A friend sent me a video of a family in front of a burning building somewhere in Ukraine. We were both shocked. On my Facebook, I share a video of Russian protesters against the war unleashed by their government. Someone comments: “Putin, the new Hitler.”
Ukraine is far away for Cubans. It is difficult to understand the conflict beyond the calls for peace and the repeated slogans. We know something for certain. The invasion violates international law and the right to self-determination. It can only be condemned unconditionally. That said, much remains to be done. First, understand what is being condemned.
The war and its timeline
The chronology of this war suggests that it did not start two days ago. However, there are timelines that confuse more than clarify. A common opinion is to place its beginning in the Russian annexation of Crimea (2014), or in that country’s invasion of Georgia (2008).
Certainly, there are more complex chronologies to understand the conflict.
First, a long wave is recognizable. In its history, Russia has experienced at least three types of imperialism. The imperial idea — tsarist/Stalinist — seems to be embedded in Russian culture.
Ukraine has been seen, from that place, as a “little brother,” “a child who must be led by Russia”; or as part, without further ado, of Russia. With typical imperial arrogance, Putin has now denied Ukraine’s right to exist as a nation. In this logic, before the invasion, he had already practiced hybrid warfare repertoires against Ukraine.
Expelling hostile borders as far as possible from its territory has been a constant in Russian culture. Ukraine was key to Napoleon’s and Germany’s invasions of Russia. Russia has historical “fears” of threats to its security. It’s not uncommon: it saw nearly 27 million people die in a war that still has survivors.
Second, there is a medium wave chronology. It is the “30-year perspective,” suggested by Rafael Poch, which supposes locating this war in the post-Soviet period and space.
Here the role of Europe and NATO in shaping a security scheme under U.S. command is crucial. In this timeline, large red areas appear. After 1991, Russia received a promise that NATO would not move “one centimeter to the east.” To date, it has moved 800 miles in that direction.
In 1995, William J. Burns, the current director of the CIA, wrote in a report from Moscow: “Hostility to an early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.”
In 2008, a diplomatic adviser to George W. Bush wrote that “Putin would regard moves to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO as a provocation likely to provoke pre-emptive military action by Russia.…”
In that year, Putin assured that “if Ukraine enters NATO it will cease to exist” because it will split. There were also carrots, unrequited by the West. In 2009 Medvedev insisted on an old Russian proposal, formulated since Perestroika: “prepare a legally binding agreement on European security” that would put an end to the tensions of the time, the same ones that have broken out now.1
It is hard to imagine any Russian president accepting a NATO presence on his border, capable of putting missiles in Moscow in “five minutes.” Herein lies a tragic irony: no one in Europe thinks about continental security without Russia, but no one seems interested in making it part of the solution.
In fact, more than 30 years have passed since the first Russian invitation to an agreement, and all the words in that direction have fallen on deaf ears until today.
#NotoWar, but and Atlanticism…
Seen from the “30-year perspective,” the ideology of Atlanticism is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it portends problems that it itself creates while presenting itself as a solution. Other ideas of Europe, such as conceiving it as a space without military blocs, in exchange for a shared scheme of European security, suggested by Gorbachev, were defeated in favor of the Atlantic vision.
This happened in the middle of an ocean of lies. One of them is that the enemy had been communism, not Russia. Thus, everything would be fine: another big lie swallowed by Gorbachev, and also by Putin, for a time. Another was to accept the partition of Yugoslavia, by Germany, against the promises made by the then nascent European Union.
Atlanticism has always sought to keep the United States within Europe. Without the old continent, the idea of world hegemon loses meaning, and much worse, a crucial base for its power. It is an issue with many dimensions: the current Ukraine war will make Germany more dependent on U.S. gas.
Setting Russia as defeated of the Cold War, and pounding on its image of extinct power, now drunk and toothless, was a concrete political-military project: after 1991 Bigniew Brzezinsk proposed dismembering Russia into 4 or 5 parts.
In the process, the military industrial complex gained weight in Europe (arming the new members of the five waves of NATO expansions), and in the wars in the Middle East. From 1991 to now, Kyiv has received at least US$4 billion in military assistance, not counting the assistance of other NATO members.
In the period, the privatization of war also became the norm. In Iraq, mercenaries were already earning a thousand dollars a day. The Azov Battalion, an armed neo-Nazi group formally integrated into the Ukrainian Army, admits mercenaries from twenty countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France.
