History’s Strangler: Ultranationalism and the War on Ukraine

            If there is one grim lesson to learn from Russia’s war on Ukraine, it would be the danger of the spread of ultranationalism in Eastern Europe. Ultranationalism differs from nationalism when a nation maintains supremacy and other control over another nation, usually by military annexation or imperialism. Ultranationalists engage in the invention of tradition to justify their claims of territorial expansion against weaker nation-states in the language of mythological ethnic reunification. Ultranationalism in the contemporary era emerges when the material conditions of global capitalism, aided by State policies of domestic and foreign investment, and decreasing limits on capital, furthers class inequalities in late capitalism by ceding too much power to capital and at the expense of ordinary working people. It flourishes where working people experience deskilling, declining wages and salaries, limited economic opportunities, technological under-and-unemployment, downward mobility, increasing costs of living, and flat transfers of intergenerational family wealth. Authoritarian demagogues use ultranationalist language and symbols to propagandize citizens by blaming their own failure in domestic and foreign policies on external enemies, creating convenient scapegoats to rally citizens behind their rightist political parties. Ultranationalists choose imperial expansion and warfare to cement the loyalty of the citizenry by mobilizing the language of patriotism and sacrifice, which offers citizens individual participation in expansion of the “patria.” They operationalize traditionalist language of “purification” for the State and citizens to purge the imperial nation of internal contaminations. In parliamentary democracies, ultranationalist parties with ruling blocs undermine the democratic, legislative process on key policy issues such as social welfare, environmentalism, business regulation, education, statutory law, and other policy priorities of the modern State by weaponizing uncritical patriotism and national duty. When political conditions present uncontested opportunities, ultranationalist parties amend their national constitutions to maintain power against political enemies. Ultranationalism presents global reactionaries and their political parties convenient cover to box their political adversaries into a corner by mobilizing citizen resentment against those adversaries.

            The Russian Federation’s ultranationalist ruling party, United Russia, and its leader Vladimir V. Putin plummeted Europe into the first major ground war since WW2 with its invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022. The war ignited the largest, regional refugee crisis since. Each and every day, media reports of the wholesale destruction of Ukrainian cities by rocket attacks, street warfare, shelling civilian targets like theaters, hospitals, apartment buildings, nursing homes, and war crimes against civilians horrify readers around the world. By April 2022, it appears the Russian war strategy has an end game, apparent through the wholesale annihilation of cities such as Kharkiv, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy (note these are the Russian imperial transliterations of Ukrainian place names). Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the two months of the invasion. Russia’s objective is to first annihilate the Ukrainian population into submission and then to annex in whole or in part a very valuable territorial asset. Wanton mass executions of civilians by Russian soldiers in Kyiv suburbs like Bucha and other suburbs and villages make it difficult for one to believe the ultranationalist rhetoric that the Russians and Ukrainians have always been “one people.” Russia’s war on Ukraine has allowed Putin and the United Russia Party to silence and jail over 15,000 internal “enemies” who oppose the war; discourage demonstrations of antiwar and anti-regime activists; intimidate liberal Russian billionaires that support democracy and voiced opposition to the war; pass a law making it illegal to brand the invasion as a “war”; and to shutter the independent media inside Russia.

Russia justified the invasion through routine, authoritarian propaganda: Ukraine was run by Neo-Nazis.[1] The invasion was a peacekeeping mission, thus a “special military operation” and not war. Ethnic Russians in Eastern and Northern regions of the country suffered State repression and needed protection. Traditional imperial territories[2] in Belarus and Ukraine required reunification with mother Russia. Russia surmised NATO encroachment[3] in Eastern Europe signaled preparation for war against the country. European Union membership and its parliamentary democracies destabilized the Russian system by exporting agents of influence on its borders through color revolutions. Western values[4] (read wokeism, multiculturalism, LGBTQ activism, secularism) were corroding the United Russia Party’s vision of Orthodox and traditionalist society, Eurasianism rooted in Russian imperial history, patriarchy, family, faith, and duty to country. As the history of 19th and 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe has shown, Putin’s Russia telegraphs all the general hallmarks of European ultranationalist ideology. The echoes of authoritarianism and imperial expansion are unmistakable in the proclamations of Putin and his United Russia Party.

War of Trade and Natural Resources

            However, Russia’s war against Ukraine concerns more immediate matters for which ultranationalist rhetoric and political symbolism provides convenient cover: the vast natural resources and mineral wealth, and expanded shipping and naval possibilities by conquering the country. The invasion also hints at the potential merger of the Ukrainian energy sector and that of Russia’s by eliminating competition between nuclear power and oil and gas in the European Union energy market, the largest trade bloc in the world. The invasion also serves as retribution towards Ukraine for its repeated rebuffs of trade overtures and economic cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union since 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych assumed the presidency of Ukraine and parliamentary control through his Party of Regions.

