[News] In These Days of Great Tension, Peace Is a Priority
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Thu Mar 3 10:57:59 EST 2022
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*In These Days of Great Tension, Peace Is a Priority: The Ninth
Newsletter (2022) - Vijay Prashad*
Konstantin Yuon (USSR), People of the Future, 1929.
Konstantin Yuon (USSR), /People of the Future/, 1929.
March 3, 2022
Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social
It is impossible not to be moved by the outrageousness of warfare, the
ugliness of aerial bombardment, the gruesome fears of civilians who are
trapped between choices that are not their own. If you read this line
and assume I am talking about Ukraine, then you are right, but of
course, this is not just about Ukraine. In the same week that Russian
forces entered Ukraine, the United States launched airstrikes in
Somalia, Saudi Arabia bombed Yemen, and Israel struck Syria and
Palestinians in Gaza.
War is an open sore on humanity’s soul. It draws precious social wealth
into destruction: ‘The impact of war is self-evident’, wrote Karl Marx
in the /Grundrisse/ (1857–58), ‘since, economically, it is exactly the
same as if the nation were to drop a part of its capital into the
ocean’. It disrupts social unity and damages the possibility of
international solidarity: ‘workers of the world unite in peacetime’,
wrote Rosa Luxemburg in /Either Or/ (1916), ‘but in war slit one
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
Anton Kandinsky (Ukraine), Grenade, 2012.
Anton Kandinsky (Ukraine), /Grenade/, 2012.
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.
*Regional peace vs. NATO’s imperialism, part I*. After the collapse of
the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (1991), the
United States sought to absorb all of eastern Europe into the North
Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This was despite the agreement made
in 1990 with the last government of the Soviet Union that, in the words
of then US Secretary of State James Baker, NATO would not move ‘one-inch
eastwards’. In the new period, eastern European countries and Russia
sought integration into the European project through entry into the
European Union (for political and economic purposes) and into NATO (for
military reasons). During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (1991–1999),
Russia became a NATO partner and joined the G-7 (which, for a time,
became the G-8). Even in President Vladimir Putin’s early years, Russia
continued to think that it would be welcomed into the European project.
In 2004, NATO absorbed seven eastern European countries (Bulgaria,
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia); at that
time, NATO’s secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said
that Russia understood that NATO had ‘no ulterior motives’. However,
Moscow eventually called NATO’s persistent march eastward into question,
and, in 2007, Putin accused
NATO of ‘muscle-flexing’ in eastern Europe. From then on, NATO’s
expansion became an increasingly contentious matter. Although Ukraine’s
entry into NATO was blocked by France and Germany in 2008, the question
of Ukraine being drawn into the NATO project began to define
Russian-Ukrainian politics. This last point highlights how the
discussion about ‘security guarantees’ for Russia is incomplete; it is
not about Russia’s security fears alone – since Russia is a major
nuclear power – it is also about Europe’s relationship with Russia.
Namely, would Europe be able to form a relationship with Russia that is
not predicated upon US diktats to subordinate Russia?
*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
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).
Vasiliy Tsagolov (Ukraine), Untitled, 2008.
Vasiliy Tsagolov (Ukraine), /Untitled/, 2008.
*Regional peace vs. NATO imperialism, part II*. Emboldened by the West,
the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists grew their power, and the possibility
of negotiations to settle the conflict waned. Violations of the Minsk
Agreements by all sides undermined the process. For eight years, the
people of the Donbass lived in a constant state of war, which, according
the United Nations, produced over 14,000 deaths and over 50,000
casualties between 2014 and 2021. There appeared to be no exit from that
situation. What began to take place was essentially ethnic cleansing,
with large sections of Russian speakers fleeing across the border to the
Rostov region of Russia and Ukrainian speakers moving westwards. There
was little international attention paid to this crisis and the rise of
the neo-Nazi elements. NATO powers refused to take these issues
seriously or provide Moscow with security guarantees; particularly, to
guarantee that Ukraine would not be provided with nuclear weapons and
would not become a member of NATO. Furthermore, Russia intervened to
seize Crimea, where its navy has a warm water port. These moves further
destabilised the situation, threatening the security of the region.
NATO’s refusal to negotiate over Russia’s security is the spur that led
to the intervention.
Otto Dix (Germany), Schädel (‘Skull’), 1924.
Otto Dix (Germany), /Schädel/ /(‘Skull’),/ 1924.
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:
1. Adherence to the Minsk Agreements.
2. Security guarantees for Russia and Ukraine, which would require
Europe to develop an independent relationship with Russia that is
not shaped by US interests.
3. Reversal of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist laws and a return to the
If substantive negotiations and agreements regarding these essential
matters do not materialise over the next few weeks, it is likely that
dangerous weapons will face each other across tenuous divides and
additional countries will get drawn into a conflict with the potential
to spiral out of control.
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,
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