Quick disclaimer – no leftists that frequent this blog have actually asked questions about Ukraine. The most prominent of them already know the answer to every question of foreign affairs – the US is in the wrong. But there are legitimate questions to be asked about the situation from a progressive or leftist point of view. They are questions I asked, and did my best to find the answers to.
Aren’t the protestors in Ukraine Nazis or neo-Nazis? It seems quite likely that some of them adhere to radical right-wing ideologies. It’s also clear that the deaths of protestors during the Euromaiden protests have greatly strengthened the hand of the most radical elements. However, even groups like Pravy Sektor or Svoboda, I would hesitate to describe as ‘neo-nazis’, if only because I know some very rational, cosmopolitan Ukrainians who believe that these parties are their best chance to gain national sovereignty. In the several months of peaceful protests before the first protestor deaths, a great many parties from across the political spectrum took part. No radical right wing party currently hold a majority of seats in the Ukrainian parliament or the cabinet. If history is any guide, violent actions by Russia, or financial collapse as the US and EU dither about replacing Russian loans, will strengthen these parties; effective economic development will weaken them.
But the new government will certainly lead to the expansion of neo-liberalism, which is bad, right? This is also a common criticism – that somehow integrating Ukraine in the EU will bring about powerful pressure for ‘neo-liberalism’, which is poorly defined but generally associated with privatization and the creation or tolerance of extreme wealth inequality. Interestingly, this line of argument is also used by Svoboda, one of those nasty right wing parties, to encourage Ukrainian nationalism. Fortunately, both Svoboda and the US left wing are wrong on this point. If by neo-liberalism we mean the weakening of the welfare state and expansion of inequality, then neo-liberalism cannot be reasonably associated with the EU, as four of the five most egalitarian nations in the world are members of the EU, and every EU state has a lower level of inequality than Russia.
Doesn’t the Greek experience show the dangers of joining the EU, though? Greece is indeed in a bad situation. They made a major mistake in lying about their finances in order to get accepted in the Eurozone, a group not synonymous with the EU. However, if one observes the entire arc of the Greek economy from 1981, when they joined the European Economic community, to now, the trend is upward, well in excess of of their neighbors. GDP per capita PPP has more than doubled in that time – and that’s including the recent drop post crisis. but austerity is really bad, and isn’t that enforced by the EU? No country likes austerity, and the EU has subjected Greece to more than is prudent. UPDATE: and continues to do so to an absurd degree. But Greek government spending for several years still depended for some time on a deficit as they adjusted to the new budget. If Greece were any country outside of the EU, with their current debt/GDP ratio and credit rating, they would have had little choice but to default on their debt, which would have lead to even more drastic austerity. The fact that they choose to remain, even now that they are running a primary surplus, shows the appeal of being attached to the Euro banking system, even for politicians that could not be remotely described as neo-liberal.
Crimea, on the other hand, should definitely belong to Russia. I mean, those folks are Russian! That’s a difficult question. Yes, a majority of Crimeans are Russian, as a result of Russian colonialism and ethnic cleansing, for which it is unfair to hold the current residents responsible. And there is certainly a long precedent for allowing such regions self-determination. However, it is generally considered important that referendums of that nature not be in direct contravention of agreements, particularly not those associated with the Nuclear non-Proliferation Agreement. It is also generally considered necessary to allow in international observers for such a referendum, include the option of the ‘the status quo‘ on the ballot, and to not occupy the territory with foreign troops while the voting is going on. It is also against international law for your troops to lack identifying insignia, and rare indeed for the international community to recognize a referendum not on independence, but on joining a different, occupying nation (that’s why Kosovo voted for independence, no to join Albania, even though most Kosovars are Albanian). For all of those reasons, the proposed referendum in Crimea has no validity; Russia has a responsibility to condemn it, and the US and UK have treaty obligations to prevent it from going into force.
