Political economist, Ukraine Solidarity Campaign

Among a myriad of aspects to discuss when trying to understand what is happening in the current situation and what is to be done, I have selected to appeal to some crucial issues of the larger context, of the questions of sovereignty and of peace.

One of the things that outraged me, as it had many Ukrainians, last week were US president Joe Biden’s remarks about a range of possible international sanctions/actions for “incursions”/border violations depending on the scale of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. I was equally baffled and outraged at the future tense being used in discussions of such “potential” Russian actions against Ukraine. Both of these narratives shock me as a Ukrainian and as a political economy/International Relations scholar.

When did it become acceptable to talk of minor incursions as palatable internationally? Where in international law does one find a guidance on how many miles of national borders need to breached by tanks for it to be classed as moderately acceptable to marginally tolerate? How many lives is it acceptable to be lost to armed action, how many buildings is it OK to have bombed, how many cyber-security attacks on official infrastructures are insignificant enough for it to be classed as an act of warfare?

What is with the supposed collective amnesia regarding these incursions which are talked about in future tense? Ukraine has been invaded since 2014. It seems to me that normalisation of border violations, acceptance of existing conflict as normality – or indeed, as irreversible (as per the words of the German now ex-navy chief), is happening before our eyes. With that acceptance and normalisation, the premise and the purpose of international security architecture, international law, and mutual assurance principles are out of the window (with reference to the Budapest Memorandum and beyond). Indeed, and sadly, if Ukraine’s post-2014 history has taught us anything, is to not be surprised at such statements. So called “smaller nations”, their people, have been treated as disposable on too many a historical occasion.

We read in the papers of the calls to go back to the principles of Minsk II. Yet that so-called “agreement” stipulates conditions which contributing parties find impossible to accept since it involves a set of contradictions, a logical inconsistency which undermines any hope of reconciliation from the outset. As Allan (2020) puts it, ‘the Minsk agreements rest on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands?’ The paradox lies in the fact that the agreements around Ukraine’s sovereignty interpret the latter as both an inalienable fact of international relations and law, and subject to interpretation in a neo-colonial historical revisionist attempt by Russia. As a result of this paradox, Russia and Ukraine see the situation at hand, for a set of reasons, differently. This means there is an inconsistent and illogical starting point, upon which no meaningful compromise can be achieved, let alone when decisions are being made on behalf of Ukraine – with its internal complexity of voices – as a mere proxy.

While the Kremlin has been painting Russia as a victim that has been robbed and deceived and used Ukraine’s Russian speaking population as a pretext for 2014 invasion, the annexation of Crimea and multivariate support for separatism in the Southern and Eastern areas of Ukraine as part of the Novorossiya campaign (with varying degrees of success), it is Ukraine’s borders and sovereignty that were violated, Ukraine’s citizens who were displaced, wounded, tortured, traumatised and murdered.

Now onto thinking of solutions and limitations. All the above issues considered, we are 8 years deep into this crisis and thus the lens through which to view it, and effectively the solutions to be designed and applied, are to be thought of differently today than in 2014. We are not talking about the same Ukraine and we must include the voices and interests of all Ukrainians, working classes first and foremost, if any meaningful plan of what is to be aimed at politically is to be developed. There are many aspects to consider here, I will speak of two overlapping issues: first, the issue of sovereignty and self-determination, and, second, the issue of peace.

Sovereignty is not simply a question of borders; it runs much deeper, it is about economic autonomy and independence of political decision-making. In Ukraine, presently all those are incomplete and threatened in multiple ways. While it must be acknowledged that nothing is more devastating than a military threat to all elements of sovereignty, a meaningful sovereignty for Ukraine, or any country, is impossible without a stable and relatively independent, resilient and flexible economic system. Currently, weakened by the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-9 shocks and years of the military conflict, Ukraine again stares down the deepest yet rabbit hole of debt, with few assets left to sell, low investor confidence, and high household indebtedness. Ukraine’s economy is at the mercy of its creditors, as well as its homebred and foreign oligarchs, and until the workers of Ukraine are deciding their own destiny, there will be no justice and no peace in Ukraine – without empowering of the workers and debt forgiveness, sovereignty, too, is a fiction.  Further complexity arises from the multi-ethnic and secessionist elements in the borders of 2013 Ukraine – if reconciliation and national rebuilding is to happen inside those borders, it will have to address that complexity by way of a meaningful compromise. The process too will need to involve a thorough investigation into the war crimes and adequate punishment of the perpetrators – on all sides of the conflict. Justice needs to be restored for the endured suffering, torture, rape, kidnappings, abuse of POWs and more; wounds will not heal otherwise as international practice of reconciliation processes shows. Inability to conduct that process fairly can only sow the seeds of future conflict.

In discussing the second issue, the issue of peace, I first and foremost want to appeal to the global dance of neo-imperialist might that must end. The build-up of massive arsenals, expansive multi-purpose military alliances, ramping up military production, so to speak, just in case, to deter, as we are often told, does not seem to be working too well. At the same time, having security guarantors act as military aggressors – as is the case with Russia in Ukraine – is a heavy counter-argument in the dimension of nuclear non-proliferation politics. Abandoning nuclear weapons altogether is key for international stability at large, for the security of today’s and the future generations. But poses the question, if Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and is paying such a dear price, why would anyone else follow suit?

While the neo-colonial and neo-imperialistic nature of the current Russian moves and manoeuvres is clear, the reasoning behind it is more complex than a simple ambition of might. While using neighbours as bargaining chips is unacceptable, we can also admit that the spread of NATO membership and partnerships globally since the fall of USSR has not helped the situation. US/NATO and Russia have been part of a mutually reinforcing, dysergetic dance where misgivings and missteps of one reinforced and amplified the same of another; the more wounded Russia acted, the more convincing pro-NATO arguments appeared; the more partners NATO had, the more compelled was Russia to twist the arms of its neighbours, and so on. This pushing and the bullying by both must stop. There won’t be regional nor international stability without US and Russia dialling back security threats and stashing away the weapons, working towards demilitarisation of the world.

Working class based, demilitarised solution are needed, in Ukraine and elsewhere, and they are currently hard to envisage. The latter is one of the main and most urgent tasks of the global left.

The above is contribution to a roundtable discussion on how we support peace, democracy and human rights hosted by Another Europe is Possible.