On the eve of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine maintained a central role in the nation’s economy. Ukraine contained 2.7% of the land area of the USSR and 18% of its population. However, the republic produced 17% of GNP, second only to Russia itself. Ukraine contained 60% of the coal reserves and a majority share of country’s titanium deposits, a key ingredient in steel production in an industry-heavy Soviet state-capitalist economy. The unusually rich soils of Ukraine produced 40% of Soviet agricultural output by value.[5] Sebastopol on the Crimean Peninsula offered superior naval facilities for the USSR and access to the Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal, and Indian Ocean for the power projection and deterrence of the Soviet fleet. Ukraine and its position between Europe and Central Asia beacons as a plum piece of real estate for Russian neo-imperial expansion and power. Greater commercial port and shipping facilities will allow Russia easier access to the markets of its main trading partners in South Africa, India, China, and Brazil.

            When Yanukovych rose to power in 2010, he leased Crimea to the Russian Black Sea Fleet until 2042 in exchange for discounted natural gas supplies from Russia. Toeing a fine line[6] between Russia and the European Union, Yanukovych rebuffed Moscow’s overtures to join the Eurasian Economic Union despite promises of steep discounts on Russian natural gas, while rejecting further overtures to merge the Russian and Ukraine state gas industries. Enraging Moscow further, Yanukovych worked towards European Union membership, pursued a free trade agreement with the EU, and considered an International Monetary Fund loan. In response, Putin offered Ukraine a lucrative loan on par with that of the IMF but also engaged in a trade blockade of Ukrainian exports. The EU wavered at matching Russia’s loan, so Yanukovych accepted Moscow’s offer while retracting from the EU free trade agreement. His regime also suffered from true allegations of massive political and economic corruption, and perceptions that he was Kremlin puppet, sparking protests against the growing authoritarian nature of his governing party and rule. However, it was the stock parliamentary maneuver of Yanukovych’s  Party of Regions to change Ukrainian electoral law before the 2012 general elections that would push Ukrainian civil society activists to depose him after his rigged reelection.

The War is about Ukrainian Civil Society, Not NATO

            Besides Russia’s primary interest in Ukrainian trade relations, natural resources, and maritime assets for the two prior invasions of Ukraine, what was Ukraine’s great offense to deserve a third invasion in February 2022? It was two, major political revolutions in a ten-year period from 2004 to 2014 that sought to reform their post-Communist parliamentary democratic system, the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan Revolution respectively. Ukrainian citizens sought political reforms at the ballot box to rid the country of corruption and cronyism to reestablish the Ukraine independently of the United States and Russia, while normalizing specific trade, diplomatic, and political relations with them as well as the EU. As Iryna Solenenko observed in 2015,[7] the organizations of civil society flourished strongly after both revolutions to challenge the monopoly on power held by the Ukrainian state over politics, policy-making, and forms of state violence. However, the Ukrainian state was still weak and a stronger civil society was in-formation, allowing Yanukovych’s crony capitalists and the far-right to maintain influence in both parliamentary politics and on the streets. Modern Ukraine after the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution also sought further integration into international political and economic institutions such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The judicial and statutory appeal of social rights, expanded economic opportunities, and freedom of expression also factored heavily in the two Ukrainian revolutions, particularly among the younger generations eager for integration into the European Union. These rights had been unrealized when Ukraine was part of the USSR, confining two generations to diminished life chances.

            As historian Tony Judt observed in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Eastern European nations had no post-Soviet style Marshall Plan with which to rebuild their economies during the 1990s, making a realpolitik approach to both the European Union and NATO a fiscal necessity. By the late Nineties, the average monthly wage in Poland and the Czech Republic neared $400; in Belarus, Ukraine and Romania it stood at $80; Bulgaria’s was only $70 per month; and in Moldova it was even lower: a mere $30 average monthly wage. The wage conditions still deteriorated in the former Soviet republics in the early 2000s, where for example, one in two Moldavans earned less than $220 a year – a mere $19 per month. Foreign investment in Eastern Europe had tailed off considerably due the coming accession of new EU member states in May 2004. Per capita GDP even in the prosperous new members states was far behind the EU average: in Slovenia it was 69%; the Czech Republic 59%; Hungary 34%; Poland 41%; and in Latvia, the poorest new member, 33%. Despite short-term pain from some economic austerity measures, reticence among the EU’s three major economies of Great Britain, France, and Germany to admit poorer nations, and skepticism among some of the populations of new applicant states, the benefits of membership or trade with the European Union single-market have been real. The “social” element in the EU budget redistributed resources from wealthy regions to poorer ones, “contributing to a steady reduction in the aggregate gap between rich and poor: substituting, in effect, for the nationally based Social Democratic programs of an earlier generation,” as Judt explains.[8] Ukraine naturally looked West to redevelop its economy within a wider European community, which would help bolster a stronger Ukrainian state, allow civil society to mature to health, and deal with economic inequality in society.

            The origins of the Euromaidan Revolution emerged in the prelude to the October 2012 Ukrainian general elections, when Yanukovych and his Party of Regions manipulated the levers of parliamentary procedure to fundamentally undermine representation in the Ukrainian unicameral parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, thus abrogating the nation’s constitution and democratic governance structures. By strong-arming the minority parties into approving the new electoral law, Yanukovych sought to consolidate his power by introducing a mixed proportional-majoritarian system to replace the proportional representation system, which allowed political extremists like fascists to assume seats in parliament (single-mandate districts were meant to keep Party of Regions apparatchiks in power in parliament). As Olexiy Haran observed in 2013,[9] parliamentary electoral blocs were banned to impede coalition governing, and the vote threshold for representation was raised from 3% to 5%, a 66% increase in popular votes. This authoritarian move generated the creation of a United Opposition against Yanukovych’s party, drawing together the Motherland Party, the Front for Change, the Communist Party, and several smaller parties such as the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (headed by Kyiv’s current mayor) and the right-nationalist party Svoboda. The opposition became unlikely ideological bedfellows to head-off the wavering yet ultimately pro-Russian stance of the Party of Regions, the “mini-me” clone of the kleptocratic United Russia Party. In the election, the Party of Regions received 185 seats in proportional and single-mandate districts, the Motherland Party received 102 seats, UDAR received 40 seats, the Communist Party received 32 seats, and Svoboda received 37 seats with 10.44% of the vote. The opposition to Yanukovych controlled 211 seats in the Ukrainian parliament. Unable to manipulate legislative levers of power with impunity, Yanukovych and the Party of Regions floundered politically until the Euromaidan Revolution deposed him from power in the events of winter 2013 and early spring of 2014.

            The Ukrainian general election of 2012 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-2014 have been points of propaganda[10] for Russia’s current war against Ukraine, that the country is run by “Neo-Nazis,” demands “denazification,” and justifies the annihilation of Ukrainians as a people. This line of propaganda extends Russia’s previous charges during their 2014 invasions of Crimea and the Donbas region provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian-backed separatists are financed by the Kremlin and benefit from shelling Ukrainian positions from the Russian side of the border. Ironically, this misinformation and propaganda is routinely repeated[11] by Anglo-American (British and American) leading leftist[12] and socialist magazines,[13] and other analysts[14] in the United States[15] and the West without noting the significance of the popular vote as a reflection of Ukrainians’ political preferences or the dire consequences of Yanukovych’s authoritarian electoral “reforms” of the Ukrainian parliament. After the civil society activists of the opposition parties deposed Yanukovych, there was an interim government headed by Oleksandr Turchynov that called new elections for parliament in October 2014. The far-right parties Svoboda and Right Sector gained 4.7% and 1.8% of the vote, underneath the 5% threshold for seats for proportional representation, though both party’s two leaders won in single-mandate districts, contributing two seats to a 450-member legislature. As Vyacheslav Likhachev[16] has observed on several occasions,[17] far-right parties lost appeal very quickly with Ukrainian civil society and have only undetectable legislative influence. He remarks that “By engaging in propaganda or simply failing to do their jobs properly at times, the media spread false narratives, blow things out of proportion and paint a picture of events that leaves a lot to be desired.” Far-right groups and militias were able to mobilize thousands of protestors during the Euromaidan Revolution where they were only a small part of the overall citizen mobilizations against Yanukovych’s government. Ukrainian historian Taras Bilous recently noted that a robust anti-fascist and progressive movement has grown since 2014, and that “the disproportionate influence of the far right was based largely on the weakness of civil society and the state” and not the power of the far-right itself.[18]

However, the presence and political influence of far-right groups and militias after 2014 waned considerably, particularly when they shifted their attention as volunteers to fight against Russian-backed separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in the Donbas region. The real far-right threat in Ukraine beginning in 2014 existed among Russian Neo-Nazis and their ethnonationalist parties, whose members filtrated into the Donbas as mercenary soldiers and saboteurs supported by the Russian secret services, whose political ideologies denied that the Ukraine deserved to exist as a modern state. Likhachev’s research noted that the “fact that right-wing radicals, including self-professed Neo-Nazis, took part in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has attracted much attention from the media and society. But although they did play their part in the first few months of the conflict, in the spring and summer of 2014, their importance has often been exaggerated.” He also noted that “Russia’s use of right-wing radicals on the side of the ‘separatists’ in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces was more important militarily and politically than the involvement of Ukrainian far-right activists in the anti-terrorist operation. The conflict developed in such a way, moreover, that the importance of far-right groups on both sides has declined over time.”[19]

The elections of 2015 and 2019 confirm both Likhachev and Bilous’ analyses of the decline of rightist activism and offer highly-detailed East European perspectives on Ukrainian politics. Far-right parties polled even lower election results than in 2012 and 2014, despite one paramilitary group, the Azov Regiment, agreeing to be supervised by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s national guard for the fight in the Donbas in 2014. The other militant far-right militias declined Defense Ministry supervision, instead engaging in acts of violence and intimidation in cities and rural areas of the country, especially against the Roma (gypsies), a serious but isolated problem dealt with by local law enforcement. Today the Azov Regiment has few rightist members, since many have matriculated out of the national guard as the current conflict began. In the 2019 presidential elections, the runoff between incumbent Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered Zelenskyy and his party Servant to the People 73.22% of the vote. In the upcoming 2023 elections, a new electoral law revoked Yanukovych’s prior election law manipulations to shift the Verkhovna Rada back to proportional representation only, eliminating single-mandate districts and the marginal and extremist candidates elected to the parliament in prior years.

