Ukraine: Not a “Democratic Uprising” but a Clash Between Predators

Updated March 3, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Editor's note: The following is an updated version of an article originally posted at March 1, 2014


The central European country of Ukraine is being convulsed by conflict and upheaval. As events continue to unfold, what is coming even more to the fore as this crisis has intensified is the jockeying for position and geopolitical advantage by rival imperialist powers—with the potential to escalate into direct great-power confrontation.

The week from February 18 to 23 witnessed a dramatic and rapid unfolding of events: mass protests centered in the capital Kiev, violent state repression and armed street fighting; behind-the-scenes maneuvering by reactionary forces in and outside Ukraine, the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and the formation of a new government.

As we go to press, Russian troops have occupied an airport and other areas near the Russian naval base in the Crimea region of Ukraine. Obama has threatened "There will be costs for any [Russian] military intervention in Ukraine."

But people are being systematically lied to and misled about what's behind the dangerous tensions in Ukraine. When Barack Obama went on TV on February 28 to claim that the U.S. is motivated by the desires and interests of the people of Ukraine and their ability to "determine their own future," he lied.

Overwhelmingly, the main aspect of what took place in late February in the streets and government offices of Ukraine was not a "popular revolt." What's going on in the streets and in the Ukrainian halls of power is not a battle between "oligarchs and democrats," or between corrupt Soviet-style autocrats and enlightened pro-Western, anti-corruption activists. And the actions of the major players involved—the United States, European powers, Russia—and among the rulers in Ukraine are most certainly not about "democracy," much less the actual interests of the people of Ukraine or anywhere else.

The events in late February were essentially a battle within the Ukrainian capitalist ruling class—inextricably bound up with and profoundly shaped by rivalry between oppressive great powers—in particular between the U.S. and the European Union on one side and Russia on the other. What has emerged even more since is intense jockeying for position and geopolitical advantage by rival imperialist powers—again, with the potential to escalate to direct great-power confrontation. Within this context, different sections of the Ukrainian people are being manipulated and used to serve reactionary and imperialist aims. Nothing good can come of this struggle on its current terms and in its current configuration. (The nature of the various forces in the streets and in the halls of power in Ukraine is beyond the scope of this article. For a more in-depth analysis, see "Ukraine: The Wolves Are Loose.")

The sudden turn of events—the collapse of the government of Ukrainian President Yanukovych and the ensuing chaos—underscores how these rivalries and other conflicts are sharpening, and how the "tectonic plates" of world relations are shifting on many different fronts. These can lead to sharp jolts and unexpected transformations, which could in turn ripple across the globe.

Background to the Upheaval—the History and Strategic Significance of Ukraine

Ukraine is a country of 45 million people, geostrategically located in relation to Russia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Black Sea.

(Click map to enlarge)

What today constitutes the nation of Ukraine first emerged as a state in the 17th century, and by the end of the 18th century had largely been incorporated into the reactionary Czarist Russian Empire. In 1917, the Czarist Empire was overthrown by something new and unprecedented: the socialist revolution in Russian and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which included Ukraine. This was a radically different kind of society until socialism was reversed and capitalism restored in 1956. (For the real story of the nature and significance of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1956, see: You Don't Know What You Think You "Know" About...The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future; and

From 1956 until 1991, the Soviet Union was an imperialist power (even though it called itself "communist") locked in sharp confrontation with the U.S. imperialists—what was known as the Cold War. Ukraine was part of the Soviet bloc of countries until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It then became formally independent and was run by a new, openly capitalist ruling class.

Ukraine is rich agriculturally, industrially developed, and strategically located between Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. Today pipelines carrying Russian natural gas crisscross the country. The country straddles the Black Sea (which connects to the Mediterranean Sea), and Russia's Black Sea fleet is based in Crimea, a part of Ukraine. Russia considers Ukraine key to its military position.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine became the focal point of a new wave of contention between the U.S., Europe, and Russia. That contention is the main driving force in the upheaval now gripping the country. Broadly speaking, since 1991, the rulers of the U.S. have assessed that it is essential to maintaining their empire to lock in global supremacy, including by hemming Russia in and preventing it from re-emerging as a global challenger. A key element of this strategy has been working with its European imperialist allies to absorb former Soviet bloc countries into the European Economic Union and the U.S.-led NATO military alliance. (Ukraine has sought NATO membership.)

Meanwhile, Russia's capitalist rulers are driven to rebuild Russian power and influence. In part, this involves attempting to reassert their influence over bordering countries once part of the Soviet bloc, including by using their enormous energy resources as economic and geopolitical leverage.

From 1991 on, these predatory imperialists—the U.S. and the European Union on one side (though the U.S. and Western Europe each have their own strategic agendas) and Russia on the other—have generally been in direct contradiction, even as there are times when these rival powers cooperate for their own reactionary interests.

The Hypocrisy of "Defending Ukrainian Sovereignty"

The news is filled with representatives of the U.S. ruling class denouncing Russian moves in Ukraine as clear violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.

