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The Historical Roots of the Conflict in Ukraine

"People in Ukraine have been caught in the crossfire of yet another crisis created by and for the multinational ruling classes."

The Historical Roots of the Conflict in Ukraine
Photo credit: Ukrainian Naval Forces (Feb. 21, 2022).

By Tyler Shipley

North Americans have watched the unfolding crisis for working people in Ukraine and Russia this week with sadness and fear, but also much confusion.

Like their Yemeni and Syrian counterparts (the former targeted by Saudi Arabia, the latter by Israel), people in Ukraine have been caught in the crossfire of yet another crisis created by and for the multinational ruling classes.

In this case, it is a complicated struggle between the leaders of the Western powers and the Russian oligarchy, with various factions in Ukraine siding one way or the other. Most people in North America know little of the geopolitical and capitalist rivalries that lurk beneath this conflict, which has led to a wide range of responses that often miss important context.

Here I will try to provide a historical backdrop, highlighting the ways that the rich and powerful – including in Canada – set the stage for the horrible violence that is now playing out.

A Capitalist Oligarchy

Russia today is a capitalist oligarchy, created out of the pillaging of that country by Western capital in the 1990s. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the former Soviet republics fell into chaos and crisis, as opportunistic “reformers” from within the former-Soviet apparatus grabbed power and began dismantling the social safety net that had long protected working people.

This mass privatization was called “shock therapy” by the Harvard economists who designed it and it was catastrophic for people in Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the former U.S.S.R. Some 70 per cent of Soviet public assets were privatized in three years, creating 40 new billionaires and leaving 60 million people in poverty.

Canada cheered this catastrophe and sought to profit from it. Canada had sought access to Russian markets as early as 1918, when it sent an invasion force to try to defeat the Russian revolution and establish a capitalist foothold.

The troops were joined by representatives of the Bank of Montreal and the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, many soldiers refused to fight against the revolutionary workers’ state, which was held in high regard by much of the Canadian working class, and staged dramatic mutinies against their officers.

Seventy years later, Canada finally got what it wanted; the U.S.S.R. collapsed, and Canada pledged nearly $1 billion in investment and opened a McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Business lobbyists celebrated the “conquering” of Eastern Europe but complained that this new working class had “bad habits” and lacked “work incentive.”

Canada had put enormous effort into destroying the Soviet Union from its inception, and actively courted right-wing immigrants from Soviet countries like Ukraine, including many who had directly collaborated with Nazi Germany (monuments to whom still exist in Canadian cities like Edmonton and Oakville.)

Photo credit: Courtesy Progress Report.

When the U.S.S.R. fell, Russians and Ukrainians alike suffered terribly, experiencing mass poverty after generations of stability and relative safety. The disaster got even worse when significant amounts of Western capital exited after the capitalist economy entered a serious crisis in 1997 and 1998.

Amid disasters of poverty and dislocation, Vladimir Putin emerged.

Putin was opportunistic and used his connections to make himself one of the oligarchs of Russia while preying on people’s widespread psychological and material pain, and promising to make Russia strong again after a decade of humiliation.

From the early 2000s, Putin built a Russian capitalist state with some protection from foreign investment, designed to keep him and a small crew of Russians rich, while attempting to remain independent of Washington.

Putin was able to maintain a basic level of support by fashioning himself as an anti-imperialist in the face of the U.S. and repressing any left-wing opposition to his rule. Even still, polling consistently indicated that the majority of people in Russia regretted the collapse of communism (the percentage only dropped to 49 per cent in 2012).

A Divided Ukraine

In Ukraine, things were even worse, as nearly 60 per cent of the population was living in poverty well into the 2010s. An old guard of former Soviet officials had, like Putin, opportunistically grabbed hold of power in the chaotic ‘90s and presided over a cruel and corrupt capitalist economy.

Most notable among them was former prime minister and president Viktor Yanukovych, who maintained warm relations with Putin, but did little to alleviate Ukrainians’ poverty.

Photo credit: Пресс-служба Президента России/Wikimedia Commons (taken in 2013).

Under this decrepit leadership, Ukraine grew increasingly divided. On one side was a Western-oriented and ethnically Ukrainian part of the country, whose political leadership ranged from neoliberal technocrats to far-right Ukrainian nationalists who celebrated the Second World War-era fascist and antisemite Stepan Bandera as their hero.

On the other side was an ethnically Russian part of the country that was represented (symbolically more than materially) by leaders like Yanukovych. Russian-Ukrainians tended to trust Putin over the West, and grew increasingly nervous in the early 2010s about the growing fascist presence among Ukrainians who considered them, the Russian-Ukrainians, to be Ukraine’s primary enemy.

The situation in Ukraine shifted dramatically in 2014 when a series of popular protests against Yanukovych grew into what would be called either a “revolution” or a “coup,” depending on who you asked.

While the protests in 2014 did include a wide range of Ukrainians understandably upset by the corrupt and self-serving leadership that had left so many people impoverished, the movement would be captured and dominated by the Ukrainian far-right.