Westsplaining Russia’s Ultranationalist War on Ukraine

            Among Anglo-American commentators in the right-wing isolationist[20] and progressive-left “alternative media,” strong strains of British-American exceptionalism[21] and lack of awareness of Ukraine’s political dynamics and cursory familiarity with Ukrainian history, reigns in reportage of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Anglosphere Left’s stale and underinformed analyses of the war against Ukraine retreads grand narratives of statesmen in the old political history before 1970, a tale of great White men[22] and political leaders sparing off against one another in grand, geopolitical balance-of-power politics, obscuring social histories of civil society activism that appear to be unfit for integration into Western Marxist analysis. Or deflect direct engagement with the contours of Russian ultranationalism and neo-imperialism by suggesting there is more outrage about the war on Ukraine in the West than current Western-backed conflicts in Ethiopia and Yemen, conflicts that no Western socialist or liberal would deny were equally egregious neo-imperial adventures in the toll upon civilian populations. Or regurgitate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts denounced by the Western Left readily as imperial escapades launched by the US ultranationalist party, the Republican Party. The basic fact is that Russia has invaded the Ukraine in an annexationist war to further the ultranationalist agenda of the United Russia Party. Writing in People’s World, former CPUSA party chair John Bachtell noted the necessity of opposing Russian neo-imperialism and advocating for a cease-fire and peace negotiations, since “Russian military forces have committed gross violations of international law and war crimes.” He notes that “These include the invasion of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, leveling of cities, using cluster munitions, deliberately targeting civilians, including children, forced displacement, attacking refugee evacuation corridors, destroying hospitals, schools, and government buildings, and reports of rapes and executions.” The risk of the expansion of the war on Ukraine also threatens “a nuclear standoff between Russia and the U.S. which possess 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.”[23] The Russian Socialist and Ukrainian (Sotsialnyi Ruhk) Social Movements believe that Ukraine’s defense against Russian imperialism should receive broader support from the Western Left and that arms shipments to Ukraine by the West allow the country to avoid Russian victory, continuing civilian deaths that number in the tens of thousands, and the likely autocratic puppet government following such a victory. Their goal is not negotiation for peace with the recalcitrant and disingenuous Russia, but to defeat the imperialist enemy. They believe that it is “high time the left woke up and carried out a ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation’ instead of reproducing worn-out frameworks from the Cold War. Overlooking Russian imperialism is a terrible mistake for the left. It is Putin, not NATO, who is waging war on Ukraine. That is why it is essential to shift our focus from Western imperialism to Putin’s aggressive imperialism, which has an ideological and political basis in addition to an economic one.”[24] However, the Eastern European Left is also no friend of NATO, globalization, and neoliberalism in the post-Soviet history and politics of the region. It is quite clear that the countries in the European Union would support arms shipments to Ukraine to defend against Russian ultranationalist expansion even if they were not NATO partners, remarks made clear by non-member states such as Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, and Moldova.

Rather than focus upon the recent development of Ukrainian civil society or military defense to protect civilians from the Russian invasion, such reportage assumes that the United States imperialism is at the center of the Ukrainian people’s struggle for sovereignty, social rights, economic opportunity, political self-determination, and free expression. The Anglosphere Left and its intelligentsia sits tone deaf in front of Eastern European socialists, scholars, and intellectuals who are experts and share vital perspectives on the politics and history of the region, known as “the plaything of empires,” an historical invasion corridor extending back centuries. Some leftist Eastern European intellectuals term this tone deafness “westsplaining,”[25] thus treating the region as “an object rather than a subject of history, or claiming to perfectly understand Russian logic and motives.” Western condescension relegates them to second class, intellectual citizens as the West’s intellectuals layer their stale and incongruent, geopolitical paradigms over Ukraine and Eastern Europe. And the main issue being overplayed is NATO expansion.[26] The Anglosphere Left fixates on the assurances of James Baker, the Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would expand “not one inch” after German reunification (who would believe the words of an arch-US ultranationalist?). However, Germany eventually transferred $8 billion to the Soviet Union at Gorbachev’s insistence, and “from 1990 to 1994,” noted Tony Judt, “Bonn transferred to the Soviet Union (and latterly Russia) the equivalent of $71 billion (with a further $36 billion going to the former Communist states of Eastern Europe).”[27] This transfer of financial aid seemed to settle the issue of allowing post-Soviet states to decide their alliances.