The hypocrisy is astounding.

A leaked audio of a phone call between a top U.S. State Department official and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine revealed these officials discussing which representative of the Ukraine ruling class should replace Yanukovych and how to effect that change. Remember, Yanukovych, yes, a representative of the oppressive Ukrainian ruling class, was nevertheless the elected president of the country. Imagine high-level operatives of some other country discussing, in the midst of the recent budget crisis in the U.S., for example, how to replace the president of the United States with a more malleable ally (one who they could better manipulate to serve their own interests).

And then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry railed that "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext."

Really!? Did Kerry forget the long list of U.S. invasions, coups and proxy wars in the 20th and 21st centuries, from southern Africa to Iran, from Vietnam to Iraq—all justified by one "trumped up pretext" after another. What was the invasion of Iraq—justified by the "trumped up pretext" of "weapons of mass destruction?" Millions and millions of people died as a result of these U.S. coups, proxy wars, and invasions.

Actually, Kerry meant you can do anything under any pretext if you are the United States, but you can't do it if you're messing with the interests of the U.S. Empire.

The Clash Over Ukraine

When Obama claims the U.S. is protecting the interests of the people of Ukraine, he's lying. Again, the leaked exchange by U.S. operatives discussing how to effect regime change in Ukraine doesn't even mention the interests of the people.

But when Obama says the U.S. is "deeply concerned" about the situation, he's not lying. Ukraine has been a focus of the clash between these powers, and the U.S., Europe, and Russia have all been deeply involved in shaping events in the country. For instance, in 2004, the Orange Revolution brought to power, with direct U.S. and European support, ruling class forces favorable to drawing closer to the West. Russia countered on a number of fronts, including in 2006 cutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine to weaken the government. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been gripped with economic crisis, a facet of the current shocks and crises of global capitalism, and many have been suffering greatly.

This past November things came to a head. Ukraine has been desperately seeking international financial and economic aid. Such international "aid" packages are shaped by the imperatives of global capitalism and by the geopolitical interests of the "donor" countries. The U.S. and the EU have been offering Ukraine "aid" in the form of closer integration into the EU and possibly an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. But these would involve adhering to their strictures. These often include severe austerity measures, including slashing social safety nets and sharply increasing the price of basic commodities like food, public transportation and energy—measures which have literally starved and killed people and also led to mass rebellion, for example in Greece.

Russia countered, offering Ukraine $15 billion in aid and cheap natural gas, without, reportedly, demanding that Ukraine reject Western "aid." Apparently, Yanukovych felt the Russian deal was a better option for stabilizing the situation, perhaps fearing the kind of discontent and revolt that accompanied IMF-imposed measures in Greece, and signed it. This outraged the Western imperialists and various factions of the Ukrainian ruling class, who escalated their protests and behind-the-scenes jockeying. Top U.S. and European officials have been in direct contact with Ukrainian government and bourgeois opposition figures and have gone to Ukraine to personally support anti-Yanukovych protests.

This global rivalry set the stage for the February 18-22 surge of clashes and the implosion of Yanukovych's government. On February 22, a deal brokered by U.S. allies Germany and Poland to temporarily ease the crisis was signed by President Yanukovych and Ukraine's bourgeois opposition. The New York Times reported: "A rejection of Russian aid seems to have been one of the conditions set....Europe and the United States have been leaning heavily on Kiev to accept that only a Western aid package led by the International Monetary Fund can rescue Ukraine's economy." ("With President's Departure, Ukraine Looks Toward a Murky Future").

The situation remains fluid and extremely volatile, with sections of people being mobilized around a range of reactionary programs, armed forces aligned with Russia taking up positions in Crimea, the Russian parliament authorizing sending troops into Ukraine, and Obama threatening that there will be "costs" if Russia moves into part of Ukraine.

Where Do the People's Interests Lie?

None of these clashes and maneuvering between rival world powers and rival Ukrainian capitalists have done anything positive for the people who've suffered enormously under one predatory, oppressive government after another. The vaunted deal now cut by the West with Ukraine is more of the same, and there's nothing positive about the current configuration of power or the outcome of the current crisis in Ukraine. Instead, truly grave dangers loom.

However, the sudden, unexpected emergence of this crisis, seemingly out of nowhere, does reveal an aspect of the impermanence of the existing order. The imperialists themselves sense this potential. The German newspaper Der Spiegel called the clash in Ukraine and heightened rivalry between the U.S., the EU, and Russia "a chess game in a minefield."

The existing world order will not fundamentally change without conscious forces acting on it, but it is not a wall of permanence and stability, particularly now. All this underscores, once again, the crying need to work urgently for the emergence of genuine revolutionary communist leadership to forge another path for humanity, away from this dark past of oppressive regimes and cynical wars. Without this, imperialist and reactionary forces will continue to plunge the world into new, unprecedented nightmares.

Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.