Rather than emphasizing poor people’s class interests, the 2014 ringleaders instead emphasized Ukrainian nationalism against Russian despotism, and the ensuing government that took power would re-orient Ukraine to the West, lobby for membership in the NATO military alliance and allow the infiltration of neo-Nazi organizations like the Azov Battalion into the apparatus of the Ukrainian state, military and police. Canada provided $16 million and opened up its embassy to this new government.

Photo credit: GianlucaAgostini/Wikimedia Commons.

The North American ruling class cheered these developments; a Ukrainian state so vehemently anti-Russian was useful, given that Russia under Putin was consolidating a rival bloc of capitalist accumulation. There is only so much profit to go around in capitalism and rival imperialists will always find themselves squabbling over those profits (most infamously in the First World War.)

Russia, China and a rotating cast of other states (such as India and Brazil, in some moments) were creating dynamic zones of capitalist profit, and while the West still dominated global capitalism, no competitor could be tolerated for long.

The West Aids the Far Right

Of course, Western leadership and wealthy elites also had a longstanding appreciation for fascism, and thus worried little about the growing fascist presence in Ukraine. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had admired Adolf Hitler, shared the Nazis’ antisemitism, and tried desperately to find a way for the German Reich and the British Empire to peacefully co-exist.

Flash forward to the present and we find Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose grandfather was a high-ranking Nazi collaborator and propagandist in the Second World War who had welcomed the Nazis’ “just German order” and wrote that the Jews “got their comeuppance” after a massacre.

Freeland isn’t culpable for his horrific crimes, which she knew as early as 1996 when she was credited with editing a scholarly article that detailed them.

Chrystia Freeland/Twitter (Photo has since been deleted from social media).

When Russia exposed her Nazi connection in 2017, she lied about having any knowledge of it. However, she had spent her entire career applauding her fascist grandfather’s courage as a “freedom fighter,” repeating his political line on Ukraine and Russia, and even helped him co-author a book on Ukrainian history that made the fascist Stepan Bandera its hero.

Under Freeland’s leadership as foreign affairs minister, Canada pledged $700 million in military and police training support for 12,500 members of Ukraine’s security forces, knowing that many were members of the Azov Battalion and other explicitly fascist organizations. As well, police chiefs in Ukrainian cities were demanding official lists of Russians and Jews.

In 2019, Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, participated in consecrating a monument to Second World War-era Ukrainian fascists, built on the site where 1,200 Jews were executed in 1943. The head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee called it “a monument to killers on the top of the graves of their victims.”

From 2014, then, the West actively supported a far-right in Ukraine that grew in power and ambition. These fascists attacked Russians in eastern Ukraine while the neoliberal wing of the Ukrainian government lobbied hard to be included in NATO, viewing it as an economic boon and a guarantee of support in a war with Russia.

With Freeland leading the charge, Western troops amassed in Ukraine to stop what was characterized as Putin’s aggression and provided weapons to Ukrainian paramilitaries, all of which added fuel to an increasingly dangerous situation.

A Brewing Conflict

Rival imperialist blocs in North America and Russia were poised to fight over Ukraine. Russia couldn’t win a full out war against the West, but Putin calculated that NATO ultimately would not get into a bloody conflict to protect its fairly minimal assets in Ukraine.

Early in 2022, it appeared that European members of NATO were less willing to shed blood for Ukraine than their North American counterparts. For Putin, a relatively quick and successful war against Ukraine could repair his domestic position, threatened in recent years by far-right challenger Alexie Navalny.

That the Ukrainian state was so infiltrated by fascists was convenient for Putin, who could frame himself as an ‘anti-fascist’ and create a perception of distance between him and the far-right (when, in fact, that distance is only marginal.)

But all the geopolitical intrigue between North American imperialists, Russian oligarchs and Ukrainian fascists obscures the core truth of every imperial war: The victims are always working people. It is their family members who are harmed, their homes destroyed and their savings evaporated.

Ordinary people in Ukraine – whether ethnically Ukrainian or Russian – will bear the brunt of this devastating conflict. They do not need hashtags or twitter names with flags of their respective national leaders; they need working-class solidarity against the rich and powerful who will exploit the rest of us at any opportunity and to whatever end.

The roots of this war bring us back to capitalism and imperialism. The West feasted upon its vanquished foe in the 1990s, causing the very chaos and pain that led to the rise of the ruthless capitalist oligarch Putin and the explosion of Ukrainian fascism.

The West then provoked a crisis between those factions, which has now finally blown open.

The majority of people affected by this war did not want it. In 2019, Ukrainians elected a president who had campaigned on a platform of de-escalation of the conflict. And yet, once in power, Volodymyr Zelensky found himself unable to chart a course away from the forces, internal and external, inciting war.

For those of us watching from North America, our responsibility is not to choose sides between competing imperialist factions, whether of the West, of Russia or of the Ukrainian right and far-right. Our solidarity must be against this war and against the ruling classes who have stoked it for so long.

Tyler Shipley is a professor of politics, history and economics at Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. He is the author of Canada In The World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination.