In the second article from the RCN’s May Day Special Bulletin, Allan Armstrong (RCN) outlines the significance of current events in Ukraine, the dangers of inter-ethnic conflict allowing imperialist intervention, with the growing threat of inter-imperialist conflict.

“Take a neighbour of ours {Germany}. Our relations are very much better than they were a few years ago. There is none of that snarling which we used to see, more especially in the Press of those two great, I will not say rival nations, but two great Empires. The feeling is better altogether between them.”

These words were spoken by Lloyd George, on 23rd July 1914, the day after Austria-Hungary gave its war ultimatum to Serbia. On 4th August the UK joined the war.

An unintended outcome

The apparent logic of greater international economic cooperation and integration between capitalist powers were literally blown apart. For most of Europe, a relatively insignificant event in Sarajevo triggered an unintended outcome – the horrific First World War. Increasing imperial rivalry since the 1890s had led to competing imperial alliances, which dragged one state after another into the conflagration in 1914.

Are we facing a similar situation today, where cities with names like Kyiv, Sevastopol and Donetsk, could play the role of Sarajevo in 1914 – provoking an unwanted wider war between competing imperial powers?

One thing is certain. Just as the then globally dominant British imperialism faced increasing challenges in the lead up to the First World War, so today, the world economic and military domination of US imperialism is increasingly being contested.

A new rising hegemon, China, is making its economic weight felt as far way as Africa and South America. Meanwhile, Russia, a resentful imperial loser since the USSR’s collapse in 1991, is trying, through a mixture of economic blackmail (the use of gas exports) and remaining military might (still backed by nuclear weapons), to contain both EU and US imperial pressure, in Georgia, and now Ukraine.

Whilst stridently jockeying for domination over Ukraine, it is unlikely that the EU, USA or Russia wants a wider war. However, history has shown that the desire of capitalist corporations for economic stability notwithstanding, no stable international state order can be maintained for long. ‘New kids on the block’ back rising states and promote new military alliances. Sullen and ‘left-out’ imperial states add to the potential mayhem.

Russia is a current example of the latter. The woeful legacy of official ‘communism’ has led to the domination of a particular type of politics in the two largest post-USSR successor states – Russia and Ukraine. Here oligarchs rule capitalist kleptocracies. They use their control of the state to line their own pockets – smuggling vast sums abroad in case competing oligarchs ever take control.

Whereas in Russia, the competition is between mainly Russian nationals with the Putin-backed oligarchs currently enjoying relatively secure office; in Ukraine, the oligarchs are divided between those with Ukrainian/pro-West and Russian orientations. This has led to continued instability. Ukrainian orientated oligarchs control the Homeland Party headed by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. Russian orientated oligarchs have controlled different parties headed by Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yanukovych.

These nationalist parties have been largely constitutional in nature. However, when taking government office, they have been prepared to resort to extra-legal measures to maintain their control and to siphon off state funds to their oligarch backers. The Ukrainian Homeland Party has courted the far right and fascist Svoboda and Right Sector (inspired by the German Nazi-collaborationist Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists). The Russian orientated Party of the Regions has courted the far right Russian Bloc and Southern Front (both including former members of the fascist Russian National Unity).

Ukrainian and Russian ethnic nationalist divisions have made Ukraine a focus of inter-imperialist rivalry. The EU, in the guise of an economic ‘savior’, would like to asset-strip Ukraine even more thoroughly than it already has Greece, but without providing the minimalist ‘representation’ that EU membership would allow. The US wants to ‘bottle up’ Russia by extending NATO from the Baltic States and Poland, along the full extent of Russia’s western boundary.

The EU backed the Ukrainian nationalist takeover of Kyiv’s Maidan protest movement, originally mainly directed against Yanukovych’s increasingly corrupt Party of the Regions government. The US has been prepared to go further. It undermined the EU’s own stage-managed ‘peaceful’ transition to a Ukrainian oligarch’s pro-EU Homeland-led government, in favour of a more definitive coup, led by Ukrainian fascists.

In response to this provocation, Russia intervened to seize Crimea. Now it menacingly threatens eastern and southern Ukraine, with their large ethnic Russian-identifying populations.

There is little chance of Russia giving up Crimea. This leaves the remaining ethnic Ukrainian, and particularly the Crimean Tartar people in an invidious position. However Putin’s more arms-length Russian takeovers, such as in Donetsk, are probably designed to prompt a new imperialist agreement – the ‘neutralisation’ of Ukraine, with NATO and Russian forces left beyond Ukraine’s new borders. He could also be looking for a deal with the EU – with Germany’s dependence on Russian gas as a lever – to divide the economic rather than the territorial spoils in Ukraine.


However, back in Sarajevo, on 28th June 1914, the Serbian ultra-nationalists’ decision to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand did not consider that this could lead to the First World War. Nor do Ukrainian or Russian far right organisations, flourishing in today’s crisis-ridden and ethnically fractured Ukraine, have much interest in looking at the much wider implications of their actions. Their arms-length backers are not in full control of a potentially rapidly escalating situation. They are also both competing to undermine the efforts of the other, with likely further destabilising consequences.

The current political crisis in Ukraine is still probably more like the 1905 and 1911 Morocco crises. These brought competing imperial powers to the brink of war, only to back down and negotiate new settlements. However, imperialist rivalry and widening military alliances meant it was only a matter of time before a general conflagration broke out.

Today we are more aware of the never-ending misery brought about by ethnic nationalism, so easily manipulated both by local pro-capitalist politicians and their imperial backers. This means that, when we give our support to the right of self-determination, it is national, not ethnic (nationality) self-determination we seek. The only way that Ukraine can survive as a nation, in the face of competing ethnic and imperial rivalry, is to democratically unite all nationalities living within its boundaries. This also means mounting a challenge to rule by the oligarchs and a determination to remain outside all imperial military alliances.

Cameron and Clegg are currently promoting a state celebration of the glories of the First World War. Labour and SNP oppositions fall meekly behind. Yet the bitter experience of that bloodbath and the follow-up nightmare of the Second World War are widely recognised. This knowledge provides us with a chance to build a wider international opposition to growing imperialist rivalry today.

Another world is possible

However, we need to go further. Socialists are in a weaker position both within the imperialist states themselves, and those imperially-dominated states stretching from Ukraine across the Black Sea into the Balkans, North Africa, Middle East and Central Asia, than they were in pre-1914 Europe. This is due to the tragic legacies of both social democracy and official ‘communism’.

We need to develop a new genuine communism, which, in reply to the exploitation, oppression and alienation we experience under capitalism, offers us emancipation, liberation and self-determination (in the widest sense). International May Day is when we should be giving serious consideration to renewing such a vision. Yes, ‘Another world is possible’ – a global commune, taking inspiration from the 1871 Paris Commune, which, under the red flag, provided the first glimpse of such a possibility.

also see-:

Invitation To ‘The Left And Maidan’ In Kiev, 12th-13th April.

Ukraine – A Ukrainian Left And Russian Left View