After the Cold War, NATO effectively became an opportunistic “free military budget club” to former Soviet republics, with direct military appropriations and loans from the United States and its NATO allies to upgrade military hardware and infrastructure. This allowed the new governments of Eastern Europe to shift defense appropriations either into a wide variety of social spending programs characteristic of center-Left governments, or under Right-nationalist governments to justify cuts to social spending, housing, education, environmental protection, and business regulation, creating a fertile seedbed for far-right nationalist politics. Unlike the old NATO as a counterbalance to the Warsaw Pact, the treaty organization focused upon security issues such as terrorism, illegal arms trafficking, ethnic and religious conflicts, and the proliferation of biological, chemical, and more importantly, nuclear weapons. It became an even more inert version of Carl von Clauswitz’s “fleet in being” described in On War,[28] an outmoded and benign deterrence concept despite its short-list of minimally effective deployments since 1999. But should another ultranationalist Napoleon, Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II, or Hitler emerge in Europe once again, NATO would be present to assure collective security from ultranationalist imperial designs.

            However, it was quite clear that the United States hoped to use NATO expansion during the Clinton presidency to promote the market integration of Europe with the nascent European Union, particularly deputy secretary of the treasury Lawrence Summers April 1997[29] address to the International Forum of the US Chamber of Commerce. The Institute for Policy Studies assessed the “hidden costs”[30] of NATO expansion shortly thereafter in May 1997 and concluded the expansion would unduly burden US taxpayers with the cost upwards of $125 billion, shift vast resources of economic aid for post-Soviet Eastern Europe by reassigning it to military aid, and expansion costs would not be subsidized by arms sales to prospective members. The only criticism of NATO expansion is that it reinjected consistent profits back into the US military-industrial complex, but then again, Germany, Russia, and China are also major arms dealers to countries around the world. After the 2014 EU trade embargo regulations against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ten EU member states sold arms to Russia including France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Finland, Slovakia and Spain. NATO essentially subsidized members’ joint military exercises as they wasted military hardware and supplies training for an imaginary war that would never happen. However, the resolve of the West to ship massive amounts of arms to Ukraine to defend against Russian neo-imperialism is being interpreted by Russia as a direct NATO confrontation, a convenient piece of propaganda piggybacking upon the stance of the Western antiwar movement and the Anglosphere Left.

            Despite some claims that the West is boxing in Russia,[31] Russia’s war against Ukraine is actually quickly remilitarizing the West, which could be a deliberate strategy to undermine the fiscal basis of Western democracies with unnecessary military spending, similar to how 9/11 drained away critical, social spending appropriations in the West for surveillance and domestic security. It is quite clear that the United States and the European Union had no plans to increase or expand their military budgets until the Russian invasion. One would have expectations that the Anglosphere Left pay serious attention to the aspirations of ordinary, Ukrainian working people in civil society from their own standpoint, rather than reducing Eastern Europe to second class citizens in the international system as subservient, neutral buffers to the vestiges of the American and Russian empires. The composition of society and politics in Ukraine and Eastern Europe should frame analysis of the Russian invasion. Iryna Solonenko[32] found that during the Euromaidan protests “the majority of protesters were not affiliated with any political parties or civil society organizations or movements (70 per cent). The scale of voluntary activism during the Euromaidan protests and thereafter has been particularly impressive. A large number of people representing a wide range of professions and backgrounds spent time at Maidan helping to clean or cook, donated money, or brought food, clothes, and other things protesters living at Maidan might have needed.” Although Ukrainian democracy has a complicated recent history and the State has its own problems with corruption, repression during the war, and stifling dissent, Taras Bilous remarks that “We cannot know how Ukraine will develop after the war – it depends on a plethora of factors. But we can say for sure that only if Ukraine wins will there be a chance for progressive change. If Russia wins there will be horrible consequences. This is the main reason to support the Ukrainian resistance, including with military aid.”[33]

            Ultranationalism in Russia and the growth of far-right political parties in the European Union member states of Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Hungary, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany among others should be cause for serious concern to communists and socialists in North America and Europe. Today, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the political language of ultranationalists and far-right nationalists in Europe, however, territorial expansionism, the superiority of, and control by one country over another defines a nation-state as ultranationalist. Donald Sassoon remarked in One Hundred Years of Socialism that the alliance of socialist and social democratic parties historically achieved the agenda of the social welfare state with its guaranteed, democratic social rights through electoral and parliamentary processes that were more effective than strikes and mass demonstrations.[34] There had always been severe tensions in the International Working Men’s Association (the First International) and the Second International over revolution, reformism, and Marxist revisionism, and also support for ethnic minority independence movements on the European continent against its imperial powers. At the formation of the First International between the London Trades Council and French workers in 1864, international developments in Italy, the United States, and Poland shaped a wider working-class political consciousness. The uprising in Poland in 1863 animated the hopes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for a European-wide socialist movement, as Marx believed “the intensity and vitality of all revolutions since 1789 can be measured more or less accurately by their attitude to Poland.” Although Marx was not present at the founding of the First International, he wrote to Engels that “This much is at least certain – the era of revolution has once more fairly opened in Europe – Let us hope that this time the lava will flow from East to West and not the other way, so that we will be spared the ‘honour’ of a French initiative.” The inaugural address of the meeting of the First International expressly voiced support for the Polish uprising as well.[35] As John Ganz recently observed, “One of the first disputes in the International—not between Bakunists and Marxists, but between Marxists and Proudhonists—was about issues of war and peace. The stated position of the International was strongly in favor of Polish independence—after all, it was founded around that issue—’Restoration of Poland’ was even written on its banner.”[36] Support for wars of independence or national defense against imperial powers stood at the center of the founding of the international socialist movement. Ganz remarks that “Marx and Engels picked their side based on their analysis of who better represents the success of democracy and revolution,” even if there had been heated disagreements within the internationals about support for wars of independence in the late 19th Century.