Isn’t Russia just looking out for its people? They aren’t even allowed to speak their language! The language question is a good one. No language is banned in Ukraine, nor is that option on the table. The official language of Ukraine is and since independence has been Ukrainian. This hasn’t prevented Russian from remaining widely spoken throughout the country, as most Ukrainians are bilingual, while most Russians, with whom they have extensive contacts, are not. In 2012, a law was passed by Yanukovych, who previously stated he had no interest in the language question, that any region (oblast) where 10% of the population speaks a language other than Ukrainian can make that language official in that oblast. Many oblsasts did exactly that with Russian; others did that with Hungarian, Polish, Tatar, or Romanian. Crimea, as an autonomous region and not an oblast, has always had its own language system. The Ukrainian parliament voted to repeal this law in February; the move was widely condemned both inside out and outside Ukraine, and the president chose not to sign it. Interestingly, Russia Today, which breathlessly reported the passage of the revocation, has failed to report on the fact that it was never signed.
In Crimea, which Russia is occupying, Russian nationals and Russophones are hardly at risk – the constitute a majority, and were in the presence of an enormous Russian military force even before the current intervention. In cities near Russia, Russian speakers are if anything at far greater risk, because conflict with Russia cannot help but intensify any anti-Russian sentiment that exists.
But Kosovo, and Georgia.. Let me stop you right there. Georgia is not relevant here – Saakashvili made an enormous error in invading South Ossetia, because he doesn’t have a seat on the security council and so can’t get away with invading South Ossetia the way Russia can kill people in Chechnya with impunity; Ukraine, conversely, has shown remarkable restraint in refusing to give Russia a reason to go to war. Kosovo is excellent for context here. It provides a very good model for Russia to follow, which it is not. If Russia would like to follow the precedent of Kosovo, they first need permission from Ukraine to violate the Budapest Memorandum. They will never get that. They should, by rights, give Ukraine its nukes back. But even if we accept that Russia is going to violate its explicit guarantee of Ukrainian territorial integrity, there is a lot between this and Kosovo. Russian troops need to evacuate Crimea, allow in UN observers, and have the UN run a referendum that includes the option to maintain the status quo, and removes the option for union with Russia.
All in all, though, wouldn’t you say this is NATO’s fault, for provoking Russia? The question of whether NATO expansion caused the current animosity with Russia is a good one. All I can say is that we’ve trusted Russia to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors before, and been mightily disappointed. There was no reason to believe this time would be different. However, it is worth noting that where NATO did expand – Poland and the Baltic republics – there has been no such trouble, even as NATO borders Russia itself. Where NATO was tardy in expanding, the Balkan peninsula, there was great instability and human suffering, until the expansion of NATO into Romania and Bulgaria. Where NATO has not expanded, Ukraine and the Caucasus, instability and Russian intrusion into national sovereignty have been the rule. This would suggest that the problem is not the extent of NATO, but the lack thereof.
Isn’t it best to just leave Ukraine alone and respect their sovereignty? In the current situation, if ‘respecting Ukrainian sovereignty’ means remaining aloof from the conflict, it also means accepting that only Russia gets to invade Ukrainian sovereignty, with all manner of economic coercion that leftists in the US condemn the US using. All Ukraine really needs right now is us to fulfill our treaty obligations to them, and to step in to replace Russia and stabilize Ukrainian finances. It is also a real concern for Europe – there is a real movement building in Ukraine to unilaterally block transhipment of Russian natural gas.
Why can’t we just agree to disagree on this issue, since most leftist objections are actually unfounded? Because Ukraine has a population of over 40 million people who deserve better. Because not just Russia, but the US and UK swore to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Because if Ukraine could reach Polish levels of infant mortality alone, through admission to the EU and the subsequent economic development, that would mean hundreds of babies not dying every year, to say nothing of all the other impacts that would have on the prosperity and freedom of the Ukrainian people. I’m not going to agree to disagree when the peace and prosperity of a people I’ve come to personally know and care about is at risk.