment to abolish all labor rights and implement something resembling slavery. Measures to force Ukrainians to ‘fight or work’ are presented as a triumph of oft-spoken “European values”.

In the future that Ukrainian politicians and their Western advisors and think tanks are preparing, many Ukrainians will work up to 12 hours a day with few days off, earning less than a minimum subsistence salary. They won’t dare flee their country because the consequences of being caught could easily become deadly.

A prolonged war will make all of this worse. A fig leaf conscience clearing clause in a TUC Motion claiming to oppose this will have no weight at all in the situation. The only thing that could make a difference is for the war to end. And the path to that is not through a military victory for NATO with Ukrainians doing the fighting and dying, Even if you think this might be desirable, it isn’t possible so the attempt to pursue it becomes an act of futile cruelty.

As David Mandel puts it

 the most condemnable policy is surely to keep the war going when there is no hope that continued fighting will improve the outcome for Ukrainian workers and related popular groups. That is precisely the policy of the US, NATO and Kyiv. Biden stated clearly that he would not pressure the Ukrainian government—in private or public—to make any territorial concessions.

One need not be a military expert to see that there is not the slightest prospect that Ukraine can regain its lost territory, or possibly even avoid losing more, through continued military action, unless, of course, NATO forces directly enter the war—a move that would threaten the world with nuclear Armageddon. This was evident to objective observers from the very first moment of the war, even to the New York Times, which a month into the war admitted that the US goal was to pull Russia into a quagmire.

Continued pursuit of war will bring only more death and destruction to the people of Ukraine. At one point, that was admitted even by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who called for a negotiated settlement and was duly instructed to shut up. And if anyone still nurtured illusions, the current Ukrainian “counteroffensive,” whose inevitable failure was obvious to any objective observer, should have finally dispelled them.

However one views Russia’s invasion, to support pursuit of the war by Kyiv until victory, until all lost territory has been regained, and to call for Russia’s strategic defeat—the current position of that regime, supported by the US and NATO—is to support a profoundly criminal policy, since the goal is unrealisable. Its pursuit will not change the outcome of the war but will continue to destroy Ukraine. Territorial compromise is inevitable, if the war is not to go on forever, a prospect that some elements in Washington and Kyiv, in particular the latter’s neo-Nazi elements, who have gained much influence thanks to the war, are apparently prepared to contemplate.



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