However, Marx and Engels during the 1870s begrudgingly came to accept that the working class, socialist agenda was best achieved through the electoral process, rather than revolution, sparing the international socialist movement undue repression in the nation-states of Europe and the United States (evidenced by the brutal repression of the railroad strike of 1877 and the St. Louis Commune).[37] In the wake of the Second International in the 1880s, Karl Kautsky talked the tough language of revolutionary struggle, but in more practical terms he advocated radical democracy in the organizing activity of the international and its political parties to implement a socialist agenda through party politics and the ballot box.[38] These historical facts make it imperative that the defense of parliamentary democracies, although not perfect and subject to political corruption, are worthy of support and defense against the imperial designs and annexationist wars of ultranationalist and far-right nationalist political parties in the nation-states of Europe today. In partnership with center-Left political parties, socialists paved the way towards socialism through their rigorous defense of bourgeois democracies. Parliamentary democracies stood as the critical stage of capitalism’s transition to socialism, even though at times socialist parties had to compromise their platforms in the give and take of parliamentary coalition governing. Russia’s third invasion of Ukraine must be opposed by supporting Ukraine to defend itself, and also for calls for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Russian military forces from the country’s sovereign territory to defeat Russian ultranationalism and neo-imperialism. Socialists must also unite with liberal, social democratic parties in another “Popular Front” against far-right nationalist parties throughout Europe. The Ukrainians in fact have forced far-right forces into decline since 2012, while Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and other EU nations struggle to put the authoritarian genie back into the nationalist bottle in their own countries.

The Dark Calculus of Far-Right Nationalism in the War on Ukraine

            In Europe since 1990 and the United States during the Trump administration, ultranationalist and far-right nationalist, political parties relied on their paramilitary organizations to accomplish terroristic and intimidating policy objectives outside of the legislative process of democratic politics, unlike Ukraine. During the pro-Russian Trump Administration, the Republican Party encouraged political violence by Neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and white nationalist organizations in the US who have a long history of criminal activities as paratrooper adjuncts to the GOP, and delivered a slate of right-wing and ultranationalist congressional representatives to the House of Representatives in the 2020 election.[39] Thereafter, the American far-right stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 through intense coordination with both Trump’s White House and GOP congressional representatives. Similar far-right nationalist thuggery and political representation has grown in France, Great Britain, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Balkans, Romania, Slovakia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other European countries since the 2000s by harvesting the discontent of reactionary voters angry with the EU Council, a supposed “unelected” group of technocrats and globalists determining the destiny of Europe’s nation-states. Likahachev[40] notes that this “made the Ukrainian situation markedly different from most other post-socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, including Russia, where the national-radicals had in some cases been able to achieve significant success at elections, being a noticeable part of the political system and political elites.” Since Putin’s second presidential term in 2004, ultranationalist Russia has emerged as the leading supporter of the western European Far-Right, as nationalist parties and organizations began to amplify pro-Russian sentiments and stances. Far-Right nationalist political elites also have forged stronger and more enduring bonds between their organizations, institutions, and political parties. The ideological values of the global far-right nationalist and ultranationalist movements maintain close coherence around “civilizational” discourses, anti-immigrant politics, and crony corporatist capitalism, making them seemingly inseparable from country to country, global region to global region.