In the process, the Atlantic actors did not show concern for the redefinition of borders, when they themselves were interested in it. Nor was it difficult to receive money by civilian businesses in the midst of the conflict, within “Russian” schemes of influence peddling.
Hunter Biden, son of the current president, was director, just after 2014 — and until 2019 —, of the Burisma gas company, the largest in Ukraine. He would have received up to 50,000 dollars a month. His father is now facing this war after forecasts of probable Democratic defeat in the next midterm elections.
Atlanticism is an ideology of war, profit and possession that sells, under monopoly conditions, exotic products — if we follow John Rawls squarely — such as the “liberal order” and “rule-based systems.” The question “what about the inhabitants of the regions” to which such goods are sold, is not remembered in the Middle East. Nor are shared rules remembered for the Atlantic expansion to the East.
Russia, the further away the better
That question does resonate now for the case of Ukraine and its right to choose to join NATO. It is all very well to ask the Ukrainians, but it would be better if it were understood that this question has an inescapable prior basis: the very deep fracture that exists in Ukrainian civil society, which led to nothing less than civil war.
The question would be even better if the Ukrainians are really heard. Yanukovych, a pro-Putin satrap, proposed to Germany something quite sensible for many Ukrainians: a three-handed European agreement with Russia. Merkel told him that it was only possible if Russia was excluded. Then, the also unpresentable oligarch Yanukovych said no to the agreement.
It’s not necessary to be very bright to understand that a solution for Ukraine without Russia — to begin with, Russian is the native language of most Ukrainians and several of its major regions share Russian ethnicity and culture — is no solution at all. The rejection of Merkel’s proposal exploded in Yanukovych’s face.
After the “second” Maidan, which captured the legitimate social protest at the beginning of the revolt, now with support from the West, the anti-Russian zone of Ukrainian politics and culture has found Western support until today.
In this, these news were unknown to many of those who today oppose, rightly, the Russian invasion: since 2014 there have been 14,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons, the result of the “Anti-terrorist Operation” that, ordered by the Kyiv government, militarized the civil war against “pro-Russian” actors and spread terror in the conflict regions.
Since that year, the Minsk Agreements have not been fulfilled. Signed by the main stakeholders, they sought to integrate the pro-Russian separatist territories in Ukraine. The current president, Zelensky, refused to comply with them. In the face of his government disaster — Zelensky has been the biggest electoral disappointment in the recent history of that country — his dependence on the extreme right grew, which sees those agreements as a defeat before Russia.
The president was able to ask the Ukrainians for options. Among them, several not at all ominous, such as exploring between different notions of neutrality, such as Finland, Austria or Sweden, open to the West, but without being members of NATO. Instead, Zelensky, outwardly dependent on the West, reformed the neutral status enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution since the 1990s, to facilitate NATO entry.
An old Atlantic objective appears here in all its letters: that Russia stays outside Europe. For this, no matter what the Ukrainians, diverse as they are, think about Russia. Above all, if they think something different from what the West thinks about Russia.
There are also other truths here, which have been heard. The support programs of the IMF and the World Bank — to which Ukraine turned after 2014, leaving a debt of 3 billion dollars with Russia unpaid — have ensured something that has been illegal in Ukraine until now: selling land to foreigners.
With the new agreements, in 2024 it will be possible to sell up to 10,000 hectares per transaction. The area that will qualify for sale is equal to the size of California, or the whole of Italy. It is not just any land: Ukraine has a quarter of the fertile soil of the “black lands” of the planet, it is the world’s largest producer of sunflower oil and the fourth-largest producer of corn.
In other times, the connection between expansion, war and capitalism was called imperialism, but we live in more practical times. However, condemning the war against Ukraine without questioning Atlanticism, which produces it continuously, seems to be the same as pretending to cook with an electric pot in the middle of a blackout.
The Ukrainian nationalist far-right and “denazification”
The transition to capitalism in the post-Soviet space involved an orgy of looting and corruption, politely presented to the world as “privatizations.” Ukraine was a outstanding student in that class.
In that course, it had alternations between pro-Russian and pro-Western regimes, and had continuities: the succession of the oligarchic bureaucratic system of the communist “old regime,” now transmuted into an oligarchic, corrupt and mafia capitalist system, which did not guarantee democracy, nor economic development and that severely curtailed social rights. Today, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe, being the eighth in population.
