The following article was written for  Chartist by Frank Hansen and argues for a consistent anti-imperialist approach when dealing with Palestine and Ukraine.

Frank Hansen on the parallels between Palestine and Ukraine in the struggle for national self-determination

It’s been inspiring to join the hundreds of thousands who have turned out in London in opposition to Israel’s genocidal attack. At the beginning there were few Labour or TU banners, but that is beginning to change, as opposition to Starmer’s pro-Israel policy grows within the Labour Movement. Muslim voters (and Labour voters in general) are venting their disgust at Starmer’s failure to support a ceasefire, and the leadership is getting worried, not because they have any principles when it comes to imperialism (see Iraq), but because they may lose votes in key seats. Blair suffered serious electoral setbacks as a result of the Iraq War and now Starmer has chosen to have his “war moment” just before a general election. Unlike New Labour, the electorate may actually care about human rights and war crimes in Gaza and it is important we campaign to change Labour’s policy,

A feature of the left’s support for Palestinian self-determination, is a reticence to link this to the struggle of the Ukrainian people and to join up the fight against imperialism – whether it be western imperialism/Israel or Russian imperialism. There are, of course, significant differences between these struggles in terms of their historical and political context, and the obvious fact that the western powers supporting Israel are also currently standing with Ukraine.

The gross hypocrisy of the western establishment in apologising for Israel’s war crimes while opposing Putin’s is based on their own strategic interests, rather any real concern for the Ukrainian people. The key question for the left is whether the Ukrainians, like the Palestinians, have the right to self-determination and statehood without a major militarised power trying to oppress them. Do they have the right to resist, stand up to war crimes and fight back? After all, the terror tactics being employed by Netanyahu in Gaza, the nationalist rhetoric, the falsification of history, the demonisation of resistance are similar to those used by Putin in Chechnya and Syria and now in Ukraine – in fact Gaza now looks like Aleppo and Grozny did once Putin had finished exercising his “right to defend Russia” from so-called “terrorism” or “Nazism” as in Ukraine.

The root of the confusion regarding Ukraine is that sections of the activist left have failed to grasp the impact that the collapse of the USSR has had on the fluctuating relationship between major powers. A very small minority seem to think that Russia isn’t an imperialist power and is waging a just war against western imperialism, who are basically the only enemy. Anyone who stands up to them must be my “friend” e.g. Iran, despite the oppression and massacre of the women’s movement there.

A more serious and influential current is represented by the “Stop the War Campaign” whose leadership have a “sit on the fence” type of approach. They oppose the Russian invasion, demand the withdrawal of Russian troops and call for a ceasefire. So far so good, but what underpins this is an analysis that, unlike Palestine, this isn’t really a struggle for “self determination” by the Ukrainians but an inter-imperialist “proxy war” between western imperialism and Russia. The Ukrainians are reduced to the role of “proxies” for the west – a bit like the West characterising groups in the Middle East who oppose Israel as “proxies of Iran” – they are just being used and don’t really have any interests of their own? They oppose arming Ukraine.

Once again, the key issue is whether the Ukrainians have the right to self determination. Certainly, the founders of the USSR thought so as they enshrined it in the Constitution. With the rise of Stalinism and the oppression of nationalities it of course became meaningless. However, with the breakup of the USSR, the Russian Federation formally recognised the independence of Ukraine in 1991. As part of this international treaty, which over 90% of Ukrainians voted for, there were no residual claims on its territorial integrity. What has changed since?

Western imperialism does hold some considerable responsibility for the problems that have occurred subsequently. For a start they encouraged Yeltsin and Putin to develop the type of extreme free market, oligarch mafia/capitalist regime that characterises Russia today. Putin was someone they “could do business with” and they supported Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya and tolerated Putin’s intervention in Syria under the guise of the “war on terror”. They also encouraged the eastward expansion of NATO – in fact Putin once said he might join it! However, these developments and associated rivalries cannot be used to justify Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine. Nor do they nullify the Ukrainians right to resist.

Gilbert Achcar’s recent book The New Cold War analyses the global order – or rather disorder – that has developed in the 21st Century and is a useful guide to understanding the forces at play. It plots the rise of an aggressive Russian nationalism and imperialism under Putin – partly as a product of western policy and the world financial crisis of 2008, but also as a response to popular opposition inside Russia. Putin has turned Russia’s already weak “democracy” into a Potemkin illusion, consolidating power through repression, murder and extreme nationalism. As part of this process, he has attempted to rebuild a Great Russian sphere of influence based on Tsarist history. As Ukraine began to slip out of Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin opted for military intervention in 2014 – a full scale invasion followed in 2022.

While in economic terms Russia may be a considered a minor imperialist power compared with the US and the EU, it is still a nuclear state and Putin has spent considerable oil revenues on modernising the military machine – at the expense of the Russian working class.

Stop the War fail to recognise that what is really driving the resistance in Ukraine is not western imperialism, but the popular struggle of the Ukrainian people against the invasion. They ignore the fact that there is a left and a working-class movement in Ukraine that is a key part of this struggle – while also having different interests from the Ukrainian government and the capitalist class. The only way that this resistance can be maintained is through economic support and, yes, the supply of weapons.

It’s one thing to demand a ceasefire in Palestine where the Palestinian people and its representatives are urgently calling for one, quite another to demand a ceasefire in Ukraine, where the Ukrainian people do not currently support this – simply because it would mean surrendering the east of their country and Crimea to Russian imperialism. Ultimately it is for the Ukrainian people not the British left to make this call.

The left needs to support oppressed people against imperialism in all its 21st Century guises. Western support for Ukraine is based on strategic interests that can change – the re-election of Trump could lead to a deal with Putin being imposed on Ukraine. It is vitally important to build a solidarity movement with the Ukrainian people and those in Russia who oppose Putin’s war, just as it is to build solidarity with the Palestinian people. Already millions of ordinary people in the UK are concerned about these issues and there is strong support in the Labour movement for both struggles.

What should really distinguish socialists from the Tories and Starmer is a consistent approach to opposing imperialism in all its forms and a determination to build solidarity with oppressed people.




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