Initially without support from the Russian state itself, Anton Shekhovtsov[41] has observed that pro-Kremlin efforts “were later supported by various Russian actors directly or indirectly linked to the Kremlin, thus turning the far-right organizations involved in these activities into effectively pro-Moscow front organizations.” Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov began to configure foreign policy statements with appeals to Russia’s many treaties with the West, key articles of the United Nations charter, and international law to justify United Russia’s expansionist goals. The country most referenced is the United States and its imperial escapades in Central America, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where the US ultranationalist party, the Republican Party, abrogated all of its international treaties and also international law at the United Nations to justify wars with these countries and regions. That is why Russia’s foreign policy under the United Russia Party can invert and distort international law, the U.N. charter and its articles, and mobilize selective historical memory. The Russian Foreign Ministry decries the encroachment of the European Union and NATO expansion as a pretext for its neo-imperial operations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The Republican Party’s imperialist dreams have created globally a legal and moral relativism that has undermined institutions of international law and governance, setting the stage for other ultranationalist governments to do the same. Russia’s justification for the Georgian War of 2008, the second Chechen War (1999-2009), and the two invasions of Ukraine in 2014 mobilized such relativism in relation to international law. Vasile Rotaru recently observed that Russian foreign policy neo-revisionism should not be understood as creating new rules and norms in the international order, nor pose an alternative to the current order of international law. He reveals that Russia’s “‘feelings’ towards the West have varied over time from emulation to contestation. However, post-Soviet Moscow has always looked at the West’s international behavior to guide its own external actions.”[42] The abrogation of the norms of international law by the Republican Party of the US serves as diplomatic reference points for Moscow’s justifications for its domestic and foreign policies. Pointing to US imperialism, Lavrov can resort to claims to protect ethnic minority rights, sovereignty, democracy, and human rights, while inverting these claims in similar ways that the Reagan, H.W. Bush, and W. Bush administrations[43] did during their own imperial escapades. What unites the inversion of the discourses of international law? Quite simply, the autocratic propaganda emanating from ultranationalist political parties in both Europe and the Americas.

Russia’s war on the Ukraine in 2022 brings the dark, political calculus of global Far-Right nationalism into chilling relief in post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe, signaling potential integration of nationalist and ultranationalist networks. Now are united the reactionary political elites in those regions with those elites in the United States, Canada, France, Brazil, Great Britain, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, and Italy where such parties have gained strong political and cultural beachheads. Democratic societies create open conditions for social and political rights, and Far-Right nationalist political parties ride along the coattails of democracies to undermine them through the legislative and legal processes of the State.

And now this global, authoritarian network has successfully integrated its organizations and institutions. In September 2021, president Viktor Orban of Hungary hosted an international summit on traditional values, the family, and demographic change in Budapest for Western Far-Right nationalist parties, organizations, institutions, and political elites. Orban proclaimed that Hungary and other European nations, advancing the “replacement theory” conspiracy, must defend themselves “because the Western left wing is attacking. It is trying to relativize the notion of family. Its tools for doing so are gender ideology and the LGBTQ lobby, which are attacking our children.” The aim of the gathering, he said, was to save Christian civilization by ‘increasing the number of European children,” which was “essential to preserving Europe’s Christian culture and other religious traditions for future generations – migration should not be seen as the main tool to tackle demographic challenges.” With all the dog whistles of nationalist rhetoric, the summit mapped Far-Right politics in Europe for the 21st Century. Former US vice president Mike Pence attended to do his part as representative of the US ultranationalist Republican Party. Pence said “We see a crisis that brings us here today, a crisis that strikes at the very heart of civilization itself, – erosion of the nuclear family, marked by declining marriage rates, rising divorce, widespread abortion and plummeting birthrates.”[44] Beginning on May 8, 2022, US ultranationalists and Hungarian and European nationalists will integrate their agendas when the American Conservative Union’s annual conference, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), will convene at Orban’s invitation in Hungary.[45] Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general for the Trump Administration, Fox News celebrity Tucker Carlson, and ultranationalist writer Rod Dreher have been hosted recently by Orban as well.[46]

The red lights are flashing in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine and the unification of ultranationalists and nationalists in Europe and the Americas. Viktor Orban glided to victory in recent Hungarian elections by his silence on the war against Ukraine, and Marine Le Pen polled second to the center-right French president Emmanuel Macron in the recent French presidential elections amid massive protests from the French Left. In Slovenia, the right-wing populist president Janez Jansa lost to Robert Golob of the liberal Freedom Movement Party fortunately. Now is the time for a Popular Front to defend parliamentary and other democracies before it’s too late.


 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Mariia Kravchenko, “What Should Russia Do With Ukraine” Medium Online, April 4, 2022.

[2] Vladimir V. Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” President of Russia Online, July 12, 2021.

[3] Susan Watkins, “An Avoidable War?” New Left Review, 133/134 (Jan-Apr 2022).

[4] Emil Edenborg, “Putin’s Anti-Gay War on Ukraine,” Boston Review, March 14, 2022.

[5] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2005): 648.

[6] Branko Marcetic, “A US-Backed, Far-Right Led Revolution in Ukraine Helped Bring Us to the Brink of War” Jacobin Magazine, February 7, 2022.

[7] Iryna Solonenko, “Ukrainian Civil Society from the Orange Revolution to Euromaidan: Striving for a New Social Contract” IFSH ed., OSCE Yearbook 2014 (Baden Baden, 2015): 219-235.

[8] Judt, Postwar, 740.

[9] Olexiy Haran, “President Yanukovych’s Growing Authoritarianism: Does Ukraine Still Have European Prospects?” PONARS Eurasia, July 12, 2013.