In the face of the Ukrainian structural social crisis, an internal actor that has been courted until today, starting with Yanukovych, became strong: the nationalist far-right. It functioned as an ideological mechanism of compensation and exchange: in the absence of distribution policies, exclusively — chauvinist — policies of identity were affirmed.
Nationalism is a resource always at hand to heal the nation’s wounds. In its right-wing aspects, it promotes national pride and identification, while wildly misinterpreting the structures for the production of offenses, which it understands are always generated by an outsider. That outsider, since 2014, has been Russia: the universal explanation for all Ukrainian ills.
Ukraine is perhaps the most tolerant country in Europe towards the extreme right. Where in other countries they have to hold elections, without express permission for violence, in Ukraine they have guaranteed space for street actions, carrying Nazi emblems and disseminating fascist discourses. Its actors receive various supports, including from the United States.
Right-wing nationalism has strong cultural and political roots in Ukraine, which has built part of its identity against Russia. One of its regions, called Galicia, in the Ukrainian area closest to Europe, has been this trend’s historical grazing ground.
Within it, Stepan Bandera has become a “national hero” after the post-Maidan governments. During the Great Patriotic War, Bandera followers were responsible for killing at least 70,000 Jews between 1941 and 1944, collaborating with the German fascists against the Soviets.
They had an argument in front of them: the Stalinist policy against Ukraine, which starved between 2-4 million Ukrainians to finance Soviet industrialization. The fact, known as Holodomor, has dominated the agenda of current memory policies.
The issue is not just about memory, especially when Zelensky is Jewish. This right-wing nationalist tendency, part of which openly celebrates Nazism — although it is always a Ukrainian-style fascism —, has managed to become official policy in several fields: “de-communization,” outlawing of the Communist Party of Ukraine and “Ukrainization” (which includes a ban on the use of the Russian language).
This right-wing nationalist tendency has hijacked an old dictum of Ukrainian culture: we are different and we have to manage somehow to coexist.
Such a pact had been respected even by the post-Soviet political-mafia schemes in Ukraine, where there are at least two large oligarchic groups, with territorial anchorages, one “pro-Russian” and the other “pro-Western,” aware that annihilating the other was the beginning of the mutual destruction.
On this reality, Putin has mounted his “denazification” speech: he intends a regime change of what, according to him, would be the “pro-Nazi junta” that governs Ukraine.
Putin operates based on an “anti-fascist myth,” which takes refuge in the prestige of the Russian victory against fascism, but which owes nothing to the democratic anti-fascist consensus of war and post-war. Real anti-fascism was an anti-totalitarian discourse. The myth of antifascism also uses it towards an outsider. Meanwhile, inside, Putin puts in prison those who oppose the “anti-fascist” war.
Putin is also, and in his own way, an anti-communist and right-wing nationalist. He has disowned Lenin, as the “architect” of the Bolshevik invention that Ukraine would have been. His anti-Leninism, however, is lucid according to his own interests: he understands that he has to oppose Lenin’s political proposals on the self-determination of nations.
“Speaking” against Lenin, Putin is “doing” something else: denying any possibility of federalism, pacifism and respect for plurinationality. Instead, he is unspokenly “defending” Stalin by supporting the Russification of Ukraine.
No to the Russian invasion, and any other
Putin is the direct aggressor in this war, even though NATO has sought it out. The invasion is a continuation of the Soviet policy that brought tanks to Hungary, Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia.
Putin is responsible for the dead and displaced caused by the current conflict. Whatever the outcome of the war, Russia will gain something and lose a lot. Ukraine and the Ukrainians will have lost more. Ending the war as soon as possible is imperative.
Vasili Nebenzi, Russian ambassador to the United Nations Security Council, assured that “Russia is not attacking the Ukrainian people, but the ruling regime.” It is hard to conceive of greater cynicism.
Heard from Cuba, the phrase spine chilling. The arguments for the invasion of Ukraine could in turn serve for a hypothetical U.S. invasion of Cuba. Nebenzi’s phrase also contains another irony: it is the same as what the U.S. government says about the blockade against Cuba. Ukraine, in the end, is not so far away from us Cubans.
1 Previous quotes are found here.
* “Ukraine was a country located geographically on the border and the confluence of great empires (Turks, Poles, Russians). Its very name, ‘U-kraine,’ means something like ‘next to the limit,’ ‘on the border,’ a space where the imperial authority of one and the other, and their relations of servitude, barely reach or are perceived as something distant and blurred.” Quote here