[10] Kravchenko, “What Should Russia Do With Ukraine.”

[11] Marcetic, “A US-Backed, Far-Right Led Revolution…”

[12] Lev Golinkin, “Neo-Nazis and the Far Right are on the March in Ukraine” The Nation, February 22, 2019.

[13] “The 2014 Coup in Ukraine,” World Socialist Web (International Committee of the 4th International).

[14] Tim Lister, “The Nexus Between Far-Right Extremists in the United States and Ukraine” CTC Sentinel, 13.4 (West Point: April 2020).

[15] Alexander Zevin, “A Normal War” New Left Review-Sidecar, March 31, 2022.

[16] Vyacheslav Likhachev, “The Far Right in the Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine” Russie.Nei.Visions, No. 95 IFRI (July 2016).

[17] Vyacheslav Likhachev, “The ‘Right Sector’ and Others: The Behavior and Role of Radical Nationalists in the Ukrainian Political Crisis of Late 2013-Early 2014” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 48, no. 2-3 (June-September 2015): 257-271.

[18] Taras Bilous, “Self-Determination and the War in Ukraine,” Dissent Magazine, May 4, 2022.

[19] Likhachev, “The Far Right in the Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine,” 28.

[20] Ted Galen Carpenter, “McCarthyism Re-emerging Stronger than ever in Ukraine Policy Debates,” Responsible Statecraft, April 11, 2022.

[21] Tony Wood, “Matrix of War” New Left Review 133-134 (Jan-April 2022).

[22] Mike Davis, “Thanatos Triumphant,” New Left Review-Sidecar, March 7, 2022.

[23] John Bachtell, “Putin Regime Emerges as the Main Danger to Global Peace and Security,” People’s World, March 23, 2022.

[24] By Russian Socialist Movement & Sotsialnyi Rukh, “Against Russian Imperialism,” Left East, April 7, 2022.

[25] Jan Smolenski and Jan Dutkiewicz, “The American Pundits Who Can’t Resist ‘Westsplaining’ Ukraine,” The New Republic, March 4, 2022.

[26] David Ost, “Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and the Left,” Foreign Policy in Focus, March 31, 2022.

[27] Judt, Postwar, 642.

[28] Carl von Clauswitz, On War (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 122-138.

[29] Lawrence Summers, “American Business, the Promise of Europe, and the Case for NATO Enlargement,” International Forum US Chamber of Commerce-Washington DC, April 11, 1997, Department of Treasury press release.

[30] Kathryn Schultz and Tomas Valasek, “Hidden Costs of NATO Expansion,” Institute for Policy Studies, May 1, 1997.

[31] C.J. Atkins, “Russia may have fallen into a ‘Ukraine trap’ set by the U.S.,” People’s World, April 8, 2022

[32] Solonenko, “Ukrainian Civil Society from the Orange Revolution to Euromaidan,” 228-229.

[33] Bilous, “Self-Determination and the War in Ukraine.”

[34] Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century (New York: The New Press, 1996), 22-26.

[35] Marx to Engels, MECW, XXVIII, 88, 324; see also David McClellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 339-345; George Lichtheim, Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961): 103-104; Karl Marx, The First International and After, introduction by David Fernbach (London: Verso Books, 2010): 9-19, 81.

[36] John Ganz, “Ben Burgis’ Bad History: Jacobin’s anti-Jacobins,” Unpopular Front, Substack: https://johnganz.substack.com/p/ben-burgiss-bad-history?s=r

[37] Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism, 23-25; McClellan, Karl Marx, 403-409; Mark Kruger, The St. Louis Commune of 1877: Communism in the Heartland (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

[38] Lichtheim, Marxism, 264-277. Lichtheim notes that Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein were often correct in their critiques of Marxian theory and were hesitant to dissociate socialism from bourgeois democracy.

[39] Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018); Alexandra Minna Stern, Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019).

[40] Likhavhev, “The ‘Right Sector’ and Others,” 257-258.

[41] Anton Shekhovtsov, Russia and the Western Far Right (New York: Routledge, 2018): 162-220.

[42] Vasile Rotaru, “’Mimicking’ the West: Russia’s Legitimization Discourse from Georgia War to the Annexation of Crimea,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 52 (2019): 312-313.

[43] Matthew Bokovoy, “The War and the Intellectuals, Revisited,” Plenary panel lecture, Historians Against War Conference, June 2008, Atlanta, Georgia. Available at: https://mattbokovoy.com/2017/03/04/the-war-and-the-intellectuals-revisited/

[44] Ishaan Tharoor, “The GOP Alliance with Europe’s Far Right Deepens,” Washington Post, October 12, 2021.

[45] “Budapest to Host CPAC in 2022,” Budapest Business Journal, September 23, 2021.

[46] Kenneth Vogel and Benjamin Novak, “Hungary’s Leader Fights Criticism in US via Vast Influence Campaign,” New York Times, October 4, 2021.

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